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Atlas Shrugged | Study Guide

Ayn Rand

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Atlas Shrugged | Themes


Atlas Shrugged is a story about a quest. Dagny Taggart's search for John Galt is a quest for understanding, for love, and ultimately, for the world's salvation. The quest is presented within the framework of Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism; to achieve success, the questers follow this philosophy's moral code. The story's heroes are those who follow rational self-interest, take action, and assume responsibility; their reward is love and happiness. Rand examines the consequences of following—or not following—this moral code, not just for individuals but also as it relates to two overarching societal narratives: history's progression as a consequence of economic and political systems, and the narrative of salvation.

Rational Self-Interest

John Galt says man's basic responsibility is "looking at the world through the eyes of a living consciousness and performing the crucial act of a rational connection." Rand promotes rational self-interest as beneficial to both individuals and communities. Hank Rearden says he is acting in his rational self-interest by designing a bridge of Rearden Metal for Taggart Transcontinental. When Dagny Taggart says she is grateful Rearden is saving Taggart Transcontinental, he responds, "Don't you know that I want to have a bridge of Rearden Metal to show the country?" The by-product of Hank's rational self-interest is a bridge that benefits Rearden's company as well as Taggart Transcontinental, although helping Taggart Transcontinental is not his aim. Similarly, when Owen Kellogg helps Dagny deal with the frozen train, he does it because "if the train can be started, none will profit more than I." Kellogg helps only because he is anxious to get to his own destination. However, all the train's passengers benefit when Kellogg's actions allow the journey to resume.

Rational self-interest is also the proper foundation for personal and romantic relationships, and per Rand's Objectivist philosophy, a relationship that does not satisfy the self-interest of both parties involved damages both. Hank Rearden realizes his marriage is a "vicious fraud." Guilt, a sense of duty, and pity bind Rearden to his wife, Lillian. She is in the relationship because she wants to destroy her husband's power. Lillian constantly tells Hank their wedding vows obligate him to act in her interest, even when it conflicts with his own. Urging him to attend James Taggart's wedding, Lillian begs, "Can't you go ... not because you want to go, but only because I want it?" Out of guilt, Rearden submits to his wife's request. Because he attends the wedding, Taggart's cronies believe Taggart has "pull," or influence, with Rearden. Lillian's motivation is sinister; she is using Rearden as a pawn in her game, which aims for his destruction by forcing him to act against his own moral code.

Dagny and Rearden's sexual relationship feeds their mutual rational self-interest. Dagny tells Rearden, "The joy you give me is paid for by the joy you get from me." Those who choose sacrifice over rational self-interest are eventually destroyed by their own actions. Eddie Willers exemplifies this. His sense of devotion prevents him from abandoning the broken-down Taggart Comet; because of his emotional loyalty to Dagny and to Taggart Transcontinental, he sacrifices himself to stay by the Comet in the middle of the Arizona desert. Yet his sacrifice makes no difference, because Taggart Transcontinental is already doomed.

In his speech to the nation in Part 3, Chapter 7, Galt claims the United States was built on rational self-interest: "This country—the product of reason—could not survive on the morality of sacrifice." The opposite of rational self-interest is sacrifice, victimization, and altruism. When James Taggart and Dagny discuss James's cooperation with the Washington men who intend to stifle the industrial boom in Colorado, James claims a progressive social policy would give smaller businesses a chance to compete, thus benefiting everyone. Dagny feels powerless and wants to "count on [James's] self-interest" but experiences "the chill of a thought ... that self-interest was not Jim's motive." James Taggart is Dagny's foil; while she practices rational self-interest, James's apparent desire for power and influence overlays his deeper desire for self-destruction. Later, as Galt is being tortured, James realizes his desire to kill Galt is a desire to destroy himself: "He knew ... he ... wanted Galt's destruction at the price of his own destruction to follow, he knew that he had never wanted to survive." This realization turns James into a broken man.

Rational self-interest is the foundation of a moral and happy life. This is conveyed in the oath everyone entering Galt's Gulch must take: the oath-takers swear on their love of life they "will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for [theirs]."

Action and Responsibility

The practice of rational self-interest compels individuals to work toward their goals and take responsibility for their actions. While some of Rand's characters exemplify this, others refuse to make decisions and to take responsibility. When one is certain one's actions are in one's own rational self-interest, it is natural to take responsibility for the outcome of those actions.

From their youth, both Dagny Taggart and Francisco d'Anconia are driven by a love of action; it is their basis for interacting with the world. The narrator describes how young Francisco lives to understand the world by doing: "'Let's find out,' was the motive he gave ... or 'Let's make it.' These were his only forms of enjoyment." Every morning of her life, Dagny experiences "a tightening energy in her body and a hunger for action in her mind," despite whatever difficult challenges lie ahead. As Dagny rides the first run of her John Galt Line, she realizes "purposeful motion" follows thought naturally "down the straight line of a single track to a chosen goal"—like a railroad. She wonders, "Wasn't it evil to wish without moving—or to move without aim?" Purposeful, goal-oriented action creates individual happiness and underlies all of humankind's enduring creations, from the industrial to the artistic. Dagny loves Richard Halley's music because it embodies these values in sound. The notes of Halley's Fifth Concerto, which she first hears in a brakeman's whistle in Part 1, Chapter 1, are "the essence and form of upward motion" and "embody every human act and thought that had ascent as its motive." The listener feels "the joy of an unobstructed effort."

Action brings the joy of fulfilling one's values, even when the action is difficult or dangerous; it reflects loyalty to one's highest self rather than a betrayal of self. In Part 2, Chapter 3, there is a dangerous liquid metal leak at Hank Rearden's mills. As he and Francisco d'Anconia work to stop it, Rearden is returned to "the simple essence of his universe," which consists of "the ... refusal to submit to disaster, the ... drive to fight it, the triumphant feeling of his own ability." He experiences the "exultant feeling of action ... of his body's ... response to his will."

John Galt explains the necessity of action from a philosophical perspective: "The law of causality is the law of identity applied to action." The law of identity is expressed as "A is A." A thing is itself—and it exists. Action follows recognizing A is A, and "the nature of an action is caused and determined by the nature of the entities that act." The desire to escape the law of causality is the fundamental immorality of those in power; its outflow is "their politics, their economics," which have brought the country to its knees. Galt claims "all life is a purposeful struggle, and [the] only choice is the choice of a goal."

Refusing to take action and responsibility leads to disaster, destruction, and death. Just prior to the Taggart Tunnel disaster, Dave Mitchum, the new division superintendent, runs around asking, "What are we going to do?" As the authority, the decision and responsibility are his. He is unwilling to listen to the counsel of those more skilled but less senior than him, who advise the only reasonable course of action is to delay until a diesel engine can be obtained. In his desire to avoid blame, Mitchum forces the burden of action and responsibility onto the shoulders of a young, inexperienced attendant. The result is a stunning, needless loss of life and the tunnel's collapse.

Love and Happiness

Love of life is the root of rational self-interest, and happiness is earned through action. Happiness is "that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values." Achieving happiness is each man's "highest moral purpose." The characters achieve happiness to the extent that their actions follow their own rational self-interest. The love of one human for another is the by-product of two minds recognizing that each acts in accordance with values they both share. Relational love and happiness are earned states.

For Rearden, "happiness was the greatest agent of purification." Dagny knows she is "the motive power of her own happiness" and that "joy is one's fuel." As she purposefully crashes her plane in pursuit of the destroyer, Dagny feels not the terror of approaching death or the despair of regret, but a "consecration ... to her love of life and of the matchless value that was herself."

While it may be absurd for one person to demand another person to make them happy, this is exactly what Lillian Rearden repeatedly does to her husband, invoking their marriage vows: "You swore to serve my happiness. Not yours—mine!" When Rearden asks Lillian what would make her happy, her response is telling: "That is what you ought to tell me ... I don't know. You were to create it." Lillian is asking her husband to do the impossible.

James Taggart is consistently miserable; even when he gets the power, admiration, and approval he seeks, it doesn't make him happy. When he meets his future wife, Cherryl, she asks him how it feels "to be a great man"; he replies he's "never felt less wonderful in [his] life." Later in their relationship, Taggart accuses Cherryl of not loving him. Cherryl says she did love him, for the "courage ... ambition ... ability" she thought he possessed. James is outraged; he wants to be loved for himself, "not for anything I do or have or say or think." He seeks a love that is causeless and unearned, claiming, "Love is its own cause! Love is above causes and reasons! Love is blind." Unable to see a way out of her loveless marriage and the untenable morality it embodies, Cherryl commits suicide.

Economics, Politics, and History

Atlas Shrugged examines the proper relationship of individual to state and the economic and political systems that result from this relationship and drive the course of history. For Ayn Rand, history is determined by the moral codes of individuals and societies. Like Karl Marx, Rand sees history as an outgrowth of conflicts over labor and property, but she proposes unregulated capitalism as the most moral form of organization and the only one that eliminates such conflicts. She is highly critical of socialism and communism, which compel individuals to act against their rational self-interest.

The novel's premise is that for the first time in history, the "men of the mind" go on strike in response to the encroachment of an increasingly socialist government on their individual and property rights. Societal collapse follows. These "men of the mind," who own the means of production and are society's producers and innovators, have been convinced by the dominant morality that it is their responsibility to support the needy and less productive out of a concern for public welfare. Critical to this premise is a denial of property rights. As Bertram Scudder says, "Property rights are a superstition." In his speech, Galt says that "public ownership of the means of production" is really "public ownership of the mind." The men of the mind strike against this premise. They don't want certain conditions to be met or favors granted; as Dagny puts it, they want those who enforce this socialist morality—the government and its cronies—to "give up and get out of the way ... Let those who can, take over."

Rand depicts a world in which the United States is the last capitalist society. Francisco d'Anconia says, "With the world turning into People's States ... this is the only market left on earth." Life under socialism is awful: Hank Rearden believes that in the People's States, men are "held in bondage by ... their desire to live, by ... their energy drained in forced labor." But those in power in the United States are determined to enrich themselves by implementing a socialist economy: the apex of these efforts is Directive Number 10-289, which Dr. Ferris justifies, saying experts agree "a planned economy achieves the maximum of productive efficiency and ... centralization leads to super-industrialization." Fred Kinnan sees through this; he believes it will herald "the anti-industrial revolution"; Francisco d'Anconia calls it a "moratorium on brains." This system is designed to make criminals of people because it asks them to constantly violate their rational self-interest; as Ferris explains to Rearden, "We want [the laws] broken," because the sole power of a government is "to crack down on criminals ... When there aren't enough criminals, one makes them ... and then you cash in on guilt."

In his speech John Galt claims "the only proper purpose of a government is to protect man's rights." Regulations, and the bureaucracies that spring up to enforce regulations, stifle innovation and lead to the erosion of rights. Galt claims the government should consist of a police force, an army, and courts, "to protect your property and contracts ... to settle disputes by rational rules." Property rights arise from the rights "to think, to work, and to keep the results."

Rand paints a grand historical narrative that inverts Marxism. For Rand, socialism is an intermediate and untenable state that proceeds when capitalism becomes corrupted; the next wave of history is a return to pure capitalism, not the communism Marx promoted. The text continually references the United States' founding on the principles of property rights and trade; Nathaniel Taggart, Dagny's heroic ancestor and Taggart Transcontinental's founder, embodies this bygone era. This economic and political paradise has been lost, however, to the creep of socialism, which is the gradual erosion of individual rights by a state that should be protecting those rights but instead seeks to remove them. Socialism has followed capitalism, but by striking, Galt and his men have "foreshortened the usual course of history." For Rand, socialism eventually implodes a society; Galt's strike has hastened this process by removing society's productive elements. Indeed, the country collapses within a few years. After this collapse, the "men of the mind" will return to rebuild the world according to the principles of free trade and small government. The strikers believe their actions are shaping the course of history and bringing about a "Second Renaissance," a second capitalist era where progress and innovation flourish unimpeded.

Salvation, Sin, and Paradise

Atlas Shrugged examines the idea of personal and societal salvation through the lens of Christian metaphor. John Galt is a Christ figure who undertakes the world's salvation. Paradise has been lost to sin and corruption; through his strike, Galt brings about a return to paradise. This paradise is not an extraterrestrial dimension, but a condition that exists on Earth when mankind is guided by correct morality. The novel's salvation narrative differs markedly from the Christian narrative in one respect: personal and societal salvation are achieved not by an individual's self-sacrifice, but rather by an individual's willingness to sacrifice the world to save himself and the world.

John Galt is the Christ of rational self-interest. As soon as the Twentieth Century Motor Company factory's communist plan is presented, he leaves his motor behind without a second thought. He realizes he can save himself by saving the world; to do so he must destroy the morality underlying the communist plan. His is the only face "without pain or fear or guilt." Willers recognizes this and says humanity is "doomed"; he asks, "Who will tell us the truth? Who will save us? Oh, who is John Galt?" Unbeknownst to him, the savior is right before him.

Francisco d'Anconia describes Dagny Taggart's leave of absence from Taggart Transcontinental and her return, saying she's "the first person who almost stepped into heaven and came back to earth." Dagny believes "the only sin on earth was to do things badly." She is willing to sacrifice herself, Christ-like, if it means saving the railroad. But because her premises are incorrect, she is working not for the salvation of the good, but for its destruction. By trying to save the railroad she loves, she is delivering it to the evil looters. Her error is a spiritual one: To Dagny, the railroad is "almost like a living person." It was, Francisco points out, but it is now dead, and she must abandon it "to redeem something much more precious."

As Dagny follows Galt's plane into the mountains, it appears to her like a "small black cross" in the sky. Soon Galt will be identified as the savior by the government, which pleads for him to come save it and tortures him when he refuses. He is strapped to the torture apparatus like Christ on the cross, and his spiritual power allows him to bear the suffering, allowing it to move through him, while not leaving any permanent mark on his psyche. James Taggart is the torturer who wants to kill Galt, but he cannot; his desire to kill the savior results in his own destruction. At the novel's very end, when the world's destruction is complete, Galt stands atop a mountain and blesses the world below—not with the sign of the cross, but with the sign of the dollar.

Galt uses Christian concepts to explain himself to the nation during his speech in Part 3. Christianity claims man's downfall and evil on Earth came about because man, eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, "acquired a mind and became a rational being." In this way, man lost the Garden of Eden—the paradise in which early, prerational man lived in perfect happiness and harmony. He says the idea of this "kingdom of perfection, always behind us," is not part of mankind's distant past but is "in the past of every man." It is in the "radiant state of existence" that is childhood, before the child "learned to submit, to absorb the terror of unreason and to doubt the value of [its] mind." Galt, in the role of savior, says every man can reclaim this paradise, which he is forever seeking without understanding its nature or its root by reclaiming his "rational consciousness." Each individual must make this choice.

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