Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 788

The publication of Atlas Shrugged was eagerly awaited by Rand's fans, who adopted Objectivism with her previous work The Fountainhead, but it seems that her critics expected her next novel with equal anticipation. Atlas Shrugged produced more written commentary than any of Rand's other publications; like the rest of Rand's work promoting Objectivism, the novel inspired rather heated responses. When Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, it was immediately established as a highly controversial literary work: while some critics labeled it downright fascist, others praised its scope and philosophical depth. Rand was accused of writing in caricatures and oversimplifications, and trying to pass her political views poorly masked in an unrealistic story; her work was called hateful, destructive, and un-Christian. Patricia Donegan wrote for Commonweal that "whatever power Miss Rand has as a writer is expressed in an immense hostility, a real malevolence that takes joy in the sight of destruction." Another critic, Granville Hicks for the New York Times Book Review, suggested that the massive size of Rand's novel served "as a battering ram" to crush the "enemies of [her] truth."

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Perhaps Rand's most fervent critic, Whittaker Chambers reviewed Atlas Shrugged in his essay "Big Sister Is Watching You." Calling the novel "remarkably silly," "primitive storytelling," "a soapbox for delivering her Message" (which, he notes, Rand got from Aristotle and Nietzsche), and a work that yells to its readers to head for the gas chamber. Chambers deconstructed each facet of the novel, calling it simplistic, naive, incongruous, and condescending in the tone it uses to lecture its readers.

A more moderate attack came from John Chamberlain in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, who praises the novel as "vibrant and powerful" but admonishes Rand for her opposition to altruism. Chamberlain's appreciation for the book's main political parable and its intense, purified characters is clouded by Rand's lack of Christian compassion.
Some critics disapproved of Rand's disturbing view of the United States. "[O]ne tries in vain to project the world of Atlas Shrugged from the familiar world of contemporary America. There is no connecting link. On what grounds, for example, does Miss Rand postulate a failing economy?—the American economy today is booming—She does not say," objected Ruth Chapin Blackman in an article for the Christian Science Monitor. Blackman also criticized the novel's melodramatic and unconvincing plot.

On the other hand, Atlas Shrugged also received an abundance of positive criticism. In her essay for College English, Mimi R. Gladstein called the book "philosophically feminist" and praised the character of Dagny Taggart: "She is the head of a railroad. She has sexual relationships with three men and retains their love and respect. She is not demeaned or punished for her emancipation, sexual or professional. She is a rarity in American fiction—a heroine who not only survives, but prevails." Gladstein explored the relationships in the novel and the logic Rand infused into the description of each romance, especially the author's refusal to accept sacrifice as a positive aspect of love. The novel's protagonists are also lovers that defy the division between body and mind/soul, another aspect of Rand's philosophy that Gladstein commended.

In his book on Rand's ideas, Ronald E. Merrill praised Atlas Shrugged for its manifold literary construction and compelling character portrayal: "A complete, radically new philosophy is expounded, and with astonishing clarity. The practical implications of philosophical ideas are illustrated on every level, from metaphysics to epistemology to ethics to politics to economics to esthetics. The novel's plot is a miracle of organization. And with all this, the book is a thrilling page-turner." Merrill also noted that, in 1957, it was a truly radical notion to make a business entrepreneur a fictional hero; Rand lived in an environment that regarded businesspeople with some contempt. As for the book's richness of issues, Merrill suggested that Atlas Shrugged should be regarded "as a sort of magical box full of tightly folded intellectual origami, each of which should be carefully opened, contemplated, and cherished." He also analyzed the construction and plot placement of each major character, pointing out the intricate web of connections between ideas and consequences throughout the novel.

Finally, Stacey Olster questioned Rand's feminism but emphasized her sensitivity to the issues of the times, especially the fear of communism and the national sense of dispirited complacency. Having noted a few historical slip-ups in Atlas Shrugged (e.g. the dollar sign, far from being originally American, was taken from the Spanish milled dollar), Olster's essay concludes with a quote from one of Rand's former disciples on the controversial issue of Objectivist influence: "Look how much she had to offer! Look at how much I was learning! If she got a little berserk now and again, so what?"

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