One day in the 1940’s, a young reporter asked Ayn Rand about the new novel he heard that she was planning. She replied: “It will combine metaphysics, morality, economics, politics, and sex – and it will show the tie between metaphysics and economics.”
“I can’t see how you’ll manage it,” the astonished reporter replied. “But I guess you know what you’re doing.”
She certainly did. In the form of a suspenseful, romantic, tightly-woven mystery spanning more than a thousand pages, and following scores of characters across a sweeping panorama of American life, Ayn Rand also dramatized and demonstrated every major aspect of a new moral code.
Literary scholar Kirsti Minsaas points out that Rand “used the simple formula of a detective story to create a highly complex philosophical novel – a novel where ideas are presented as answers to the mysterious events.”
Atlas Shrugged is structured in three major parts, each of which consists of ten chapters. The titles of the parts and chapters suggest multiple layers of meaning. The three parts, for example, are named in honor of Aristotle’s laws of logic; but as Dr. Minsaas observes, Ayn Rand also ties these titles to the major themes and events of the story.
Part One is titled “Non-Contradiction,” and appropriately, that part of the novel confronts the reader with a host of baffling contradictions and paradoxes having no apparent logical solutions.
Part Two, titled “Either-Or,” focuses mainly on Dagny Taggart’s struggle to resolve a dilemma: either to continue her battle to save Taggart Transcontinental, or to give it up.
Part Three is titled “A Is A,” symbolizing what Rand referred to as “the Law of Identity” – and here, in the closing section of the book, the answers to all the mysteries are identified and resolved.
Like a good symphony, Atlas Shrugged ’s many literary riches become obvious only when we pay close attention, and after many exposures. Its opening pages provide a perfect illustration.
As Eddie Willers walks the shabby streets of Manhattan, he thinks of a huge oak tree of his childhood, a symbol to him of eternal strength. “It will always be there,” he thought – until the night the tree was struck by lightning and split in two. The next day, standing before the fallen tree, Eddie was shocked to see that…
The trunk was only an empty shell; its heart had rotted away long ago; there was nothing inside – just a thin gray dust that was being dispersed by the whim of the faintest wind. The living power had gone, and the shape it left had not been able to stand without it.
Moments later, Eddie approaches the reassuring tower of Taggart Transcontinental, his mature symbol of enduring power and strength, and he thinks of the company’s proud slogan…
From Ocean to Ocean, forever – thought Eddie Willers, in the manner of a rededication, as he walked through the spotless halls into the heart of the building, into the office of James Taggart, President of Taggart Transcontinental.
Symbolism is everywhere apparent in Atlas Shrugged , lending unusual emotional force to the ordinary details of scenes and events.
It’s clear that these passages are meant to serve several purposes. It’s perfectly natural that the decaying city around him might remind Eddie of the decayed oak tree of his childhood. The flashback helps us understand his uneasy mood.
But Ayn Rand also intends the description of the tree’s rotted trunk as a metaphor for Taggart Transcontinental. One clue is in her repetition of the word “heart.” Just as the tree’s “heart had rotted away long ago,” so too had “the heart” of the Taggart Building, in the person of its president. For there wasn’t really anything inside James Taggart’s office, either – just a graying, purposeless man who, like the dust inside the tree, was dispersed by the whim of any passing wind. Taggart Transcontinental’s living power had also gone, and what was left couldn’t continue to stand much longer.
Furthermore, the passage also stands as a metaphor for the whole crumbling culture – and the gray, dusty philosophy at its heart. It subtly and symbolically foreshadows the entire plot of the book.
Such symbolism is everywhere apparent in Atlas Shrugged , lending unusual emotional force to the ordinary details of scenes and events. Ayn Rand constantly places otherwise insignificant “concretes” – names, titles of chapters, events, objects of all sorts – into contexts which impress upon them a host of meanings, and create a colorful tapestry of metaphor.
Take the chapter titled “The Top and the Bottom.” It opens in an expensive rooftop restaurant that’s low and dark, like a cellar. Inside, James Taggart and his powerful friends are conspiring to destroy their competitors. The chapter ends in the basement cafeteria of Taggart Transcontinental, a cheery place of space and bright light. Inside, Eddie Willers is chatting with a nameless railroad worker. Only much later in the novel does the reader realize that the anonymous worker is John Galt.
Ayn Rand is presenting a metaphor for the moral inversion of a corrupt society – for what happens in a society that rewards evil and punishes good. The chapter’s title, and the events it depicts, illustrate what scholar Kirsti Minsaas describes as a “recurrent idea in Rand’s novels: that in an irrational society, the best are frequently demoted to the bottom, while the worst are to be found at the top.”
Rand’s subtlety extends to dialogue, too, where double and even triple meanings are often embedded in what seems to be casual conversation. For example, there is delightful irony in many of the early references to John Galt; but since they occur before he appears in the story, most of them won’t be apparent during a first reading.
When Dagny and Rearden discover Galt’s abandoned motor, they ponder the fate of its unknown inventor. Rearden is certain that the man must be dead. If a mind that brilliant were still alive, he tells Dagny, “the whole world would know his name by now.” A few moments later, he adds, wistfully, “There was the motor for the John Galt Line.”
We can imagine the fun Ayn Rand must have had writing such lines.
Then there’s the verbatim repetition, at the end of the story, of a passage that appears near its beginning: the description of the sounds of Halley’s Fifth Piano Concerto.
“It was a symphony of triumph. The notes flowed up, they spoke of rising and they were the rising itself, they were the essence and the form of upward motion, they seemed to embody every human act and thought that had ascent as its motive. It was a sunburst of sound, breaking out of hiding and spreading open…Only a faint echo within the sounds spoke of that from which the music had escaped, but spoke in laughing astonishment at the discovery that there was no ugliness or pain, and there never had had to be. It was the song of an immense deliverance.”
Ayn Rand’s most impressive talent is her power to integrate the novel’s ideas with its plot elements.
That description first introduces us to Dagny Taggart, capturing her idealistic yearnings. But when it’s repeated at the end of the novel, the same description conveys a totally new meaning: not Dagny’s longing for the ideal, but her triumphant achievement of it. Here, it gives us the satisfying feeling of a completed circuit – of an emotional benediction on her odyssey, and our own.
But beyond such literary devices, Ayn Rand ’s most impressive talent is her power to integrate the novel’s ideas with its plot elements.
One of the finest examples is in the passage describing the first run of the John Galt Line. Here, Ayn Rand connects the ironic symbolism of John Galt’s name, the celebration of a great human achievement, the physical sensations of a train speeding across rails built of Rearden Metal, Dagny’s realization about how the human mind gives spiritual meaning to physical matter – and the culmination of the growing romantic attraction between herself and Rearden.
Consider the moment when Dagny enters the engine room of the locomotive. Staring at the engines, she realizes that they are a magnificent embodiment of human rationality. The motors, she thinks, are “a moral code cast in steel.”
When she looks up, she sees Hank Rearden – the steel titan, the engine of the economy, the living embodiment of the rational creativity she worships – and their eyes meet across a space filled with the pounding rhythms of the train’s motors.
To transform ideas of such abstract philosophical complexity into a passage of startling sensuality, is a striking illustration of Rand’s view that there should be no split between mind and body – between ideas and action. She saw human products as physical manifestations of man’s spirituality – of his consciousness in action. And in this remarkable passage, she not only expresses that view philosophically: she illustrates it artistically, as well.
Like her philosophy, Ayn Rand ’s literary method challenges reigning orthodoxies. Bucking Naturalistic conventions, in which novelists try to copy all the mundane details of real life with absolute fidelity, Rand instead selected the details in her stories by reference to a single unifying idea. Here she was simply applying timeless rules of good dramatization.
In his celebrated classic, The Art of Dramatic Writing, literary instructor Lajos Egri points out that in a good story, everything is tightly integrated by some overarching theme or premise. The theme is the point or message that gives meaning to the story and that motivates the characters to act.
In a well-integrated story, no event, character, line of dialogue, or description is tossed in arbitrarily, simply because it sounds clever or interesting. According to Egri, everything must relate to the theme or premise: “In a well-constructed play or story, it is impossible to denote just where premise ends and story or character begins… [E]very line, every move your characters make, must further the premise.”
Good drama is built on conflict. But strong conflict requires extremely willful characters who are pursuing incompatible goals related to the story’s theme. Their conflicts build powerfully throughout the story, until they’re finally resolved in a climax that proves the story’s theme. As Egri puts it: “A weak character cannot carry the burden of protracted conflict… Go through all great dramas and you will find that the characters in them force the issue in question until they are beaten or reach their goal.”
Ayn Rand shared this view of good fiction writing. In Atlas Shrugged , her theme is the importance of reason to human life. So her plot, characters, dialogue, and descriptions all reinforce and advance that theme. Conflicts among and even within the characters are based on that theme, too; and the climax of the story – with mindless brutes desperately trying to force John Galt to think for them – finally demonstrates her theme. It proves not only why reason is important to human life, but why personal freedom is essential to reason.
Rand rejected the literary convention that “depth” and “plausibility” demand characters who are replicas of the kinds of people we meet in everyday life, uttering everyday dialogue and pursuing everyday values. But she also rejected the notion that characters should be symbolic rather than realistic:
My characters are never symbols, they are merely men in sharper focus than the audience can see with unaided sight,” she wrote. “My characters are persons in whom certain human attributes are focused more sharply and consistently than in average human beings.
In other words, Rand stylized her characters. She focused selectively on the traits and motives that made each one distinctive, and eliminated the irrelevant or trivial aspects of their personalities or lives. What determined which traits and motives were essential? Her story’s theme. Rand’s characters are people seen through the filter of a guiding theme.
Take her opening description of Hank Rearden. She wished to portray him as a man of iron will and implacable self-discipline. She conveyed these qualities simply by the details she selected to describe his face while he watched Rearden Metal being poured from a blast furnace:
The glare cut a moment’s wedge across his eyes, which had the color and quality of pale blue ice – then across the black web of the metal column and the ash-blond strands of his hair – then across the belt of his trenchcoat and the pockets where he held his hands. His body was tall and gaunt; he had always been too tall for those around him. His face was cut by prominent cheekbones and by a few sharp lines; they were not the lines of age, he had always had them: this had made him look old at twenty, and young now, at forty-five. Ever since he could remember, he had been told that his face was ugly, because it was unyielding, and cruel, because it was expressionless. It remained expressionless now, as he looked at the metal.
By eliminating accidental and superficial aspects of a character’s personality, we can understand him much more deeply. Random details – such Hank Rearden’s favorite foods, descriptions of the contents of his clothes closet, or flashbacks about his daily routines – would only divert our attention from his essential motives and purposes. Such trivia certainly wouldn’t enhance, flesh out, or deepen our understanding of Rearden. They would only confuse us, making us wonder if these petty details were important to the author – or to Rearden himself. Their inclusion would make the drama diffuse, and blur the point of the story.
Another way to appreciate Rand’s approach is to contrast it with that of other writers. The great Russian writer Dostoyevsky was also a master of dramatizing abstract philosophical and psychological themes. In his novel The Possessed, for example, he creates rich, highly detailed, and fascinating portraits of vicious, nihilistic characters. However, the sheer volume of such detail can be confusing; it suggests complex and competing motives at work in each character, and oftentimes it isn’t easy to single out the most relevant of these.
By contrast, the more stylized portraits of evil characters in Atlas Shrugged don’t offer as much psychological variety as those in The Possessed – or even as much variety as those Rand provides in her earlier masterpiece, The Fountainhead . That book explored many variations on the theme of psychological dependency. But in Atlas Shrugged , what Rand loses in diversity and complexity, she gains in depth and clarity. We get to probe the dominant motives of three major villains – Robert Stadler, Lillian Rearden, and James Taggart – down to their very roots. By the end of the novel, we have a much clearer and deeper insight into the minds of the moral traitor, the empty power-seeker, and the envious nihilist.
We also gain a greater grasp of the relationship between philosophical ideas and psychological states. Dostoyevsky shows us that such a link exists; Rand shows us how.
Probably the most criticized portions of Atlas Shrugged are the lengthy philosophical speeches made by her characters – especially Francisco’s seemingly impromptu talk at a party on the moral meaning of money, and John Galt’s climactic three-hour radio address. But these speeches weren’t tacked onto the story for mere didactic purposes; rather, they’re integrated parts of the plot, intended to propel the story forward.
Francisco’s money speech, for instance, is meant to address Rearden’s moral confusions and to liberate him from guilt. And it works: Francisco’s words help Rearden to defend himself later at his trial; they foreshadow for him the rationale for the strike; and they move Rearden closer to fully grasping what is wrong with the world and to joining the strikers.
John Galt’s long speech is actually the most decisive event in the plot. It moves all the events of the story toward the climax, forcing each character to take a final stand; it brings Dagny to the brink of understanding the nature of her enemies; it ties together all the key ideas previously presented in the story; and most importantly, it leads to Galt’s capture by the fascist gang, which brings the story to its resolution. If he hadn’t made the speech, the villains wouldn’t even have known of his existence. As a result, the destruction of the country would have dragged out more slowly, and – from a literary standpoint – far less dramatically.
It’s easy to see why Atlas Shrugged is almost impossible to categorize. Ayn Rand pushed the traditional boundaries of the novel form. How do you classify a book that offers an 80-page discussion of metaphysics, ethics, and political economy – yet simultaneously contains such plot devices as a deadly ray device right out of science fiction, a philosopher-turned-pirate, a beautiful woman who falls in love with the man she’s sworn to kill, and a finalé in which the hero is put onto a torture machine?
No wonder that Rand affectionately referred to Atlas Shrugged as her “stunt novel.” But her genius is that somehow, she made the stunt work. By any measure, Atlas Shrugged stands as one of the most remarkable and memorable feats of integration in the history of literature.
Adapted from The World of Atlas Shrugged, an audiorecording published in May 2001 by The HighBridge Company. Copyright ©2001 by The Atlas Society. All rights reserved.