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Atlas Shrugged | Study Guide

Ayn Rand

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Atlas Shrugged | Part 1: Non-Contradiction | Summary

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Summary

As Eddie Willers walks through the streets of New York City on September 2 of an undisclosed year, a homeless person asks him, "Who is John Galt?" Willers works for James and Dagny Taggart, siblings who run Taggart Transcontinental Railroad; he is Dagny's devoted personal assistant.

Willers tells James Taggart, the company president, there's been another wreck on their Rio Norte Line due to worn-out rails. The line is in Colorado, where an industrial boom is taking place. Taggart blames Orren Boyle's Associated Steel for its delay in filling their rail order. Taggart says he will fix the Rio Norte Line when his pet project, the San Sebastian Line that runs to mines in Mexico, becomes profitable.

Riding on a train, Dagny hears a brakeman whistling music that sounds like a Fifth Richard Halley concerto. Dagny is puzzled because Halley, her favorite musician, vanished after writing only four concertos.

Dagny tells her brother, James, she ordered rails from Rearden Steel; the rails are made of Rearden Metal, an untested alloy invented by Hank Rearden that is stronger than steel. Her brother feels she has overstepped her authority. The order stands, as James Taggart is unwilling to either cancel or approve it.

Dagny meets with Owen Kellogg, a promising young engineer, intending to promote him. He refuses the promotion and resigns, offering as his explanation the question, "Who is John Galt?"

Analysis

Aristotle's law of noncontradiction states it is impossible for an entity to both be and not be, and it is impossible for contradictory assertions to be true at the same time. In the first section of Atlas Shrugged, the characters find themselves enmeshed in seeming contradictions—illusions that create confusion and contribute to society's decline, while purportedly working for its benefit.

There are two types of characters in the novel: those, like Dagny Taggart, who use reason and take responsibility and those, like James Taggart, who are emotional and avoid making decisions or taking responsibility. Although less senior than James, Dagny's decisions keep the railroad functioning.

James disapproves of Rearden Metal rails for three reasons. Dagny's competence threatens him, and he seeks to undermine her; the order means snubbing James's crony, Orren Boyle, despite Boyle's inability to deliver rails on time; and James fears a public backlash for using an untested alloy in Taggart's lines.

American industry is troubled, but Colorado is a bright spot. Dagny understands the immediate necessity of providing reliable rail service there to capture the burgeoning market. Industry and business will soon be facing a severe lack of competent manpower. Dagny cannot understand Owen Kellogg's sudden resignation. Similarly, nobody seems to know that Richard Halley vanished. This mystery is compounded when Dagny hears the brakeman's whistle, which suggests Halley is alive somewhere and continuing to write new music.

The question, "Who is John Galt?" recurs frequently in the novel, and it is key to the text's central mysteries. In this chapter a rail worker explains the question means, "Don't ask questions nobody can answer." Its many meanings are slowly revealed to both Dagny and the reader throughout the text.

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