Explanatory Note: Scholars, students, and fans of Ayn Rand ’s masterwork, Atlas Shrugged , often find it difficult to grasp the complex details of its plot, and to find temporal reference points for key events and relationships among its many characters. For their benefit, then, I have prepared this timeline of the key events that are depicted, or alluded to, in the novel.
It’s meant to serve as a reference for readers who wish to understand or recall the story line, and it may also help them appreciate the remarkable logical integration of the novel’s plot structure.
Because Ayn Rand sought to give her Atlas Shrugged a sense of timelessness, she did not tie its events to real-world dates. So she set this huge, sprawling tale ambiguously in the “near future.” The main events take place over a four-year period; however, there are also many allusions to “back story” events that transpired before the novel opens, which are often brought to life in flashbacks. However, like all novelists, Rand obviously had to work out a detailed, internally consistent timeline for her plot. If it still exists, her timeline has never been published; but its contours can be gleaned from clues scattered throughout the novel.
In my attempt to reconstruct a chronology of the events of Atlas Shrugged , I have adhered to Rand’s intention to keep the story in a kind of temporal “limbo” world. However, I needed an internal starting point, a date against which to place all the other events.
The most fitting point around which to fix the timeline is the birth year of the story’s major heroes. We are told that John Galt, Francisco d’Anconia, and Ragnar Danneskjold all entered Patrick Henry University at age 16. This means that they were born the same year. I have selected that as “Year Zero.” But when does the story open? We learn in Part I, Chapter 5 that Francisco is 36 years old – and so, the novel begins in “Year 36.”
The timeline of Atlas Shrugged can be gleaned from clues scattered throughout the novel.
From this point, the other characters’ relative ages can be determined. In the same chapter, we are told that Dagny is two years younger than Francisco (hence Galt), or 34 when the novel opens. We are also told, in the first chapter, that her brother Jim is 39, or five years older than Dagny – which corresponds with the fact that Dagny began work at 16, and Jim the same year, at age 21. Hank Rearden is 45 at the start of the tale – thus eleven years Dagny’s senior, and nine years older than Galt, Francisco, and Ragnar. In my chronology, therefore, Rearden was born in year “Minus Nine.” Eddie Willers is introduced at age 32, or two years younger than Dagny, and born in “Year Four.” Philip Rearden is 38 – seven years younger than Hank, two years older than Galt or Francisco.
Rand also provides relative dates and time spans sufficient to let us fill in other points in the chronology. For example, we learn that Rearden was 30 when he purchased his ore mines (“Year 21”). Francisco took over the New York office of d’Anconia Copper at age 21 – i. e., that same year. Rearden was 35 when he launched Rearden Steel, and began work on Rearden Metal about the same time. December 10 of Year 36 is his eighth wedding anniversary – which means that he married Lillian in Year 28, when he was about 37 years old.
When did the strike begin? Dagny meets the tramp on the train on May 31 of Year 39, and he tells her that Galt quit the 20th Century Motor Company in the spring 12 years before – or in the spring of Year 27, when Galt himself was 27. Etc.
By such means, I was able to fill in most of the chronology. However, preparing this timeline was not without difficulties or uncertainties.
For example, it’s impossible to tell with precision what year the State Science Institute was founded – that is, what year Galt quit his post-graduate studies with Robert Stadler. From the incomplete information Rand offers, I’ve guessed that this occurred around Year 24. That means Galt would have been working for about three years at the 20th Century Motor Company before the spring of Year 27, when the socialist plan was implemented and he went on strike.
Occasionally I had to guess approximate dates, based upon such plot clues as weather and dress, or how much time passed between the unknown date and other dates already established. I used such hints to guess that Ellis Wyatt may have set his oil fields ablaze around December of Year 37, though the exact month might have been November or even October.
The most important uncertainty in the chronology concerns the novel’s final events. Rearden Steel closes its doors on January 22 of Year 40. Then an unspecified period of days or weeks passes before Galt is arrested, perhaps in mid-February. Galt is held for an additional two or three weeks before his climactic torture scene and rescue.
When is this, exactly? We read that Dagny rushes from the Wayne-Falkland Hotel into night air “more windless than warm” and holding “the hint of a distant spring,” and Francisco tells her to pack “some warm clothing.” Hours later, at the State Science Institute in New Hampshire, there’s no description of any snow on the ground. All this suggests that these events transpire in late February, or perhaps early March of Year 40.
The final important ambiguity concerns the exact month, even year, that the strikers return to re-inhabit the country during the novel’s closing pages.
In Galt’s Gulch, there is “snow still covering the ground” and the “promise of the coming leaves of spring.” But is this the same year and spring as in the previous scenes, or has an entire year (or more) passed? The words “still covering the ground” seem to imply that we’re in the same year and season, and the activities of the strikers appear to suggest that not much time has passed since their arrival in the valley. Since Galt’s Gulch is high in the Colorado Rockies, that could explain residual snow in March.
So my best guess is that at novel’s end, it’s mid-March of Year 40 – and that only a few weeks have passed since the lights of New York were extinguished.
-9 Hank Rearden born-8
-3 James Taggart born
-2 Philip Rearden born
0 BIRTHS OF JOHN GALT, FRANCISCO D’ANCONIA, RAGNAR DANNESKJOLD1
2 Dagny Taggart born
4 Eddie Willers born
11 Dagny, age 9, decides she’ll run Taggart Transcontinental one day
12 Francisco, 12, takes job at Taggart Transcontinental; Galt, 12, leaves home.
14 Dagny, 12, meets Eddie at railroad tracks; tells him of her future plans
16 Francisco, Galt, and Ragnar, all 16, enroll in Patrick Henry University
18 Dagny, 16, takes job on the railroad as a night station operator
19 Dagny, 17, has debut party; in summer, begins affair with Francisco, 19
20 Galt, Ragnar, and Francisco, all 20, graduate from college. Francisco buys copper foundry
21 Rearden, 30, founds Rearden Ore; Francisco, 21, takes over N. Y. office of d’Anconia Copper
23 Francisco’s father dies, and at 23 he inherits d’Anconia Copper
24 Robert Stadler, 40, endorses the establishment of the State Science Institute; Galt, 24, condemns him and quits his graduate studies in physics
26 Rearden Steel established. Rearden, 35, begins work on Rearden Metal.
27 The 20th Century Motor Co. is taken over by the Starnes heirs.
Spring GALT, 27, QUITS AND LAUNCHES STRIKE. Francisco joins the strike, then Ragnar, then Hugh Akston. Francisco leaves Dagny. Galt goes to work as common laborer at Taggart Transcontinental.
28 Ellis Wyatt launches Wyatt Oil. Richard Halley joins strike.
Dec. 10 Rearden marries Lillian.
30 Twentieth Century Motor Company closes its doors.
31 Midas Mulligan quits and vanishes. James Taggart takes over Taggart Transcontinental. d’Anconia Copper begins mining in Mexico; San Sebastian Line launched.
34 Dagny threatens to quit the railroad, is promoted to Vice President of Operations
36 Sept. 2 THE NOVEL OPENS. Dagny orders Rearden Metal for Colorado track. Owen Kellogg quits. The first heat of Rearden Metal is poured.
Oct. 25 “Anti-Dog-Eat-Dog Rule.” San Sebastian mines prove worthless.
Dec. 10 Reardens’ eighth anniversary party.
37 Winter Equalization of Opportunity Bill passes legislature.
Spring Dwight Sanders quits. Dagny sees stranger’s shadow outside offices of the John Galt Line.
July 22 First run on the John Galt Line. Dagny and Rearden begin their affair.
September Dagny and Rearden discover remnants of Galt’s motor.
Fall Dagny’s fruitless quest to find the motor’s inventor.
December Mouch’s directives. Wyatt sets oil fields ablaze and joins the strike.
38 May Dagny discusses motor with Stadler. Quentin Daniels hired to rebuild it.
Sept. 2 James Taggart’s wedding to Cherryl; Francisco explains the moral meaning of money to Rearden.
Sept. 3 Lillian discovers that Rearden has been unfaithful.
October Floyd Ferris confronts Rearden about Dannager’s illegal coal sales; Rearden and Dannager indicted. Dannager visited by “the destroyer” and joins strike. Francisco tries vainly to recruit Rearden at his mills.
Thanksgiving Rearden resists his family’s moral assaults; next day: wins his trial.
December Rearden visits Francisco, orders copper from d’Anconia Copper; shipment is sunk three days later by Ragnar.
39 Feb. 15 Taggart Board votes to close John Galt line
Mar. 31 Dagny and Rearden go to Colorado to close the John Galt Line
April Lillian discovers Dagny is Rearden’s lover.
May 1 Directive 10-289 announced. Dagny quits, goes to cabin in Berkshires.
May 15 Ferris extorts Rearden’s signature on Rearden Metal Gift Certificates; Orren Boyle’s mills destroyed by Ragnar.
May 26 Taggart Tunnel disaster. Francisco visits Dagny to recruit her, but she rushes back to N. Y. to deal with disaster. Rearden confronts Francisco over Dagny; Dagny gets Quentin Daniels’ letter of resignation; Eddie discovers Dagny-Rearden affair, and reveals it to Galt.
May 31 Dagny chases “the destroyer” by plane, crashes into Galt’s Gulch.
June Dagny in the valley; reconciles with Francisco; falls in love with Galt.
June 29 Dagny leaves Galt’s Gulch, returns to N. Y.
July First public demonstration of Project X.
Sept. 2 Francisco destroys d’Anconia Copper and vanishes.
Oct. 15 Dagny meets Galt in Taggart Transcontinental tunnels, begins affair.
Oct. 31 Rearden’s personal property attached by the government
Nov. 4 Rearden meets with government officials; Rearden Steel attacked by violent gang; Rearden saved by Francisco, recruited to join the strike.
Nov. 22 GALT’S RADIO SPEECH
40 Jan. 22 Rearden Steel closes its doors.
February Galt captured.
Feb.- March Galt refuses to join government; tortured at State Science Institute; then is rescued by his friends. LIGHTS OF NEW YORK GO OUT.
March Galt, in the valley, decides it’s time to return to the world.