Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 568
“Who is John Galt?” The question, which begins Atlas Shrugged, is used rhetorically, in the place of “Who knows?” Through the first half of the novel, various legends about him are advanced. Approximately halfway through the book, the reader discovers that there is in fact a John Galt, the leader of a revolt of intellectuals unwilling to let the products of their effort be taken by others except in fair trade.
The massive novel (more than eleven hundred pages) begins as Eddie Willers, an assistant working in operations at the Taggart Transcontinental railroad, tells its president, James Taggart, that the Rio Norte Line is falling apart. James does not want to rebuild it, focusing instead on his pet project, the San Sebastián Line into Mexico. He and his board of directors see the line as a way to help Mexico and to profit from the San Sebastián copper mines run by Francisco d’Anconia. Dagny Taggart, James’s sister and the head of operations, insists on repairing the Rio Norte Line and on using Rearden Metal, a new, unproven product, for the rails. At the same time, James gets an association of railroad executives to pass the “anti-dog-eat-dog rule” to hold down competition.
As Dagny predicted, the San Sebastián Line and the copper mine are nationalized by the Mexican government, causing a huge financial loss for Taggart Transcontinental and investors in the mine. D’Anconia in fact intended it to fail, as he did not want people to profit from his efforts without offering anything in trade and objected to businesspeople and the Mexican government using the mine and railroad as a form of welfare system.
Dagny develops the Rio Norte Line, renamed the John Galt Line to spite its critics, and shows that Rearden Metal is the miraculous product claimed by its inventor, Hank Rearden. Following the first run on the line, Dagny and Hank become lovers, attracted to each other because of their business skills; both are also physically attractive, but that matters little to them.
The government passes various laws restricting competition, lobbied for by businesspeople who cannot compete with Dagny and Hank. In response to what amounts to nationalization of successful businesses, industrialists begin disappearing, even after it is made a crime to quit a job. Dagny believes in fighting for her property and disapproves of industrialists abandoning their companies. She accidentally comes across the Colorado community where they are hiding out, led by Galt. She is tempted to stay there but returns to the New York headquarters of the railroad. Dagny discovers that Galt has been working as an unskilled laborer on the railroad and unwittingly leads government officials to him.
By this time, the country’s economy is in shambles, run not by the profit motive but by political pull. Government leaders persuade Galt to formulate a plan to save the country but are unwilling to do as he asks and eliminate all controls. They resort to torture, trying to force him to think for them and to give directives, but he refuses. Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden, and Francisco d’Anconia lead a team to rescue him and take him back to the Colorado community. As the novel ends, New York City goes dark from lack of power. Some hope is offered by the independent communities in rural areas, established by settlers willing to make it on their own.
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Rand’s earlier work, The Fountainhead, was praised as a novel of ideas. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand extended those ideas further and established herself as a moralist and philosopher. After completing this book, she abandoned the novelistic form, choosing instead to write directly on what she called the morality of reason.
The events of this novel illustrate her philosophy of humans as heroic, with their own happiness as a legitimate moral purpose, productive achievements as their noblest activity, and reason as the only absolute. Rand’s contribution in this work was to add a woman’s voice to social criticism on a large scale. She grew up in Russia and lived through the Bolshevik Revolution. This upbringing made her a champion of capitalism in its purest forms.
Atlas Shrugged shows the influence of other socially critical novels of the period, most notably George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1948). The most striking similarity is in the presentation of reality as an illusion, with the government able and willing to alter facts through the news media. In both novels, the government takes an overpowering role in people’s lives, to no good end. In her opposition to government control, Rand even borrows a heavily quoted line from economist John Maynard Keynes, an advocate of government intervention in the economy. Several times she notes that “in the long run, we’re all dead.” Keynes meant that the long run, like tomorrow, never comes, so that policy should focus on immediate effects. Rand, however, seems to take the quotation to mean that if the government interferes, society is doomed.
Atlas Shrugged is important also for its portrayal of Dagny Taggart as a female hero. Novels of the era rarely showed strong female characters, particularly ones defeating their male opponents. A successful businesswoman was a rarity. Even more daring on Rand’s part was having Dagny defend her affair with Hank Rearden, a married man, as moral. Dagny is proud of finding an intellectual equal, someone she can respect and who respects her. That attitude surely was ahead of its time.
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The Red Scare
Atlas Shrugged, although clearly set in the imaginary communist equivalent of the United States, lacks orientation in time. As Ronald E. Merrill notes, "The American economy seems, structurally, to be in the late nineteenth century, with large industrial concerns being sole proprietorships run by their founders. The general tone is, however, that of the 1930s, a depression with the streets full of panhandlers. The technological level, and the social customs, are those of the 1950s. And the political environment, especially the level of regulation and the total corruption, seems to anticipate the 1970s. We are simultaneously in a future in which most of the world has gone Communist, and the past in which England had the world's greatest navy."
Nonetheless, the novel's clear warning against the economic and political immorality of communism reflects the America's fear of the growth of the Communist Party in the 1950s, which resulted in the Red Scare. After World War II, the Soviet Union went from being an American ally to being an undeclared enemy due to the threat of a nuclear war. The two countries, weighed against each other as the only remaining world superpowers, kept a tentative political balance in a period known as the Cold War. As a reaction to the growing fear of everything Russian, the Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy formed the House Un-American Activities Committee, a council whose purpose was to investigate anything and anybody suspected for any reason of communist beliefs or connections to the Soviet Union. The result was an ample number of interrogations, blackmails, arrests, and threats, and the extreme censorship of individual freedom. Although Rand stated her support for the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and openly spoke against communism, she later condemned the committee members as intellectually deficient headline chasers who had forgotten the ultimate importance of individual rights in their blind pursuit.
America's (A)moral Crisis
In her review of the 1950s in the United States, Stacey Olster describes the nation's intellectual mood as culturally anemic: although opposed to the communist ideology of the Soviet Union, the country's intellectuals accepted the American alternative merely as a "lesser evil." The country's thinkers, including Rand, feared that the complacent nation would incline toward conformism. As one of the responding voices to the 1952 "Our Country and Our Culture" symposium stated, the 1950s were the period of "waiting in darkness before what may be a new beginning and morning, or a catastrophic degradation of civilization," quotes Olster.
At the time Rand was working on Atlas Shrugged, her greatest fear was the aforementioned catastrophe: that the United States would succumb to dangerous collectivism and end up letting in socialist ideas through the back door of its weak, if not nonexistent, cultural ideology. According to Rand, America of the 1950s did not have a social backbone. In Capitalism: An Unknown Ideal, she said the country's conservatism and liberalism were loosely defined concepts that "could be stretched to mean all things to all men." Rand's theoretical writings of the time describe capitalism in the United States as lacking a philosophical base, because the country did not have an original culture.
In response to this lack, Rand declared she would invent these missing cultural foundations in her fiction. As a result, Atlas Shrugged became her ultimate expression of the Objectivist logic which she saw as the only salvation for America; in fact, Rand would reply to the critics who questioned her about Objectivism that all they wanted to know was in the novel.
Anxiety and Affluence
With Europe still rebuilding from World War II and using the funds from the Marshall Plan, America was the number one manufacturing power in the 1950s. The country's financial stability, as well as its pride over the defeat of the Nazi powers, created a national attitude characterized by a mix of contentment with material comforts and altruism. Inflation was low, the suburbs were expanding, and the Interstate Highway Act (1956) made touring in the car far more pleasurable—Howard Johnson's made eating on the road better too. When Atlas Shrugged was published, several reviewers criticized Rand's vision of a decaying America as absurd at a time of national prosperity; others also condemned her scorn of charity as non-Christian and inhuman.
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Point of View
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand efficiently uses a third-person narrative that most often comes from the limited omniscient perspective of one of her protagonists. Thus, the reader knows everything that is going on in the life and mind of one character, until the focus shifts to another. The two characters on whom Rand focuses most often are Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden: the story evolves around their memories, impressions, thoughts, and feelings, and the plot follows their actions. This approach helps lead the readers to understand and identify with the character whose life they perceive in such intimate detail. Moreover, through third—instead of firstperson point of view—these major characters seem to be presented objectively. This device makes the author's claims about the novel's social systems seem more effective: readers who identify with Dagny and Hank are compelled to agree with their (and Rand's) opinions in the novel, and to experience their "conversion" to John Galt's revolution in their own beliefs.
For the sake of contrast, Rand occasionally shifts the point of view to let the reader in on the thoughts of less central characters (e.g., Eddie Willers, Jim Taggart, Dr. Robert Stadler) to represent different attitudes towards the political issues discussed in the novel. The portrayal of the "villains" in the novel is markedly condescending and negative; however, their perspective shows how seductive the ruling communist ideology can be and why it poses such a threat.
The symbols in Atlas Shrugged are abundant starting from the title: Atlas, the mythological giant who carries the world on his shoulders, symbolizes the class of capitalist workers whose work carries the weight of national and global economy, while the parasitic communist system reaps the fruits of their achievements. The prominent symbol of the capitalist order that recurs in the novel is the dollar sign: it is repeatedly cited by the corrupt communist characters in the novel as the emblem of evil. Capitalist industrialists are condemned by the society because they only believe in money and do not think that those capable of producing have an obligation to support those who are not.
The dollar sign is also the official symbol of John Galt's revolution: he makes the sign in the sky when his fight is over. Dagny even attempts to track him down by following his mysterious brand of cigarettes with the sign of the dollar stamped by the filter. The cigarette is another symbol in the novel: the author describes it as "fire, a dangerous force, tamed at [man's] fingertips" and compares it to "a spot of fire alive in [a thinker's] mind." Another spot of fire in the novel, Wyatt's torch, symbolizes the rebellious spirit of the individual reigning over the darkness of a society that opposes reason.
Critic Ronald E. Merrill notes Rand's use of Jewish symbolism throughout the novel. According to the Talmudic doctrine, thirty-six just men are the minimum needed to keep Sodom and Gomorrah from divine wrath. Interestingly, the great sin of Sodom was not sexual perversion but collectivism—just like the communist world in Atlas Shrugged. The exact number of "just men" withdrawn from the world and named in the description of Galt's valley is thirty-six. Similarly, Hank's gift of a precious ruby necklace to Dagny echoes the proverb "Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies" (Proverbs 31:10).
Using the technique of allusion, or indirect reference, Rand evokes the concept of Utopia—a notion created by Sir Thomas More in the sixteenth century to present an alternative society as a means of critiquing one's own society. The communist society in the novel represents a failed Utopia: ideally a perfect system that grants happiness to all through the equal distribution of goods, instead the communist society collapses in its own ineptitude and becomes hell instead of the promised paradise. John Galt's new world, however, suggests the possibility of another Utopia, outside the boundaries of the existing corrupt order where competent individuals can create and produce freely, without being exploited by their peers. Early descriptions of the new world allude to characters and places from myths and legends. One of the rumors about Galt's identity is a mythological allusion to the man who has discovered the lost island of Atlantis, but had to desert all his worldly possessions in order to live there in perfect happiness. Another fantastic rumor claims that Galt was a man who discovered the fountain of youth, but realized that he could not bring it to the people: they had to reach it themselves.
The third calls Galt a Prometheus who changed his mind: after giving people the gift of fire and being punished for it, he withdrew the fire until they withdrew the punishment. Each of these references, rooted in the legendary, depicts Galt as a heroic, mythical character; they also symbolize parts of his philosophy and sacrifices needed in his quest. Like the lost island of Atlantis, Galt's new world cannot be reached until one leaves behind everything that is trapped in the decaying old world. Likewise, as the fountain of youth is immovable, the reborn capitalist establishment is only available to those who can reach it themselves. Finally, Promethean fire is symbolized by the offering of everything that an individual produces, but the offering ends up withdrawn from the vultures of corruption until the punishment for capitalist success stops.
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Rand set for herself the unusual task of presenting philosophical theory in a dramatic fashion. Most philosophers have outlined their theories in treatises, and Rand herself concentrated on these nonfictional presentations after Atlas Shrugged. While difficult, philosophy that has been dramatized may be enormously effective, as evidenced by Rand's work. In her fiction, characters espousing pro or anti-Objectivist ideals speak at length on their philosophies, but additionally, the dramatic action in each work illustrates these speeches and the alternations of idea and action are perfectly intermeshed. The culmination of Rand's work, the radio speech delivered by John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, would be as difficult to understand as a typical philosophical treatise if it were delivered out of context. The reader easily apprehends it in this case because he has followed the book's plot line; he has seen what happened, and Gait's speech, explains why it happened.
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1950s: Mao Zedong starts the Great Leap Forward in the People's Republic of China, placing more than half a billion peasants into "people communes." They are guaranteed food, clothing, shelter, and child care, but deprived of all private property.
Today: China is one of the few nations in the world whose government is still modeled on Marxist ideology. China has reformed its economy and applied for inclusion in the World Trade Organization.
1950s: The Treaty of Rome removes mutual tariff barriers, uniting Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands into the European Economic Community. The EEC is planned to promote the European economy and make it more competitive with Britain and the United States.
Today: The EEC has become the European Union (EU), with seven additional members: Austria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The Euro is the shared monetary unit of this market.
1950s: The Soviet Union launches Sputnik I, the world's first human-made Earth satellite. A month later, Sputnik is launched with a live dog on board. The New York Times correspondent in Moscow hears a Russian say, "Better to learn to feed your people at home before starting to explore the moon."
Today: The United States is exploring the possibility of water on the moon in order to support colonization. A probe has been launched to observe an asteroid in order to gain knowledge about how to deflect one should it head towards Earth.
1950s: First seen in an Easter march at Aldermaston, England, the symbol for total nuclear disarmament introduced by English philosopher Bertrand Russell will become a universal peace symbol. However, Washington does not accept the plan for a denuclearized zone in central Europe, and Britain follows suit in May.
Today: Despite the growing number of generals and scientists who are calling for the abolishment of nuclear weapons, the United States shows no sign of considering this idea or even ratifying a non-proliferation treaty.
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Rand described herself as one of the last practitioners of the Romantic school of fiction, a school typified by writers such as Victor Hugo and Feodor Dostoevski. The Romantic conception of life is quite different from later literary phases such as Realism (exemplified by Gustave Flaubert) and Naturalism (as written by Emile Zola or Stephen Crane). Where the two latter schools depict people as they are typically found, Romanticism depicts the ideal; where Realism and Naturalism picture people controlled by fate or society, the Romantic view places them in control of their own destinies. The construction of plot also differs between the three forms. Romanticism, because of its belief that men determine the course of their own lives, presents a plot that moves through logically connected events to a climax. Realism and Naturalism do not have this luxury; because they put their characters at the mercy of fate or circumstance, these works are typically narratives of events with no causal links and no artistically constructed climax.
Hugo and Dostoevski are Rand's most important literary antecedents. She read Hugo from an early age and admired his works because they depicted man as hero, depicted a world where important and exciting things could happen. Although not philosophically compatible with Hugo, who accepted conventional moralities that Rand rejected, she agreed wholeheartedly with his artistic impulses.
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Ayn Rand had begun adapting Atlas Shrugged as a television miniseries in 1981, but the project was never completed. She died in 1982.
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Branden, Barbara, The Passion of Ayn Rand, Doubleday, 1986.
Branden, Nathaniel, Judgment Day: My Years with Ayn Rand, Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
Branden, Nathaniel, Who Is Ayn Rand: An Analysis of the Novels of Ayn Rand, Random House, 1962.
Chamber, Whittaker, "Big Sister Is Watching You," in National Review, December 28, 1957, pp. 594-96.
Chamberlain, John, "Ayn Rand's Political Parable and Thundering Melodrama," in New York Herald Book Review, October 6, 1957, pp. 1, 9.
Chapin Blackman, Ruth, "Controversial Books by Ayn Rand and Caitlin Thomas: Atlas Shrugged," in The Christian Science Monitor, October 19, 1957, p. 13.
Donegan, Patricia, "A Point of View," in Commonweal, November 8, 1957, pp. 155-56.
Gladstein, Mimi R., "Ayn Rand and Feminism: An Unlikely Alliance," in College English, Vol. 39, No. 6, February 1978, pp. 25-30.
Gladstein, Mimi R., The Ayn Rand Companion, Greenwood Press, 1984.
Hicks, Granville, "A Parable of Buried Talents," in New York Times Book Review, October 13, 1957, pp. 4-5.
Merrill, Ronald E., The Ideas of Ayn Rand, Open Court, 1991.
Olster, Stacey, "Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something (Red, White, and) Blue: Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and Objectivist Ideology," in The Other Fifties, ed. Joel Forman, Villard, 1997, pp. 288-306.
For Further Study
Branden, Barbara, and Nathaniel Branden, Who Is Ayn Rand? Random House, 1962. Rand's disciples and close associates get a glimpse at the author's private life. The book was later repudiated as too limited by only the information Rand authorized for publication.
Davis, L. J., "Ayn Rand's Last Shrug," in Washington Post, December 12, 1982, p. 7. The article reviews Rand's non-fiction work, Philosophy: Who Needs It? and its resonance in her final novel, Atlas Shrugged.
Ellis, Albert, Is Objectivism A Religion? Lyle Stuart, Inc, 1968. Ellis finds faults in Rand's philosophy and challenges her views, at the same time critiquing Objectivism's cult-like following.
Machan, Tibor, "Ayn Rand: A Contemporary Heretic" in The Occasional Review, Vol. 4, Winter, 1976, pp. 133-50. Machan outlines Rand's heretical opinions in five philosophical areas: metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, politics, and aesthetics.
O'Neill, William F., With Charity Toward None: An Analysis of Ayn Rand's Philosophy, Philosophical Library, 1971. One of the very few even-handed reviews of Rand's work. The book explores the rationality of Objectivist principles and empirically tests their validity.
Wilt, Judith, "On Atlas Shrugged," in College English, Vol. 40, No. 3, November, 1978, pp. 333-37. In this essay, Wilt discusses Atlas Shrugged as a feminist work of self-awareness and rebirth and praises its passion.
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Baker, James T. Ayn Rand. Boston: Twayne, 1987. A study of Rand’s entire career. Relatively objective. Gives brief descriptions and analyses of her major works of fiction and drama. One chapter succinctly describes the main themes and ideas expressed in her written work.
Branden, Barbara. The Passion of Ayn Rand. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1986. A biography by a longtime friend, drawn from fifty hours of taped interviews, transcripts of Rand’s unpublished writing, and conversations with Rand’s friends and relatives. Part 4 describes the process of writing Atlas Shrugged, discussing Rand’s life as she wrote the book. Rand describes Dagny Taggart as herself, with any possible flaws eliminated. The book as a whole is idolatrous.
Branden, Nathaniel. Judgment Day: My Years with Ayn Rand. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. Describes Branden’s love affair with Rand. They were associated for twenty years, with Branden as a Rand disciple, before separating in disagreement.
Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York, E. P. Dutton, 1991. Peikoff is Rand’s designated heir. This volume is based on a set of lectures by Peikoff but authorized by Rand, with additional material based on Peikoff’s discussions with her. Chapters build in complexity. The penultimate chapter, “Capitalism,” with a section on capitalism as the only moral social system, is particularly relevant to Atlas Shrugged.
Rand, Ayn. For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Random House, 1961. Rand’s introduction to her philosophy. The preface states that a more detailed work is to come, but Rand never completed it; Leonard Peikoff’s book (above) is the closest product to that effort. The opening chapter discusses Rand’s philosophy and contrasts businesspeople to intellectuals; subsequent chapters give illustrative excerpts from one of her novels. Her “new intellectual” would combine the best characteristics of businesspeople and intellectuals.
Rand, Ayn. Philosophy: Who Needs It? Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1982. A set of essays. Rand’s answer to the question of the title, which was an address given at West Point, is “everyone.” The essays range in content from basics of her philosophy to its applications in social policy. Most essays were written between 1970 and 1975, and some reflect contemporary events.
Tuccille, Jerome. It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand. New York: Stein & Day, 1971. Tuccille describes his own excursions into politics and discusses how Rand influenced political thinking. States that Rand was the first person to elevate selfishness to the level of philosophical absolute and sees her objectivism as a form of religion. Her heroes are individualists who challenge corporate America. Tuccille became disillusioned with Rand, however, seeing her beliefs as too rigid.
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