Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 620
Ayn Rand intended Atlas Shrugged as a more complete exposition of the principles and ideas espoused in her previous novel, The Fountainhead (1943). Both novels illustrate her philosophy of positive rational egoism, a morality based on self-interest rather than compassion for others. In Atlas Shrugged, she demonstrates the tremendous harm that could occur if compassion, rather than self-interest, became the ruling force of society.
The novel begins in a rich style, full of details of the characters’ actions and thoughts. Characters are clearly established in the opening sections. Soon, however, the novel degenerates into melodrama and speeches. The most obvious example is John Galt’s speech to the nation, which he delivers by somehow jamming all radio networks and preempting a speech by the president. Galt’s speech runs dozens of pages and is described as having taken three hours to deliver. In it, Galt states what is clearly Rand’s lecture on the virtues of selfishness and the immorality of compassion. The speech brings the story to a dead halt and serves no purpose other than didacticism. Throughout the book, characters appear willing to launch into philosophical debates, even at a slum diner.
The story is a morality play, with all characters drawn as clearly good or bad. Heroes take action and responsibility; they think. Villains shun responsibility and look to others to provide for them; they believe that things will be made right “somehow.” The heroes are attractive: tall, physically fit, with strong faces. Villains are almost uniformly overweight, with shifty eyes and slack faces. Even the names fit the characterizations. Heroes have exotic names; villains have childish or unflattering names. The latter includes Wesley Mouch, Cuffy Meigs, Tinky Holloway, and Mr. Thompson, the president of the United States, who is never granted a first name, indicating his lack of personhood in Rand’s eyes.
The story itself is melodramatic, with minor or major crises occurring in each chapter. The events are larger than life, as are the characters. Dagny Taggart is the most capable person ever to run a railroad. Francisco d’Anconia is a brilliant businessman who, by disavowing profit, is able to ruin the fortunes of others. Ragnar Danneskjöld cannot be stopped in his piracy of ships bearing relief supplies and foreign aid. Hank Rearden not only runs a steel mill profitably but also invents a miracle metal. John Galt builds an optical shield that hides his entire community from aerial observation; he is also able to jam radio stations across the country to give his speech.
Atlas Shrugged contains a long series of plot events, but they are repetitive. At each turn, Rand illustrates one of two evils: compassion and government control in service of it, and use of guilt or political pull, rather than skill and ability, to gain rewards. She abhors the giving of gifts or attempts to coerce favors through guilt. The only sustainable means of organizing society, she insists, is through each person acting in his or her own self-interest. This self-interest stimulates production that benefits all. Trading, not charity, allows people to obtain what they desire and need.
The only major character to change sides in the philosophical debate is Robert Stadler, head of the State Science Institute. He once made a statement that some things are unknowable; that statement is perverted by a colleague who publishes a book stating that reason and thinking are impossible. Stadler himself is drawn into the government’s web by a threatened cutoff of funds for the institute. His scientific discoveries are used to create a powerful weapon that ultimately destroys the only bridge across the Mississippi River, dooming the city of New York, which cannot survive without the products of the West.
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