Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1824
Ayn Rand was extremely proud of Atlas Shrugged: she often said that her last novel was a perfect fictional presentation of her philosophy of Objectivism, and even directed inquisitive critics to read the novel if they had any questions about her theories. Indeed, the protagonists of Rand's "Bible of Objectivism" embody and thoroughly explain the principles the author considered sacred: individualism, morality, reason, judgment, self-sufficiency, and freedom from guilt. The most complete explanation of Rand's philosophy in Atlas Shrugged is undoubtedly John Galt's 60-page speech, but the ideas that support and expand the scope of the Objectivist outlook onto other aspects of life are presented gradually by her other characters. Francisco d'Anconia, Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden, and many minor characters contribute to the construction of the Objectivist outline in the novel; they teach, learn, discover, and struggle with Rand's principles, growing through interactions with each other as well as through conflicts with their enemies in the society. While Hank and Dagny are the most prominent "learners" among the novel's characters, Francisco and Galt serve primarily as teachers. The process of the characters' budding awareness of the social, psychological, and philosophical factors in their lives is illustrated in Rand's effective use of dialogue.
Often called one of Rand's most appealing fictional personalities, Hank Rearden is a man without much introspection at the beginning of Atlas Shrugged: he heads the group of characters who have to go through much learning before they embrace the novel's Objectivism. Hank has a good basis for his further Objectivist development: he is a self-made and self-educated industrialist, with enviable abilities, an inventor's spirit (he creates the miraculous Rearden Metal himself), and a perfectionist attitude towards his work. From the start, Hank is an example of Rand's heroic business entrepreneur, a proponent of the capitalist system and the justly earned triumph such a system enables. He enjoys his possessions, because they are the results of many years of hard work, but his pride in personal achievements is marred by his self-imposed guilt, upheld by his parasitic family and a manipulative wife. Because the closest people in his life keep telling him that his attention to business rather than to people is evil and selfish, Hank develops a deeply rooted sense of deficiency as a human being, convinced that he lacks compassion.
As Galt will eventually point out, however, Hank's real guilt lies in the fact that he does not question the rational impulse of injustice that he feels whenever a member of his family calls him egotistic and unfeeling. In the Objectivist doctrine, reasoning and judgment are imperative in one's self-awareness. Instead, Hank accepts the guilt they impose on his lack of interest and respect for their lives, and does not question whether he is right in dismissing their concerns as unimportant. The novel eventually reveals that each of his family members is a useless ingrate, feeding off of Hank's own sense of obligation to the bond of blood rather than the Objectivist bond between people of same values. According to Rand, a person is what a person does: one's values are inextricable from one's work ethics, which is why Hank can only feel love for the businesspeople he can trust.
The theme of guilt imposed by one's family appears in Dagny's biography as well, although she does not accept it. Mrs. Taggart tries to make her daughter "normal" by motherly advice on femininity, and the rest of her relations mourn the girl's unnatural aspirations and development, but Dagny never falters in her single determination: to run the family railroad. The only relative she respects is Nathaniel Taggart, her ancestor who built the railroad business with extraordinary determination. Dagny's dedication to the railroad is not inspired by its family tradition; rather, she loves the business because of its nature of human inventiveness, production, and motion. If family were important to Dagny, she would be concerned about Jim Taggart' s opinions; luckily, Rand's heroine never pays attention to her inept brother's reactions to her threatening adequacy.
In fact, both Dagny and Hank become aware of greater social evils through their arguments with family members. Hank shocks his mother when he refuses to hire his incompetent brother only because he is a human being who needs a job, but the national legislature eventually legalizes the hiring on the basis of need. As Dagny realizes in one of her confrontations with Jim, he supports the censuring directives that eliminate the competitive market because he is weak himself and does not like to compete, especially with his sister. Nonetheless, the government passes a law that cuts down the production of successful businesses so that the smaller ones will not be destroyed by the competition, even though there is a greater demand for goods and services than the legislature allows. In both cases, Rand bases the faults of the communist system on personal failings: individual immorality, exemplified in Hank's mother's claim of brotherly obligation and in Jim's need to restrict his environment to his own level, is at the root of the political evil that eventually destroys the country.
As the pressure increases and industrial entrepreneurs begin to see the organization of their elusive social enemy, Dagny and Hank are offered alternatives. Francisco, Galt's revolutionary who operates against the system under the guise of a reckless playboy, steps on the stage and confronts the social parasites with the contradictions of their own beliefs. When Jim attacks him for the disaster at the San Sebastian copper mines in Mexico, which cost his investors a fortune, Francisco replies that the catastrophe was actually a blessing: workers were employed and paid for months without much work to do; the contractor, although unqualified, really needed the job; and the wealth of the investors was distributed to the needy poor. Plus, Francisco adds, they should be thanking him from liberating them from the root of all evil—money. He continues by questioning this assertion, however, and concludes that there is nothing evil about money, because it is only a symbol used for exchange. The evil is the shame people feel when they are making money, shame caused by unjust social condemnation. Thus, Francisco's logic teaches those who actually listen to him about the faults in the so-called altruistic approach, which dismisses the value of work and glorifies the virtue of need. Rand thus explains the Objectivist principle of self-sufficiency and honest labor as inherently moral.
Nevertheless, neither Dagny nor Hank (although they both feel a bond with Francisco) is ready to accept completely the philosophy behind the secret revolution. Hank, already preconditioned to feel guilt, is bound by his love for Dagny; when his wife uses the information about their affair to blackmail Hank, he succumbs. However, between the beginning of the affair and the blackmail incident, Hank's feelings about Dagny gradually change: he starts the relationship almost against his own wishes, tortured by guilt for what he perceives as depravity in himself, and thinking that his physical desire is base and vilifying. Dagny, on the other hand, has never considered mind and body as separate; she enjoys the pleasures of their relationship fully and does not see sex as detached from the rest of her personality. The change in Hank's attitude and his full acceptance of his sexuality happens in another conversation, another lecture with Francisco, who explains Rand's Objectivist application to sex. According to Francisco, people only want the lovers who exemplify what they are striving for in life. Thus, Hank's desire for everything that Dagny is transcends the mere limitations of bodily lust.
According to Rand and Objectivism, a person's pursuit of happiness is the top priority in life. Dagny realizes early on that the joy she was expected to feel at parties in her youth does not come from the lavish interiors, beautiful music, and expensive food; instead, the only true joy is that of the creative human spirit, and the only people who enjoy parties are those who have some accomplishment to celebrate. Of course, the happiness must be of the right kind. Jim's happiness at finding a poor girl to marry so that he'll always have someone to look down upon is abusive and destructive. However, Rand makes another differentiation: when Hank feels exhilarated after Wyatt burns down his refinery so that it does not fall into the parasites' hands, he is also aware of the danger of feeling joy at the sight of destruction. But the destruction of an achievement which, in the corrupt system, can only be used against its creators, is actually a constructive act, Rand suggests. This lesson is the hardest one to learn: Dagny is the last to join the revolution, because she is too devoted to the railroad and cannot bear to see it destroyed. But her final awareness comes when the old world literally collapses in panic, and the world leaders use brute force to try to persuade Galt to salvage their economy.
Some of the most striking moments of philosophical awakening in the novel occur in conversations between the protagonists and their social enemies. As Hank notices early on, the very process of dialogue is one of the weapons of the corrupt system: the faults of the establishment and its criminal activities are never named, because the power of the uttered word could shake up the illogical foundations of communist ideology. Also, words are actions in the lives of executives, and in the decaying world of Atlas Shrugged, only the competent are capable of making decisions.
Another way in which language is used by social parasites is to make the issues as elusive as possible. Repeatedly Hank and Dagny confront contractors who offer excuses and collectivist slogans rather than completed work; the state institutes condemn, in vague terms, new inventions that could shake up the economy by advancing specific companies; the government agents who threaten business operations avoid clearly presented ultimatums; and even blackmailers do not name the threat they want to impose. Hank challenges the system that requires the victim's verbal participation in his own execution: in his trial for the sale of illegal quantities of steel to a customer, Hank refuses to admit guilt as such on the basis that the definition of guilt is wrong. The disabled system, which needs his capable business to leech on, sets him free. Through sometimes tiring repetition of clear versus ambiguous language, Rand depicts the all-pervading nature of immorality by Objectivist standards; her heroes, however, convey the clarity and simplicity of her philosophy in the end.
Atlas Shrugged describes with painstaking detail the deterioration of a political system whose faults are rooted in personal shortcomings. Through her protagonists, Rand makes a binding connection between the individuals in society who wish to preserve their creative and productive freedoms, and the members of the same society whose immorality (whether they are aware of it or not) causes destruction.
Source: Jeremy W. Hubbell, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7306
With the publication of Atlas Shruggedin 1957 Rand reached the destination of her intellectual journey—the Taggart Terminal. She had purged the last vestiges of Nietzsche's errors from her thinking, and completely integrated her ideas into her own philosophical system, Objectivism. The great question of her life, the dilemma of the rational person in an irrational society, at last was solved to her satisfaction. The concept of the "sanction of the victim" provided her answer—and provided also the key plot device, the stake of the men of the mind, for her greatest novel.
Atlas Shrugged, from a purely stylistic or literary point of view, is inferior to The Fountainhead, But as an intellectual achievement, it is far superior. 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....
Rand descnbed her fiction style as 'Romantic Realism'. She regarded herself as a Romantic in that her fiction dealt with ideal people and their pursuit of important values; and a Realist in that the settings of her stories and the issues they dealt with were those of real life rather than fantasy. This description is quite appropriate to most of her work. However, Atlas Shrugged marks somewhat of a departure. Stylistically, it represents a considerable change from We the Living and The Fountainhead. Building on the techniques with which she had experimented in Anthem, Rand made Atlas Shrugged a more abstract, conceptual, and symbolic work than her earlier novels; it might best be described as a work of Romantic Surrealism. The cover painting by George Salter accurately conveys the mood and style of the novel.
Atlas Shrugged takes place in the United States, and cities such as New York and Philadelphia are recognizable. But Rand goes to considerable pains to create an ambiance that is far from realistic. The United States of the novel has no President, but a "Head of State"; no Congress, but a "National Legislature". Most of the world is Communist, but this word does not appear in the book at all; instead, Communist countries are referred to as "People's States". The story takes place in no particular time, and in 'realistic' terms is a tissue of anachronisms. 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.
With a subtle choice in literary technique Rand adds to the effective mystery of the story. In The Fountainhead Rand adopts the universal viewpoint; we see inside the head of almost every significant character and many very minor ones. (The only important exception is Henry Cameron.) In Atlas Shrugged Rand uses what might be called a 'half-universal' viewpoint. We are told the thoughts of nearly every significant character, hero or villain—except the strikers.
In further contrast to Rand's other works, Atlas Shrugged is permeated with symbols—from Atlantis to Wyatt's Torch, from Galt's motor, which draws on the power of the lightning, to Nat Taggart's statue. The symbolic theme of the stopping motor provides a powerful motif throughout the book. And of course there is the famous dollar sign....
One of the paradoxes in Rand's style is her combination of extremely serious philosophical themes and a sense of humor that occasionally verges on the literary equivalent of the practical joke. In Atlas Shrugged one of her puckish tricks involves the sly use of Jewish symbolism and myth. For instance, considerable emphasis is laid on Rearden's gift to Dagny of a ruby necklace. It is hard to escape the allusion to the famous biblical quotation:
Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. [Proverbs 31:10]
But more interesting is her use of a Talmudic doctrine to provide the basic device of the book: The doctrine of the 36 Just Men. The idea of the 36 Just Men derives from the story, in Genesis, of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot, who resided in the former city, was warned by God to leave, as the place was condemned to destruction because of the evil of its inhabitants. Lot attempted to avert the catastrophe, promising to find other good men in the place; when he failed, he and his family left and the cities were destroyed.
It is interesting to note that—contrary to the popular misconception—the great sin of the Sodomites was not sexual perversion but collectivism. According to the Talmudic account, Sodom's egalitarian government institutionalized envy, even forbidding private charity because some recipients might get more than others. The judicial system was perverted into an instrument for expropriating the wealthy and successful. The ultimate crime for which the Sodomites were destroyed was placing envy and equality above benevolence and justice.
From the biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah, Jewish scholars evolved the idea that God would destroy the earth if ever it lacked some minimum number of good people. The exact number needed to avert His wrath was hotly debated, and finally settled, for numerological reasons, as 36.
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand (who was Jewish by background, though not religious) takes as her theme the destruction of civilization when its 'just men' are withdrawn. The analogy with the 36 Just Men is striking, particularly when one notes that exactly 36 strikers are specifically identified in Galt's Gulch. An incident near the end of the story convinces me that the symbolism is intentional.
As Dagny, Galt, and the other strikers are returning to the valley after rescuing Galt, they pass over New York City (This in itself is suggestive of some special significance, since New York is nowhere near the great circle route between New Hampshire and Colorado.) As they fly over, the lights of New York go out. Dagny gasps, and Galt orders, "Don't look down!"
Can this be the same John Galt who said, "Nobody stays in this valley by faking reality in any manner whatsoever."? The incident is totally out of character. And that's Rand's little joke; Galt is saving Dagny from being turned into a pillar of salt...
The plot of Atlas Shrugged is marvelously constructed, an intricate machine that meshes smoothly with the novel's philosophical themes.
There are, it must be conceded, some notable flaws. For instance, during his affair with Dagny, why does Francisco not tell her about his college friends—Galt and Danneskjold? Obviously this would make hash of the mystery element of the plot, so Rand simply makes Francisco behave out of character. Later she is forced to make Hugh Akston lie to Dagny for the same reason.
A more serious problem is Galt's refusal to let Rearden learn that Dagny is alive, after her crash in the valley. As Nathaniel Branden has pointed out, this gratuitous cruelty does not reflect well on Galt—nor on Dagny. Apparently Rand regarded this incident as essential to the plot; Rearden's loyalty to values, as demonstrated by his continued search for Dagny, is a major factor in her motive for leaving the valley. But surely the dilemma could have been dealt with otherwise.
These are minor problems. Overall, the plot of Atlas Shrugged is one of the greatest accomplishments of world literature. Not only is it a masterpiece of logic in itself, but it integrates perfectly the needs of the story with Rand's exposition of a series of philosophical principles. And, with an absolutely insolent arrogance, as if to show off, Rand neatly organizes this extraordinarily complex book into three tidy, cleanly structured sections of ten chapters each.
To analyze the plot of Atlas Shrugged thoroughly would require far too much space. But we may consider the main strands.
The primary sequence is the story of how Dagny and Rearden discover the secret of the strike and are led to join it. On the political level, this is integrated with the account of the final destruction of statist society. On the personal level, it is integrated with Dagny's romantic involvement with Francisco, Rearden, and finally Galt. These three strands are braided into the primary plotline of the novel.
Half-a-dozen subplots are woven into the structure. One is Francisco D'Anconia's Monte-Cristo-like crusade of destruction. Two follow the fates of minor heroes, Eddie Willers and Cherryl Brooks. Three more describe the degradation and destruction of the villains James Taggart, Lillian Rearden, and Robert Stadler. Is this pleasing symmetry intentional? Quite possibly....
The unifying principle of Atlas Shrugged is the connection between philosophical ideas and their consequences. It is worth examining one passage in detail to study Rand's technique. The primary incident in the chapter, 'The Moratorium on Brains', is the catastrophe at the Taggart Tunnel in which an entire passenger train is annihilated. At least one critic has cited this passage as evidence that Rand took a malicious, sadistic pleasure in killing (fictional) people. What is really involved here?
Rand makes the tunnel accident play an important role in the novel's plot mechanics. It brings Dagny back from her self-imposed exile so that she can receive Quentin Daniels' letter. It interrupts Francisco's explanation of the strike at a crucial point, and sets up the confrontation between Francisco and Hank Rearden in Dagny's apartment. The disaster also necessitates the journey that will put her on a frozen train and propel her into her meeting with John Galt.
The sequence also plays an important part in a more subtle aspect of the plot, by beginning the process of final preparation for Dagny to be confronted with the secret of the strike. The first step is Directive 10-289. Dagny's instinctive rejection of this irrational horror results in her resignation from Taggart Transcontinental. But this, to Rand, could not be a satisfactory resolution; Dagny must reach this stage of emotional revulsion, but she could not be Rand's heroine if she made her decision on the basis of emotion. What has been accomplished however is that Dagny (and the reader) have been presented with the solution to the novel's dilemma—the strike.
Dagny's resignation is followed by a month of meditation in the woods, in which for the first time her basic dilemma is made explicit. Then the pressure is turned up. Francisco appears to present her with the key concept of the sanction of the victim. It is at this point that the tunnel catastrophe intervenes. Francisco fails to recruit Dagny—because Dagny, having quit due to emotional revulsion, returns due to emotional revulsion.
It is important to understand that Dagny's emotional reaction to the disaster plays a critical role. She is not merely annoyed by a sublime piece of incompetence. She is not just outraged by the destruction of an important item of her railroad's property. She is horrified by the human destruction, the loss of life. Rand is building up here to a major, dual climax in the novel's plot: Dagny's discovery of the secret of the strike, and her meeting with John Galt. The tunnel catastrophe plays a key role in building the tension that will be (partially and temporarily) resolved in Galt's Gulch.
During this chapter Dagny is put under increasing emotional stress, until she nears the breaking point. Directive 10-289 drives her from her job in disgust—and separates her from Rearden (on whom it also puts pressure). Her month in the woods wrestling with an insoluble problem focusses her emotional state. Then there is the astounding revelation that Francisco is in fact faithful to her—a scene interrupted by the report of the tunnel catastrophe. The sequence continues with the confrontation between Rearden and Francisco, which raises the tension of Dagny's sexual relationship with Rearden to a maximum. We can begin to see how masterfully Rand pulls these two strands of the plot together in preparation for Dagny's encounter with Galt.
But the Taggart Tunnel catastrophe is not merely an incident in the plot; it also functions as a demonstration of an important principle, the relationship between political oppression and the breakdown of social responsibility—and the consequent destruction of social function. Rand in this chapter provides us with a vivid picture of the way even everyday activities disintegrate when the men of ability and rationality are driven underground. This is the function of the scene on the book's philosophical or intellectual level.
Rand begins preparation for this scene early and carefully ties it into the other events of the plot. Early in the story we learn of the bad condition of the Taggart track near Winston, Colorado. Accidents happen on this stretch of the road. The need to repair it is casually mentioned. But it is merely a nuisance, a potential problem.
With Dagny's resignation, Rand begins her demonstration. First, the repairs at Winston are cancelled; the rail instead is used on the Florida line, which is more frequently travelled by politicians. This decision is allowed to stand—because Dagny is gone. Then the spare diesel at the Taggart Tunnel is withdrawn, again to please a politician. Eddie Willers attempts to stop it, but with Dagny gone he is helpless.
The process by which the accident happens is, to anyone acquainted with industrial safety principles, entirely realistic. It is exactly the sort of sequence which creates real-life disasters such as the Bhopal and Chernobyl accidents.
The petty politician Kip Chalmers, inconvenienced by a derailment near Winston, insists on immediate continuation of his journey—through the tunnel—though no diesel engines are available. The men of intelligence and integrity, who could prevent the ensuing catastrophe, are gone because of Directive 10-289, just as Dagny is. The best of those who remain are, like Eddie, of insufficient rank to intervene successfully. One by one, the safeguards set by rational men are violated by political appointees, driven by their fear of political reprisals.
It would take only one man to prevent the tragedy—but that one man is not present any more. The Superintendent of the Division has been replaced by an incompetent. Higher management, with Dagny gone, evades all responsibility. The one man who fights the disaster, Bill Brent, lacks authority. The physical order is signed by a boy who lacks knowledge.
So the inexorable march to disaster continues. The dispatcher knows he is sending men to their deaths. But he no longer cares; his beloved brother committed suicide, his career ruined by Directive 10-289. It appears that disaster may be averted when the chosen engineer walks out rather than take a coalburner into the Tunnel—but a replacement is found, an alcoholic who kept his job by political pull and union corruption. The conductor, who might have warned the passengers, has become embittered and cynical; he limits his action to saving himself. Even the switchman might have averted the wreck at the last minute. But in the new environment of the railroad, he fears for his family if he disobeys orders, even to save lives.
So the Comet proceeds into the tunnel. And with magnificent irony Kip Chalmers, having succeeded in scaring the Taggart employees into sending him to his death, proudly proclaims, "See? Fear is the only effective way to deal with people!" ...
By her own account, in Atlas Shrugged Rand finally succeeded in portraying her ideal man, John Galt. And indeed, she has met the challenge of showing completely moral persons in a way that she did not achieve in The Fountainhead; Dominique and Wynand are, as we have seen, contaminated by Nietzschean morality and the corresponding despair. Roark is morally perfect, but he is not a full ideal because he is naive. He is good without knowing fully why he is good. John Galt, however, has moral stature and philosophical knowledge.
Atlas Shrugged has a complex plot involving a number of major and minor heroic characters. Rand takes as her primary heroes the giants of intellect and productivity, particularly business entrepreneurs. The basic fabric of these characters derives from the hero of one of her favorite books, Merwin and Webster's Calumet K, Charlie Bannon, an engineer and construction supervisor, a natural leader and compulsive worker who solves problems with effortless ingenuity, is described as skeletally thin. Appropriately, Rand fleshes out this skeleton with full personalities to create her business heroes.
The modern reader may not realize how radical it was, in 1957, to make a businessman a hero. It should be kept in mind that Rand wrote this book in an environment in which 'entrepreneur' was almost a dirty word. It is interesting to note, however, that there was one other significant writer of the period who defended businessmen, and who may have influenced Rand: Cameron Hawley.
In Hawley's second novel, Cash McCall (1955), the theme is ethical conflicts in business, and the author comes down squarely for the position that commerce is an honorable activity. McCall is what would now be called a 'corporate raider', and Hawley skillfully depicts his economic value and productiveness.
Even more interesting for our discussion is the theme of Hawley's first novel, Executive Suite (1952). This is the story of a struggle for control of a major company after its CEO, Avery Bullard, suddenly dies. Here is the scene in which the hero, looking out over the company town, decides it is his responsibility to take over the leaderless corporation:
They were his... all of them... the uncounted thousands, born and unborn. If he failed them there would be hunger under those roofs... there had been hunger before when the man at the top of the Tower had failed them. Then there would be no food... and the belongings of the dispossessed would stand in the streets... and a man in a black coat would come to take the children to the orphans' home...
... Did the people under those roofs know what Avery Bullard had done for them? Did they realize that if it had not been for Avery Bullard there would be no Tredway Corporation... that the Pike Street plant would never have been built, that the Water Street factory would have rotted and rusted away like the steel mill and the tannery and the wagon works... that there would be no Tredway jobs, no Tredway paychecks?
No, they did not know... or, if they did, they would not acknowledge their belief... or, if they believed, they were not willing to pay the price of gratitude. Had any man ever thanked Avery Bullard for what he had done? No. He had died in the loneliness of the unthanked.
Don Walling accepted his fate. He would expect no thanks... he would live in loneliness... but the Tredway Corporation would go on. There would be jobs and pay checks. There would be no hunger. The belongings of the dispossessed would not stand in the streets. No children would be sent to the orphans' home.
Though the motives of Hawley's character are hardly those of an Objectivist, the theme of the entrepreneurial businessman as an unappreciated hero who gives society far more than can ever be repaid clearly prefigures Rand's use of the same theme. There is no external evidence to support it, but she may well have been influenced by Hawley's heroes. (She would certainly, however, have been disgusted by The Lincoln Lords , which idealizes a man who bears no small resemblance to Peter Keating.)
Into the gray-suited bodies of her business executive heroes Rand poured the souls of her childhood idols from the melodramas she devoured as a girl. There resulted those extraordinary characters who have inspired so many of her young readers—especially the central heroes of Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart and the three men who become her lovers: Francisco D'Anconia, Hank Rearden, and John Galt....
In Dagny Taggart Rand creates her ideal woman. Her earlier female protagonists are mostly Nietzschean and, as such, tragic figures. Dominique Francon, it is true, renounces her allegiance to Nietzsche, but this decision does not come until nearly the end of The Fountainhead, so that we can only project what her life and personality will be like as an Objectivist. Gaia, the teenaged heroine of Anthem, is not a well-developed character. It is only with the appearance of Dagny that we can see how Rand visualizes the 'ideal' woman.
Dagny, like the other heroes of Atlas Shrugged, is an incarnation of the virtue of competence. In her mid-thirties she is the de facto CEO of the country's largest railroad. Intelligent, decisive, self-confident, she embodies the prime characteristic of the natural leader: she is the person who knows what to do.
As one might expect from Rand's literary technique, Dagny's characterization is rooted in a seeming paradox. On the one hand, she appears neuter, if not masculine, in her aggressiveness and career dedication. Lillian Rearden describes her as "an adding machine in tailored suits". When Cherryl Taggart claims her place as the woman of the Taggart family, Dagny responds, "That's quite all right; I'm the man."
On the other hand, Dagny is an intensely feminine woman. (She is, in fact, the kind of woman who wears a dress and stockings to explore an abandoned factory!) She is attracted to strong, dominant men, and desires to play an explicitly submissive role in her sexual relationships.
The key to the seeming contradiction is that Dagny has repressed her sexuality in the hostile society in which she exists.
Dagny's air of coldness and unemotional, pseudo-masculine behavior are a consequence of her immersion in a society which contains nobody to whom she can respond naturally. This is hinted at in Rand's depiction of the Rearden anniversary party, at which Dagny is described as presenting a challenge which nobody can perceive. There is a vivid contrast between Dagny's unexpressed personality in the statist world and her temperament in Galt's Gulch, where she happily becomes—a housewife! That this was Rand's conscious intention is shown by her notes for Atlas Shrugged:
Dagny, who is considered so hard, cold, heartless, and domineering, is actually the most emotional, passionate, tender, and gayhearted person of all—but only Galt can bring it out. Her other aspect is what the world forces on her or deserves from her.
Rand herself was profoundly ambivalent on the issue of feminism. She was a strong advocate of careers for women, of course, and said (in her Playboy interview), "There is no particular work which is specifically feminine." She endorsed (with some political reservations) Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. She was contemptuous of 'housewives' in general. On the abortion issue, Rand took a vigorously 'pro-choice' position.
Yet Rand could scarcely be classified as a feminist. Though most of her heroines lack interest in marriage and family life, there are exceptions. Gaia, in Anthem, shows no ambition beyond following her man, and is pregnant at the end of the novel. Rand sympathetically portrays the anonymous young woman who chooses motherhood as a 'profession' in Galt's Gulch, as well as Mrs. William Hastings, who appears to be a 'mere' housewife. Rand's notorious statement that a woman ought not to aspire to be President of the United States hardly sounds like feminism. And, in response to a question about her position (at her 1981 Ford Hall Forum appearance) she said, "I'm a male chauvinist."
Rand could hardly have meant by this—in a literal dictionary sense—that she exhibited "unreasoning devotion" to the male sex and contempt for the female sex. She did not say that men in general are superior to women. What, then, did she mean? Consider this:
Hero-worship is a demanding virtue: a woman has to be worthy of it and of the hero she worships. Intellectually and morally, i.e., as a human being, she has to be his equal, then the object of her worship is specifically his masculinity, not any human virtue she might lack.
Later in the same essay, Rand says, "[the feminine woman's] worship is an abstract emotion for the metaphysical concept of masculinity as such". It appears that Rand would attach a special, exceptional value to 'masculinity' as 'the fact of being a man', and that she was a 'male chauvinist' in this sense. Rand is explicit that the feminine woman's desire to look up to man "does not mean dependence, obedience or anything implying inferiority".
When we examine Rand's fictional heroines, we find that they certainly exhibit this intense admiration for the masculinity of their lovers. But, despite Rand's stated opinions, her fiction suggests that she regarded men as being inherently superior to women. Gaia, for instance, is far from being an intellectual equal of her mate. For that matter, Dominique does not seem to be quite a match for Howard Roark in ability, nor Dagny for John Galt.
All Rand's heroines are explicitly submissive in a sexual sense. Indeed, it is hard to avoid the suggestion of a certain degree of masochism in the physically vigorous couplings of Dagny and Rearden, in Faulkner's burning Karen Andre with hot platinum, and of course in Dominique's first sexual encounter with Roark.
Rand herself married a man who was far from being a John Galt in intellectual stature. Frank O'Connor, protective, nurturing, and pliable, gave her the emotional support of a husband without the inconvenient demands. She could pursue her career as she wished, and he accommodated her. Like Dagny, she was the man in her family.
But she really didn't want to be a man. Her struggle over the decades compelled her to become mannish in many ways; a 'womanly' woman could never have waged the war Rand fought. Yet through it all she battled to remain a woman. The desire to reclaim and assert her femininity, contends Barbara Branden, impelled her into the affair with Nathaniel Branden.
One can find a psychological explanation for Rand's portrayal of the sexes in her personal conflict. As a woman she longed for a mate who could match or even surpass her ability, a hero who would fill her need for romance and passion, a man who would dominate her sexually. Yet hero-worship has its obligations as well as its privileges; a marriage with a real-life John Galt, even if she could have found one, would have imposed demands she could never have accepted. Nothing could be allowed to interfere with her intellectual growth or achievements. Devastating as this paradox was to her personal happiness, its tension contributed to her art, in which she portrayed a series of fascinating man-woman relationships.
From a more abstract point of view, Rand's vision of men and women reflects her uncritical acceptance of the twentieth-century cliche that human behavior has no genetic component. Accepting that humans are born "tabula rasa"—blank slates—she could not develop a theory of sexuality that accounted for the inherent differences between the sexes in a coherent manner. As we will see, this contradiction also had its effect on the Objectivist ethics.
Rand may not have understood what made the male sex an ideal for her, but she knew what she liked, and the heroes of Atlas Shrugged demonstrate her vision of man at his best...
Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastian D'Anconia is the favorite character of many readers of Atlas Shrugged. Like Dagny, he embodies a paradox: He is at once a man of extraordinary joie de vivre, gay, lighthearted, sophisticated; and a man of tragedy, frozen, unemotional, implacable.
The light side of Francisco embodies the sense of life that Rand aspired to, the unobstructed, effortless achievement of joy in a totally benevolent universe. As the young boy who can do anything, and do it superbly, who fears nothing and hates nobody, he presents an extraordinarily attractive figure.
The other side of the coin is the tortured but self-controlled man who allows no feeling or suffering to affect him, much less deflect him. His relentless pursuit of his terrible purpose invokes our awe and admiration.
We love Francisco precisely because of the union of these aspects of his personality. It was a stroke of artistic genius to create a character paradoxically embodying these disparate traits; and it is a tribute to Rand's literary skill that she could integrate them into a convincing personality....
Hank Rearden is older than the other major heroes of Atlas Shrugged. (He is 45 as the novel opens.) He also presents a different sort of inner conflict. Unlike Dagny, he feels a fundamental sense of guilt, which has been carefully nurtured over the years by his wife, the despicable Lillian. He has responded by emotional withdrawal.
It is critical to emphasize that Rand does not present Rearden's obsessive fixation with his business as an ideal. On the contrary, his struggle with emotional repression is a key thread of the plot.
We see Rearden, when he is first introduced, as a man who is interested in nothing but steel. He literally falls asleep when forced to deal with any other topic. The only hint that he is anything beyond a stereotypical workaholic is a jade vase in his office.
But this is not the real Rearden. As his affair with Dagny flowers, he expands as a person. Without losing his passionate commitment to his career, he begins to develop the full personality that he had so long repressed. He takes an interest in ideas, begins to express his love of beauty, becomes more relaxed and gay. As this process unfolds, his emotions open up. He finds himself able to love Dagny. He also responds more effectively to his cowork-ers; his relationship with his secretary, Gwen Ives, visibly expands and becomes more personal as his affair with Dagny progresses. And he is able to de-repress his resentment of, and contempt for, his worthless family.
Much of the novel is devoted to showing Rearden's gradual emotional blossoming, as he responds to Dagny and to Francisco D'Anconia. This is a vital factor in the plot; before he can join the strikers, he must not only deal with his unearned guilt, but he must establish new, interpersonal values so that his mills are not the be-all of his life otherwise he could not abandon them....
To depict an ideal man in a work of literature is a difficult assignment for any author. Few have attempted it; none have attempted such an ambitious ideal as does Rand.
John Gait, by the nature of the novel's plot, carries a heavy burden to start with. As the leader of the strikers, and the core of the novel's mystery element, he does not even appear on stage (except in disguise) until the last third of the book. We see him for two chapters; then he again disappears until the book's climax. Gait receives so little exposure to the reader that only Rand's superb technique can make him real at all.
Unfortunately, it is not quite sufficient to fully expand his character. John Gait, like Howard Roark, is too perfect to sustain a convincing internal conflict. Indeed, Gait was explicitly intended to represent man-become-god, and Rand deliberately avoided any details of characterization that might have made him seem more 'human' in the usual, self-deprecatory sense of the word. John Gait is Rand's ultimate answer to Nietzsche; he is an assertion that we need not evolve any 'superman', that man can become godlike himself if he so chooses.
But of course, the Randian paradox appears as always. John Gait, the ideal man, the pinnacle of the human species, is condemned to work underground, as a greasy laborer in the Taggart tunnels. This idea, that in a corrupt society the best men will be found at the bottom, plays a part in all of Rand's novels. Kira encounters Leo in a redlight district. In The Fountainhead Dominique discovers Howard Roark working, like a slave or a convict, in a quarry. The hero of Anthem is assigned as a street-sweeper and does his illicit scientific work in an abandoned subway tunnelunderground.
(An interesting inversion takes place in the strikers' valley. Gait, the lowly trackworker, becomes the revered leader of society. And Dagny, the wealthy executive, finds herself penniless and must find work as a maid.)
Gait was not merely Rand's ideal man; he was the projection of Rand herself. He verges on pure intellect; he is a philosopher and teacher; he is the leader of an intellectual movement; and he is, through most of his life, frustrated by the inability to find a partner worthy of him.
If John Gait sometimes seems more a symbol than a person, it reflects Rand's difficulty in visualizing her ideal man. When she tried, she ran up against the contradiction implicit in her tabula rasa model of humanity: to be an ideal man, John Gait would have to be inherently different from a woman. He would have to be distinctively male, not just a pure intellect happening to inhabit a male body. Just as Rand could not make herself fully female, so she could not make her ideal hero fully male. Her concept of humanity, for all its novel and perceptive insights, was incomplete...
Rand also creates an incredible rogues' gallery of villains, and provides them with some beautifully appropriate names: Wesley Mouch, Tinky Holloway, and Cuffy Meigs are classics. Floyd Ferris has just the right ring for the handsome, slick, and vicious scientist-bureaucrat. Robert Stadler's name gives a hint of the statist views which make him a villain. Perhaps best suited of all is that undistinguished politician Mr. Thompson, an old-fashioned gangster very similar in style to the weapon suggested by his name.
Though Rand has been criticized for creating two-dimensional villains, the fact is that she devotes considerable effort to digging into the psychology of evil. Three villains are analyzed in considerable depth: James Taggart, Lillian Rearden, and Robert Stadler.
Jim Taggart is visualized by most readers as short, fat, and ugly; some critics have even attacked Rand for making all her villains physically unprepossessing. This is a tribute to her skill; the actual description of Jim Taggart in the book is as tall, slim, and aristocratic in appearance. It is the reader who unconsciously visualizes him as ugly, giving him a physical appearance to fit his character.
For ugly he is psychologically. A man of mediocre talent, he inherits control of Taggart Transcontinental. At the opening of the story, he is 39 and a neurotic whose response to the problems of the railroad he nominally heads is, "Don't bother me, don't bother me, don't bother me." Gradually we watch his psychological disintegration, until he ends up as a catatonic. He is unable to face the fact that he is "a killer for the sake of killing", and psychosis is ultimately his only escape
Lillian Rearden is a marvelous portrayal. She is a fitting foil for Dagny: intelligent, capable of shrewd psychological insight, and completely dedicated to relentless pursuit of a single goal. Her campaign to destroy Hank Rearden is masterfully conceived and flawlessly executed. It is only his extraordinary inner strength, and some timely help from Dagny and Francisco, that saves him.
In the story of Dr. Robert Stadler, Rand achieves a Trollopian depiction of temptation and the consequences of surrender to it When we first see Stadler, he is a great mind, a brilliant scientist, who has compromised with statism to get the money to continue his research. This initial sin inexorably presents him with a series of moral dilemmas, and each failure to turn back leads him deeper into the morass.
In his first crisis, the State Science Institute issues an attack on Rearden Metal. Though Stadler knows it is false, he dares not contradict it, for fear that the Institute's funding might be reduced. Later Floyd Ferris attacks science and reason explicitly, and even uses Stadler's name in doing so. This time Stadler protests but not publicly. Ferns goes on to create Project X, using Stadler's discoveries to forge a weapon of terror. And now, under Directive 10-289, the consequences of rebellion are more serious; Stadler faces not mere embarrassment but the threat of starvation Under compulsion, he publicly praises his tormentors and commends them for their perversion of the knowledge he had created. By the novel's end Stadler has surrendered utterly to corruption, and his last act in life is an undignified scuffle with a drunken criminal for possession of the murderous weapon he had once scorned.
Most of Rand's villains fill bit parts. The mystic Ivy Starnes, the whining Lee Hunsaker, the pretentious Gilbert Keith-Worthing, and many others are portrayed with a few deft strokes and used as needed. Each, however, is used to make a unique point.
Rand is careful, despite her 'black and white' moral code, to avoid any hint of moral determinism. One villain, the "Wet Nurse", demonstrates that it is possible to turn away from evil. Another, the labor racketeer Fred Kinnan, shows a certain blunt honesty that makes him more sympathetic than his colleagues.
Perhaps the most neglected characters in discussion of Atlas Shrugged are what one might call the 'lesser heroes' people who are morally good, but lack the immense ability of Dagny and the other strikers Rand treats sympathetically such tiny roles as the police chief of Durrance (who helps Dagny locate the Starnes heirs) and Mrs. William Hastings. Another such character, the hobo Jeff Allen, supplies a key piece of information in the main mystery of the plot. Three of these characters, however, receive considerable attention: Tony (the "Wet Nurse"), Cherryl Brooks, and Eddie Willers.
Tony, the young, amoral bureaucrat who is sent to supervise Rearden's production under the "Fair Share Law", represents the human potential for moral redemption. At his first appearance, he is a total cynic. The very concept of morality has been educated out of him, so that he finds Rear-den's integrity disturbing and incomprehensible. Gradually, in the productive environment of the Rearden mills, he develops a desire for an ideal to believe in Tony begins to feel admiration and sympathy for Rearden. He offers assistance in bribing the bureaucracy to obtain higher quotas, which Rearden of course rejects Later, when Rearden defies the State Science Institute's order for Rearden Metal, Tony is concerned for Rearden's safety and chides him for taking such a risk. His commitment to Rearden becomes progressively stronger: he cheers Rearden's triumph at his trial; he fails to report Rearden's violations of regulations, and later volunteers to actively conceal them; he asks Rearden to let him quit the bureaucracy and work for the mill, even if only in a menial job. In the end he has accepted Rearden's ideals and fights to defend them; Tony's murder is the final straw before Rearden joins the strike.
Cherryl Brooks is the most tragic character of Atlas Shrugged. She is a slum girl determined to rise. (Had the book been written ten years later. Rand might well have made Cherryl a Black.) She is not brilliant, not an intellectual, has no career ambitions. But she is fiercely honest, idealistic, and courageous. Finding herself married far "above her station" to James Taggart, she applies her limited ability to the task she considers appropriate to her: becoming a high-society "lady." Zealously she studies etiquette, culture, and style to become the kind of wife Taggart, in her vision of him, deserves. And she succeeds; the slum girl from the five-and-dime transforms herself into a sophisticated member of the aristocracy of wealth. Again we see a classic Randian cliche-reversal. Taking off from Shaw's Pygmalion. Rand invents an Eliza Doolittle who transforms herself into a lady on her own initiative and by her own efforts against the opposition of her 'benefactor', who wants her to remain a slum girl. But Cherryl's effort to become a worthy consort for her husband goes for nothing; Taggart is not a hero but a rotter; he has married her, not to ennoble her, but to destroy her.
The most important of the lesser heroes is Dagny's assistant, Eddie Willers, the very first character to whom we are introduced as the novel opens. It is easy to underestimate Eddie Willers. Standing beside Dagny Taggart or Hank Rearden he seems ordinary, not very competent, almost a bit wimpish. This, however, is due merely to the contrast with Rand's extraordinary heroes, as the moon seems dim in sunlight. Hank Rearden, who ought to know, says that Eddie has the makings of a good businessman. In fact, he is a highly able executive. Toward the end of the book, he bribes his way onto an Army plane and flies into a city torn apart by civil war. In the space of a few days, single-handed, he negotiates immunity with three separate warring factions, reorganizes the Taggart terminal, revitalizes its personnel, and gets the trains running again. Some wimp!
All three of these lesser heroes come to bad ends. Tony is murdered when he defies his masters and attempts to warn Rearden of the plot against his mills. Cherryl commits suicide when she discovers the horrifying truth about her husband. Eddie strands himself in the desert, sobbing at the foot of a dead locomotive. Why is there no happy ending for these characters?
Mimi Gladstein suggests that Eddie's fate is punishment for his refusal to accompany Dagny to Gait's Gulch. Certainly it is a consequence of that decision, but it is wrong to see it as punishment for a moral failing.
In her treatment of the lesser heroes Rand expresses an important truth. The essence of statism is the destruction of all that is good in the human spirit. The ablest heroes frequently escape, to make new lives for themselves elsewhere. Such people as Rachmaninoff and Sikorsky and Rand escaped from the Bolsheviks. Such people as Einstein and Fermi and von Mises escaped from the Nazis. It was mostly the people of more ordinary intellect that perished at Vorkuta or Auschwitz. These were the people who attempted to fight, but lacked the ability to do so effectively like Tony. Or they were the people who died of sheer despair, facing a horror beyond their conception like Cherryl. Or, they were those who might have escaped, but could not bring themselves to give up their old life and start over again with no capital but their own minds like Eddie. Rand had known such people; her own father died under the Soviet regime, unwilling to leave Russia and give up the hope that he might somehow get his business back. She pities them, does not condemn them.
It should be evident to the reader that a great deal more could be said about Atlas Shrugged. This book is one of the most complex novels ever written, and its analysis poses hundreds of fascinating problems which will occupy scholars for decades.
I lack the space to properly cover the many concepts that Rand developed in this novel: 'sanction of the victim' and the impotence of evil; envy and the hatred of the good for being good; the 'individual surplus' of the great innovators; the intimate connection of philosophical premises and personal and social character; and many others.
Atlas Shrugged is not merely a novel to be read for entertainment, enjoyable though it is. Nor is it a treatise to be read for enlightenment, instructive though it is. The reader will benefit most who regards the book as a sort of magical box full of tightly folded intellectual origami, each of which should be carefully opened, contemplated, and cherished.
Source: Ronald E Merrill, The Ideas of Ayn Rand, Open Court, 1991, pp. 59-74, 74-78, 85
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Several years ago, Miss Ayn Rand wrote The Fountainhead. Despite a generally poor press, it is said to have sold some four hundred thousand copies. Thus, it became a wonder of the book trade of a kind that publishers dream about after taxes. So Atlas Shrugged had a first printing of one hundred thousand copies. It appears to be slowly climbing the bestseller lists.
The news about this book seems to me to be that any ordinarily sensible head could possibly take it seriously, and that, apparently, a good many do. Somebody has called it: "Excruciatingly awful." I find it a remarkably silly book. It is certainly a bumptious one. Its story is preposterous. It reports the final stages of a final conflict (locale: chiefly the United States, some indefinite years hence) between the harried ranks of free enterprise and the "looters." These are proponents of prescriptive taxes, government ownership, Labor, etc, etc. The mischief here is that the author, dodging into fiction, nevertheless counts on your reading it as political reality. "This," she is saying in effect, "is how things really are. These are the real issues, the real sides. Only your blindness keeps you from seeing it, which, happily, I have come to rescue you from."
Since a great many of us dislike much that Miss Rand dislikes, quite as heartily as she does, many incline to take her at her word. It is the more persuasive, in some quarters, because the author deals wholly in the blackest blacks and the whitest whites. In this fiction everything, everybody, is either all good or all bad, without any of those intermediate shades which, in life, complicate reality and perplex the eye that seeks to probe it truly. This kind of simplifying pattern, of course, gives charm to most primitive storytelling. And, in fact, the somewhat ferro-concrete fairy tale the author pours here is, basically, the old one known as The War between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. In modern dress, it is a class war. Both sides to it are caricatures.
The Children of Light are largely operatic caricatures. In so far as any of them suggests anything known to the business community, they resemble the occasional curmudgeon millionaire, tales about whose outrageously crude and shrewd eccentricities sometimes provide the lighter moments in Boardrooms. Otherwise, the Children of Light are geniuses. One of them is named (the only smile you see will be your own): Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastian d'Anconio. This electrifying youth is the world's biggest copper tycoon. Another, no less electrifying, is named: Ragnar Danneskjoldt. He becomes a twentieth-century pirate. All Miss Rand's chief heroes are also breathtakingly beautiful. So is her heroine (she is rather fetchingly vice president in charge of management of a transcontinental railroad). So much radiant energy might seem to serve an eugenic purpose. For, in this story as in Mark Twain's, "all the knights marry the princess"—though without benefit of clergy. Yet from the impromptu and surprisingly gymnastic mattings of the heroine and three of the heroes, no children—it suddenly strikes you—ever result. The possibility is never entertained. And, indeed, the strenuously sterile world of Atlas Shrugged is scarcely a place for children. You speculate that, in life, children probably irk the author and may make her uneasy. How could it be otherwise when she admiringly names a banker character (by what seems to me a humorless masterstroke): Midas Mulligan? You may fool some adults, you can't fool little boys and girls with such stuff—not for long. They may not know just what is out of line, but they stir uneasily.
The Children of Darkness are caricatures, too; and they are really oozy. But at least they are caricatures of something identifiable. Their archetypes are Left Liberals, New Dealers, Welfare Statists, One Worlders, or, at any rate, such ogreish semblances of these as may stalk the nightmares of those who think little about people as people, but tend to think a great deal in labels and effigies. (And neither Right nor Left, be it noted in passing, has a monopoly of such dreamers, though the horrors in their nightmares wear radically different masks and labels.)
In Atlas Shrugged, all this debased inhuman riffraff is lumped as "looters." This is a fairly inspired epithet. It enables the author to skewer on one invective word everything and everybody that she fears and hates. This spares her the plague-y business of performing one service that her fiction might have performed, namely: that of examining in human depth how so feeble a lot came to exist at all, let alone be powerful enough to be worth hating and fearing. Instead, she bundles them into one undifferentiated damnation.
"Looters" loot because they believe in Robin Hood, and have got a lot of other people believing in him, too. Robin Hood is the author's image of absolute evil—robbing the strong (and hence good) to give to the weak (and hence no good). All "looters" are base, envious, twisted, malignant minds, motivated wholly by greed for power, combined with the lust of the weak to tear down the strong, out of a deep-seated hatred of life and secret longing for destruction and death. There happens to be a tiny (repeat: tiny) seed of truth in this. The full clinical diagnosis can be read in the pages of Friedrich Nietzsche. (Here I must break in with an aside. Miss Rand acknowledges a grudging debt to one, and only one, earlier philosopher: Aristotle. I submit that she is indebted, and much more heavily, to Nietzsche. Just as her operatic businessmen are, in fact, Nietzschean supermen, so her ulcerous Leftists are Nietzsche's "last men," both deformed in a way to sicken the fastidious recluse of Sils Maria. And much else comes, consciously or not, from the same source.) Happily, in Atlas Shrugged (though not in life), all the Children of Darkness are utterly incompetent.
So the Children of Light win handily by declaring a general strike of brains, of which they have a monopoly, letting the world go, literally, to smash. In the end, they troop out of their Rocky Mountain hideaway to repossess the ruins. It is then, in the book's last line, that a character traces in the air, "over the desolate earth," the Sign of the Dollar, in lieu of the Sign of the Cross, and in token that a suitably prostrate mankind is at last ready, for its sins, to be redeemed from the related evils of religion and social reform (the "mysticism of mind" and the "mysticism of muscle").
That Dollar Sign is not merely provocative, though we sense a sophomoric intent to raise the pious hair on susceptible heads. More importantly, it is meant to seal the fact that mankind is ready to submit abjectly to an elite of technocrats, and their accessories, in a New Order, enlightened and instructed by Miss Rand's ideas that the good life is one which "has resolved personal worth into exchange value," "has left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment.'" The author is explicit, in fact deafening, about these prerequisites. Lest you should be in any doubt after 1,168 pages, she assures you with a final stamp of the foot in a postscript: "And I mean it." But the words quoted above are those of Karl Marx. He, too, admired "naked self-interest" (in its time and place), and for much the same reasons as Miss Rand: because, he believed, it cleared away the cobwebs of religion and led to prodigies of industrial and cognate accomplishment.
The overlap is not as incongruous as it looks. Atlas Shrugged can be called a novel only by devaluing the term. It is a massive tract for the times. Its story merely serves Miss Rand to get the customers inside the tent, and as a soapbox for delivering her Message. The Message is the thing. It is, in sum, a forthright philosophic materialism. Upperclassmen might incline to sniff and say that the author has, with vast effort, contrived a simple materialist system, one, intellectually, at about the stage of the oxcart, though without mastering the principle of the wheel. Like any consistent materialism, this one begins by rejecting God, religion, original sin, etc, etc. (This book's aggressive atheism and rather unbuttoned "higher morality," which chiefly outrage some readers, are, in fact, secondary ripples, and result inevitably from its underpinning premises.) Thus, Randian Man, like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world.
At that point, in any materialism, the main possibilities open up to Man. 1) His tragic fate becomes, without God, more tragic and much lonelier. In general, the tragedy deepens according to the degree of pessimism or stoicism with which he conducts his "hopeless encounter between human questioning and the silent universe." Or, 2) Man's fate ceases to be tragic at all. Tragedy is bypassed by the pursuit of happiness. Tragedy is henceforth pointless. Henceforth man's fate, without God, is up to him, and to him alone. His happiness, in strict materialist terms, lies with his own workaday hands and ingenious brain. His happiness becomes, in Miss Rand's words, "the moral purpose of his life." Here occurs a little rub whose effects are just as observable in a free enterprise system, which is in practice materialist (whatever else it claims or supposes itself to be), as they would be under an atheist Socialism, if one were ever to deliver that material abundance that all promise. The rub is that the pursuit of happiness, as an end in itself, tends automatically, and widely, to be replaced by the pursuit of pleasure with a consequent general softening of the fibers of will, intelligence, spirit. No doubt, Miss Rand has brooded upon that little rub. Hence, in part, I presume, her insistence on "man as a heroic being" "with productive achievement as his noblest activity." For, if Man's "heroism" (some will prefer to say: "human dignity") no longer derives from God, or is not a function of that godless integrity which was a root of Nietzsche's anguish, then Man becomes merely the most consuming of animals, with glut as the condition of his happiness and its replenishment his foremost activity. So Randian Man, at least in his ruling caste, has to be held "heroic" in order not to be beastly. And this, of course, suits the author's economics and the politics that must arise from them.
For politics, of course, arise, though the author of Atlas Shrugged stares stonily past them, as if this book were not what, in fact, it is, essentially—a political book. And here begins mischief. Systems of philosophic materialism, so long as they merely circle outside this world's atmosphere, matter little to most of us. The trouble is that they keep coming down to earth. It is when a system of materialist ideas presumes to give positive answers to real problems of our real life that mischief starts. In an age like ours, in which a highly complex technological society is everywhere in a high state of instability, such answers, however philosophic, translate quickly into political realities. And in the degree to which problems of complexity and instability are most bewildering to masses of men, a temptation sets in to let some species of Big Brother solve and supervise them.
One Big Brother is, of course, a socializing elite (as we know, several cutrate brands are on the shelves). Miss Rand, as the enemy of any socializing force, calls in a Big Brother of her own contriving to do battle with the other. In the name of free enterprise, therefore, she plumps for a technocratic elite (I find no more inclusive word than technocratic to bracket the lndustrial/financial/engineering caste she seems to have in mind). When she calls "productive achievement" man's "noblest activity," she means, almost exclusively, technological achievement, supervised by such a managerial political bureau. She might object that she means much, much more; and we can freely entertain her objections. But, in sum, that is just what she means. For that is what, in reality, it works out to. And in reality, too, by contrast with fiction, this can only head into a dictatorship, however benign, living and acting beyond good and evil, a law unto itself (as Miss Rand believes it should be), and feeling any restraint on itself as, in practice, criminal, and, in morals, vicious—as Miss Rand clearly feels it to be. Of course, Miss Rand nowhere calls for a dictatorship. I take her to be calling for an aristocracy of talents. We cannot labor here why, in the modern world, the preconditions for aristocracy, an organic growth, no longer exist, so that impulse toward aristocracy always emerges now in the form of dictatorship.
Nor has the author, apparently, brooded on the degree to which, in a wicked world, a materialism of the Right and a materialism of the Left, first surprisingly resemble, then, in action, tend to blend each with each, because, while differing at the top in avowed purpose, and possibly in conflict there, at bottom they are much the same thing. The embarrassing similarities between Hitler's National Socialism and Stalin's brand of Communism are familiar. For the world, as seen in materialist view from the Right, scarcely differs from the same world seen in materialist view from the Left. The question becomes chiefly: who is to run that world in whose interests, or perhaps, at best, who can run it more efficiently?
Something of this implication is fixed in the book's dictatorial tone, which is much its most striking feature. Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind, which finds this tone natural to it, shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: "To a gas chamber—go!" The same inflexibly self-righteous stance results, too (in the total absence of any saving humor), in odd extravagances of inflection and gesture—that Dollar Sign, for example. At first, we try to tell ourselves that these are just lapses, that this mind has, somehow, mislaid the discriminating knack that most of us pray will warn us in time of the difference between what is effective and firm, and what is wildly grotesque and excessive. Soon we suspect something worse. We suspect that this mind finds, precisely in extravagance, some exalting merit; feels a surging release of power and passion precisely in smashing up the house. A tornado might feel this way, or Carrie Nation.
We straggle to be just. For we cannot help feel at least a sympathetic pain before the sheer labor, discipline and patient craftsmanship that went to making this mountain of words. But the words keep shouting us down. In the end that tone dominates. But it should be its own antidote, warning us that anything it shouts is best taken with the usual reservations with which we might sip a patent medicine. Some may like the flavor. In any case, the brew is probably without lasting ill effects. But it is not a cure for anything. Nor would we, ordinarily, place much confidence in the diagnosis of a doctor who supposes that the Hippocratic Oath is a kind of curse.
Source: Whittaker Chambers, "Big Sister is Watching You," in Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers, 1931-1959, Edited by Terry Teachout, Regnery Gateway, 1989, pp. 313-18.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1964
Just as, within each novel, the climax sums up and dramatizes the meaning of all the preceding events, raised to the highest peak of emotional and intellectual intensity—so, as a total work, Atlas Shrugged is the artistic and philosophical climax of all of Ayn Rand's novels, bringing the full of her dramatic, stylistic and intellectual power to its most consummate expression.
Ayn Rand has proudly referred to Atlas Shrugged as a "stunt novel"—proudly, because she has made the word "stunt" applicable on so high a level. By the standard of sheer originality, the idea of a novel about the minds of the world going on strike is as magnificent a plot-theme as any that could be conceived. If Ayn Rand has scorned the Naturalists who write about the people and events next door, if she has declared that the purpose of art is to project, not the usual, but the unusual, not the boring and the conventional, but the exciting, the dramatic, the unexpected, the rationally desirable yet the astonishingly new—then she is, preeminently, a writer who practices what she preaches.
Atlas Shrugged is a mystery story, "not about the murder of a man's body, but about the murder—and rebirth—of man's spirit." The reader is presented with a series of events that, in the beginning, appear incomprehensible: the world seems to be moving toward destruction, in a manner no one can identify, and for reasons no one can understand.
There are no "red herrings" in the story, no false clues. But the mystery is to be solved by philosophical detection—by identifying the philosophical implications of the evidence that is presented. When the reader is finally led to the solution, the meaning and inescapable necessity of all the things he has been shown seems, in retrospect, simple and self-evident.
It is epistemologically significant that Atlas Shrugged is written in the form of a mystery. This is consistent with the philosophy it propounds. The reader is not given arbitrary assertions to be taken on faith. He is given the facts and the evidence; his own mind is challenged to interpret that evidence, he is placed, in effect, in the position of the people in the novel, who observe the events around them, struggle to understand their cause and meaning, and are told the full truth only when they have seen sufficient evidence to form a reasoned judgment.
The most impressive feature of Atlas Shrugged is its integration. The novel presents the essentials of an entire philosophical system: epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, politics (and psychology). It shows the interrelation of these subjects in business, in a man's attitude toward his work, in love, in family relationships, in the press, in the universities, in economics, in art, in foreign relations, in science, in government, in sex. It presents a unified and comprehensive view of man and of man's relationship to existence. If one were to consider the ideas alone, apart from the novel in which they appear, the integration of so complex a philosophical system would be an extraordinarily impressive achievement. But when one considers that all of these philosophical issues are dramatized through a logically connected series of events involving a whole society, the feat of integration is breathtaking.
If one were told that an author proposed to dramatize, in a novel, the importance of recognizing the ontological status of the law of identity—one could not be blamed for being skeptical. But it is of such startling dramatizations that the virtuosity of Atlas Shrugged is made ...
Tremendously complex in its structure, presenting the collapse of an entire society, the novel involves the lives, actions and goals of dozens of characters.... Yet every character, action and event has a dramatic and philosophical purpose; all are tied to the central situation and all are integrated with one another; nothing is superfluous, nothing is arbitrary and nothing is accidental; as the story moves forward, it projects, above all, the quality of the implacably, the irresistibly logical....
The climax of Atlas Shrugged is singularly typical of the spirit of the novel as a whole: the integration of the unexpected and the utterly logical—of that which starts by appearing shocking and ends by appearing self-evident. One reader has described Atlas Shrugged as having the quality of "cosmic humor." It is written from the perspective of a mind that has discarded the conventional categories, standards and frame of reference—and has looked at reality with a fresh glance....
No other climax could sum up so eloquently the thesis and the meaning of Atlas Shrugged. The men of ability have all gone on strike, the world is in ruins, and the government officials make a last grotesque effort to preserve their system: they torture Galt to force him to join them and save their system somehow. They order him to think. They command him to take control of Naked force—seeking to compel a mind to function. And then the ultimate absurdity of their position is thrown in the torturers' faces: they are using an electric machine to torture Galt, and its generator breaks down; the brute who is operating the machine does not know how to repair it, neither do the officials; Galt lifts his head and contemptuously tells them how to repair it.
The brute runs away in horror—at the realization that they need Galt's help even to torture him. The officials flee the cellar also—"the cellar where the living generator was left tied by the side of the dead one." ...
There are persons to whom clarity and precision are the enemies of poetry and emotion; they equate the artistic with the fuzzy, the vague and the diffuse. Seeking in art the reflection and confirmation of their sense of life, they are psychologically and esthetically at home only with the blurred and the indeterminate: that which is sharply in focus, clashes with their own mental state. In such persons, Ayn Rand's literary style will invoke a feeling of disquietude and resentment; Ayn Rand's use of language is best characterized by a line concerning Dagny Taggart: "she had regarded language as a tool of honor, always to be used as if one were under oath—an oath of allegiance to reality and to respect for human beings." Because her writing is lucid, such persons will tell themselves that it is crude; because her writing conveys an unequivocal meaning, and does not suggest a "mobile" to be interpreted by the subjective whim of any reader, they will tell themselves that it lacks poetry; because her writing demands that they be conscious when they read it, they will tell themselves that it is not art.
But the specific trademark of her literary style is its power vividly to recreate sensory reality and inner psychological states, to induce the most intense emotions—and to accomplish this by means of the most calculated selection of words, images and events, giving to logic a poetry it had never had before, and to poetry a logic it had never had before....
In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand has created more than a great novel. By any rational, objective literary standard—from the standpoint of plot structure, suspense, drama, imaginativeness, characterization, evocative and communicative use of language, originality, scope of theme and subject, psychological profundity and philosophical richness—Atlas Shrugged is the climax of the novel form, carrying that form to unprecedented heights of intellectual and artistic power....
Just as in philosophy Ayn Rand has challenged the modern doctrines of neomysticism and epistemological agnosticism, so in literature she has challenged the view of man as an impotent zombie without intellect, efficacy or self-esteem. Just as she has opposed the fashionable philosophical dogmas of fatalism, determinism and man's metaphysical passivity, so she has opposed the fashionable literary projections of man as a stuporous puppet manipulated by instinct and socioeconomic status. Just as she has rejected the mystics' theories of Original Sin, of man's depravity and the misery of life on earth, so she has rejected the presentations of unfocused, whim-worshipping neurotics staggering along a trail of hysterical destruction to the abyss of whimpering defeat. Just as she has rescued philosophy from the cult of the anti-mind and the anti-man, so she has rescued literature from the cult of the anti-novel and the anti-hero. As an artist, she has brought men a new sense of life. As a philosopher, she has brought them the intellectual implementation of that sense of life: she has shown what it depends upon and how it is to be earned.
When one considers the quality of enraptured idealism that dominates her work, and the affirmative view of the human potential that she projects, the most morally corrupt of the attacks leveled against her—and the most psychologically revealing—is the assertion that she is "motivated by a hatred of humanity."
It is culturally significant that writers who present dope addicts and psychopaths as their image of human nature, are not accused of "hatred for humanity"—but a writer who presents men of integrity and genius as her image of human nature, is.
In Ayn Rand's novels, the heroes, the men of outstanding moral character and intellectual ability, are exalted; the men of conscientious honesty and average ability are treated with respect and sympathy—a far more profound respect and sympathy, it is worth adding, than they have ever been accorded in any "humanitarian" novel. There is only one class of men who receive moral condemnation: the men who demand any form of the unearned, in matter or in spirit; who propose to treat other men as sacrificial animals; who claim the right to rule others by physical force. Is it her implacable sense of justice—her loyalty to those who are not evil—her concern for the morally innocent and her contempt for the morally guilty—that makes Ayn Rand a "hater of humanity?" If those who charge Ayn Rand with "hatred," feeling themselves to be its object, choose to identify and classify themselves with the men she condemns—doubtless they know best. But then it is not Ayn Rand—or humanity—whom they have damned....
The most tragic victims of the man-degrading nature of contemporary literature are the young. They have watched the progression from the boredom of conventional Naturalism to the horror of nightmare Symbolism—the progression from stories about the folks next door to stories about the dipsomaniac next door, the crippled dwarf next door, the axe-murderer next door, the psychotic next door. This, they are now informed, is what life is "really" like.
In projecting the artist's view of man's metaphysical relationship to existence, art explicitly or implicitly holds up to man the value-goals of life, it shows him what is possible and what is worth striving for. It can tell him that he is doomed and that nothing is worth striving for—or it can show him the life of a Howard Roark or a John Galt. It is particularly when one is young, when one is still forming one's soul, that one desperately needs—as example, as inspiration, as fuel, as antidote to the sight of the world around one—the vision of life as it might and ought to be, the vision of heroes fighting for values worth achieving in a universe where achievement is possible. It is not descriptions of the people next door that a young person requires, but an escape from the people next door—to a wider view of the human potentiality. This is what the young have found in the novels of Ayn Rand—and that is the key to the enormous popularity of her novels.
Source: Nathaniel Branden, Who Is Ayn Rand? An Analysis of the Novels of Ayn Rand, Random House, 1962, pp. 118-21, 126-27, 129, 140-44.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2138
I could wish that the cancer-causing cigarette were not the ultimate symbol of glowing mind-controlling matter in the book, I could wish that the rails which reflect the self-assertion of the heroine were not envisioned running to the hands of a man invisible beyond the horizon—most of all I wish the author had resisted the temptation to have her hero trace the Sign of the Dollar over the devastated earth before his Second Coming. But yes, I agree with Mimi Gladstein, there is a feminist element in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and it's on my ideal Women's Studies reading list too.
It made a deep impression on me at nineteen and now I can see at least two feminist reasons why. First, the book's opening sections on Dagny Taggart's childhood and adolescence depict with great power the most shattering discovery the awakening womanmind makes—this world is not the one the vigorous confident girlchild expected to find and to help run when she "grows up." And second, the book's middle and final sections depict with still greater power, nay satisfaction, the destruction of that false usurpers' world.
Rand's extended invocation of catastrophe feels astonishingly like the 1970's: "On the morning of September 2 a copper wire broke in California, between two telephone poles ... On the evening of September 7, a copper wire broke in Montana, stopping the motor of a loading crane ... On the afternoon of September 11, a copper wire broke in Minnesota, stopping the belts of a grain elevator ... On the night of October 15, a copper wire broke in New York City, extinguishing the lights ..." In fact, Atlas Shrugged partakes of the general postnuclear apocalypticism of the 1950's. But there is also a special quality of feminine rage discernible not only in the analysis of the Originating Sin behind the usurping world—"altruism," selflessness, the worship of "the other" and his need before one's own—but in the nature of the destruction.
According to her vision of the great age of progress (the nineteenth century, that is—not, I admit, perfectly recognizable to the historian in Rand's form), humanity civilized, indeed organicized, material nature by infusing it with its own purposeful creativity—metal plus mind equals the living copper wire, the bridges and motors and lights which are, so to speak, the mystical body of the human mind, the "material shapes of desire" as Rand phrases it. When mind goes astray or is withdrawn, the enterprise collapses upon itself, and the plot of Atlas Shrugged is predicated upon the desire of the best minds in the world to "go on strike," to destroy the old shapes of desire because they have been appropriated, usurped. Thus in the novel destruction of what is outside the self becomes the measure of greatness, purposefulness, authenticity, even more than construction or preservation of what is inside the self. The heroine's adolescent lover, Francisco D'Anconia, devotes his life to "destroying D'Anconia Copper in plain sight of the world." The hero, John Galt, who organizes the strike and convinces the suppliers of oil, then coal, then steel to withdraw just as the national economy, swinging wildly about in its search for a savior, needs them most, is the hated "Destroyer" to Dagny before she actually meets him. Even after she meets him and knows him, complicatedly, as the full shape of her desire, that desire remains destructive to the measure of its authenticity. Before entering his Atlantis she understands that she would have destroyed the Destroyer if she could—but not until she had made love to him; after she leaves it to go back and try to halt the world's self-destruction, she goes to see him in his hideout in New York despite the risk that she will lead his enemies to him. He describes, to her horror, the trap she has probably enclosed them both in, and urges:
"It's our time and our life, not theirs. Don't struggle not to be happy. You are."
"At the risk of destroying you?" she whispered.
"You won't. But—yes, even that... Was it indifference that broke you and brought you here?"
"I— " And then the violence of the truth made her pull his mouth down to hers, then throw the words at his face: "I didn't care whether either one of us lived afterwards, just to see you this once."
This subterranean commitment to a cleansing violence, an ethic of destruction, is evident in Rand's vision of both work and sex, is indeed what makes the two functions of the same desire. What attracts Rand, and Dagny, to the industrial barons of the nineteenth century, is unmistakably the sense of their successful smashing of opposition. What brings Dagny back to her job after one early frustration is the disastrous train wreck which destroyed the Taggart Tunnel through the Rockies—she cannot accept that destruction and wants to mitigate it. The test of her ethical adulthood at the end of the novel is her willing desertion of the railroad she runs just as the Taggart Bridge across the Mississippi, the last link to the West, is destroyed. Leaving, she sanctions this and all following destruction. Dagny first comes to John Galt by crashing her plane into his private mountain retreat; when they return to the city he follows her, running, into the dark tunnel of the terminal, and they share a love scene not easily distinguishable from mutual rape: "she felt her teeth sinking into the flesh of his arm, she felt the sweep of his elbow knocking her head aside and his mouth seizing her lips with a pressure more viciously painful than hers."
At the root of all this eager violence is an equivocal passion for the display of will in a world where will seems to Rand's heroine to have either utterly rotted away or else become so devious in its operations as to be unrecognizable, a world "feminized" in the worst sense of the word. "Oh, don't ask me—do it!" she prays at seventeen when Francisco, too, "seizes" her, and she receives his violence thankfully as an anodyne for the disappointment of the formal debut party months before, where "there wasn't a man there I couldn't squash ten of." What she doesn't realize then, what Francisco and Galt are about to learn, is that the power to create or to squash that comes from will is not in fact equal to the power to expropriate or squash that comes from will-lessness, not only because there is more of the latter than the former in the world, but more because the people of will have accepted the chains of certain moral systems which short-circuit or diffuse their desires.
Dagny suffers from the quantity of will-lessness opposed to her will. Gaining the position she requires, Operating Vice President of the Taggart railroad, was "like advancing through a succession of empty rooms," deathly exhausting but productive of no violence, cleansing or otherwise. Her disgust and near despair are in this respect interestingly like that of an ambitious man. Indeed, at the wedding of her wealthy brother and the energetic little shop girl he marries, the bride challenges the sister-in-law she has heard of as a cold and unfeminine executive: "I'm the woman in this family now," and Dagny replies, "That's quite all right, I'm the man." At the same party Francisco, the self-proclaimed womanizer who is actually one of the Destroyers, answers Hank Rearden's contemptuous "Found any conquests?" with "Yes—what I think is going to be my best and greatest." Rearden is himself the conquest Francisco is after; Dagny's first lover wants her second lover not for explicitly sexual purposes, of course, but for the Cause. And yet, in several senses Rearden is the female to Francisco and Dagny in the novel:
"I'm saying that I didn't know what it meant, to like a man, I didn't know how much I'd missed it—until I met him."
"Good God, Hank, you've fallen for him!"
"Yes, I think I have."
This is more than the love of one man for another, though it is certainly that too, and eloquently described by Rand, and welcome. It is the love of one being whose desire has been short-circuited, "hooked to torment instead of reward" as Rand describes it, for another whose desire is direct and confident of its ends. And it is this kind of frustration, desire short-circuited, will "contravened," as Lawrence would say, that makes Rearden a kind of female icon. It is the archetypal female plight that Rand explores in his story, displacing it cleverly from her heroine, whom she values too much to subject to it, to her middle-rank hero, whom she loves and pities.
Rearden's existence at book's opening is a schizophrenic shuttling between an unendurable dead family and marriage, and a profoundly satisfying work life whose very satisfaction is a guilty torment because all his love is concentrated there among the machines, mill schedules, and metals which are, inexplicably and "shamefully" to the usurpers of altruism, alive and lovable to him. He makes the classic "female" adjustment: he accepts the world's definition of his work life, love, and productivity as guilt and his withdrawal of pure love from his family as shame. He hates and tries to eliminate the sexual desire which is at the heart of the corrupt world of marriage and family and relies on sheer strength, doubled and redoubled, to support both sides of his existence and the conflicts between them. "Well, then, go on with your hands tied, he thought, go on in chains. Go on. It must not stop you." When he finds himself desiring Dagny Taggart, the mind and spirit his working soul most admires, it is a catastrophe to his split self—"the lowest of my desires—as my answer to the highest I've met.... it's depravity, and I accept it as such." Dagny does not challenge his definition, knowing that their living experience as lovers will teach him the truth, but it is Francisco who actually tells him the truth. In this novel it is still true that women, even the heroine, mainly exist and demonstrate, while men develop and articulate. "Only the man who extols the purity of a love devoid of desire, is capable of the depravity of a desire without love," Francisco argues; only "the man who is convinced of his own worthlessness will be drawn to a woman he despises." Led by Francisco and Dagny, Rearden emerges from the schizophrenia, reconnects the circuits of his sexual and productive desire to his sense of self-worth, and achieves in the end, like Dagny, that act of abandonment-destruction which, again, is Rand's rite of passage from the usurpers' world to the "real" one. Only it is not just the mills which, like Dagny's railroad, must be destroyed: it is also Rearden's family—mate, mother, brother—which, deprived of his coerced strength, must be let slide into poverty and degradation and madness before the new beginning is possible.
Finally, interestingly, Rearden's reward for making his passage does not include a mate, as Dagny's does. Discovering that Francisco, whom he loves, was Dagny's first lover, Rearden "seized" the woman (again) and consummated an act of love that included, through the woman's body, "the act of victory over his rival and of his surrender to him," just as Dagny too "felt Francisco's presence through Rearden's mind." When Dagny chooses John Galt, the purest shape of her desire and the full expression of her sense of self-worth, Rearden is left, as Francisco was before him, with only his maturity, his recaptured sense of being. Solitary, but not alone, for all three men and the woman are "in love—with the same thing, no matter what its forms." And in Rand's world, which is above all Aristotle's and Euclid's world, "A is A," as the title of her last section proclaims, all movement arises from the unmoved mover of legitimate self-love, and four people who are equal to the same first principle are equal to each other, as long as they live.
Essentially, Rand's novel portrays the victory of Aristotelian and Euclidean thought over Platonic and Planckian relativism. For them, as for John Galt, "reality" stays put and yields its truths to human observation. Only the villains celebrate, only the psychotic accept, the message of much twentieth-century physics and psychology, that matter is not solid nor perfectly predictable and that the mind is at some level simply "a collection of switches without shape." In this respect, in addition to being, as Mimi Gladstein argues, both a science fiction romance and a feminist model, Atlas Shrugged is genuinely a "novel of ideas," and it belongs, all 1,100 pages of it, on that reading list too.
Source: Judith Wilt, "On Atlas Shrugged," in College English, Vol. 40, No. 3, November, 1978, pp. 333-37.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471
In a statement published as a postscript to Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand has defined her philosophy, "in essence," as "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."
Atlas Shrugged is [a] ... polemic inadequately disguised as a novel and designed to dramatize these views. The result is an astonishing mixture of anti-Communist manifesto, superman, and the lush lady novelist Ethel M. Dell—a novel that does its own purpose a disservice through caricature and oversimplification.
Miss Rand postulates an America in a time of waning strength and production. The government is being delivered into the hands of the "looters," despicable men whose plundering is rationalized by mouthing the concept that the fruits of the strong belong to the weak: from every man according to his ability, to every man according to his need....
As the looters perpetrate increasingly repressive and senseless measures on the economy, chaos grows and the able men, frustrated at every turn, take to deserting their jobs and disappearing. Their establishment of a Shangri La in the Colorado mountains is a neat but unconvincing aspect of a story that already has too little contact with reality.
For one 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.
To be sure, her two types are familiar minorities at either end of the political scale, neither one of them as important as the great middle ground between. American political history is the history of struggle between individualism and the collective good, yet Miss Rand would, at the stroke of her wand, eliminate the whole area of working compromise, make an absolute of either extreme, and pit them against each other. It takes the heart out of her story.
Miss Rand properly condemns the whining mentality which demands handouts as its natural right. But she minimizes the philanthropy that is not a gesture of moral weakness but of strength; and she completely ignores the fact that brilliant intelligence and achievement may not always be accompanied by conscience, that the figures of the past whom she most admires have been called by others—and with reason—robber barons....
Had Rearden and the other men of integrity in the book exercised their political responsibilities with the devotion which they gave to their jobs, whether industry, philosophy, or science, the looters would not have taken over. This is the drama that Miss Rand's melodramatic fabrications lack.
Source: Ruth Chapin Blackman, "Controversial Books by Ayn Rand and Caitlin Thomas: Atlas Shrugged," in Christian Science Monitor, October 10, 1957, p. 13.
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