Atlas Shrugged is structured in three major parts, each of which consists of ten chapters. The parts and chapters are named, and the titles typically suggest multiple layers of meaning and implication.
The three parts of the book are each named in tribute to Aristotle's laws of logic.
Part One is titled "Non-Contradiction," and appropriately, the first third of the book confronts two prominent business executives, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden and the reader with a host of seeming contradictions and paradoxes with no apparently logical solutions.
Part Two, titled "Either-Or," focuses on Dagny Taggart's struggle to resolve a dilemma: either to continue her battle to save her business or to give it up.
Part Three is titled "A Is A," symbolizing what Rand referred to as "the Law of Identity" and here, the answers to all the apparent contradictions finally are identified and resolved by Dagny and Rearden, and also for the reader.
The tale is told largely from the point of view of Dagny, the beautiful, superlatively competent chief of operations for the nation's largest railroad, Taggart Transcontinental. The main story line is Dagny's quest to understand the cause underlying the seemingly inexplicable collapse of her railroad and industrial civilization and simultaneously, her tenacious, desperate search for two unknown men: one, the inventor of an abandoned motor so revolutionary that it could have changed the world; the other, a mysterious figure who, like some perverse kind of Pied Piper, seems purposefully bent on luring away from society its most able and talented people an unseen destroyer who, she believes, is "draining the brains of the world."
A major subplot follows steel titan Hank Rearden in his spiritual quest to understand the unknown forces that are undermining his career and happiness, and turning his talents and energies toward his own destruction.
In the shoes of Dagny and Rearden, we gradually learn the full explanation behind the startling events wreaking havoc in their world. With them, we come to discover that all the mysteries and strange events of the story proceed from a single philosophical cause and that Ayn Rand poses a provocative philosophical remedy for many of the moral and cultural crises of our own world.
The time is the late afternoon of September 2. The place: New York City. But it's not quite New York City as we know it.
It's a city in the final stages of decay. The walls of skyscrapers, which once towered sharp-edged and clean into space, are cracked, soot-streaked, and crumbling. Hundreds of storefronts, even on once-prosperous Fifth Avenue, are boarded up and empty. Along the littered sidewalks, street lights are out, windows are broken, and beggars haunt the shadows.
Eddie Willers walks these desolate streets, feeling a sense of dread he can't explain. Perhaps it's the newspapers, which are filled with ominous stories. Factories are closing and the nation's industrial infrastructure is falling apart. The federal government is assuming dictatorial emergency powers. Meanwhile, rumors circulate about a mysterious modern pirate ship on the high seas, which sinks government relief vessels...
As Eddie approaches the Taggart Transcontinental Building headquarters of the great railway system where he works as Dagny Taggart's assistant he ponders the system's latest train wreck...the steady decline of its shipping business...and the puzzling loss of its last workers of competence and ability. In fact, these days it seems that everywhere, the great scientists, engineers, and businessmen are either retiring, or simply vanishing...
Abruptly, a beggar steps from a darkened doorway and asks for spare change. As Eddie digs through his pockets, the beggar shrugs in resignation, and mutters a popular slang expression. It's a phrase whose origins no one knows, but which somehow seems to summarize all the feelings of pain, fear, and guilt now gripping the world. The beggar's words give voice to Eddie's own mood of dread and despair:
"Who is John Galt?"
These words from the nameless beggar to Eddie open the first chapter, and also close it hinting at the basic mystery of the plot. Only at the end of the novel do we realize that the reasons for the disintegrating world, for the disappearing men of ability, and for the motives of men such as the story's villains, all lie in the answer to that single question: "Who is John Galt?"
We meet Dagny Taggart en route to New York by train. She is roused from sleep by the sound of a young brakeman whistling a compelling tune. When she asks about it, he replies casually that it's Richard Halley's Fifth Piano Concerto. She is startled: she knows that Halley had quit composing and mysteriously dropped out of sight after writing only four concertos. She confronts the brakeman on this, and he abruptly reverses himself, saying he misspoke; but Dagny senses that he's trying to hide something.
She returns to her office, the battleground where she is fighting to save the family business that her brother, system president James Taggart, seems hell-bent on destroying. Like the rest of industrial society, her railroad is falling apart as its most talented and able men inexplicably quit and disappear. But while Dagny struggles to salvage dying branches of the crumbling system, from Jim she gets only a bewildering evasiveness, a whining resentment of decision-making responsibility, and furtive hostility toward men of achievement. Over Jim's heated objections, Dagny decides to replace the crumbling Colorado track with new rail made from Rearden Metal, Hank Rearden's untested but revolutionary new alloy. At day's end, she receives an appointment from one of the system's most promising young men, Owen Kellogg. He surprises her by quitting, without explanation, despite her offer to promote him to head the Ohio division. Asked why, he answers only, "Who is John Galt?"
On a deserted road, Hank Rearden walks home from work on the day he has just poured the first heat of Rearden Metal. In his pocket is a chain bracelet the first thing ever made from the Metal: a gift for his wife, Lillian.
Rearden is serenely confident in his work, but bewildered by the irrationality of people around him. When he gives Lillian his gift, she and his family mock it as an act of selfishness. This response is nothing new: though dependent on him economically, his family constantly belittle his achievements and values. Yet Rearden silently tolerates their hostility. We are left wondering exactly who is chained to whom, and why.
As he ponders the mystery of his family, family friend Paul Larkin warns him vaguely, almost apologetically, about the loyalty of his Washington lobbyist, Wesley Mouch. Rearden wonders what Larkin is driving at. Unknown to Dagny and Rearden, James Taggart has been conspiring with Mouch, Larkin, and rival steel company president Orren Boyle, to use their political pull to pass laws that will crush a competing regional railroad in Colorado, and eventually cripple Rearden's steel operations as well.
The destruction of the regional railroad forces Colorado oil man Ellis Wyatt, whose oil fields fuel the nation, to ship with Taggart Transcontinental instead. But the Colorado line of Taggart system is in total disrepair. Wyatt issues Dagny an angry ultimatum: either be ready to handle all his freight within nine months, or face economic ruin. "If I go," he vows, "I'll make sure that I take all the rest of you along with me."
Enter Francisco d'Anconia, the brilliant, spectacularly successful owner of the d'Anconia Copper company, and Dagny's former lover. Years before, he had abruptly ended their relationship without explanation. Then newspapers began to report that the incomparable creative genius that she'd once loved had become an irresponsible international playboy.
When Mexico suddenly nationalizes Francisco's copper mines, everyone is stunned to learn that they were empty of copper and utterly worthless. Knowing that Francisco would never make a poor investment, Dagny suspects that he had concocted the whole debacle. When she challenges him about it, Francisco gaily confirms that he had expected the nationalization and had consciously let himself lose millions, simply in order to ruin his major investors, including Jim Taggart and Orren Boyle. He adds, without elaboration, that his ultimate target for ruin is Dagny herself.
At a wedding anniversary party for Rearden and his wife, a pack of prominent intellectuals invited by Lillian loudly damns all the values and virtues that Hank Rearden embodies: reason, independence, self-interest, and pride in productive achievement. Only Francisco d'Anconia, the contemptible playboy, dares to approach Rearden respectfully and thank him for those virtues. Rearden is mystified yet privately grateful.
When Rearden refuses to sell all rights to Rearden Metal to the State Science Institute, they retaliate with a public statement questioning the safety of the metal. This causes work on the Colorado rail line to grind to a halt. Dagny implores renowned physicist Dr. Robert Stadler, who heads the Institute, to retract the indefensible statement. But Stadler refuses, fearing that a public reversal would put his Institute in a bad light. "What can you do when you have to deal with people?" he says.
To justify his cynicism, he tells her about his three most promising students years ago, when he taught physics at Patrick Henry University. One, Ragnar Danneskjold, became a pirate who robs government relief ships. A second, Francisco d'Anconia, became a worthless playboy. And the third dropped out of sight, not even making a name for himself; but before leaving, damned Stadler for launching the State Science Institute.
To continue work, Dagny forces Jim to temporarily "sell" her their Colorado branch line as separate company. She names it "The John Galt Line," in defiance against the widespread despair that the popular catch-phrase symbolizes. However, without warning, the conspirators' secret machinations result in a new antitrust law that forces Rearden to surrender ownership of many of his subsidiaries, including his ore mines.
Still, despite enormous opposition and obstacles, Dagny and Rearden complete the John Galt Line before the deadline Ellis Wyatt had given them. To prove the safety of Rearden Metal, they ride in the locomotive on the first run to Colorado. As the train speeds triumphantly across America, the two silently share their victory over years of adversity and irrationality. And with each passing mile, the undercurrent of sexual tension grows between them.
That night, at Ellis Wyatt's home, Rearden's wall of reserve finally cracks, and the two begin a secret, passionate affair. But Dagny is disturbed by Rearden's derisive comments about their immorality. His words suggest an inner conflict yet to be resolved.
They decide to take a vacation together. Driving through Wisconsin towns that have reverted to preindustrial primitiveness, they happen upon the empty ruins of the 20th Century Motor Company a once successful factory that had been destroyed by worthless heirs who implemented a socialistic pay scheme. There Dagny makes a startling discovery: a few remnants of a revolutionary motor that had once converted static atmospheric electricity for human use. But there's no clue as to its inventor, how his machine worked or why he would have abandoned so monumental an invention.
Upon their return to New York, they find that political pressure groups are clamoring for even more laws to punish success and productivity. While Rearden works feverishly to get the ore he needs, Dagny begins a private search around the country for the inventor of the motor. The trail from the 20th Century Motor Company leads her from one parasitical heir to another, until she learns that the inventor had been the brilliant young assistant of the factory's chief engineer. But she can't learn his name.
In despair, she enters a local diner, where she is amazed to find Dr. Hugh Akston a once-great philosopher at Patrick Henry University flipping hamburgers. He refuses to explain why he left his profession, or his current presence in so lowly a job. He also admits that he knows who invented the motor, but refuses to reveal his name. Instead, he tells Dagny that while she won't find him, someday he will find her.
Akston who, like Stadler, had taught Francisco and Ragnar Danneskjold at Patrick Henry University concludes by giving her the same advice that Francisco once had: if she finds it inconceivable that such a motor would be abandoned, or that a great philosopher would work in a diner, she should remember that contradictions can't exist in nature and that she should therefore check her premises. "You will find that one of them is wrong."
Returning to New York, Dagny learns of a new series of dictatorial directives. These limit companies' productive output to the average of their competitors, order them to provide all consumers "a fair share" of their products on demand, forbid them permission to relocate, and outlaw quitting one's job. A heavy new tax is placed on Colorado industries in order to help needier states. These directives will cripple Taggart Transcontinental, rob Hank Rearden and the bondholders of the John Galt Line, but she realizes with horror destroy Ellis Wyatt.
Dagny remembers Wyatt's grim ultimatum and races by train to try to reach him. But she arrives to find the fields of Wyatt Oil ablaze and Wyatt's handwritten message:
"I am leaving it as I found it. Take over. It's yours."
In the wake of the new directives, the nation's oil industry has collapsed, and like Wyatt, many other Colorado industrialists vanish.
Dagny meets again with Stadler, asking him to read the fragmentary notes left behind by the inventor of the motor in order to try to learn his identity. Stadler is amazed but angry because the unknown genius had decided to work for industrial applications rather than pure theory, and piqued because the man had never approached Stadler personally to share his path-breaking theories. Viewing the remnant of the motor, Stadler mockingly expresses his resentment of practical achievements.
A man nearby mutters, "Who is John Galt?" and Stadler remarks that he knew a John Galt once: a mind of such brilliance that, had he lived, the whole world would be talking about him.
"But the whole world is talking of him," Dagny points out.
Disturbed, Stadler dismisses it all as a meaningless coincidence. "He has to be dead," he says with a curious emphasis.
The government saddles Rearden Steel with a young spy named Tony, whose job is to watch Rearden for compliance with government regulations. Rearden nicknames the boy his "Wet Nurse." Shortly after Tony warns him about his uncooperative attitude, Rearden is approached again by the State Science Institute this time with orders to supply Rearden Metal for a mysterious "Project X." He refuses, inviting the Institute to take the metal by force, if they wish. The Institute messenger reacts to this prospect with undisguised horror.
Rearden realizes that somehow, to succeed in their schemes against him, his enemies need his own voluntary cooperation. At the same time, he begins to sense that what he feels for Dagny reflects not the worst within him, but the best.
By now, Dagny has concluded there is a "destroyer" deliberately removing achievers from the world for some inconceivable reason. As for the motor, she hires a brilliant young scientist in Utah, Quentin Daniels, to rebuild it if he can.
Rearden secretly sells Rearden Metal to coal magnate Ken Danagger a transaction made illegal by the directives. The disturbing thought occurs to him that his only pleasures, at work and in his romantic life, must be kept hidden, like guilty secrets. He wonders why. Meanwhile, Lillian, whom he has ignored for months, begins to suspect that he is having an affair. She demands that he accompany her to Jim Taggart's wedding, and out of a dead sense of marital obligation, Rearden agrees.
Jim has been engaged to a naïve young clerk named Cherryl, who admires him for what she believes is his genius in running the railroad. Jim basks in her blind adulation, and maliciously enjoys the awkwardness of her attempts to become socially poised.
Their wedding is attended by a corrupt cross-section of the culturally prominent and politically connected. Mistakenly thinking she is defending a heroic husband against an enemy, Cherryl confronts and insults Dagny. Across the room, Lillian approaches Jim, hinting that her control over her husband is available for trade. Then Francisco enters, crashing the party. After embarrassing Jim, he approaches Dagny, telling her it appears that John Galt has come to claim the railroad line she named for him. To a dowager's remark that "money is the root of all evil," he gives an impromptu speech defending money-making on moral grounds, as a symbol of achievement, free trade, and justice.
Francisco approaches Rearden and admits that his words were intended for him, to arm him morally for self-defense. Rearden is grateful until Francisco reveals that he's deliberately destroying d'Anconia Copper, precisely to harm the looters who are profiteering on his abilities. Rearden recoils in horror. Then Francisco lets it be known, loudly, that his company is in trouble. As the news sweeps the crowd, many of whom are d'Anconia investors, the wedding party breaks up in panic.
After the party, Lillian confronts Rearden with her suspicion that he's having an affair, presumably with some tramp. Rearden admits to an affair, but refuses to identify his mistress or to stop seeing her. For reasons he can't fathom, though, Lillian refuses to divorce him.
Soon afterwards, Rearden is visited by Dr. Floyd Ferris of the State Science Institute. Ferris threatens him with jail for selling Rearden Metal to Ken Danagger unless he agrees to sell it to the State Science Institute as well. Glimpsing a flaw in this blackmail scheme, Rearden once again refuses.
In the Taggart cafeteria, Eddie opens his heart to a long-time confidante, a lowly worker of his acquaintance whose name he has long forgotten. He reveals Dagny's suspicions about the "destroyer," her fear that Ken Danagger will be the next to go, and her intention to visit him at once to prevent that from happening.
When Dagny arrives at Danagger's office, he is in a meeting with someone else. After a long delay, the other man leaves, unseen, by the rear entrance and Dagny enters to find she's too late. Danagger informs her that he's quitting. Like Kellogg and Akston, he won't explain why. She realizes that she's just missed "the destroyer," but Danagger reassures her that nothing she can say would have mattered anyway. Then Dagny spots a cigarette butt in his ashtray: it bears the imprint of the gold dollar sign.
The day after Danagger's disappearance, Francisco visits Rearden at his mills. He begins to explain to him that by continuing to work under these dictatorial circumstances, Rearden is granting a moral sanction to the looters, a sanction they need from him in order to destroy him. Rearden begins to understand when they are interrupted by a furnace emergency in the mills. They work side by side to resolve the crisis, but the moment is lost; Francisco decides it's not yet time to discuss things further.
At their Thanksgiving dinner, Lillian tries to dissuade her husband from taking the witness stand at his trial the following day, informing him that he has no moral right to protest. But Rearden startles them all by rebuking his brother for insulting him. They notice that he seems to have a new confidence and he notices that this seems to disturb them. Meeting later with Dagny, he informs her that she'll have all the Rearden Metal she needs, laws be damned.
At his trial, Rearden acknowledges his actions with Danagger but refuses to accept that they were in any way immoral. Instead, borrowing from Francisco's words, he gives a rousing moral defense of his right to produce for his own sake, bringing the audience to cheers and leaving the judges speechless. Instead of jailing him, they seem panicked and give him a suspended sentence. Rearden smiles, beginning to grasp the concept of "the sanction of the victim."
Drawn by curiosity about Francisco's incongruous reputation as a playboy, Rearden visits him, finding him working on blueprints. Francisco admits that his reputation has been mere camouflage for a secret purpose of his own. Denying that he has been promiscuous, he explains the moral meaning of sex. But unknowingly, he is also addressing Rearden's own private sexual conflicts. Feeling a growing comradeship, Rearden reveals he's just placed a huge, urgently needed order with d'Anconia Copper.
Horrified, Francisco leaps to the phone then stops. In obvious anguish, he solemnly swears to Rearden "by the woman I love" that, despite what is about to happen, he remains Rearden's true friend.
Soon after, the d'Anconia ships carrying copper to Rearden are sunk by Ragnar Danneskjold. Rearden is overwhelmed by a sense of personal betrayal. He realizes that Francisco somehow knew of the sinking in advance, could have stopped it but didn't.
It is Rearden Steel's first failure to deliver an order on time. The delay in the Rearden Metal shipment to Taggart Transcontinental starts a devastating economic chain reaction, holding up trains, spoiling shipments of food, forcing farmers to go bankrupt and factories to shut down, causing deteriorating bridges across the Mississippi to close and leaving the famous Taggart Bridge as the river's last crossing point.
Meanwhile, coal that Taggart Transcontinental desperately needs is diverted to foreign aid; the government censors newspaper stories of the disasters and their causes; and the top floors of buildings are shut down to conserve fuel. Rearden is forced to make deals with hired gangs to mine coal at night in abandoned mines.
With Colorado industry now in shambles, the Taggart Transcontinental board of directors meets to formally close the John Galt Line. In exchange for permission to shut down the line, a government bureaucrat prods them to raise all Taggart worker wages. They try to nudge Dagny into stating openly the final decision to close the line; but following Rearden's example from the trial she refuses to help them and grant a moral sanction for their actions, by taking the responsibility to venture an opinion. They finally put the matter to the inevitable vote.
Francisco is waiting for her afterwards. "Have they finally murdered John Galt?" he asks softly. He comforts her at a nearby café. Then he asks her why it is that heroic builders, like the railroad's founder, Nat Taggart, have always lost battles with pale cowards such as those on Taggart's board. As she ponders this, he reflects aloud, almost abstractly, about how his ancestor, Sebastian d'Anconia, had to wait 15 years for the woman he loved... Dagny is astonished at this tacit confession, but replies coldly by asking him why he has hurt Hank Rearden. Francisco answers solemnly that he'd have given his life for Rearden except for the man to whom he had given it.
Then, noticing the familiar graffiti carved in the tabletop, he adds: "I can tell you who John Galt is...John Galt is the Prometheus who changed his mind." After being torn by vultures for bringing men fire, Francisco says, Galt "withdrew his fire until men withdraw their vultures."
In Colorado with Rearden, Dagny supervises the aftermath of the Line's closure: scavenging machines from closed factories, watching towns emptying, seeing refugees crowd the last departing trains.
Meanwhile, eager for more Washington influence, Jim conspires with Lillian to deliver Rearden to the bureaucrats. Lillian finds that her husband is traveling home by train under a phony name, presumably with his mistress. When she meets the train to confront them, she sees him not with some cheap slut, but with Dagny Taggart.
Lillian is devastated and terrified. She grasps now why her grip on her husband is failing, and simultaneously, his unapologetic demeanor at his trial: Dagny has empowered her husband to reject guilt.
"Anybody but her!" she cries to him in terror. But Rearden is indifferent to her efforts to make him feel guilty or give up Dagny. In Lillian's vile insults against Dagny, Rearden suddenly realizes that hers had been his own view of sex. Though Lillian tells him she won't divorce him, he feels at last liberated and guiltless. Still, Lillian senses that he wants the affair to be kept secret and that, she realizes, may be used as a weapon.
Without warning, the government issues a Directive 10-289, a regulatory measure that seizes total control of the entire economy, and orders all existing economic arrangements to be frozen in place. All patents on inventions are to be turned over to the government in the form of Gift Certificates. In addition, to stop people of talent from disappearing, the law forbids anyone from quitting his job.
It's the last straw for Dagny, who throws the newspaper into James Taggart's face and resigns. She leaves for the Taggart lodge in the country, letting only Eddie know her whereabouts. But Rearden stays behind, confident that he can dynamite the new directive simply by refusing to comply with the order to surrender his patents to Rearden Metal.
In response to the directive, a mood of quiet rebellion sweeps the nation. Each day, more people fail to show up for work. Even Rearden's "Wet Nurse" is indignant, and vows to look the other way if Rearden chooses to break laws. Meanwhile Lillian mysteriously disappears on a vacation trip.
On a spring morning, Dr. Floyd Ferris arrives at Rearden's mills. He reveals that the government has been tipped off by Lillian of Rearden's affair with Dagny. If Rearden won't sign the Gift Certificate transferring Rearden Metal to the government, Ferris will expose the affair in the media, sullying Dagny's reputation in scandal. Rearden suddenly realizes much more about the motives of his enemies and about the moral premises that have caused such conflict in his life. But refusing to let Dagny bear the consequences of his own mistakes, he signs the Gift Certificate.
In the wake of these events, Eddie Willers bares his soul to his friend in the cafeteria. He also lets slip that Dagny has gone off to stay at the Taggart lodge.
Furious at Lillian's betrayal, Rearden orders his attorney to get him a divorce and to leave her with no alimony or property. He moves to an apartment in Philadelphia. Walking home from his mills one evening, he is confronted by a man who presents him with a bar of gold. The man reveals that he's Ragnar Danneskjold; that the gold represents wealth looted from Rearden, and forcibly reclaimed by Ragnar from the looters. Rearden finds that he can't condemn Ragnar for his actions, and even helps the outlaw elude pursuing police.
At the Taggart railroad tunnel through the Rockies, a waiting diesel engine is commandeered by the government to allow a bureaucrat to tour the country. This leaves only coal-burning engines on the track. Despite a strict system rule against entering the tunnel with smoky coal-burner, plus the fact that the tunnel's signal and ventilation systems are malfunctioning, a politician demands that his own train be allowed to proceed through. All the responsible supervisors have quit the Colorado division, leaving decision-making authority to incompetents. Bullied by the politician, each in turn from James Taggart on down passes the buck, leaving the final decision to proceed to a green young dispatcher. Abandoned by his superiors, the boy signs the order for the train to enter the tunnel. Miles inside, the crew and passengers are overcome by fumes, as a military train loaded with explosives rushes into the tunnel from the other end. They collide in a cataclysmic explosion that destroys the tunnel.
At the Taggart lodge, Dagny receives a surprise visit from Francisco. He tells her why she was right to quit and reveals that, for the same reason, he has deliberately been destroying d'Anconia Copper since the night he left her, twelve years before. Dagny begins to see Francisco in a new light...when the radio abruptly brings news of the tunnel explosion. Horrified, she abandons Francisco and she rushes back to New York.
After a grueling day dealing with the emergency, Dagny returns to her apartment where once again she is visited by Francisco. By now she is immune to his arguments, but aware that he's part of the "destroyer's" conspiracy. Suddenly the door opens and Hank Rearden is standing there, the key to Dagny's apartment in his hand.
Rearden demands to know why Francisco is present. Devastated by his realization of Dagny's affair, yet maintaining rigid self-control, Francisco answers, "I see that I have no right to ask you the same question." Enraged by what he believes has been Francisco's betrayal of their friendship, Rearden says, "I know what they mean...your friendship and your oath by the only woman you ever-"
They all suddenly know what this means. Rearden steps forward and demands, "Is this the woman you love?" Looking at Dagny, Francisco answers, "Yes." Rearden slaps him across the face. Retaining iron control, Francisco bows and takes his leave.
Dagny then reveals to Rearden that Francisco had been her first lover. Rearden suddenly wishes desperately that he hadn't reacted as he had. In this private turmoil, they are interrupted by a message from Quentin Daniels: a letter of resignation. He refuses to continue working under Directive 10-289. Dagny phones him in Utah and begs him to meet with her first. Daniels gives his word that he'll wait for her visit.
When Rearden leaves, she summons Eddie to take instructions as she packs for the trip. Eddie notices a man's dressing gown in her closet bearing Hank Rearden's initials. Crushed with jealousy, Eddie realizes for the first time just how much Dagny has meant to him. That evening in the cafeteria he pours out his heart to his workman friend. He mentions that Dagny is on her way to try to talk Daniels out of quitting his work on the motor and then blurts out his discovery that she is sleeping with Rearden. At this news, the worker seems unaccountably stricken, and rushes out.
Dagny races by train across the country to her meeting with Daniels when she has a chance encounter with a hungry tramp. He explains that he once had been a machinist at the Twentieth Century Motor Company. One day the firm's heirs instituted a socialistic pay plan, based on the principle that everyone should work "according to his ability," but be paid "according to his need." In practice, this meant that workers of ability were punished with longer hours, and forced to support "needier" workers the lazy and incompetent with compensation sufficient to fulfill all their alleged needs. Within months, everyone was hiding his abilities, but claiming a profusion of "needs" and production plummeted until the factory went bankrupt.
The plan, the tramp continues, had been approved at a mass meeting of the workers. After the vote, a young engineer stood and said, "I will put an end to this, once and for all...I will stop the motor of the world." Then he walked out. As the years passed, factories closed, and the economy ground to a halt, the tramp and his fellow workers wondered about the young engineer and began to ask the despairing question now on everyone's lips. "You see," he tells Dagny, "his name was John Galt."
Dagny's journey is interrupted when the train's crew deserts at night in the middle of nowhere. She is surprised to see Owen Kellogg the young man who had refused her job offer riding the train, en route to a "month's vacation." Kellogg accompanies her up the track on foot to phone for help and along the way, Dagny discovers that he too is part of the conspiracy. After arranging for help to come to the stalled train, she commandeers a small plane at a nearby air field and flies alone to Utah to her meeting with Daniels. But upon arriving at the airport, she is told that Daniels has just left with another man, in a plane that has just taken off.
Determined not to lose Daniels to the "destroyer" spiriting him away, Dagny takes off again and races after the distant lights of the other plane. The long chase takes them over the wildest stretches of the Colorado Rockies. Unexpectedly, the stranger's plane begins to circle and descend over impossibly rugged mountain terrain, vanishing behind a ridge. When she reaches the spot, she sees nothing below but a rocky, inaccessible valley between granite walls: no conceivable place for a landing, yet no sign of the other plane. She descends but still sees nothing. Her altimeter shows her dropping yet strangely, the valley floor seems to be getting no closer.
Suddenly there is a blinding flash of light, and her motor dies. Her plane spirals downward not into jagged rocks, but toward a grassy field which hadn't existed a second before. Fighting to control the plane, she hears in her mind the hated phrase, not in despair, but this time in defiance: "Oh hell! Who is John Galt?"
When she opens her eyes, Dagny is staring up at the proud, handsome face of a man with sun-streaked brown hair, and green eyes that bear no trace of pain, fear, or guilt.
"What is your name?" she whispers in wonder.
"John Galt...Why are you so frightened?" he asks.
"Because I believe it," she answers.
Galt carries the injured woman away from the wreck. He explains that her plane had penetrated a screen of rays projecting a refracted image, like a mirage, intended to camouflage the valley's existence. The ray screen had killed her plane's engine.
He carries her past a small house, where the sound of a piano is lifting the chords of Halley's Fifth Concerto. It's Halley's home, Galt explains. They reach a ledge above the valley; a small town spreads below. Nearby, commanding the valley like a coat of arms, stands a solid gold dollar sign three feet high "Francisco's private joke," he says.
A car pulls up, and its two occupants approach. She recognizes Hugh Akston. The other man is introduced as Midas Mulligan the world's richest financier, who had also vanished years ago.
Smiling, Akston tells her that he never expected that when they next met, she be in the arms of the inventor of the motor. Astounded, Dagny asks if the story of his walking out of the Twentieth Century Motor Company is true, and Galt confirms it.
"You told them that you would stop the motor of the world," she says.
Then he drives her around the valley, where she encounters others who have abandoned her world: Ellis Wyatt...Quentin Daniels...Dick McNamara, her former contractor...Ken Danagger.
Galt stops the car outside a lonely log cabin; above the door is the d'Anconia coat of arms. She gets out, staring at the silver crest, remembering the words of the man she had once loved. "That was the first man I took away from you," Galt says.
He ends the tour at the town's powerhouse, where his motor brings the valley its electricity. On it is an inscription: I SWEAR BY MY LIFE AND MY LOVE OF IT THAT I WILL NEVER LIVE FOR THE SAKE OF ANOTHER MAN, NOR ASK ANOTHER MAN TO LIVE FOR MINE. Galt explains that it's the oath taken by every person in the valley. Recited aloud, the words also are the key to unlocking the door.
That night they attend dinner at Mulligan's home, with several of the prominent men who had vanished from her world. Each explains his reasons for quitting.
"We are on strike," Galt says. "This is the strike of the men of the mind, Miss Taggart...We are on strike against those who believe that one man must exist for the sake of another...The mind is evil? We have withdrawn the works of our minds from society, and not a single idea of ours is to be known or used by men...We are giving men everything they've professed to want and to seek as virtue for centuries. Now let them see whether they want it." For the sake of what his motor meant to him, he goes on, he had to be willing to abandon it "just as you will have to be willing to let the rail of Taggart Transcontinental crumble and vanish."
Galt drives her back to his home, carries her to the guest room, and places her upon the bed. Both are intensely aware of each other's physical presence.
The next day Ragnar Danneskjold visits. Galt and Ragnar worry about Francisco, unaccountably late for their customary month's vacation in the valley. Galt decides Dagny must remain the entire month while she makes up her mind about joining the strike. She insists on earning her keep as Galt's cook and maid.
When Quentin Daniels arrives days later, he tells her that everyone, including Hank Rearden, now believes she crashed in the mountains and are searching for her wreckage. But the rules of the valley permit no communication with the outside world.
In her room one day, Dagny hears a familiar voice: Francisco's. He tells Galt sadly that he must leave again right away. She hears Galt answer that before he does, he should see the "scab" living in his guest room. Francisco laughs and opens her door.
In the next moment he is on his knees, holding her. But when he raises his head, his eyes are laughing. He tells her that he loves her, that it doesn't matter that she loves Rearden only that she's alive and in a place where all things are possible. Recalling the night twelve years earlier when he had left her, he explains that Galt had spoken to Ragnar and himself that very day to recruit them to his strike. It was seeing Dagny, and foreseeing her hopeless struggle, that had convinced him to be the first to join the strike. He concludes by saying that he doesn't blame her for being in love with Rearden.
But now Dagny realizes that this is no longer true. In the days that follow, she and Galt endure the tension of an overwhelming but impossible attraction: between the woman consecrated to saving Taggart Transcontinental, and the man determined to destroy it.
At last comes the night when, in Midas Mulligan's home, the strikers ask her to decide either to join the strike, or return to the world. While she ponders, Mulligan asks Galt if he's decided whether to return to New York. Galt answers cryptically that he's not certain. Surprised, Mulligan warns in graphic detail what the coming social chaos will be like. When he describes the eventual destruction of Taggart Transcontinental, Dagny cries out, "No, it won't!" She has decided to return.
Walking home that night, Francisco who has been looking at Galt and Dagny thoughtfully invites them for a drink at his cabin. He asks Galt casually if he's finally made up his mind whether to return to New York. Galt answers yes. Francisco looks at them both, understanding. He says simply: "But of course." From silver goblets of his Spanish ancestors, they share a toast that seals their mutual acceptance.
Galt and Dagny spend their last sleepless night in separate rooms. The next morning, after securing her promise of secrecy about the valley, Galt flies her, blindfolded, to a dying town and leaves her in a dying world...
...a world where Dr. Robert Stadler is summoned by Dr. Floyd Ferris to the first public demonstration of the State Science Institute's "Project X" a secret invention of which Stadler knows nothing. The media and national figures are present, including Mr. Thompson, head of state. Ferris announces that Project X is a sonic ray device "an invaluable instrument of public security" with a radius of a hundred miles. It is, he announces, a practical application of Stadler's own scientific theories: in fact, Stadler's ideas and reputation allowed the project to be planned and funded. The physicist and onlookers are horrified when, in the demonstration, the ray annihilates a distant farm. But when Ferris hands him a prepared speech to reassure the crowd, Stadler meekly obeys.
Dagny returns to a New York City close to collapse. She phones Hank, who is shocked with relief to hear her voice but puzzled by her failure to answer questions as to where she has been, and why she hasn't communicated with him.
Eddie tells her that in her absence a Railroad Unification Plan run by a drunken thug named Cuffy Meigs, a friend of Jim's has socialized the nation's railroads. All must run their competitors' trains without charge. Their revenues are pooled, and income comes in the form of government subsidies, based on miles of track, not traffic. Because Taggart has the most track, it is making money and destroying its competitors.
Jim insists she make a radio speech on the government's behalf, to reassure the nation that she hasn't quit. Dagny refuses. That evening she receives a surprise visit from Lillian. Rearden's wife reveals why he had signed over the "Gift Certificates," and now tries to use the same blackmail over the affair to force Dagny to appear on the radio show. Dagny coolly agrees then, on the air, proudly tells the world that she'd been Rearden's mistress for two years, and publicly exposes the blackmail scheme.
She finds Rearden waiting back at her apartment. He confesses his love for her, and his liberation from guilt. He also tells her, serenely, what he has guessed: that during the month of her disappearance, she met the man she now loves and that was the reason she had not contacted him. Dagny confirms that the "John Galt" of legend exists, that he is the inventor of the motor, and "the destroyer" and also the man she loves.
James has been plotting with Latin American politicians to fleece the carcass of d'Anconia Copper, secretly scheduled for global nationalization on September 2. He feels the need to celebrate, and returns home to his young wife, Cherryl. In the year of their marriage, she has learned that her husband isn't the man she had once imagined. She'd visited Eddie, who revealed the truth about who really runs Taggart Transcontinental. Now the need to justify himself compels James to boast to her of the forthcoming nationalization of d'Anconia Copper. Disgusted, Cherryl walks out. She visits Dagny and apologizes for her past insults. She explains that she now realizes her husband is motivated by a form of viciousness that she can't understand. Dagny is concerned: Cherryl seems terribly fragile.
At the same moment, James is visited by Lillian, who begs for help in stopping her pending divorce. "I don't want to let him go free!" she cries. "I won't let the whole of my life be a total failure!" They get drunk then, motivated by a mutual, blind desire to defile Rearden by means of his wife, they have sex.
Cherryl returns home and is shocked to hear a woman's voice in her husband's bedroom. After the woman leaves and she confronts James, he screams at her, boasting that it was "Mrs. Hank Rearden." When Cherryl asks why he'd married her, he yells that it was precisely because he'd seen her as worthless and that he'd enjoyed the spectacle of her tortured, futile struggle to improve. She backs away, horrified. "You're a killer...for the sake of killing," she whispers.
Spirit shattered, she rushes from the apartment, wandering blankly through the neighborhood. When a social worker confronts and berates her, it is too much: Cherryl runs from the woman and plunges into a river to her death.
On the morning of September 2, the radio announces that just as the Chilean legislature met to nationalize d'Anconia Copper, explosions rocked the company's ore docks and simultaneously, all d'Anconia Copper holdings around the world. The d'Anconia fortune is gone, as is its owner. James and his cronies, who had invested secretly in the cartel that was to take over the nationalized assets, have lost everything.
That night, Dagny and Rearden meet at a restaurant. Suddenly there's a muffled scream. Beyond the window, an enormous calendar page on the wall of a nearby building is changing. The date disappears replaced by a huge, handwritten message:
BROTHER, YOU ASKED FOR IT!
Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastian d'Anconia
Amid the cries of alarm, Hank Rearden rises to his feet, laughing.
In the ensuing days, Dagny works to cope with daily emergencies stemming from the loss of copper. More businesses everywhere are closing their doors; supplies of all sorts of materials are drying up; and the nation faces the coming winter desperately short of fuel. But with every new crisis, new laws are passed that worsen the crisis.
The government orders freight cars intended for the Minnesota wheat crop to be diverted to Louisiana for a soybean project run by the politically connected. The wheat harvest lies in rotting heaps, and is destroyed by rain. Bankrupted farmers and equipment manufacturers begin to riot, and Minnesota plunges into primitive savagery.
When a copper wire breaks, all signals go down in the tunnels beneath the Taggart Terminal, and traffic is at a standstill. Dagny rushes to the terminal to take charge, still in formal black dress from a dinner. From the stairway of the underground traffic tower, she organizes a large gang of laborers to man the tracks with lanterns, and explains how to guide trains in and out of the tunnels.
She stops. Among the upturned faces of the men, in greasy overalls and shirt sleeves, stands a man with sun-streaked copper hair and ruthlessly perceptive eyes. She finishes her instructions...then descends the stairs, making her way toward abandoned tunnels. He follows and at last Dagny Taggart and John Galt consummate what had begun twelve years before.
Afterwards he tells her that for all those years he'd been working beneath her feet, as a common laborer in the tunnels. He warns her that their meeting would have bad consequences, because her goals would one day force her to lead him to his enemies.
Abruptly, the government provokes a series of outrageous actions against Rearden: fomenting violence at his plant, demanding raises for his workers, seizing his property on trumped-up tax charges. Rearden does not rise to the bait: he remains silent, refusing to respond or protest. Within days, he receives profuse apologies about "misunderstandings," and is invited to a meeting of high-level officials at the Wayne-Falkland Hotel on November 4th.
That morning he receives a call from his mother, begging to see him that afternoon. When he arrives at his former home, he finds his mother, Philip and Lillian: they'd been letting her live there secretly, at his expense. Rearden refuses their demands to do anything about the government's attachment of their allowance checks. His mother whines, "Don't you care what becomes of us?" "I don't," he answers. Desperate, she blurts out, "If you give up and vanish, like all those men who-"
Now he understands: even though his position is hopeless, and in reason his only course is to quit they still want him to sacrifice the last of himself for their sakes. "We want to live!" his mother screams. "Why no," he answers in sudden realization. "If you did, you would have known how to value me." As he turns to go, Lillian, her voice filled with malice, tells him that while still his wife, she had slept with Jim Taggart. It's meant to hurt him; but he looks at her with utter indifference. Before his eyes, Lillian's features slacken; her quest for power over him has met its final, irrevocable defeat.
Rearden drives to the New York hotel where Wesley Mouch, Jim Taggart, Floyd Ferris and others await him. They beg for his participation in a Steel Unification Plan, modeled after the Railroad Unification Plan. Each steel company will produce as much as it can, "according to its ability"; their gross earnings will be confiscated in a common pool; then each company will be paid "according to its need." Since the preservation of blast furnaces is determined to be the basic "need," companies will be rewarded according to their number of furnaces.
By this scheme, Rearden would be paid for less than half his actual output, while Orren Boyle having many idle furnaces would be paid for nearly double his output. "How long do you expect me to produce at a loss?" Rearden demands. "There is no way to make the irrational work. What can save you now?"
"Oh, you'll do something!" James Taggart cries.
Rearden suddenly grasps the nature of his enemies and who has been empowering them. They were counting on him to buy them just a little more time, before he too would be destroyed... He leaves them and drives back to Philadelphia, to his mills. A mile away he hears gunfire: a mob is trying to storm the main gate. Turning down a side road, he screeches to a stop and jumps out, sliding down the ravine to where he has spotted a human form.
It is Tony, the "Wet Nurse," mortally wounded. The boy tells him that the looters in Washington had planned to stage a phony riot of allegedly starving workers at his mills, to justify imposing the Steel Unification Plan. But Tony had refused to sign the passes to admit hired goons onto the property. When he ran for help, they shot him.
Rearden struggles to carry him out of the ravine, but Tony dies in his arms. He walks on, his rage growing, and leaves the boy's body in the infirmary. Then he heads for the front gate. To his surprise, there is organized resistance to the goons. On a roof he spots a man firing down at the rioters; the man sees him and abandons his post. Then Rearden is confronted by two thugs. In the instant when they strike him with clubs, he hears a gun blast, and a strong arm breaks his fall as he collapses into darkness...
He awakens in his office, the mill's doctor hovering over him. He asks who had saved his life. The doctor replies that it was Frankie, the new furnace foreman, who had learned of the plot and organized the defenses. Rearden asks to see him.
The door opens. Standing proudly, streaked with soot, is Francisco d'Anconia.
Rearden whispers, "You were my friend."
"I have a great deal to tell you," Francisco says. "I think you're ready to hear it."
The next morning, Dagny laughs triumphantly as James shrieks hysterically that Rearden has quit and vanished. The newspapers try to cover up the story as the nation slips into near-anarchy. They announce an upcoming radio address by Mr. Thompson on the world crisis, scheduled the night of November 22.
James tells Dagny that the head of state personally has invited her to confer with him at the studio before the broadcast. She arrives with Eddie Willers to find the whole Washington gang present; so is Robert Stadler. Just before eight o'clock, a technician rushes in with the news that all radio stations in the country have gone off the air simultaneously, their signals overwhelmed by waves of some unknown frequency and source. Mr. Thompson yells impotently for somebody to do something. "Isn't there a brain left in this country?"
"Ladies and gentlemen," says a voice from a nearby radio, "Mr. Thompson will not speak to you tonight. His time is up. I have taken it over...This is John Galt speaking."
In the three hours that follow, Galt tells the world about the strike and his reasons for it. He reveals the philosophical meaning and cause of the world's crisis and the cure: "We are on strike against self-immolation. We are on strike against the creed of unearned rewards and unrewarded duties. We are on strike against the dogma that the pursuit of one's happiness is evil. We are on strike against the doctrine that life is guilt." Damning the ideas of mysticism, altruism, and collectivism, he outlines the basis for a new morality: a morality of rational self-interest.
When the speech ends, Mr. Thompson demands that somebody tell him what to do. Dagny tells him to give up power. "Don't listen to her!" Robert Stadler cries. When she and Eddie leave in disgust, Stadler speaks of his former student coldly. "You must kill him...Watch that Taggart woman...She'll lead you to him, sooner or later."
"Kill him, you damned fool? We need him!" Thompson replies. "He knows what to do...We'll make a deal with him."
As violence begins to overwhelm the country, as more and more men of talent vanish each day, as fewer and fewer products appear in stores, as Rearden Steel is nationalized, then closed news broadcasts implore John Galt to negotiate with Mr. Thompson. There is no response.
Mr. Thompson warns Dagny that the national leadership is divided into two factions: his own, which abhors violence, and the Ferris-Meigs faction, which is urging him to control the nation through a reign of terror. Casually, he wonders aloud if their goons may already have found and killed Galt. His ploy works.
Desperately anxious, Dagny looks up Galt's address on the Taggart payroll. Then she makes her way through a slum neighborhood to an ancient tenement and rings the doorbell. The door opens and John Galt stands before her. She collapses in his arms.
He warns her that she undoubtedly has been followed. If the government learns what they mean to each other, they'll torture her to force him to comply with their orders. So when police arrive, he tells her, she is to turn him in and claim the reward. Reluctantly, Dagny agrees. Then he shows her a locked room: inside is his scientific laboratory, its equipment powered by his static electricity motor.
When a group of soldiers arrives, Galt and Dagny begin their charade. She identifies him, and he feigns anger. He refuses to open his laboratory door, and the goons force the lock only to find nothing inside but piles of dust.
They take Galt to the Wayne-Falkland Hotel, to create the illusion that he's not a prisoner; but armed guards are at his door. A series of visitors, beginning with Mr. Thompson, argue, beg, and threaten Galt to tell them what to do to save their skins. Thompson even offers him to become the economic dictator of the nation. Galt replies that he'll follow any order at gunpoint; but he won't think for them. "When you force a man to act against his own choice and judgment, it's his thinking that you want him to suspend. You want him to become a robot. I shall comply."
The other officials fare no better; most dread the prospect of facing again the eyes that see too much, the voice that names what they wish to evade. And as factories continue to close, and rioting expands into regional insurrections, pollsters find that nobody believes government propaganda that Galt is cooperating with them.
Dagny receives a message from Francisco telling her to watch the officials closely, and to call him when she thinks Galt needs help. The looters are at the end of their rope. Ferris suggests torture, which horrifies Mr. Thompson: he desperately doesn't want to believe that he's the thug Galt said he was.
Mr. Thompson asks Galt if there is anyone he wants to see, and he asks for Dr. Robert Stadler. His former teacher is ordered into Galt's hotel room. "I couldn't help it, John!" he cries. Galt remains silent, which drives Stadler into a soliloquy of apologies then excuses then self-righteous insults. "Who are you to blame me, you miserable failure?" he finally shouts. "Oh yes, you're going to be killed!... You are the man who has to be destroyed!" He stifles a scream as he realizes what he's said. "You have said everything I wanted to say to you," Galt says, and Stadler runs from the room.
A few days later, Galt is ordered to put on formal dinner clothes. He's led to the hotel ballroom by a man who presses a hidden gun into his ribs. They enter to the standing ovation of five hundred guests, and Galt is seated as the guest of honor, between Mr. Thompson and the goon. After dinner, television equipment rolls forward, and an announcer welcomes everyone to the inauguration of "the John Galt Plan." Speakers commend him for his genius as a planner, his practical know-how, his selfless leadership. Mr. Thompson declares that Galt is present of his own free will, motivated by love for mankind and a sense of duty. "And now you will hear his voice...Ladies and gentlemen, John Galt!"
Galt rises swiftly and leans to one side, exposing the goon's gun to the viewing world. Then, staring into the camera, he says: "Get the hell out of my way!"
Robert Stadler hears this on his car radio, en route to the Iowa site of Project X. After Galt summoned him, government officials became suspicious of his loyalties. He felt cornered...but then remembered Project X. It was his property, after all, the product of his ideas. He drives frantically, vaguely planning to take control of the weapon and use it to defend himself from the Washington savages.
By intimidation he blusters his way past the guards at the site, which has been taken over by Cuffy Meigs. He finds Meigs in the control room, drunk. They begin a shouting match dangerously near the instrument panel, and Stadler orders Meigs not to touch it. "I'll show you who's boss," Meigs roars, yanking a lever.
A crash of sound lifts and shatters the building and within a diameter of two hundred miles, cities and farmhouses collapse into rubble. On the periphery of the circle, at the Mississippi River, a train and half of the Taggart Bridge tumble into the water.
Back at the ballroom, Dagny who was one of the guests leaves the panicked crowd and finds Mr. Thompson and his associates huddled together. Ferris is saying that only "direct action" will work now that his "Ferris Persuader" at the State Science Institute in New Hampshire can force Galt to comply. James is eager to try the device; and finally even Mouch and Thompson go along.
Dagny phones Francisco, then hurries to her apartment and to her office to pack. Suddenly her chief engineer rushes in with the news of the destruction of the Taggart Bridge. Gasping, she leaps to the phone...then lowers it slowly.
"Miss Taggart! We don't know what to do!" the engineer cries.
"I don't, either," she answers slowly.
She leaves Taggart Transcontinental for the last time. Outside, she sees that Galt's statement and news of the Project X disaster has pushed the city into chaos. Francisco approaches her, and facing him, she solemnly repeats the Striker's Oath...
In the basement of a small concrete structure at the State Science Institute, John Galt lies naked, strapped to a mattress. Electrodes on his body lead to a machine, whose control panel is manned by a young mechanic. Taggart, Mouch, and Ferris sit nearby. Ferris tells Galt, "We want ideas or else." Galt remains silent. Ferris orders a series of electrical shocks sent through Galt's body. But he refuses to speak.
Suddenly the machine stops. The young mechanic stares at it with a look of incomprehension. Then they hear Galt's voice...instructing him on how to fix it.
Horrified, the mechanic runs from the room. "No!" James Taggart cries. "We've got to break him!...I want to break him! I want to hear him scream. I want-" And then Taggart himself screams, realizing that he wants Galt to die even if it means his own life.
Taggart collapses. Shaken, Ferris and Mouch lead him from the room.
Dagny, Francisco, Ragnar, and Rearden invade the grounds of the State Science Institute. After overcoming the guards in brief gun skirmishes, they race downstairs to the cellar. They free Galt and lead him back to their plane.
Before long the glowing skyline of New York rises before them. In moments, they are looking down at the city. Suddenly the buildings seem to vanish; it takes a moment to realize that the lights of New York have gone out...
On the Arizona desert, the train bearing Eddie Willers breaks down. The crew tries vainly to repair the engine. Then a line of covered wagons approaches. The leader tells Eddie that going on is useless: the Taggart Bridge to the East is now gone. The terrified passengers accept his offer to join his horse-drawn caravan. But Eddie refuses. "Don't let it go!" he cries, as they leave him in the darkness. Eddie steps to the front of the engine, looks up helplessly at the letters TT then collapses across the rails, sobbing.
Weeks pass... It is an evening in the valley. The strikers are putting finishing touches on their future plans. On a high ridge above them, Galt and Dagny walk in the starlight. Then Galt stops, looking off in the distance beyond the mountains.
"The road is cleared," he says. "We are going back to the world."
He raises his hand and, like a benediction, traces in space the sign of the dollar.