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Structural Integration in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged

Structural Integration in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged

12 Mins
April 7, 2011

In her writings on art, Ayn Rand put great emphasis on the value of structural unity in an artwork.

Holding that an important purpose of art is “to unify man’s consciousness and offer him a coherent view of reality,” (RM 73) [1] she held up integration—the ordering of an artwork’s component parts into a unified and harmonious whole—as a central aesthetic virtue. [2] Not only did she regard such integration as consistent with man’s need to translate experience into a cognitively coherent form, but she also saw it as a major source of aesthetic pleasure. Thus, when in The Fountainhead Austen Heller asks Howard Roark why he takes such pleasure in watching the construction of the house Roark has designed for him, Roark points out that it springs from one’s awareness of the building’s structure. As Roark explains, “Your own eyes go through a structural process when you look at the house, you can follow each step, you see it rise, you know what made it and why it stands.” [3] (136)

The kind of structural processing Roark here describes can be transferred to the act of appraising a work of literature. Although Rand believed that the pleasure derived from a literary work chiefly lay in its subject matter—in its presentation of exciting events and characters—she also believed that the full enjoyment of a literary work, qua art, was bound up with its success in integrating its diverse elements into an artistically satisfying whole. Thus, to be properly appreciated, a good novel or play or poem requires, in a way parallel to Roark’s house, that we pay special attention to its structural composition.

In the case of a novel, such attention is on the most basic level a question of following the plot. Most critics agree that a plot involves the way the author orders the events of a story into a progressive and logically coherent pattern serving his specific discursive aims. They disagree, however, in regard to what constitutes the ordering principles. In Rand’s view, a plot can be defined as “a purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax.” (RM 82) This is a definition that basically conforms to other attempts to define plot in terms of causality, as opposed to mere temporality or chronology. Yet Rand’s conception of plot is distinctive in that she makes final causation rather than efficient causation the chief ordering principle, emphasizing the forward thrust of the action through a character’s pursuit of a goal or a project. [4] Thus, she rejects deterministic plot types in which the ordering of the events is based exclusively on efficient causation, with the characters functioning as mere passive drifters whose actions are determined by external happenings and circumstances beyond their control. Instead, she argues for a teleological plot type, or one in which the events are governed by the goals set by one or more of the major characters in such a way that they add up to a “sequence in which every major event is connected with, determined by and proceeds from the preceding events of the story.” (RM 82) It is only through the construction of such a plot, Rand believes, that the novelist will be able to hold the reader’s interest, engaging him in the progressive movement of the events towards their final resolution.

Yet, for all her emphasis on the importance of plot, Rand does not consider plot the only structural component of a novel. Although she never makes the point explicit, her writing clearly indicates that she regards a novel’s structure more broadly as the way all its elements—scenes, incidents, characters, descriptions, dialogic passages, etc.—are combined into an artistically satisfying whole. Thus, she insists that “a good novel is an indivisible sum: every scene, sequence and passage of a good novel has to involve, contribute to and advance all three of its major attributes: theme, plot, characterization.” (RM 93) A similar commitment to structural integrity is revealed in her admiring comment on Fritz Lang’s silent-screen classic Siegfried (1924):

It has been said that if one stopped the projection of Siegfried and cut out a film frame at random, it would be as perfected in composition as a great painting. Every action, gesture and movement in this film is calculated to achieve that effect. Every inch of the film is stylized, i.e., condensed to those stark, bare essentials which convey the nature and spirit of the story, of its events, of its locale. (RM 72)


Rand here expresses a view that accords with (and may well derive from) the traditional Romantic emphasis on organic unity in art, or the idea that an artwork should be composed in such a way that no part can be changed or moved around or taken out without damaging the integrity of the whole. [5] For Rand, such organic unity not only constitutes a major criterion for judging the artwork’s aesthetic merit, but she also sees it as essential to an understanding of its meaning. As she lets Howard Roark formulate it:


Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it is made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail. A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its own single theme, and to serve its own single purpose. (FH 24)

The same line of thinking informs Rand’s own novels, which are all carefully structured to convey a unifying theme. Since for Rand a theme is “the summation of a novel’s abstract meaning,” it “defines the novel’s purpose” and hence determines its structural organization. “The theme,” she writes, “sets the writer’s standard of selection, directing the innumerable choices he has to make and serving as the integrator of the novel.” (RM 81) This is a point often ignored in discussions of Rand’s novels. Reading the novels philosophically and not literarily, many commentators tend to base their interpretation on scenes or incidents as isolated units, divorced from their wider narrative context. But not only does this lead to an impoverished appreciation of her novels, qua art, it also leads to a deficient and sometimes flawed understanding of their thematic meaning.

Precisely because Rand was a philosophical novelist, seeking to communicate her ideas through the concrete form of a carefully organized narrative, it is important that we interpret her novels as structured units. Avoiding the pitfall of interpretive context-dropping, we have to be especially alert to the ways in which the separate elements of her stories—whether incidents, speeches, characters, descriptions, or symbols—constitute integral parts of a larger whole, deriving their precise meaning from the way they are related to each other. Only in this way shall we be able fully to grasp the many philosophical shades and nuances of Rand’s literary universe.

In the following pages, I wish to indicate some of the ways in which attention to Rand’s art of structural integration contributes to a heightened appreciation of her novels, both artistically and philosophically. The discussion will first focus on The Fountainhead.


A key to the structural organization of The Fountainhead is the role played by its central hero, Howard Roark. In the figure of Roark, Rand was able for the first time to fulfill her literary goal of projecting an ideal man. In part, this projection serves as an end in itself, as indicated by Rand’s statement in her essay “The Goal of My Writing” that “My purpose, first cause and prime mover is the portrayal of Howard Roark or John Galt or Hank Rearden or Francisco d’Anconia as an end in himself—not as a means to any further end.” (RM 162) As an embodiment of an abstract moral ideal, Roark provides the reader with the uplifting pleasure of contemplating, in concretized form, an image of moral perfection, an image that demonstrates what is possible to man at his best. But Rand’s projection of Roark also functions as the chief vehicle for the presentation of the novel’s theme.

Initially, this theme was formulated as a moral defense of egoism. As Rand writes in her first notes on The Fountainhead: “The first purpose of the book is a defense of egoism in its real meaning, egoism as a new faith. Therefore a new definition of egoism—and its living example.” (JAR 77) [6] This declaration of intent clearly informs the finished work. Yet in the course of her writing, Rand worked out a more precise conception of the theme, namely, as she phrases it in her fiction-writing course: “individualism and collectivism, not in politics, but in man’s soul.” [7] While her earlier narrative works, We the Living and Anthem, deal with the theme of individualism versus collectivism as it manifests itself in society, she now explores the theme as it manifests itself in men’s spiritual lives, moving from the scene of a totalitarian state to the scene of America in the 1920s and ’30s. Roark, however, remains her primary vehicle for the presentation of this more narrowly defined theme. Thus, the structure of The Fountainhead is marked by a close integration between the aim of heroic projection and the aim of thematic projection, the one serving the other.

The thematic centrality of Roark is first of all manifested in his central role in the novel’s plot, in which he serves as the major plot-determining character. To translate her theme of individualism versus collectivism in the human soul into a living plot, Rand pits Roark against society, structuring the events around his struggle to become an architect, fighting a lonely and difficult battle against a culture hostile to his innovative buildings. It is primarily by observing the pattern of this struggle, especially as dramatized in the many incidents where Roark displays his intellectual independence and integrity, that we come to understand the nature of Roark’s egoism and thus the thematic significance of the novel. This, however, is not enough. To fully grasp the moral implications of Roark’s struggle, we also have to attend to the many other structural devices Rand employs in her presentation of Roark, devices that simultaneously serve to highlight the novel’s theme.

One such device is the use of Roark’s figure to frame the story. Ronald Merrill has noted that the novel begins and ends with Howard Roark’s name, seeing this as an indication of his centrality in the novel. [8] But there is more to this figural framing than Roark’s name. Beginning and ending the novel are also two striking descriptive images of Roark. In the opening scene, Roark is seen standing naked on top of a granite cliff. Significantly, the stone of the cliff is described in a way that suggests a dynamic stillness: “The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion.” (15) Furthermore, this dynamic stillness is presented as the product of natural forces: the stone is as yet untouched by man, indicating that it is the raw material of which buildings are made, the kind of buildings Howard Roark one day may create. The cliff, therefore, is there not just to provide a picturesque setting for Roark; it also serves as a symbolic image suggestive of Roark’s position as an architect in the opening of the story. For just as the stone is only potentially a building, Roark is only potentially an architect, facing his future struggle. The deeper implication is that, in fulfilling himself as an architect, he will be the instrumental cause that realizes the stone’s potential to become a building. The following passage, which takes us into Roark’s mind when he looks at the stone, makes this clear:

He looked at the granite. To be cut, he thought, and made into walls. He looked at a tree. To be split and made into rafters. He looked at a streak of rust on the stone and thought of iron ore under the ground. To be melted and to be merged as girders against the sky. These rocks, he thought, are here for me; waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice; waiting to be split, ripped, pounded, reborn; waiting for the shape my hands will give them. (16)

The full significance of this scene, however, will not reach us until the end of the novel, after we have followed Roark’s struggle and his ultimate triumph. Here Rand very fittingly offers a closing image that recalls the opening one, but with a significant change. Having become a full-fledged architect, Roark now stands on top of an almost completed building, the Wynand building, the building Wynand asks him to build as a monument to “that spirit which is yours and could have been mine.” (693)

I think there can be little doubt that Rand’s symbolic use of these framing images is quite deliberate. This becomes evident when we observe that they constitute parts of a larger pattern of repetition—a pattern that is closely related to the novel’s four-part division. Thus, to balance the opening image of Roark on the cliff in Part 1, Rand opens Part 2 with an image of Roark drilling granite in the stone quarry. What does this image suggest to us? As in the opening passage, the setting is once again stone shaped by nature. But instead of getting an inside glimpse of Roark as an aspiring architect, shaping stone into buildings in his mind, we now observe him as a manual laborer, having been demoted by a society that fails to recognize his creative genius. Again, the setting is symbolically significant, serving as a means to underscore Roark’s specific situation at this point in his struggle to become an architect. The next variation of this image occurs in the opening of Part 4, where Roark is placed on top of Monadnock Valley, overlooking the small houses he has built on the ledges underneath. This time, the stone is no longer just raw material but has been shaped into buildings, symbolizing his creative power. The significance of this act of creation, the particular relationship it involves between the shaping force of nature and the shaping force of man, is given to us from the point of view of the boy on the bicycle:

He knew that the ledges had not been touched, that no artifice had altered the unplanned beauty of the graded steps. Yet some power had known how to build on these ledges in such a way that the houses became inevitable, and one could no longer imagine the hills as beautiful without them—as if the centuries and the series of chances that produced these ledges in the struggle of great blind forces had waited for their final expression, had been only a road to a goal—and the goal was these buildings, part of the hills, shaped by the hills, yet ruling them by giving them meaning. (505–6)

It should be clear that in this setting Roark is no longer merely a potential architect but is on his way to becoming a true creator.

The symbolic exploitation of structural patterns here described is characteristic of Rand’s literary technique. Superficially, all these passages may be read merely as separate moments in the plot development, marking different stages in Roark’s struggle, but with no deeper symbolic meaning. This meaning, I believe, can only be perceived once one becomes aware of the logical relationships between them, particularly as manifested through the changing significance of Roark in his particular setting. But once one learns to note such relationships, one will have found a key to unlock layers of meaning in the text that otherwise would have remained hidden and undetected.

To really see the sophistication of Rand’s use of this technique, it is worth observing the way that structural patterns are exploited to delineate Dominique Francon’s pattern of development as well. Dominique’s essential role in the novel is that of a heroine who has made the error of accepting what Rand in her theoretical writing referred to as the “malevolent universe premise” (the view that aspiration towards human greatness and happiness is doomed to defeat in this world), but who in the course of the novel undergoes a process of growth in which she comes to understand the nature of her error and so is able to correct it. [9] In terms of plot complication, this educational process takes the peculiar Randian form of Dominique’s struggling to destroy Roark and herself—and failing, the failure serving as a proof of her mistake and thus as a means to her moral and psychological liberation. But in addition, Rand brings out the nature of Dominique’s moral growth by linking it to the structural symbolism she uses in her depiction of Roark’s development. It is probably not accidental, for example, that Dominique sees Roark for the first time in the opening of Part 2, spotting him from a height above him while he is drilling granite and appears to be only a common laborer. Not only does this physical elevation of Dominique relative to Roark underscore her superior social position, but it also suggests the fact that her sexual attraction takes the form of a desire to be dragged down, a desire for degradation. In tune with Rand’s love of paradox, however, Dominique’s desire is really a sense of challenge, since in actual fact it is Roark who is her superior, confronting her as a moral ultimatum that forces her to come to grips with her mistaken premise. Dominique’s moral growth can therefore be seen as a struggle to rise to Roark’s level, to become his moral equal. Her final triumph in this struggle is rendered in the novel’s closing moments when, in a symbolic act, she rides the outside hoist of the rising Wynand building, leaving the world below to join Roark standing alone on top of the building.

As the above discussion should indicate, Rand’s manner of making the plot in The Fountainhead serve her dual aim of thematic and heroic projection is not merely a question of ordering the events into a logical plot sequence but also of weaving into the plot narrative motifs that occur in a pattern of framing, repetition, and variation. This kind of structural enrichment of the plot is related to the novel’s unfolding in time, that is, its temporal dimension. But Rand also elaborates her plots with structural devices that cut across this temporal dimension, most notably by organizing characters, scenes, and other elements into a pattern of analogy and contrast.

We may here pay special attention to her distribution of characters. One of the great feats of The Fountainhead is that so many of the characters function on several levels at the same time. In accordance with Rand’s emphasis on plot, most characters fill a natural role in the plot development, functioning mainly as agents interacting with Roark, either by helping him or by hindering him in his struggle. But in addition to this plot function, many of them also serve a thematic function by being held up as parallels or contrasts to Roark, illustrating a specific idea or thematic point. This is most evident in Rand’s efforts to bring out the essential features of Roark’s moral character by offering various sets of characters that, in addition to their plot function, also serve as his foils, as figures of contrast that assist our understanding of his peculiar form of egoism. Without such contrasting figures, Rand could not possibly make the reader comprehend, far less accept, her portrayal of Roark as a moral ideal. To understand what he is, to grasp his moral essence, we must observe him not only in isolation but also in context, comparing him with the many others that differ from him. In fact, what we have to do is to employ a process of differentiation and integration, in accordance with Rand’s theory of concept-formation, by observing similarities and differences between Roark and the other characters. [10]

Of special prominence here are the many characters that in various ways represent the spiritual collectivism Rand believed infused American life in her day, especially on the cultural level. It is here interesting to note that Rand originally called her novel “Second-Hand Lives,” a title that reflects her idea that, contrary to Roark’s first-hand independence, most people live their lives as second-handers, renouncing their own egos for the opinions of others. [11] In fact, most of the characters in The Fountainhead (with a few exceptions) represent various forms of second-handedness, being persons without proper selves or egos. But within this larger group of foils there are several subgroups. Notable here is the group of characters we may regard as Roark’s artistic foils, the many architects and artists that in various ways represent a second-hand form of creativity that serves to highlight the special nature of Roark’s creative independence and originality as an architect, showing how he steers clear of both the traditionalist conventionalism of the classicists (like Keating and Francon) and the fake individualism of the modernists (like Gus Webb and Lois Cook).

A more restricted but nevertheless important set of foils to Roark is made up of the four characters that in various ways embrace the malevolent universe premise: Gail Wynand, Dominique Francon, Henry Cameron, and Steven Mallory. Part of the function of these four is simply to serve as negative contrasts to Roark’s benevolent belief that human aspiration is not doomed to destruction but may, in spite of setbacks and opposition, triumph in the end. But in addition they function as foils to one another, providing variations of the same theme by demonstrating the different forms the malevolent universe premise may take. Of particular interest here is the distinction between Wynand and Dominique. While in Wynand the acceptance of the malevolent universe premise has the effect of making him seek power by catering to the tastes of the masses, in Dominique it has the effect of making her renounce her own ambitions and desires in order to forestall inevitable defeat. Both come to recognize their error by witnessing Roark’s struggle and ultimate triumph, but while Wynand is destroyed by it, realizing that he has wasted his life on account of a mistaken belief, Dominique is saved, being enabled to correct her error.

The most important set of foils to Roark’s character, however, is constituted by the three other major male protagonists of the novel: Peter Keating, Gail Wynand (now serving a different function), and Ellsworth Toohey. While on the plot level these three play a central role as agents interacting with Roark, they also play a central role on the thematic level by representing different versions of traditional egoism, or the paradox of “‘selfless’ egoism,” as Rand chose to call it in one of her Journals entries(105). For what these three have in common that differentiates them from Roark is that, despite their apparently selfish concern with their own egos, they all turn out to be second-handers. They are men without egos who, contrary to Roark, seek a sense of self-worth through what comes from other people—Keating through fame and popularity, Wynand and Toohey through different forms of power. It is thus in large part through comparison with these three that we will be fully able to understand, and assent to, Roark as an exemplary model of egoism. The special nature of his egoism, his creative independence and integrity, is made clear to us by being opposed to the phony egoism of the three others.

Of course, Rand’s use of these three characters as foils will be fairly evident to any reasonably perceptive reader. What may be harder to detect is how the deeper meaning of their contrasting role is brought out by means of the novel’s four-part division. At first glance, this division may seem like a rather arbitrary convenience. But to think so is to undervalue Rand’s commitment to a meaningful use of structural composition. If we look a bit closer, we will discover that this division serves a clear purpose.

A good clue is her choice to name each of the four parts after one of the four major male protagonists. Although Roark as the central protagonist dominates the whole story, only the fourth and last part, the part in which he triumphs, is labeled with his name. The first three parts are named after his three foils, the first after Peter Keating, the second after Ellsworth Toohey, and the third after Gail Wynand. Now, why is this so? A closer look reveals that although all three participate in the complete action, each is given special emphasis—both in his interactive and in his contrasting function—in the particular part devoted to him. In this way, Rand invites the reader to observe Roark in close juxtaposition with one of his chief foils at a time. It is impossible in this context to go into a full discussion of the strategic significance of this, but a glance at the organization of the opening three chapters of Part 1, the Keating part, will give an indication. A notable feature here is that the first chapter focuses mainly on Roark, the second on Keating, and the third (which is split in two) on both alternately. Throughout these three chapters, the two aspiring young architects are shown in similar scenes and situations as they leave school to embark on a career in New York. The obvious purpose of this is to control our moral response to Roark by inviting us to note, by way of comparison, the contrast between Roark’s love for and total absorption in his work and Keating’s social orientation. The consistency, and also complexity, of this comparative pattern can be observed in Chapter 3, where the difference between the two is brought out by means of one part that presents Keating on his first day of work for Guy Francon and another part that shows us Roark in his first interview with Henry Cameron. Not only are we here invited to observe the difference between the two directly, in their different manners of approaching their first employers, but we are also invited to observe their difference indirectly, by noting an analogous difference between Francon and Cameron—an observation that again requires a comparison of the contrasting descriptions of the Frink National Bank Building (built by Francon) and the Dana Building (built by Cameron).

Another important aspect of Rand’s shifting emphasis on the three foils can be observed at the ends that conclude the successive parts devoted to them. While all three suffer ultimate defeats in Part 4, in connection with the Cortlandt climax, each is granted a partial, albeit ambiguous, triumph towards the end of his specific part. Thus, at the end of Part 1, Keating’s part, we observe Keating at a banquet, apparently triumphant, celebrating his partnership in the firm now renamed Francon and Keating. But it is a triumph that bears a question mark, raised by the ironic effect of a brief description of Roark inserted just before this scene when he, apparently defeated, departs for Connecticut. Looking back at the skyline of New York behind him, Roark sees them as “bare outlines,” as “empty molds waiting to be filled.” “The city on the edge of the skyline,” we are told, “held a question—and a promise.” (200) Although it is Peter Keating who is being celebrated as the future hope of American architecture, this brief insertion leaves us with a sense that the job of filling the empty molds, of fulfilling the promise held by the skyline, still rests with Roark. Similarly, at the end of Part 2, the Toohey part, we have a concluding scene where, this time, Toohey is the apparent victor, while Roark is the apparent loser. This is the scene at the site of the reconstructed Stoddard Temple where Toohey, needing some kind of reassurance from Roark that he has defeated him, asks him, “Why don’t you tell me what you think of me?” and Roark, refusing to grant him that reassurance, answers, “But I don’t think of you.” (389) Existentially, Toohey, like Keating, has triumphed over Roark, but morally and psychologically we are left with no doubt as to who is the real victor.

If we turn to the end of Part 3, Wynand’s part, we find that Wynand, too, is granted a kind of triumph, but of a different kind than the two others. While Keating and Toohey are allowed to experience a victory that proves hollow and illusory in the long run, Wynand is given what seems a partial vindication for his sins, a vindication that lends his final defeat a tragic stature missing in the two others. To indicate the nature of this vindication, Rand concludes Part 3 with the telling tableau of Dominique when she, in response to Wynand’s declaration of his love for her, removes the cablegram she has kept on her mirror, the cablegram that says: “Fire the bitch.” What vindicates Wynand, we are made to understand, is his capacity for man-worship, his ability to experience, as he tells Dominique “the kind of desire that becomes an ultimatum.”(503) But Wynand’s false premise, his malevolent sense of life and the actions it has led him to take, cannot be redeemed and must in the end cause his defeat. The ultimate triumph in The Fountainhead, both existentially and morally, is reserved for Howard Roark. The three others, in spite of their moments of success, all fail in the long run, their failure demonstrating the impotence of their codes.

As the above discussion should indicate, attention to the structural integration of The Fountainhead is vital to one’s comprehension of the novel’s moral meaning, especially as this meaning is projected through the figure of Howard Roark. Such structural attention is even more important in the case of Atlas Shrugged.


A critical objection sometimes raised against Atlas Shrugged is that its almost unbelievable structural complexity destroys its unity, making it a less integrated and therefore artistically less successful work than The Fountainhead. I don’t agree. In my view, one of the most astounding aspects of this novel is precisely the way its complex and manifold material is integrated into a satisfying whole.

To see how, it is useful to begin with Rand’s thematic intent with the novel. As she has told us, the theme of Atlas is “the role of the mind in man’s existence.” (RM 81) As she also has told us, the first step of translating this theme into a plot is by means of what she calls the “plot-theme,” which she defines as “the central conflict or ‘situation’ of the story.” While a novel’s theme is “the core of its abstract meaning,” the plot-theme is “the core of its events,” thus providing a “link between the theme and the events.” (RM 85) In Atlas, this plot-theme is, in Rand’s own formulation, “the men of the mind going on strike against an altruist-collectivist society.” (RM 85) It is thus primarily by means of the plot, by organizing the events into a causally coherent pattern designed to show what happens to the world when the men of the mind go on strike, that Rand conveys her theme in Atlas. The question is, how does she go from the plot-theme to the plot? Or, how does she flesh out the plot-theme so as to turn it into a living plot, one in which the plot-theme is fully elaborated into a complete narrative?

The first point to be noted here is that one of Rand’s major plot-devising strategies in Atlas is to make use of the double plot characteristic of the detective novel, or “whodunit” story. Characteristic of this type of fiction is that there is a major story, the story of the crime, which is gradually uncovered by means of a second story, the story of the detective’s investigation of the crime. [12] Rand, however, transcends the formulaic pattern of the detective genre. Rand’s stroke of genius is that the mystery to be solved is not simply a crime, but the philosophical meaning of the many curious events that take place. Thus, her strategy is to keep hidden and to reveal only gradually what is the major story, the story of the mind on strike, by means of a more overt surface story, corresponding to the investigation story in a detective novel. In part this surface story turns on Dagny’s and Rearden’s struggles to save their industries in a society that appears to be collapsing, both industrially and culturally. But in addition, it turns on what we may see as Dagny’s two quests: to find the inventor of the motor (the man she believes can save the world) and to stop the destroyer of the world (the man she believes is draining the world of its brain power). Since, however, the two quests actually (and ironically) are one, involving a search for the same man, Dagny is faced with a puzzling paradox that must be solved before she will be able to find him, namely, the question of whether he is in fact a savior or a destroyer. It is thus by means of Dagny’s pursuit of these quests, and her need to solve the puzzles they present, that the plot proper, the story of the strike, is ultimately uncovered. In this way, Rand uses the simple formula of a detective story to create a highly complex philosophical novel, a novel where the ideas are presented as answers to paradoxical mysteries.

The way in which this is accomplished becomes clearer if we, as we did with The Fountainhead, take a look at the novel’s division into parts. As any reader will easily note, Atlas is formally divided into three major parts, each of which is again subdivided into ten chapters. What may be harder to note is the thematic significance of these divisions. For not only is the whole novel informed by a unifying theme, but so is each of the three major parts, as well as each chapter, just as in a system of Chinese boxes. The major theme, the role of reason in human existence, is thus broken down into a number of sub-themes that make up the novel’s larger thematic pattern. A major key to an interpretation of this larger pattern is provided by the part and chapter division.

Let us consider the three-part division first. As in The Fountainhead, we must take our clue from the title headings: “Non-Contradiction,” “Either-Or,” and “A Is A.” Philosophically, these titles, derived from Aristotle, refer to the basic axioms of logic. In so doing, they serve as an important thematic pointer, indicating the special significance the theme of reason plays in each part. In Part I, the “Non-Contradiction” section, we are presented with a string of strange and apparently contradictory events in a society beginning to fall apart: an inventor leaves the remnants of a revolutionary motor to rust in an abandoned factory; a brilliant copper producer turns into a worthless playboy; a prominent philosopher chooses to work as a cook in a diner, etc. How are we to understand these events? Is the world merely a meaningless and perplexing place, or is there some rational explanation­? This is the basic question posed by the first part, and we are given no answer, only a hint—through the title, “Non-Contradiction.” The specific meaning of this title is made clear on the two occasions when Dagny is directly confronted with the principle of non-contradiction—the first time, when Francisco uses it to suggest to her that he may not be what he appears to be (191); [13] the second time, when Hugh Akston uses it to answer her request regarding the inventor of the motor (315). Flatly, both men tell her that contradictions cannot exist, and that if she seems to be facing one, she must check her premises—a clear hint that there is some logical explanation to her puzzles that she is barred from seeing through an error in her thinking. But what? This is the question that now faces Dagny. Thus, from being involved in a mere detective search for the inventor of the motor, she is launched on a philosophical quest to discover her error, which in turn means that she has to resolve the many paradoxes that confront her. This wider quest, which is intertwined with Rearden’s tortured quest to solve the contradictions of his situation, serves to move the plot forward. But it also serves as a device to gradually uncover the primary plot of the strike and, with it, the deeper meaning of the mysterious events. In this way, we are kept in suspense both on the plot level, with regard to what is going to happen, and on the philosophical level, with regard to what is the significance of the things that happen. When the “Non-Contradiction” part draws towards its end, Dagny and the readers are confronted with the major paradox of the whole section, the fact that the triumph of the John Galt Line is reversed to the destruction of Colorado. The symbolic image of this ironic reversal is Wyatt’s Torch, which faces Dagny (and the reader) with a huge question mark when Part I concludes.

If we turn to the two following parts, we will discover that they too serve thematic issues suggested by the headings. In Part II, the “Either-Or” section, Dagny faces a fundamental choice between working for her railroad and giving it up. Significantly, this choice involves another paradox that Dagny has to resolve, a paradox Francisco holds up to her in the scene in the cabin where he hints that the ideal man she claims she is working for, the man she sees at the end of her railroad, is perhaps best served by abandoning her railroad rather than by continuing to work for it. Ultimately, of course, this paradox is philosophical, involving a choice between two incompatible codes, the code of the strikers and the code of the looters. Dagny’s problem is that she is trying to serve both, both God and Caesar, as Francisco puts it (594). The lesson she has to learn, the lesson learnt by all the strikers, is that one cannot serve both, that it has to be one or the other. It is only in Part III, the “A Is A” section—where the true nature of the events, together with the identity of who is John Galt, is finally unraveled—that Dagny and Rearden are able to resolve their contradictions and reach the full insight necessary to make the choice of joining the strike. Dagny’s insight comes when she discovers the death premise motivating the looters, and Rearden’s comes when he discovers the principle of the sanction of the victim.

I hope this presentation of the part division in Atlas, although somewhat schematic, gives some idea of what an enormous feat of integration Rand has accomplished in this novel—particularly when it comes to her subtle and skillful interweaving of plot and theme. As in The Fountainhead, we must infer philosophical meaning not only from the unfolding events as ordered into a causally significant plot but also as ordered into an artistic whole where every element is combined in symbolic and structural relationships. This becomes even clearer when we look at the chapter division.

As suggested above, just as the novel as a whole as well as the three parts are organized to convey a theme, so is each chapter. And in each case, Rand relies heavily on structural devices to make her thematic points. Space does not permit me to go into each chapter, but a few samples will illustrate. Consider, for example, the chapter entitled “The Top and the Bottom” (I.3). What is this chapter about? Again, the title gives us the initial clue. What it refers to is the 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. It is not easy, however, to infer this theme merely from the events. To assist us, we may take certain symbolic and structural elements as supplementary clues. If we do, we will discover that Rand has not forgotten the art of using the architectural setting to suggest an idea. Thus, the chapter opens with the following description:

The ceiling was that of a cellar, so heavy and low that people stooped when crossing the room, as if the weight of the vaulting rested on their shoulders. The circular booths of dark red leather were built into walls of stone that looked eaten by age and dampness. There were no windows, only patches of blue light shooting from dents in the masonry, the dead blue light proper for use in blackouts. The place was entered by way of narrow steps that led down, as if descending deep under ground. This was the most expensive barroom in New York and it was built on the roof of a skyscraper. (48–9)

The image is that of a dark cellar—built on the roof of a skyscraper. And who is occupying this place? Some exemplars of the bottom at the top: Wesley Mouch, James Taggart, Orren Boyle, and Paul Larkin. And what are they doing? Plotting against Hank Rearden. When rereading this novel with the special assignment of noticing things like this, I thought that surely there must be a corresponding passage to suggest the opposite idea—that of the top at the bottom. Leafing through the pages, I discovered at the very end of the chapter this description of the Taggart Terminal underground cafeteria:

The cafeteria lay underground. It was a large room with walls of white tile that glittered in the reflections of electric lights and looked like silver brocade. It had a high ceiling, sparkling counters of glass and chromium, a sense of space and light. (65)

This time, the image is that of a light and spacious room—built underground. Now, who is occupying this room? Quite significantly, Eddie Willers and John Galt, the latter in the position of a man morally and intellectually at the top but socially demoted to the bottom by holding the job of a common railroad worker. Of course, the full significance of this kind of structural symbolism will not be detected on a first reading, since the reader at this stage does not know who John Galt is. It thus demonstrates why the novel, to be fully appreciated, requires several readings, and in what way such rereadings are rewarded—enhancing our aesthetic delight and deepening our thematic understanding.

Another example of Rand’s reliance on structural manipulation in conveying a chapter’s specific theme can be observed in the one entitled “Their Brothers’ Keepers” (III.5). The purpose of this chapter is to highlight one of the novel’s major themes: the evil of the biblical injunction (presented in the story of Cain and Abel) that man should be his brother’s keeper. Essentially, Rand’s method is to show us the practical consequences of this injunction through the accelerating industrial collapse of the whole country—beginning with Francisco’s act of blowing up his own copper mines. The thematic significance of this chapter can therefore easily be inferred from the logic of the plot—a logic suggested ironically by the message Francisco leaves on the public calendar after the explosion: “Brother, you asked for it.” (858) But again, an alert eye to structural and symbolic elements will be helpful. It is worth noting, for example, that the whole chapter is divided into four parts, each of which begins with a sentence that a copper wire has broken down somewhere in the country—in an order that reverses the historical industrialization of the continent, marking a course of de-industrialization, by beginning in California in the West and ending in New York in the East.

To make clear to us the philosophical meaning of this industrial collapse, that it is the logical result of the idea that man is his brother’s keeper, Rand makes ingenious use of Dagny as a reflector reaching this insight in the silent contemplation of her mind. This happens when, while sitting in Taggart’s office, she looks rather absent-mindedly at the map of the transcontinental railway system hanging on the wall. The many red lines on this map, which Eddie Willers in the opening chapter had thought of as “a system of blood vessels” (15, 17) bringing growth and wealth to the whole country, now become, in Dagny’s mind, a one-way traffic system, a one-way stream of blood running from a wound and draining the country of its last sustenance and life (845). Thus, Dagny’s vision of the devastating consequences of accepting the idea that man is his brother’s keeper is conveyed to us by having her interpret the Taggart map symbolically, in light of what she sees happening to the country. I can think of no passage in Rand’s novels that more masterfully explicates the thematic significance of the action. While Rand’s habit of presenting her ideas through lengthy philosophical speeches sometimes becomes intrusive and preachy, here, by relying on an inside view of Dagny’s mind, the thematic idea is presented more discreetly and yet in a manner that makes it poignantly clear. The reason, I think, for its striking effect is that the idea presses itself on Dagny’s mind with an inevitable power and clarity in response to the logic of the events. As the narrator sums up:

She sat looking at the map, her glance dispassionately solemn, as if no emotion save respect were permissible when observing the awesome power of logic. She was seeing—in the chaos of a perishing continent—the precise, mathematical execution of all the ideas men had held. (848)

In short, she was seeing the idea not as a distant abstraction, but in its concrete manifestation. In this way, her reflections serve as a guide to the reader interpreting the same events.

In addition to refuting the notion that man is his brother’s keeper on the industrial and political level, this chapter also refutes the idea on a more personal level. It is no accident that this is the chapter where Phillip Rearden asks Hank Rearden for a job, using as his chief argument that he is his brother. When Rearden turns him down, it is in clear consequence of his discovery that familial bonds are not morally binding irrespective of virtue. Since, however, this is a view that runs against traditional morality, according to which his action will be judged callous and ruthless, Rand tries to clarify her point by juxtaposing this scene with another scene, namely, the one where Tony the Wet Nurse, at a point in the story where he has undergone a fundamental moral change, also comes to Rearden asking for a job. The kind of fatherly warmth and friendliness Rearden displays in this scene, despite the fact that he has to reject the boy’s request, contrasts vividly with his cold treatment of his own brother earlier on, accentuating that the earlier refutation of brotherly obligation does not exclude a true brotherhood between human beings—a brotherhood based on the principle of voluntary trade to mutual benefit rather than on the principle of sacrificial duty.

This kind of scenic juxtaposition, which frequently can be observed in Rand’s novels, serves the function of thematic variation. As interpreters of the novels we should therefore take notice of such juxtapositions. Just as in The Fountainhead we had to pay particular attention to similarities and differences between characters in our interpretation of Roark, in Atlas we have to be especially alert to similarities and differences between scenes and events. If, for example, we choose to interpret the scene between Rearden and his brother out of context, as an isolated example of how to deal with relatives, we may easily end up with a rather naive understanding of Rand’s moral philosophy—whether friendly or hostile. To be understood properly, the two scenes have to be seen in relation to each other, as structurally integrated units.

Another example that illustrates the thematic importance of such scenic juxtaposition is offered by the chapter entitled “Account Overdrawn” (II.5). In this chapter the exploiters are beginning to run out of victims by overstretching their victims’ endurance, or, as the title suggests metaphorically, by overdrawing their accounts. The thematic implication of this is suggested by Francisco’s statement “You can’t have your cake and let your neighbor eat it, too.” (469) But to highlight the theme structurally, Rand shows us, in close juxtaposition, two apparently unrelated scenes. One is a meeting of the board of directors of Taggart Transcontinental where James Taggart is faced with a number of financial demands: wage raises from the unions, cuts in rates from the shippers, and payment of bonds from the government—demands that are internally contradictory and that the company cannot possibly meet, that in effect require that he run his railroad at a loss. The other scene is the episode where Lillian Rearden demands of Rearden, after she has discovered that his mistress is not some worthless slut but Dagny Taggart, that he stop seeing her, something he is totally unwilling to do. As should be clear, there is no causal connection between these two scenes, only a thematic link, as both represent variations of the same idea. This thematic link is further emphasized by the fact that Taggart, faced with the demand from the government to pay the bonds, appeals to the contract that had given the company a moratorium for five years; similarly, Lillian, when she faces her husband’s unyielding attitude, appeals to the sanctity of their marriage contract. In both cases, the contracts have become worthless as legal obligations between people, showing the nature of a world where exploitation is the ruling principle. I think it is very difficult to discover the significance of these scenes unless one’s reading is aimed specifically at thematic understanding, and one takes care to pay attention to the specific clues Rand offers us. In this case, this means particular attention to their parallel construction.

The need to attend to such structural juxtapositions sometimes extends to whole chapters. Many will, for example, be offended by the chapter entitled “The Utopia of Greed” (III.2), both because of the provocative title and because of its depiction of Galt’s Gulch as a capitalistic paradise. But before we choose to condone or condemn, we should make sure that we really understand what Rand means by greed. To do so, it is not enough to identify this concept positively, in its affirmative manifestation; we must also identify it negatively, by differentiating it from its opposite. This chance is given to us in the following chapter, entitled “Anti Greed” (III.3), which, through the chilling demonstration of Project X, gives us a clear image of dystopian anti-greed. Thus, by comparing the two chapters, noting their contrasting function, we will discover that for Rand greed does not entail ruthless exploitation but profitable production, to be distinguished from non-profitable destruction. In this way, it becomes possible to see greed as truly utopian, in a way morally defensible and not provocatively offensive.

A rather different example of the way in which chapters in Atlas are thematically connected, necessitating that they be seen in relation to each other, can be observed in Rand’s device of connecting the opening chapter, entitled “The Theme” (I.1), and the concluding chapter, entitled “In the Name of the Best Within Us” (III.10). To connect these two chapters, Rand makes use of Eddie Willers as a Jamesian reflector, the center of consciousness that through his inner experiences and reflections serves as a guide to our understanding of the story events. Thus, in the opening of Chapter 1, Eddie, aged 10, asks Dagny a question about what she supposes to be “the best within us.” (14) In certain ways, this question can be said to strike the first chord in the development of the novel’s major theme, the role of reason in man’s life as manifested in productive ability. At this point, however, Rand merely hints at an answer by having Dagny remain silent, looking up the railroad track. It is only towards the very end that we get a fully formulated answer, now backed and clarified by all the events that have taken place in between. This happens in the scene of the final chapter where Eddie, trapped on a frozen train, unable to make it move, speaks to the Dagny of his childhood, finally grasping the truth: “Dagny, that is what it was…and you knew it, then, but I didn’t… you knew it when you turned to look at the rails. . . . I said ‘not business or earning a living’… but, Dagny, business and earning a living and that in man which makes it possible—that is the best within us.” (1082) Thus, while in The Fountainhead the story was framed by the opening and concluding images of Howard Roark, Atlas has a similar yet different frame occupied by the figure of Eddie Willers formulating to himself a question and an answer that throw light on the thematic significance of the novel, interpreted as a whole.

So far, I have focused on Rand’s structural organization in Atlas mainly in terms of events and incidents, paying little attention to character. One reason for this is that in Atlas, the presentation of character plays a less important role than it does in The Fountainhead. A clue to why this is so is provided by Rand’s Journals, where, in an entry dated January 1, 1945, she writes that Atlas “is to be much more a ‘social’ novel than The Fountainhead,” where the major concern was “the characters, the people as such—their natures.” In Atlas, however, the focus is going to be on the “relation” between the characters, that is, on society, the “personal” being of secondary importance. Thus, while The Fountainhead was “Roark’s story,” she writes, Atlas “must be the world’s story—in relation to its prime movers.” (392–93) These words reveal why Rand’s portrayal of John Galt, although intended as a representation of her ideal man, never materializes into a fully fleshed out human being the way Roark does. As a moral ideal, he comes across more as a symbol than as a full-dimensioned character whose moral nature is best perceived by comparing him with others functioning as his foils.

This, however, does not mean that we are not given the opportunity to observe interesting structural relationships between the many characters inhabiting the world of Atlas. But unlike in The Fountainhead, these relationships do not constitute patterns of analogy and contrast circling around one central hero representing the moral norm. Instead, we get a distribution of characters roughly divided into two groups: those who represent the producers (or the prime movers) and those who represent the looters (or those who exploit the prime movers). But within these two groups we find all sorts of variations held up for comparison. If we compare James Taggart and Lillian Rearden, for example, we see variations of evil rooted in the desire to destroy goodness in others, Taggart in relation to Cherryl and Lillian in relation to Rearden. And if we compare James Taggart and Robert Stadler, we see variations of how a character is spiritually destroyed by false premises, Taggart illustrating the destruction of mediocrity consumed by envy and malice and Stadler illustrating the destruction of greatness unwilling to correct a grave error.

Yet, although many other examples could be mentioned, it is notable that in Atlas the ideal man so central to Ayn Rand’s creative concerns is no longer the center of the novel’s overall structural organization. Instead, he is lurking as a kind of Olympian God behind the events, governing the plot but not our moral attention, nor our emotional sympathies, nor our conceptualizing processes. In this novel, it is not the central hero but the philosophical theme that plays the major role, determining the way the diverse components are combined to make up an artistic whole.


Although there is much more that can be said about Ayn Rand’s art of structural integration in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, I hope that this brief discussion has been sufficient to suggest the importance of reading these works with a heightened attention to their structural patterns. To fully appreciate the two novels, it is not enough that we involve ourselves in the action on the plot level; we must also respond to the works as artistically integrated wholes, observing the many ways the component parts—whether chapters, scenes, incidents, characters, or descriptive passages—are combined into patterns both thematically meaningful and aesthetically pleasing. Far from functioning as simplistic propaganda vehicles for Rand’s ideas, as many will have it, the novels emerge as sophisticated narratives in which the ideas are given highly variegated structural expression, challenging the readers to observe them in their full range of richness and complexity.

[1] Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto (New York: New American Library, 1975). All references are to the Signet edition, hereafter RM.

[2] Leonard Peikoff discusses the point in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991), 445–47. See also Stephen Cox, "The Literary Achievement of The Fountainhead" (page [*] in this volume).

[3] Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (New York: New American Library, 1952). All references are to the Signet edition, hereafter FH.

[4] The critic who most notably has drawn attention to the forward movement of plot is Peter Brooks, in Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984). However, unlike Rand, Brooks bases his account of plot on Freudian desire rather than on Aristotle’s notion of final causation.

[5] On the centrality of organic unity in Romantic theory, see M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953), especially Ch. 8, 184–225. On a possible link between Rand’s aesthetic concern with organic unity and Russian dialectical thought, see Chris M. Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), especially note 7, 414.

[6] David Harriman, ed., Journals of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1997), hereafter JAR.

[7] Ayn Rand, The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers, Tore Boeckmann, ed. (New York: Plume, 2000), 17.

[8] Ronald E. Merrill, The Ideas of Ayn Rand (La Salle IL: Open Court, 1991), 46.

[9] On Rand’s view of the role of the malevolent universe premise in art, see RM 108–9.

[10] See Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (New York: New American Library, 1979), especially Ch. 2, 11–23.

[11] Cf. JAR 90–91.

[12] For an excellent analysis of the detective novel in these terms, see Tzvetan Todorov, “The Typology of Detective Fiction,” in his The Poetics of Prose, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977), 42–52.

[13] Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: New American Library, 1957). All references are to the Signet edition.

Kirsti Minsaas
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Kirsti Minsaas
Atlas Shrugged