Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
“Who is John Galt?” The question, which begins Atlas Shrugged, is used rhetorically, in the place of “Who knows?” Through the first half of the novel, various legends about him are advanced. Approximately halfway through the book, the reader discovers that there is in fact a John Galt, the leader of a revolt of intellectuals unwilling to let the products of their effort be taken by others except in fair trade.
The massive novel (more than eleven hundred pages) begins as Eddie Willers, an assistant working in operations at the Taggart Transcontinental railroad, tells its president, James Taggart, that the Rio Norte Line is falling apart. James does not want to rebuild it, focusing instead on his pet project, the San Sebastián Line into Mexico. He and his board of directors see the line as a way to help Mexico and to profit from the San Sebastián copper mines run by Francisco d’Anconia. Dagny Taggart, James’s sister and the head of operations, insists on repairing the Rio Norte Line and on using Rearden Metal, a new, unproven product, for the rails. At the same time, James gets an association of railroad executives to pass the “anti-dog-eat-dog rule” to hold down competition.
As Dagny predicted, the San Sebastián Line and the copper mine are nationalized by the Mexican government, causing a huge financial loss for Taggart Transcontinental and investors in the mine. D’Anconia in fact intended it to fail, as he did...
(The entire section is 568 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Rand’s earlier work, The Fountainhead, was praised as a novel of ideas. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand extended those ideas further and established herself as a moralist and philosopher. After completing this book, she abandoned the novelistic form, choosing instead to write directly on what she called the morality of reason.
The events of this novel illustrate her philosophy of humans as heroic, with their own happiness as a legitimate moral purpose, productive achievements as their noblest activity, and reason as the only absolute. Rand’s contribution in this work was to add a woman’s voice to social criticism on a large scale. She grew up in Russia and lived through the Bolshevik Revolution. This upbringing made her a champion of capitalism in its purest forms.
Atlas Shrugged shows the influence of other socially critical novels of the period, most notably George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1948). The most striking similarity is in the presentation of reality as an illusion, with the government able and willing to alter facts through the news media. In both novels, the government takes an overpowering role in people’s lives, to no good end. In her opposition to government control, Rand even borrows a heavily quoted line from economist John Maynard Keynes, an advocate of government intervention in the economy. Several times she notes that “in the long run, we’re all dead.” Keynes meant that the...
(The entire section is 345 words.)
The Red Scare
Atlas Shrugged, although clearly set in the imaginary communist equivalent of the United States, lacks orientation in time. As Ronald E. Merrill notes, "The American economy seems, structurally, to be in the late nineteenth century, with large industrial concerns being sole proprietorships run by their founders. The general tone is, however, that of the 1930s, a depression with the streets full of panhandlers. The technological level, and the social customs, are those of the 1950s. And the political environment, especially the level of regulation and the total corruption, seems to anticipate the 1970s. We are simultaneously in a future in which most of the world has gone Communist, and the past in which England had the world's greatest navy."
Nonetheless, the novel's clear warning against the economic and political immorality of communism reflects the America's fear of the growth of the Communist Party in the 1950s, which resulted in the Red Scare. After World War II, the Soviet Union went from being an American ally to being an undeclared enemy due to the threat of a nuclear war. The two countries, weighed against each other as the only remaining world superpowers, kept a tentative political balance in a period known as the Cold War. As a reaction to the growing fear of everything Russian, the Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy formed the House Un-American Activities Committee, a council whose purpose was to investigate...
(The entire section is 705 words.)
Point of View
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand efficiently uses a third-person narrative that most often comes from the limited omniscient perspective of one of her protagonists. Thus, the reader knows everything that is going on in the life and mind of one character, until the focus shifts to another. The two characters on whom Rand focuses most often are Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden: the story evolves around their memories, impressions, thoughts, and feelings, and the plot follows their actions. This approach helps lead the readers to understand and identify with the character whose life they perceive in such intimate detail. Moreover, through third—instead of firstperson point of view—these major characters seem to be presented objectively. This device makes the author's claims about the novel's social systems seem more effective: readers who identify with Dagny and Hank are compelled to agree with their (and Rand's) opinions in the novel, and to experience their "conversion" to John Galt's revolution in their own beliefs.
For the sake of contrast, Rand occasionally shifts the point of view to let the reader in on the thoughts of less central characters (e.g., Eddie Willers, Jim Taggart, Dr. Robert Stadler) to represent different attitudes towards the political issues discussed in the novel. The portrayal of the "villains" in the novel is markedly condescending and negative; however, their perspective shows how seductive the ruling...
(The entire section is 900 words.)
Rand set for herself the unusual task of presenting philosophical theory in a dramatic fashion. Most philosophers have outlined their theories in treatises, and Rand herself concentrated on these nonfictional presentations after Atlas Shrugged. While difficult, philosophy that has been dramatized may be enormously effective, as evidenced by Rand's work. In her fiction, characters espousing pro or anti-Objectivist ideals speak at length on their philosophies, but additionally, the dramatic action in each work illustrates these speeches and the alternations of idea and action are perfectly intermeshed. The culmination of Rand's work, the radio speech delivered by John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, would be as difficult to understand as a typical philosophical treatise if it were delivered out of context. The reader easily apprehends it in this case because he has followed the book's plot line; he has seen what happened, and Gait's speech, explains why it happened.
(The entire section is 147 words.)
Atlas Shrugged is the culmination of Rand's dramatization of Objectivist themes, particularly in her concern for the exceptional individual and his relationship to society. In her 1964 Playboy interview, Rand declared, "What we have today is not a capitalist society, but a mixed economy — that is, a mixture of freedom and controls, which, by the presently dominant trend, is moving toward dictatorship." In this novel, Rand describes an American society slowly moving toward an authoritarian government. This society is typified by four types of people: John Gait, the producer who creates wealth and prosperity; Eddie Willers, the man who works to the best of his ability and appreciates the contributions made by the producers; James Taggart, the leech who tries to profit from the accomplishments of the producers, even if it means the destruction of society; and the vast majority of people, who passively allow the Taggarts of the world to exploit the producers. In this work, the Communist tag line of "From each according to his talents, to each according to his needs," is examined and extrapolated to include the whole world. By the end of the novel, socialism has produced a collectivized world pleading for the return of industrialists, scientists, and others who have refused to be exploited for the benefit of others.
Rand, who escaped from Soviet Russia in the 1920s, saw the evils of socialism firsthand; Objectivism consequently advocates minimal government...
(The entire section is 352 words.)
Compare and Contrast
1950s: Mao Zedong starts the Great Leap Forward in the People's Republic of China, placing more than half a billion peasants into "people communes." They are guaranteed food, clothing, shelter, and child care, but deprived of all private property.
Today: China is one of the few nations in the world whose government is still modeled on Marxist ideology. China has reformed its economy and applied for inclusion in the World Trade Organization.
1950s: The Treaty of Rome removes mutual tariff barriers, uniting Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands into the European Economic Community. The EEC is planned to promote the European economy and make it more competitive with Britain and the United States.
Today: The EEC has become the European Union (EU), with seven additional members: Austria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The Euro is the shared monetary unit of this market.
1950s: The Soviet Union launches Sputnik I, the world's first human-made Earth satellite. A month later, Sputnik is launched with a live dog on board. The New York Times correspondent in Moscow hears a Russian say, "Better to learn to feed your people at home before starting to explore the moon."
Today: The United States is exploring the possibility of water on the moon in order to support colonization. A probe has been...
(The entire section is 325 words.)
Topics for Further Study
Rand was the originator of Objectivist philosophy, embodied in Atlas Shrugged. Did Objectivism ever gain acceptance in mainstream philosophy? Why or why not?
Compare and contrast the Objectivist principles, listed in John Galt's radio address, to those of prominent communist philosophers such as Karl Marx. What are the main differences between these two ideologies? How does each view the purpose of human life and work?
Research the political systems of the 1950s United States and the Soviet Union and compare the differences between the two countries in their government's regulations of businesses. How do these governmental approaches compare to the establishment's directives in Atlas Shrugged?
Research the life of a well-known and successful businessperson in today's America, for example Donald Trump, Bill Gates, or Madonna. Compare and contrast his or her path toward success, attitudes, and professional ethics to those of Rand's protagonists, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden. Do today's entrepreneurs function by the same standards as Rand's heroes? What are the differences? Do you think they are justified?
Compare the Utopia of John Galt's valley to present-day capitalist America, citing specific examples. Would Rand approve of the United States economy of today? Why or why not?
(The entire section is 197 words.)
Rand described herself as one of the last practitioners of the Romantic school of fiction, a school typified by writers such as Victor Hugo and Feodor Dostoevski. The Romantic conception of life is quite different from later literary phases such as Realism (exemplified by Gustave Flaubert) and Naturalism (as written by Emile Zola or Stephen Crane). Where the two latter schools depict people as they are typically found, Romanticism depicts the ideal; where Realism and Naturalism picture people controlled by fate or society, the Romantic view places them in control of their own destinies. The construction of plot also differs between the three forms. Romanticism, because of its belief that men determine the course of their own lives, presents a plot that moves through logically connected events to a climax. Realism and Naturalism do not have this luxury; because they put their characters at the mercy of fate or circumstance, these works are typically narratives of events with no causal links and no artistically constructed climax.
Hugo and Dostoevski are Rand's most important literary antecedents. She read Hugo from an early age and admired his works because they depicted man as hero, depicted a world where important and exciting things could happen. Although not philosophically compatible with Hugo, who accepted conventional moralities that Rand rejected, she agreed wholeheartedly with his artistic impulses.
(The entire section is 222 words.)
Rand's works are essentially studies of these few, scattered, brilliant individuals against the whole of society, which is usually depicted as, at best, ignorant and uncaring, and at worst, actively working to destroy those of great ability. Mediocrity, the power of pull, and the ability to repeat what has been done before, without dangerous innovation, often result in elevation in the society found in Rand's works. The Fountainhead is anti-social, in that it extols the virtues of a few far-thinking individuals over the majority. Rand's self-stated theme in this work is "individualism versus collectivism, not in politics, but in man's soul." More specifically, the work rebukes the collectivization of art and the lack of respect for the innovator, the true genius.
(The entire section is 121 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
Every Utopian text draws, if only a little, from Sir Thomas More's classic original. Utopia, published in the sixteenth century at the bloom of English Humanism, criticizes the existing social, political, and religious order in Europe from the viewpoint of an imaginary perfect society based on reason.
Anthem, Ayn Rand's 1938 novella, served as a basis for her further publications. A parable of Objectivist philosophy, it presents the ideology and the basic plot of Atlas Shrugged in a nutshell. In her first critically acclaimed novel, The Fountainhead, Rand's hero Howard Roark explores and celebrates the morality of individualism and egoism in the world of architecture. The novel, published in 1943, ensured Rand's principle of Objectivism a cult following.
We the Living was Rand's semi-autobiographical first novel, published in 1936. Begun only four years after her arrival in the United States, it is Rand's fulfillment of a promise given to the friends she left behind that she would tell the world about Russia's slow death. Kira, the young woman in the story and Rand's alter ego, struggles for love and survival under the communist regime.
The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand's 1964 non-fictional publication consisting of several of her theoretical essays, spells out her philosophical principles from selfishness and ethics to purpose and morality, as described in her novels.
(The entire section is 252 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Branden, Barbara, The Passion of Ayn Rand, Doubleday, 1986.
Branden, Nathaniel, Judgment Day: My Years with Ayn Rand, Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
Branden, Nathaniel, Who Is Ayn Rand: An Analysis of the Novels of Ayn Rand, Random House, 1962.
Chamber, Whittaker, "Big Sister Is Watching You," in National Review, December 28, 1957, pp. 594-96.
Chamberlain, John, "Ayn Rand's Political Parable and Thundering Melodrama," in New York Herald Book Review, October 6, 1957, pp. 1, 9.
Chapin Blackman, Ruth, "Controversial Books by Ayn Rand and Caitlin Thomas: Atlas Shrugged," in The Christian Science Monitor, October 19, 1957, p. 13.
Donegan, Patricia, "A Point of View," in Commonweal, November 8, 1957, pp. 155-56.
Gladstein, Mimi R., "Ayn Rand and Feminism: An Unlikely Alliance," in College English, Vol. 39, No. 6, February 1978, pp. 25-30.
Gladstein, Mimi R., The Ayn Rand Companion, Greenwood Press, 1984.
Hicks, Granville, "A Parable of Buried Talents," in New York Times Book Review, October 13, 1957, pp. 4-5.
Merrill, Ronald E., The Ideas of Ayn Rand, Open Court, 1991.
Olster, Stacey, "Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something (Red, White, and) Blue: Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and Objectivist Ideology," in The Other...
(The entire section is 381 words.)
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Baker, James T. Ayn Rand. Boston: Twayne, 1987. A study of Rand’s entire career. Relatively objective. Gives brief descriptions and analyses of her major works of fiction and drama. One chapter succinctly describes the main themes and ideas expressed in her written work.
Branden, Barbara. The Passion of Ayn Rand. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1986. A biography by a longtime friend, drawn from fifty hours of taped interviews, transcripts of Rand’s unpublished writing, and conversations with Rand’s friends and relatives. Part 4 describes the process of writing Atlas Shrugged, discussing Rand’s life as she wrote the book. Rand describes Dagny Taggart as herself, with any possible flaws eliminated. The book as a whole is idolatrous.
Branden, Nathaniel. Judgment Day: My Years with Ayn Rand. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. Describes Branden’s love affair with Rand. They were associated for twenty years, with Branden as a Rand disciple, before separating in disagreement.
Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York, E. P. Dutton, 1991. Peikoff is Rand’s designated heir. This volume is based on a set of lectures by Peikoff but authorized by Rand, with additional material based on Peikoff’s discussions with her. Chapters build in complexity. The penultimate chapter,...
(The entire section is 434 words.)