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Atlas Shrugged | Study Guide

Ayn Rand

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Atlas Shrugged | Symbols


Dollar Sign

The dollar sign is a degraded and reclaimed symbol. It once represented freedom and trade, but it has come to signify greed in the dominant culture. John Galt and his strikers reclaim this symbol and return it to its original meaning.

In Part 2, Chapter 10 Owen Kellogg tells Dagny Taggart the dollar sign, historically derived from the initials of "United States," is a symbol "for achievement, for success, for man's creative ability." He says "precisely for these reasons" the dominant culture of looters and victims uses it to signify "evil," "depravity," and "infamy." Kellogg points out the contradiction here: the "United States is the only country in history that has ever used its own monogram as a symbol of depravity." The sign is, metaphorically, stamped on Hank Rearden's forehead, which society interprets "as a mark of damnation."

John Galt and his strikers, in adopting the dollar sign as their own, resist these meanings and return the sign to its original, positive meaning. Galt tells the nation the dollar sign is "the sign of free trade and free minds" and it has been rescued from its pejorative connotations as the symbol of those who will return to "reclaim" and rebuild the country. Owen Kellogg says, "We, the dollar ... makers ... wear the sign of the dollar on our foreheads ... as our badge of nobility." The strikers rescue the country as well as the dollar sign from the destructiveness of internal contradictions.

When Dagny is ready to free herself, Galt instructs her to "chalk a dollar sign on the pedestal of Nat Taggart's statue," and as the country's leaders plead for Galt's assistance, people continue to vanish, abandoning their homes, factories, and buildings, leaving only "traced in chalk, in paint, in blood ... the sign of the dollar." In this way, the symbol represents a cry for deliverance from an evil world.

The dollar sign is on the cigarettes produced in Galt's Gulch, and a three-foot solid-gold dollar sign stands at the entrance to the valley. In the novel's closing scene, after the final collapse of society, Galt stands on a mountaintop and blesses the world by making the dollar sign. For Rand, the dollar sign signifies virtue rather than evil, and she uses it to promote the idea that self-interest and profit-making must be recognized as virtues if society is to thrive.

Wyatt's Torch

Wyatt's Torch symbolizes the industrialists' power and ability, which cannot be destroyed by the government's impotence and incompetence. It also represents the industrialists' willingness to sacrifice the means of production to keep the looters from profiting.

When Wesley Mouch imposes a tax on Colorado to fund the enforcement of restrictions on industry, oil prodigy Ellis Wyatt vanishes in disgust. The government is cannibalizing his business, so he merely completes the process by setting his oil fields on fire. The sign he leaves reads, "I am leaving it as I found it. Take over. It's yours." It is a sacrifice by fire of what Wyatt loved most, but he has reclaimed his power by reclaiming his mind from those who seek to exploit him. The resulting flame, known as Wyatt's Torch, twists and burns for the rest of the novel.

The fields were useless before Wyatt developed his innovative oil-extraction procedure. They are useless once again without him, but not quietly useless as before; now they burn as a perpetual affront to a government that is both useless and destructive. The flame mocks the government's helplessness. The government does seize the fields and initiates the "Wyatt Reclamation Project" to extract the oil themselves, but the flame prohibits any extraction, and after months of trying, Dr. Ferris admits, they are unable to put it out. They are as impotent to quench the flames as they are to extract the oil as they are to run the country.

Prior to entering the Taggart Tunnel and dying, the last earthly sight the Comet's passengers see is Wyatt's Torch, but they don't know what it is and don't care to investigate. Ayn Rand points out all the passengers subscribe to the morality of looting—the philosophy of taking from others. She implies their failure to investigate the magnificent flame is the same as their failure to examine their morality or to see the state of the country before them and, in this way, they bear some responsibility for their own deaths.

Wyatt's Torch remains as the last evidence of the metaphorical fire of the great minds that drove society; it continues to burn in the empty wasteland after society's collapse. As Galt's strikers prepare to return and rebuild the country in the book's final scene, in the distance is "the defiantly stubborn flame ... being torn and regaining its hold, not to be uprooted or extinguished." Here, Wyatt's Torch symbolizes the men of thought, action, and progress. Like the flame, they have been torn and are about to regain their hold. No destruction can extinguish their minds' flame.

"Who Is John Galt?"

The literal meaning of the question, "Who is John Galt?" is at first a mystery to the reader and to many of the characters who ask it. The question has many meanings in addition to its literal answer, and it embodies the narrative's central mystery.

Dagny Taggart hates the question, calling it "gutter language" and an "empty piece of slang." She doesn't like what people "seem to mean when they say it." People use the phrase in place of "What's the point?" or "Who knows why?" They use it to express a sense of powerlessness, and the question is a placeholder that puts an end to further rational inquiry.

Dagny decides to reclaim the phrase by renaming her Rio Norte Line the John Galt Line. People use the phrase to signify "fear ... despair ... futility" and "the unattainable," so she inverts the meaning. Her John Galt Line, which uses Rearden Metal for the first time, is made not of fear, despair, and futility, but of reason, conviction, and goal-oriented action. Without realizing it, by inverting the meaning of the phrase used by a downtrodden and despondent public, Dagny has hit on its real meaning, which is positive rather than negative. Just as the John Galt Line saves Taggart Transcontinental for the time being and gives Dagny a purpose, so does the real John Galt turn out to be the world's savior.

People explain the phrase in many ways. In Part 1, a woman at a party says John Galt is the man who found Atlantis, the paradise under the sea, but he perished after he sank his ship to reach it. In the following chapter, a man at a diner says John Galt is the man who found the fountain of youth on top of a mountain; he never returned because he couldn't bring it with him. Francisco d'Anconia later says Galt is "Prometheus who changed his mind" and broke free of the chains binding him into suffering as punishment for his virtue. Francisco says all these stories are true. He knows all along who the real John Galt is, but because Dagny isn't ready to hear the full truth, he encourages her to understand the question in its mythical sense.

Rearden Metal Bracelet

The Rearden Metal bracelet, which Hank Rearden gives to his wife, Lillian, symbolizes Lillian's disdain for her husband, his moral code, his achievements, and Dagny Taggart's respect for him. For Hank Rearden himself, it symbolizes his achievements. It is his invention; therefore, it is his mind-made material. It symbolizes bondage: Lillian's dependence on her husband; Dagny's willing sexual bondage to Rearden; and Rearden's bondage to his work, which compels him to suffer longer than he should.

The bracelet also functions as a symbol separate from Lillian, Dagny, and Hank. The bracelet's Rearden Metal is worth only a few cents; its true worth is in what it symbolizes, which is the new material's ability to revolutionize industry. In contrast, a diamond bracelet is worth a lot of money, yet all the diamonds in the world do not have the potential to affect mankind as positively as Rearden Metal.

After spending 10 years of his life pouring his heart, mind, and body into perfecting a product that is substantially better than steel, Rearden uses it to make a bracelet for his wife. When he presents it to her, she ridicules it with sarcasm: "It's perfectly wonderful! What originality! I shall be the sensation of New York." Lillian calls the bracelet "the chain by which [Hank] holds us all in bondage," claiming Rearden supports his family to satisfy his own ego. She is wrong; pity, not egoistic satisfaction, keeps Rearden chained to his family; he is the one in bondage, not they.

Later, while wearing the bracelet at the Reardens' party, Lillian calls it "hideous" and says "it's supposed to be priceless. Of course, I'd exchange it for a common diamond bracelet any time." Dagny Taggart overhears her and decides to do just that. Lillian thinks Dagny is joking when she offers her own diamond bracelet. Dagny has challenged Lillian's morality; she says, "If you are not the coward that I think you are, you will exchange it." Lillian makes the exchange, revealing her own morality: she will exchange a bracelet whose value is symbolic to save face and acquire unearned wealth she does not need. Whereas on Lillian's arm the Rearden Metal bracelet looked "like an ugly piece of dime-store jewelry," as soon as Dagny puts it on, she feels a "touch of feminine vanity ... the desire to be seen wearing this particular ornament." The bracelet suits Dagny because it is an expression of her values: she values utility and innovation. Lillian rejects the bracelet, which does not suit her, because she rejects the values behind the bracelet: she is interested in appearances and in power, symbolized by the diamonds she wears.

Rearden, in a show of loyalty to his wife, clasps the diamond bracelet around her wrist and kisses her hand. He coldly tells Dagny the exchange "was not necessary." Later, when he and Dagny become lovers, he says he wants her to wear the bracelet despite its potential to reveal their secret affair. In a moment that recalls his earlier gesture with Lillian, he clasps it onto her wrist—but she bends down to kiss his hand, not the other way around. She is willingly submitting to "the most feminine of all aspects: the look of being chained." Rearden's changing attitude toward the bracelet reflects his increasing acceptance of his romantic and sexual feelings toward Dagny, and his increasing rejection of Lillian.

Later, at James Taggart's wedding, Lillian says the joke has gone too far and demands Dagny return the bracelet. She thinks Dagny is wearing it as a joke to offend her; Dagny says she is not and wears it always. Lillian calls it "enormously improper" and says she is taking "a dangerous and ugly risk" with both her and Rearden's reputation. This time Rearden takes Dagny's side, ordering Lillian to apologize for her insinuation. When Lillian finally confronts Rearden and he admits Dagny is his mistress, she remembers the bracelet, saying, "That's what she meant to you. That's the weapon she gave you."


Ayn Rand—an advocate of the monetary system the gold standard—uses gold as a symbol of real value, wealth, and property rights. The use of gold by those on strike symbolizes their status as traders; it confers the power of resistance to the looters. Gold is moral, while paper money is immoral because it is subject to manipulation by the government and devaluation.

Francisco d'Anconia says gold is "an objective value, an equivalent of wealth produced," while in contrast, paper money is "a mortgage on" nonexistent "wealth ... backed by a gun aimed at those who are expected to produce it." Ragnar Danneskjöld also describes gold as an objective value, "the means of preserving one's wealth and one's future. Nobody is permitted to have gold" in socialist Europe, except those who wield power over the others. In his speech John Galt describes a common swindle: the myth that "it is possible to grow rich by consuming without producing and that paper money is as valuable as gold."

The residents of Galt's Gulch mint their own gold coins; without this gold, Dagny is penniless as a beggar, despite all her paper money. Danneskjöld gives Rearden a bar of gold as a token of justice for the unjust loss of Rearden Metal. When Rearden's accounts are later frozen, he feels secure knowing he has the bar of gold. A three-foot solid-gold dollar sign greets those who arrive at Galt's Gulch.

Both Danneskjöld and Galt have golden hair. As Dagny flies to pursue the destroyer, the towns' lights beneath her appear "like a handful of gold coins flung upon the prairie." The banker Midas Mulligan, the world's richest man, who establishes the community at Galt's Gulch after vanishing, is like King Midas of Greek mythology: "Everything he touched turned into gold." Gold signifies real value, whether it be material, financial, or spiritual.

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