Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504

Unlike the majority of popular fiction. Atlas Shrugged explores a number of serious themes, from the role of the creator in society to the very nature of reality itself. The book contains all of the tenets of Objectivism, and like the rest of Rand's novels, it is fiction designed to provide a framework to explain and illustrate her philosophy. Rand's central concept in this work is the denial of self-sacrifice, a staple of conventional morality. She denies that the good of others should be a person's primary concern, and, in John Gait's radio speech says, "We are on strike against the dogma that the pursuit of one's happiness is evil." According to Rand, it is irrational to place the good of others ahead of oneself, although this is a creed preached, oddly enough, by both Christianity and Communism. Rand opposed both, and in this work, reached her conclusion: Rather than submitting to exploitation for whatever reason, people should drop out of society until they are free to return to an uncontrolled society where they may live and work in any way they please. The producers in the world of the novel — inventor John Galt, copper magnate Francisco D'Anconia, philosopher Ragnar Dannesjkold — resolve not only to deprive the world of their intellects, but also to approach others of their ilk and persuade them to drop out until the country is deprived of the men of ability that are the lifeblood of an industrial society. A corresponding group of people led by James Taggart — "the looters" — imposes additional controls and taxes on the remaining producers until finally they destroy industry and society through their attempts to extort wealth. The producers return only when they can remake society so that no one is expected to work for the benefit of anyone but himself. It is important to note that Rand does not simply object to being exploited; her philosophy holds that man must "live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor others to himself."

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Most best sellers do not attempt a discussion of philosophy, economics, or religion. Atlas Shrugged is even more unique among popular fiction, because it also contains a discussion of the nature of reality, hardly typical of a best-selling novel. Rand's Objectivism denies mysticism, and consequently agrees with Aristotelian theory that the world man perceives is "the" reality; there is no other. This a flat rejection of Plato's higher reality, or religious promises of another, better world. Consequently, Objectivism places a premium not on faith, feeling, or intuition, but on rationality, believing that since man lives in the only true reality, his mind is perfectly capable of understanding it. "Reason," according to Rand, "is man's only means of knowledge, and, therefore, his primary means of survival."

Objectivism is made up of a number of ideas, many of them requiring explanation or illustration from Rand's works before they are fully comprehensible. Atlas Shrugged, as the fullest expression of Rand's philosophy, is the best source for attempting to understand her unorthodox world view.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1184

Individual vs. Society
The very title of Atlas Shrugged illustrates the rebellion of one person against the system. It evokes the image of the mythological giant whose job in the universe is to hold the world on his shoulders—until he shrugs and lets it fall. Likewise, the revolutionary John Galt exemplifies the conflict of one against many when he starts a rebellion against the entire system of corruption that has taken over the world.

Several characters—who eventually end up on Galt's side—experience the feeling of fighting society alone. Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden often perceive their position as that of solitary crusaders, trying to prevent the collapse of the world by gathering as many capable industrialist leaders as possible for their struggle. Rand makes it quite clear that her celebration of individualism requires her heroes and heroines to become isolated: Dagny is the only effective executive at the Taggart Transcontinental, always fighting with her brother and the board of directors to let her keep the railroad running. Hank faces the same prospect as he tries to preserve his business from the industrial looters; when he is put on trial for selling more metal to one of his customers than regulations allow, he stands up to the judicial system alone.

Isolation is another requirement in the struggle, since the secret of the revolution must remain among the people already devoted to the cause. Thus, the new world must be carefully hidden from intruders in the depth of the mountains. With the individualist aspects of the revolution comes a necessary sacrifice of one's social ties. None of the rebels can share their knowledge with their friends and family members, unless those individuals are deemed ready for the conversion to Galt's cause.

Guilt
Hank Rearden is the most guilt-ridden character in the novel. In the process of his conversion to Galt's revolution, Rand develops the Objectivist theory of guilt and explains how this emotion is used by the establishment as a means of social control. Guilt is isolated as a tool that keeps individuals tied to the parasitic elements of the community. According to the establishment, since "people" in general are not as skilled and capable as the novel's successful capitalists, it is the duty of those who can produce goods and services to take care of the needy—because they should feel guilty for being successful in the first place.

At the beginning of the novel, Hank feels guilty because he does not have any interest in his family's pastimes and opinions. To redeem himself, he lets them live in his house and spend his money. When his mother asks him to give his incompetent brother a job at the mills, however, Hank refuses to be drawn into a family obligation that would jeopardize his business. Although he is not ashamed of his business, Hank still feels guilty for his apparent lack of compassion. His friendship with Francisco d'Anconia eventually takes away his sense of guilt, as Francisco teaches him to apply the same standards he has in business to the relationships in his life.

Hank also struggles with guilt about sexuality. After the first night he spends with Dagny Taggart, Hank reproaches both his lover and himself for the base desire of their bodies (which he has learned to despise in his marriage); his guilt almost makes him destroy the relationship with the only woman he loves. When Hank's wife finds out about his mistress, she denies him divorce. Instead, she plans to stay in his life to remind him how depraved and dishonorable he really is whenever he feels any pride for his business achievements. According to Galt, however, the perception of body and soul as separate is another myth produced by the establishment: "They have taught man that he is a hopeless misfit made of two elements, both symbols of death. A body without a soul is a corpse, a soul without a body is a ghost—yet such is their image of man's nature."

During his trial for the illegal sale of Rearden Metal to Ken Danagger, Hank finally pinpoints the purpose of guilt in the judicial system, which needs his cooperation to victimize him. Once he refuses to cooperate, the society is powerless and cannot harm him.

Morals and Morality
According to Rand, the question of what is moral when the individual functions in a corrupt system is problematic. This is illustrated in the ideological conflict between Dagny Taggart and John Galt, who appear to be on the same side according to their beliefs and emerging love for each other, although they oppose each other throughout the novel. The battle between these two characters is parallel to the larger struggle of Galt's revolution against the parasitic world; however, the communist principles described in Atlas Shrugged are ideologically contrary to those espoused by Galt and Dagny. These two kinds of conflict illustrate Rand's understanding of morality, as determined by social and individual standards.

Atlas Shrugged praises capitalist work ethics as inherently moral, since (as Rand's protagonists often point out) the capitalist workers gain profit that is proportionate to their labor, skill, and merit. On the other hand, Rand criticizes communism as a corrupt system, which gives undeserved chances to the unworthy workers on the basis of human equality and compassion for those in need. In the communist system Rand depicts, the damage to the economy caused by the needy's lack of skill and responsibility must be ameliorated from another source: the productive, successful businesses that function according to capitalist standards. The society uses the capitalists' own guilt as a tool of control; at the same time, the legislature implements a number of laws and directives compelling them to participate in the system. Rand also argues that the legislative apparatus allows for many loopholes, used by incompetent businesspeople to eliminate competition and to profit from the work of economic "Atlases" who keep supporting the parasitic society. This is the center of hypocrisy in Atlas Shrugged: while pretending that the existing social order is concerned with the benefit of the entire population, the administrative ruling class lets the community sink into decay while the looters are getting rich.

Dagny and Galt oppose the described social establishment; they both believe in the morality of capitalism. Dagny remains in the existing system and struggles to prevent its collapse, out of concern for the people and businesses who would be hurt. Galt, however, abandons the country in decay and embarks upon its complete destruction so that the new world can be born. Although both Dagny and Galt operate according to capitalist principles, the effects are different: because Taggart Transcontinental is trapped in the corrupt civilization, all of Dagny's efforts ultimately only serve the social looters she is trying to fight. Galt's work, on the other hand, exists in his Utopian world and is untouched by the problems of society. Although both characters are portrayed as moral according to their work ethics, they will consider each other's activities harmful until they agree on the necessary death of one world for the benefit of the other.

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