Atlas Shrugged is the story of a world which exists in black and white; things are either right or wrong, corrupt or pure, stolen or earned, etc. While it’s true our world is seldom constructed in such a way there are plenty of real life parallels which a reader can grasp should they feel inclined. This work is very controversial as it was Rand’s nod to Capitalism, to “Objectivism” (her philosophy) and all done in the Romantic style. Now, sometimes artists take from real life, their observations and experiences, and use them in their art to make a statement- it is in that vein we must look at this 1,000+ page novel.
Our heroes are men (and one woman) of industry whom are trying to keep their businesses working, surviving and even flourishing by using only their minds and abilities; not their connections within the country’s capital. For reliance upon favorable legislation that narrows the competition- that behavior is completely up to those readily portrayed as villains.
At the beginning of this book we constantly hear, both from our protagonist Dagny Taggart and others around her, that “something is wrong”. No one can quite put a finger on what “it” is but they can sense it as a vaguely perceptible presence that seems to eek out at every turn. The beginning, like so many pieces of classic literature, demonstrates both the unease of the people in this world and the descriptive style of Rand:
“Who is John Galt?”
The light was ebbing, and Eddie Willers could not distinguish the bum’s face. The bum had said it simply, without expression. But from the sunset far at the end of the street, yellow glints caught his eyes, and the eyes looked straight at Eddie Willers, mocking and still-as if the question had been addressed to the causeless uneasiness within him.
First, in my opinion, it is one of the strongest openings I’ve read in a long time- certainly not one I’ve ever found an equal to within pop fiction; secondly that question “Who is John Galt?” is asked throughout this novel and, when it is answered, gives great satisfaction. (I will not be answering this question here as it goes to content of which I would consider to be a spoiler.)
Eddie Willers, the man mentioned in the opening paragraph, is assistant to the VP of Taggart Transcontinental, Dagny Taggart. Despite being the brains behind the operation this woman, this inferior sexed sibling, can not rise any higher than VP specifically due to her gender and, later, we can suppose due to her blatant refusal to play “the Washington game”. It is her brains that enable the railroad to succeed even after legislation that was supposed to help her company (the “Anti-Dog-Eat-Dog Rule”) wind up almost dragging it under.
It is this seeming contradiction that creates the apocalyptic world Rand sees and writes about. Legislation meant to help certain companies, as well as increase the government’s power and controls over private industry, leads to a crippling of production and innovation. Heads of industry who aren’t protected in Washington are castigated in the media, made into social pariahs and completely vilified due to their supposed unchecked greed. (Rand is very clear that this only applies to those that are opposing the legislation- those with lobbyists in their employ are not dealt such a blow in the media)
It isn’t just the “Anti-Dog-Eat-Dog” law that does this, but other bits of regulation that come to light when these individuals in industry start to disappear. There is never a note or even a phone call just the simple and unbearable sign of yet another empty office. As things escalate, more and more people disappear- not just those involved in industry, but people who knew and took pride in their work. Trains become abandoned on the tracks, the engineers just walking away with people left aboard, planes begin crashing as skilled mechanics can no longer be found. The world seems to have been turned on its head with only those individuals left that simply wish to follow orders and not take direction or responsibility unto themselves. It is a world of plausible-deniability which is fed and fueled by the politics and the seemingly never ending legislation which gets passed.
The number of people disappearing has people frightened and demanding officials to do “something” and so “Directive 10-289” is born. This directive makes it illegal for anyone to quit or be fired; to make all patents property of the government; to force everyone to continue spending the same as they did the year previously; no company can contract their production nor expand; universal price controls are implemented. It is this piece of legislation which ultimately leads our heroine, Dagny, to quit her beloved railroad and leave her rather less business savvy, more politically inclined brother in charge.
She does not disappear as the others do but instead takes herself into her brother’s office and rather unceremoniously leaves him with the mess his friends in Washington have created and continues on to a family home away from the city. As she contemplates what she shall do with herself she is approached by her former lover, Francisco D’Anconia, bent on congratulating her for finally getting out of the world of “looters” and “moochers”. Instead of following him, seeking solace in removing herself from a world that only takes and demands, she hears of an accident of epic proportions on the railroad and pulls herself out of hiding and back into the trenches of industry.
Rand asks a lot of us readers at this juncture- particularly to question what entails guilt or innocence while explaining her own thoughts on the matter. It is, perhaps, one of the most emotionally difficult sections of the book to get through as she draws us in and demands that we see the guilt in those we would rather have looked upon with pity- her unflinching eye recounts the seemingly innocent actions of individuals on that train that led to such a state of the country. A state in which people who know nothing of business, but everything about politics, are the ones running all of it. Those that don’t say “no”, even when they know it will be disastrous, are there to see it through; while those that do say “no” are left to simply wander off to join the rest that have gone into obscurity.
My big beef with this book is not her open derision for those that feel entitlement for something they didn’t earn (and what others did) but with her blatant ignoring of psychology. This issue leads one to have difficulty relating to the characters and their experiences in a manner of which can hinder one’s experience of the overarching story. Essentially it is hard to perceive of the good actions of our characters when they are so entirely in their heads. Now, that is part of who Rand was and what she was encouraging, but it is difficult to see how Dagny handles a homeless man on her railroad as amazing without the mention of pity we have so thoroughly pre-programmed within us; the scene is articulate and well-written, even though incredibly cerebral, and it imparts upon us a good reason beyond pity to be moved to do something helpful for someone else. All that aside the only character which had human depth was Hank Rearden. All his relationships- his marriage, the one with his mother and brother, the affair he has- show the depth of his issues and give credence to his behaviors and his beliefs.
Seldom do people know themselves so well, apply their philosophy so uniformly, that there is only a rare deviation from it and their actions and this, in my opinion, is what Rand’s Achilles heel was. It made no room for errors without horrific consequences and so lent the feeling of her acting as a vengeful God instead of simply showing us the lives of people. The morality is too stiff to make way for so much that is good in humanity- but as a political piece it gives excellent thought and insight into the mind, life experiences and reactions of a woman that saw the Russian revolution a la the Bolsheviks come to life right before her; a young girl at the age of 12 witnessing the family business being confiscated by the Soviets which resulted in her family fleeing their St. Petersburg home.
It is most definitely a book to be read, thought about and discussed- not just for the seemless plot that keeps you hooked almost entirely through out its 1100 pages (excepting a horrifically long-winded 60 page monologue by the book’s hero) but for both the flawed and the brilliant ideas she puts forth. Rand’s narrative voice is fierce, strong and reeking of artistic description which makes, while not always an easy read, a moving one.