Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1521
“Who is John Galt?” asks a man who is walking along the streets of New York City, noticing the grime on the buildings and the cracks in the skyscrapers. Every fourth store is out of business, with windows dark and empty. For some unknown reason, talented people are retiring and disappearing. Pessimism and hopelessness rule.
Dagny Taggart, vice president of Taggart Transcontinental Railroad (TTR), aims to repair the crumbling Rio Norte line that serves the booming industrial area of Colorado. The state is one of the few places in not only the United States but also the world that is still prosperous, largely because of Ellis Wyatt’s innovative ideas about extracting oil from shale. Other countries have become socialist states and are destitute.
James Taggart, Dagny’s brother and president of TTR, tries to prevent his sister from getting new rail from Rearden Steel, the last reliable steel manufacturer. Industrialist Hank Rearden has developed a promising new alloy, but one that does not have the approval of most metallurgists. James would rather give the business to his friend, Orren Boyle, head of the inefficient Associated Steel. TTR’s financial problems worsen when its San Sebastian line is nationalized by the Mexican government. The line, which had cost millions of dollars to construct, had been expected to serve copper mines that are run by an Argentine, Francisco d’Anconia, the world’s wealthiest copper industrialist and a former lover of Dagny. D’Anconia, a dissolute playboy, has led his investors astray, thereby contributing to the general unrest.
James, in an effort to revive his company, uses his political clout to persuade the National Alliance of Railroads to pass a rule prohibiting competition. The legislation puts the well-run Phoenix-Durango Railroad, Taggart’s competition, out of business. D’Anconia tells Dagny that he deliberately mismanaged his Mexican copper mines to damage d’Anconia Copper and TTR. Dagny is baffled, since d’Anconia had been a brilliant and productive leader.
Rearden and wife celebrate their wedding anniversary. Rearden’s mother, brother, and wife argue that the strong are morally obliged to support the weak. Although Rearden regards the three of them with contempt, he goes along and provides for them.
Dagny and Rearden manage to build the Rio Norte line, despite an incompetent contractor and an overwhelming climate of pessimism. Rearden uses his metal to build an innovative bridge, but the State Science Institute tries to bribe him to keep the metal off the market. In retaliation for Rearden’s refusal to cooperate, the institute issues a statement alleging possible weaknesses in the structure of Rearden’s metal. Taggart’s stock crashes, the contractor walks off the job, and the union forbids its members to work on the Rio Norte line.
Dagny decides to take a leave of absence from TTR and build the Rio Norte line on her own. She renames it the John Galt line, in a spirit of optimism. The government passes the Equalization of Opportunity law that prevents an individual from owning a company that does business with another company owned by that same person. Rearden, who has invested in the Galt line, is now prohibited from owning the mines that supply him with the raw materials needed to make his metal. Dagny finishes the line, ahead of schedule, and celebrates with Rearden.
Dagny and Rearden, now a couple, vacation by looking at abandoned factories around the country. At the ruins of the Twentieth Century Motor Company factory in Wisconsin, they find a motor that has the potential to revolutionize the world; but the motor is a wreck. When it worked, it pulled static electricity from the atmosphere and converted it to energy. Dagny determines to find the inventor and help the transportation industry. However, she is forced to devote her energies to opposing proposed government legislation that would force successful businesses to share their profits. Dagny realizes that the law would drive these companies into bankruptcy.
Continuing her quest to find the motor’s inventor, Dagny finds the widow of the Twentieth Century Motor engineer who ran the company’s research division. The woman tells Dagny that the inventor is a scientist who had worked under her husband. She has forgotten his name but directs her to a cook, who in turn warns Dagny that the inventor will not be found until he wants to be found. Dagny hurries back to Colorado when she learns that Wesley Mouch, the government’s economic coordinator, has issued a series of directives that will destroy Colorado’s industry. Oilman Wyatt, in response to the dictates, sets fire to his oil wells and retires. With the Wyatt oil wells gone, Colorado’s economic climate crumbles. Other major industrialists retire and then vanish. Between cutting rail service, Dagny continues to search for the mysterious inventor.
Rearden sells his metal to another company, but sells more than the government permits and is brought to trial. Rearden refuses to recognize the court’s right to try him because he does not consider his business transaction a criminal act. He tells the court that a person has the right to own the product of his or her efforts and to trade it. The government has no moral basis for outlawing the voluntary exchange of goods and services. By attempting to seize his metal, the government is, in effect, robbing him. The crowd applauds Rearden. The judges acknowledge the truth of his argument and suspend Rearden’s sentence.
Even though TTR is losing money, Dagny’s brother, James, is persuaded by the government to raise workers’ wages. Rumors swirl that the government also might force the railroad to cut shipping rates. A massive train wreck destroys a tunnel and halts all transcontinental train movement.
While heading back to Colorado, Dagny meets a hobo riding the rails. He had once worked for Twentieth Century Motor and tells Dagny that the company followed a communist belief: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” This belief, many say, tied the able to the unable, prompting a young engineer to quit the company and to vow to destroy the system. The engineer was named John Galt. Dagny’s train stops because of a labor dispute, so she gets on a plane. The plane crashes in the Rocky Mountains, and Dagny finds herself in Atlantis, where the great intellectuals have escaped a dictatorship. She meets Galt and learns that the great minds are all on strike, refusing to participate in forced self-sacrifice.
Dagny falls in love with Galt. He asks her to join the strike, but she feels obligated to return to the railroad. A deeply conflicted Dagny leaves Atlantis, and Galt joins her. He expects that she will soon realize the error of her choice. Upon her return, Dagny discovers that the government has nationalized the railroad industry. Decisions are no longer made on the basis of profit or loss but according to government whims. Forced to go on the radio to express support for nationalization, Dagny tells the public about the dangers of the government takeover before being cut off from speaking further.
As the economy collapses because of the government’s socialist policies, politicians put their own interests before those of the public. Railroad cars needed to haul wheat are diverted. Farmers riot in response and abandon their crops. The food supply collapses, leading to starvation.
In a speech, Galt announces that he has taken the “men of the mind” on strike, and he defends his decision to do so. He connects the collapse of the world to the dominance and implementation of a philosophy that is “antimind.” Government thugs battle workers loyal to Dagny, but the loyal TTR employees win. Mr. Thompson, head of the state, is just about to speak to the public when a motor of incredible power cuts him off. Galt begins a thirty-five-thousand-word oration on the radio, now in his hands.
Galt asks his listeners who wish to live and recapture honor to choose a pro-life code instead of a philosophy that is antimind. He tells them that they had never truly believed in the dominant philosophy. He argues that the less people feel, the louder they proclaim their selfless love and servitude to others. Existence has become a giant pretense, he says, with everyone lying to everyone else about how they truly feel. Morality and practicality are opposites, and there is no ability to compromise.
Galt then asks his listeners to break this vicious circle. They have betrayed themselves, he says, and have sacrificed their self-esteem. He asks them to embrace an independent, rational consciousness and to glorify thinking. He then tells them how to implement a positive philosophical code and urges them to withdraw from the world, thereby avoiding any further harm to themselves and speeding the return of the workers who think. He says, in elaborating a new society, “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” Galt’s speech brings the strike to a climax.
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