Atlas Shrugged | Study Guide

Ayn Rand

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Atlas Shrugged | Plot Summary

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Part 1: Non-Contradiction

Atlas Shrugged is set in a fictional era sometime after the Industrial Revolution, when most of the world has become socialist People's States and the United States is the last remaining capitalist society. Railroads are the lifeblood of the country. Taggart Transcontinental, a mighty railroad founded generations ago by Nathaniel Taggart, is headquartered in New York City. Its president, James Taggart, is a miserable, insecure man constantly trading favors with his cronies in business and government. The genius keeping the railroad running is James's rational, responsible, confident sister, Dagny Taggart, the Vice-President in Charge of Operation.

The story opens on September 2; a giant calendar attached to a skyscraper marks the date. Taggart Transcontinental's lines need repair, but industry is struggling, and Taggart's suppliers are unable to fill orders for rail fast enough. Meanwhile, an accident on Taggart's Rio Norte Line in Colorado threatens to make shipping customers defect to Taggart Transcontinental's competitors. Unwilling to wait any longer for a rail order from James Taggart's crony Orren Boyle of Associated Steel, Dagny decides to flout James's authority and order rail from Rearden Steel, a reliable company. The rails will be made of Rearden Metal, a superstrong but untested alloy developed by the genius inventor and industrialist Hank Rearden.

Early in the story various characters utter the phrase "Who is John Galt?" It has become a common expression, though no one knows how this happened. No one knows precisely what it means, either, but it seems to signify despair, futility, and the unattainable. When Dagny tries to promote Owen Kellogg, a skilled young Taggart engineer, he quits without explanation, offering only that phrase: "Who is John Galt?"

James Taggart's pet project is the San Sebastian Line, built to service the San Sebastian Mines in the People's State of Mexico. Taggart has invested in these mines, which are owned by notorious hedonist Francisco d'Anconia, the intelligent and wealthy heir of the d'Anconia Copper company. That fall, Mexico nationalizes both the San Sebastian Mines and Taggart's San Sebastian Line. Both Mexican and American investors such as Taggart are outraged to discover the mines are worthless. Meanwhile, Taggart uses his influence to pass an Anti-dog-eat-dog Rule, limiting competition in Colorado by allowing only the rail company with historical priority—Taggart Transcontinental—to operate. The novel presents this as the first in a series of increasingly intrusive government regulations to control industry. These regulations, often the result of favors traded between Washington and powerful businessmen, hobble business and innovation while benefiting the government and its cronies—aka the looters.

Dagny Taggart, who grew up as Francisco d'Anconia's best friend and later became his lover, hasn't seen him since he adopted a playboy lifestyle 12 years ago, and she's disgusted and confused by his transformation. After the San Sebastian Mines are nationalized, she confronts Francisco, demanding to know why he swindled Taggart Transcontinental by having it invest in his worthless mines. He tells her his goal was not profit, but loss; he has lost some money, but Taggart Transcontinental and his other American investors have lost much more.

Hank Rearden and his wife, Lillian, have a loveless marriage; she criticizes his dedication to his work and harbors a secret desire to destroy his power. He gives her a bracelet of Rearden Metal, which she wears to their anniversary party in December. When Dagny overhears Lillian ridiculing the bracelet, saying she'd gladly exchange it for diamonds, she confronts Lillian and holds her to her word by offering to trade her own diamond bracelet for the Rearden Metal bracelet. Lillian makes the trade; Dagny is pleased with her new bracelet. Rearden takes his wife's side, telling Dagny her actions were unnecessary.

Rearden Metal threatens the steel industry, which fears being put out of business by a superior product. The government runs a smear campaign to make the public believe the Metal is a safety hazard. To protect Taggart Transcontinental from negative publicity, Dagny takes a leave of absence to finish repairs on the Rio Norte Line with Rearden Metal rails. She renames the line the John Galt Line, mocking the phrase "Who is John Galt?" She is sick of people's pleas for Galt, and she wants to fight him—whoever he is; she dares him to come and take her line. After the John Galt Line's successful inaugural run, Rearden is overwhelmed with orders for his Metal, and the press hails James Taggart as the hero of Taggart Transcontinental—even though it was Dagny's idea to use Rearden Metal and her brother opposed it. Rearden and Dagny, recognizing each other as kindred spirits, become lovers. They keep the affair a secret because Rearden is married.

During a road trip, Dagny and Rearden visit the abandoned Twentieth Century Motor Company factory, looking for salvageable machinery. In the wreckage Dagny finds part of a motor, and she realizes it is designed to create energy from atmospheric static electricity. Dagny vows to find its inventor and make sure the motor is completed and used for mankind's benefit. Her hunt for information leads her to a diner in Wyoming, where she is shocked to find the great philosopher Hugh Akston working as a cook. He tells her not to look for the motor's inventor because she won't find him; instead, he will find her.

Wesley Mouch, the government's Assistant Coordinator for the Economic Planning and National Resources, issues a set of directives strictly regulating industry and imposing a tax in Colorado, the one place in the floundering national economy where industry is booming. Dagny knows innovative oil baron Ellis Wyatt is going to vanish (as have Owen Kellogg and many other leaders of industry), as the government has issued more and more regulations that hobble industry. These disappearances have led to shortages of crucial raw materials, and the remaining business owners are struggling to run their businesses. Sure enough, Ellis Wyatt sets his oil fields on fire and disappears.

Part Two: Either-Or

The following spring Dagny hires Quentin Daniels, a young physicist working as a janitor, to work on the motor she found. Daniels was recommended by Dr. Robert Stadler, a theoretical physicist at the State Science Institute. Stadler tells Dagny he used to know a man named John Galt; he assumes Galt is dead, because otherwise, the whole world would be talking about him. Dagny says the whole world is talking about him; much to her annoyance, everyone keeps using the phrase "Who is John Galt?" Several people offer different explanations for its meaning: Galt is the man who found the sunken paradise Atlantis; Galt discovered the fountain of youth; Galt is Prometheus, who broke his chains and took back his fire. Francisco d'Anconia tells Dagny all these stories are true.

The State Science Institute places a large order for Rearden Metal for use in their top-secret Project X. When Rearden refuses to fill the order, the Institute threatens to defame the Metal and make him regret his refusal. As more and more prominent industrialists vanish, Dagny becomes convinced a "destroyer" is behind their disappearances; this person seeks to ruin the country by stealing its best, most productive minds. She vows to find and kill this destroyer.

At James Taggart's wedding to Cherryl, a young, lower-class woman, Francisco appears and sends the guests into a panic by saying d'Anconia Copper's stock—which Taggart secretly bought in large quantity—is about to crash. The crash happens the following day.

Lillian Rearden realizes her husband is having an affair but refuses to let him out of the marriage. Meanwhile, Hank Rearden and coal baron Ken Danagger are indicted for conducting a secret business deal that defies quotas set by the government. Fearing Danagger will vanish next, Dagny tries to stop him, but she is too late. The destroyer gets to him first, and Danagger happily announces his plan to retire. Later, during a liquid metal leak at Rearden's mills, Rearden saves Francisco's life by pulling him away from the resulting fire as they work to stop the accident.

At his trial Rearden refuses to give a defense, telling the court he doesn't recognize its authority and saying it may dictate his actions only by using force against him. The charges are dismissed, and Rearden wins the public's approval despite the government's smear campaign against him. Later, when a shipment of d'Anconia copper Rearden ordered is sunk by the pirate Ragnar Danneskjöld, Rearden thinks Francisco has betrayed him; Francisco seems to have had foreknowledge of the attack.

Society continues to crumble as industrialists and the products required for industry grow ever scarcer. Consumer goods are scarce, too; the government imposes rationing and preaches self-sacrifice to the public. Taggart Transcontinental's Board of Directors decides to close the John Galt Line and plunder its rail to fix the company's main line.

Lillian Rearden discovers Dagny is her husband's mistress; she tips off the bureaucrats to the affair because it will allow them to manipulate her husband. The government declares a national state of emergency and passes Directive Number 10-289, giving the government total, socialist-style control over individuals and businesses. Dagny is disgusted; she takes a leave of absence and goes to a cabin in the mountains. The government blackmails Hank Rearden into signing over the rights to Rearden Metal, threatening to publicly dishonor Dagny by exposing their affair. Rearden seeks a divorce and moves out of the house he shared with his family.

One evening, Rearden encounters the pirate Danneskjöld, who gives him a bar of gold as a token repayment for the loss of Rearden Metal. Rearden disdains Danneskjöld as a criminal who lives by force, attacking cargo ships and sinking their cargo. However, when the police arrive looking for Danneskjöld, Rearden protects him by claiming Danneskjöld is his bodyguard. A petulant politician aboard the Taggart Comet train pressures officials into sending a coal-burning locomotive through the Taggart Tunnel; diesel engines are unavailable, and the officials are unwilling to anger the politician by making him late. All aboard die of asphyxiation, and the tunnel collapses after an explosive-bearing train collides with the Comet. Hearing of the disaster, Dagny returns to her post at Taggart Transcontinental, and she and Rearden agree to continue fighting the system until it destroys them.

Dagny receives a letter from Quentin Daniels, saying he intends to stop accepting pay for work on the motor in the wake of Directive Number 10-289. She hurries to Utah, fearing the destroyer will take Daniels away. On the train ride to Utah, a tramp tells her the story of John Galt, a young engineer who resigned from the Twentieth Century Motor Company after it implemented a communist plan; Galt vowed to "stop the motor of the world." Dagny arrives in Utah just as a plane is departing with Daniels aboard. Dagny follows in her own plane, and when the other plane makes what looks like a suicidal landing in a rocky, inhospitable valley in the Colorado mountains, Dagny does the same. She wonders if the destroyer has led her here to kill her, yet as she plummets toward what seems like certain death, she feels sure she will survive, and she calls out mockingly, "Oh, hell! Who is John Galt?"

Part 3: A Is A

After her crash, Dagny opens her eyes to find John Galt looking at her. She feels intensely aware of the present moment—an unusual occurrence in her high-speed, driven life. Galt says the craggy valley was a mirage; she is in a town called Galt's Gulch. All the vanished industrialists are here, running their own economy according to the principles of free trade, without the government's interference or knowledge. The town is powered by the motor Dagny found in the abandoned factory, which is Galt's invention, and the currency is gold coins minted on site.

It is June, the month when those industrialists who still live in the world come to Galt's Gulch for vacation and fellowship. Dagny lives in Galt's house as his cook and maid; she and Galt start to fall in love, but it is unspoken. She learns about his history. A former employee of the Twentieth Century Motor Company, he became disgusted when the owners implemented communist principles and the United States turned toward socialism. Galt quit his job at the Twentieth Century Motor Company and organized a strike of the "men of the mind" to force the corrupt, immoral society's collapse; only then could it be rebuilt according to principles of individual rights and free trade.

Dagny must make a difficult choice: should she remain in the paradise of Galt's Gulch, or should she return to the world and keep fighting for her railroad? When someone says the Taggart Bridge over the Mississippi may be destroyed, Dagny realizes she must return to the world and keep fighting. Galt flies her out of Galt's Gulch, saying she must not look for him until she is ready to return to the valley.

The State Science Institute demonstrates its Project X, which uses sound waves discovered by Dr. Stadler to destroy the structures of living and nonliving entities. In Dagny's absence a Railroad Unification Plan has gone into effect, sharing track and revenue among all rail companies.

Dagny appears on a national radio show under orders to give a speech endorsing Directive Number 10-289; Lillian Rearden has threatened to expose Dagny's affair with Hank Rearden if Dagny doesn't give the speech. When Dagny uses her airtime to proudly describe her affair with Rearden, she is cut off.

James Taggart is buoyed by his investment in a corporation with a lease to all industrial properties in the Southern Hemisphere, as well as by his insider's knowledge that Chile plans to nationalize d'Anconia Copper. After a year of marriage, his wife, Cherryl, realizes her husband is not the great man she once believed him to be; instead, he is insecure and takes advantage of others. She seeks comfort and counsel from Dagny, who greets her as a sister and tells her to trust her own reason above all else. Meanwhile, Lillian visits James Taggart and asks him to use his influence to stop her divorce; they sleep together. When Cherryl returns to her home, she realizes Taggart is an evil man who will steal from her everything she ever accomplishes. In despair and panic, she commits suicide by jumping off a bridge into a river.

D'Anconia Copper's nationalization stops when simultaneous explosions occur at every d'Anconia property worldwide. The ensuing copper shortage causes a chain reaction of dire consequences, include lost harvests that cause widespread starvation and rioting. When a copper wire breakage makes the Taggart Terminal signals fail, Dagny arranges for men to use lanterns to move the train. She and Galt consummate their love in the dark underground tunnels, and she realizes he's been working as a Taggart track laborer for 12 years. He tells her not to look for him again but to write a dollar sign on Nat Taggart's statue when she's ready for him to take her back to Galt's Gulch.

The government, panicking as the crisis grows worse, attempts to recruit Hank Rearden as an adviser. When he refuses, hired government officials infiltrate his factory and stage a riot. Francisco d'Anconia stops it; he has been secretly working as Rearden's foreman to protect him. Rearden, realizing his mills no longer serve his values, is ready to give up his burden, and Francisco convinces him to come to Galt's Gulch.

Galt commandeers the radio waves and gives a three-hour speech to the nation explaining the industrialists are on strike because they intend to collapse an immoral society and then rebuild it. He outlines the prevailing morality, which he calls the Morality of Death, and compares it to his own morality—shared by the missing industrialists—which he calls the Morality of Life. The government pretends to endorse the speech and asks for Galt's help; the government has no idea how to stop the impending collapse it brought about.

Unable to stay away from her beloved, Dagny goes to Galt's house in New York one night. She doesn't realize she is being followed by government workers, who take Galt into custody. The government tries to force Galt to explain how to fix the country. The only advice he will give is, "Get out of the way."

Dr. Stadler drives out to Project X in Iowa, intending to take it over and rule it as a separate country. He finds the property has already been seized by a group called Friends of the People, led by corrupt bureaucrat Cuffy Meigs. When Stadler warns Meigs not to operate the Project X equipment, Meigs defiantly pulls a lever. This vaporizes everything all the way to the Taggart Bridge, severing the connection between the East and the West.

Galt is hooked up to an electroshock torture machine at the State Science Institute; the government intends to torture him until he explains how to fix the country. When the generator dies and the torture machine goes dead, James Taggart becomes hysterical. He wants to torture Galt further. He realizes he has always hated existence and has always wanted to die.

Dagny, the pirate Danneskjöld, Rearden, and Francisco break into the torture chamber and free Galt. They fly to Galt's Gulch just as the lights of New York City go out. Society's collapse is complete. From the comfort of Galt's Gulch, the industrialists make plans to return and rebuild the world according to the Morality of Life. The novel ends with Galt standing on a mountaintop, tracing a dollar sign in the air, as if to bless the world to which he is about to return.

Atlas Shrugged Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Mexico nationalizes the San Sebastian Line and mines.

Rising Action

2 Dagny trades diamonds for the Rearden Metal bracelet.

3 The John Galt Line opens, running on Rearden Metal rails.

4 Dagny discovers the motor and vows to find its creator.

5 Hank Rearden goes on trial.

6 The John Galt Line closes.

7 Rearden is blackmailed into giving up his Metal.

8 The Taggart Tunnel collapses.

9 Dagny crashes her plane at Galt's Gulch.

10 Rearden disappears after a riot at the mills.


11 John Galt gives his speech to the nation.

Falling Action

12 The government takes John Galt into custody.

13 Taggart Bridge is destroyed; Galt is tortured.

14 Galt is rescued, and society finally collapses.


15 The industrialists plan to return and rebuild.

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