Review of Atlas Shrugged

The difficulty in reading Atlas Shrugged is Ayn Rand’s forcing the book to pull double-duty as both a novel about a national collapse and as a manifesto for her objectivist philosophy.

“Who is John Galt?”

The large scope of the novel’s plot centers on a couple industrialists—Dagny Taggart of Taggart Transcontinental Railroads and Hank Rearden of Rearden steel—as they attempt to maintain their property and free-will in an environment of increasing political and social hostility toward people of industry, wealth, and ambition. Other prominent people in business, art, and science are disappearing leaving less capable men to try to shoulder the burden. Dagny and Rearden are also beset by personal baggage such as her incompetent and envious brother, James, who has inherited the position as president of the railway and Rearden’s manipulative and emotionally dishonest wife, Lillian.

The forward progress of the novel, however, comes to prolonged stops when other characters take time to expound on the cornerstones of the author’s philosophy. Most notably at James’s wedding Fransico d’Anconia gives a speech on how money is not the root of all evil (380-385), the story of how a motor company was destroyed by enforced altruism (606-618), the theory of the strike of great minds (677-681), and perhaps most famously, the radio broadcast that lays out the principles of ethical egoism (923-979).

The Anti-Dickensian Aspect

On the one hand it is a bold move for Rand to take characters with what many readers will see as unlikable qualities—arrogance, inflexibility, ruthlessness, a lack of shame, and pride in wealth and accomplishment—and make them the protagonists. This choice is intentional in that it begins Rand’s attempt to break a reader’s preconceptions as to why someone should dislike these traits in the first place. If Dagny and Rearden were athletes, farmers (as in Steinbeck’s To A God Unknown) or working in a short-order restaurant (as in Russo’s Empire Falls) then a reader would think more highly of their drive and determination rather than see them as the affluent, merciless industrialists they first appear to be.

As the novel progresses a reader comes to admire the determination Dagny and Rearden show for two main reasons. First, they both produce tangible goods of known utility—efficient railways and metal alloys respectively. This quality immediately sets them apart from contemporary stereotypes of despicable businessmen as seen in Wall Street and American Psycho who acquire wealth by means of deception, hostile takeovers, and accounting tricks without actually producing anything of value. Secondly Dagny and Rearden become endearing to the reader because of the spineless and incompetent quality of their enemies. James, who seems a simpering brat from the start, becomes more repulsive over time because he undermines his sister’s productive efforts and clings tenaciously to a socialistic philosophy he cannot actually explain. The parade of nearly interchangeable bureaucrats who bully and blackmail all while using Doublespeak are similarly disgusting with their narrow-mindedness and demands to reap rewards after having done no work.

Lee Lawrie's colossal bronze Atlas, Rockefeller Center, New York
Lee Lawrie's colossal bronze Atlas, Rockefeller Center, New York | Source

Titans of Industry

It is these same character elements, however, that contribute to the weakness of the novel. Even when a character like James may have a relevant point—such as Rearden having stood on the shoulders of others to invent Rearden Metal—he cannot be taken seriously given his monolithic incompetence and destructive behavior. Most of the characters do not come across as human so much as archetypes to suit Rand’s philosophical purposes. Dagny is likely the most fully realized character, but her growth mostly consists of discovering that her feelings of self-esteem were right all along. She does not grow as a person as much as she simply is vindicated in her beliefs. She also progresses through a series of men each more invulnerable than the last. Fransico was her earliest instance of hero-worship. Rearden is often described as a man of stainless steel whose honor and pride cannot be tarnished by his wife’s manipulation or governmental attempts at blackmail. Lastly, John Galt who has a “face without pain or fear or guilt” is more of a messianic demigod whose brilliance not only stops the engine of the world but also saves the best and brightest of humanity to build a better future. Because most of these characters are larger than life, they have no recognizable human complexities. Eddie Willers, a middle-management type who struggles to do his best because of genuine affection and loyalty to Dagny and Taggart Transcontinental, is the most accessible character, but because he isn’t a genius and engages in virtue without renown he also seems the most tragic.

The Needs of the Few

Rand also sidesteps serious issues concerning the business of her protagonists and their world views. The role of labor has virtually no voice that isn’t corrupt within the novel, which is a serious stumbling point since any casual inquiry into the history of railroads and steel manufacturing will see they were brutal enterprises that often took advantage of people. It would be easier to leave such an issue critically unaddressed by saying, “that’s not the type of novel she was writing” if in fact Atlas Shrugged were just a novel and not also freighted with pages philosophical exposition. It seems a bit dishonest to advocate a philosophy with a strong economic component but to avoid major aspects, such as labor rights or supply and demand, related to how an industrialized economy works. Similarly, in a novel where characters are frequently reminding one another to check there premises, no one bothers to question the oath of Galt’s Gulch: “I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine” (671). This axiom is touched on in the radio broadcast, but it largely seems to be taken as the best possible worldview by all the protagonists with little examination as to why this standard of living should necessarily be better than what has come before.

Atlas Shrugged is worth reading if one is interested in a book of complex ideas and a few good mysteries. It works best as a kind of cautionary fable about the dangers of too much altruism and too little freedom. Unfortunately the book tells at least as much as it shows objectivist philosophy, which, combined with its mammoth size, will be off-putting to many readers. The subject matter, too, does not really cover ground not seen in Rand’s previous efforts like Anthem or Night of January 16 or in similar works such as Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm or even Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.”

Source

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Signet. 1996.

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Comments 20 comments

mckbirdbks profile image

mckbirdbks 5 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

You are the master of understatement, 'mammoth size, will be off-putting'. Well put together piece. Still 'Atlas Shrugged', is a must read. It is not light reading and not a novel for the beginner.


satomko profile image

satomko 5 years ago from Macon, GA Author

Thanks for reading, mckbirdbks. There's a lot of substance in Atlas Shrugged, and you're right that it's certainly not light reading.


Cogerson profile image

Cogerson 5 years ago from Virginia

Nice review.....when I saw the preview for the movie, I had not even heard of the book....thanks for sharing your review....the size of the book concerns me....my life is very very busy.....and Atlas Shrugged looks like a book that needs some attention paid to it....lol....voted up and useful


satomko profile image

satomko 5 years ago from Macon, GA Author

Cogerson, thanks for stopping by. I have not seen the movie, but I can presume it doesn't take as much time as the book. The book is thought provoking but requires a lot of time and effort.


Mr. Wonderful 5 years ago

Congratulations. For your dogged determination to finish Atlas Shrugged, you are now an ideal reader of its parody, to be found here:

http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/54707

All the bombast and twice the pretension, at 1/15th the length. Read it. There will be laffs.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

I read this book sometime about forty years ago, so much escapes my memory. However, it never really struck me as very literary. The characters seemed to be like chess pieces being moved around.Her philosophy is the basis of the Libertarian party which I like up to the point of wanting no regulations whatsoever.


satomko profile image

satomko 5 years ago from Macon, GA Author

Thanks for sharing, Mr. Wonderful.


satomko profile image

satomko 5 years ago from Macon, GA Author

You're correct, dahoglund, that Libertarians claim the economic elements of Objectivism as a founding philosophy. You're also right in that the characters in Atlas Shrugged are more like mouthpieces for different worldviews than fleshed-out characters.


ruffridyer 5 years ago from Dayton, ohio

She was not writing a summer read but rather a phlosophy book with a story line.


satomko profile image

satomko 5 years ago from Macon, GA Author

I don't believe she intended to write a thriller that people read while riding on an airplane or train. There's a lot of middle ground, however, between books that are dense philosophical exercise and books that are meant to be actions yarns, and I don't think Rand does an especially good job of finding it, which is fine so long as the reader knows what he or she is getting into.


Anaya M. Baker profile image

Anaya M. Baker 5 years ago from North Carolina

For me, Atlas Shrugged is on the list of books I really want to read, but will probably never get to. The size is intimidating, but more than that, I think that the more I hear about the politics and philosophy behind it all, the more I feel put off. However, its a bit difficult to say I disagree with her stance when I haven't yet gotten around to actually reading it. So one of these days, I suppose. Excellent analysis by the way. I'm intrigued by Rand, and I think your hub might be the best, and definitely the most objective, piece I've read on Atlas. Voted up and useful:)


satomko profile image

satomko 5 years ago from Macon, GA Author

Thank you, Anaya. I, too, was hesitant about Atlas Shrugged. I would recommend Rand's shorter books like Anthem and We the Living as test cases. If you can get through those then you can do Atlas Shrugged, too.


Anaya M. Baker profile image

Anaya M. Baker 5 years ago from North Carolina

Thanks Satomko :) I think I will go the shorter route.


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Very good Hub, well-written and clear explication of Rand's book. It has been about twenty years since I read it and as I recall you are right, the characters are not well developed, but serve as archetypes to illustrate her political and economic philosophy. Interesting philosophy, but taken to an extreme, it has its problems.

So you are in Macon, I am in Atlanta, well the suburb Marietta, and I teach history at Reinhardt University which is about 75 minutes north of Atlanta. [Not sure why I felt compelled to give you a geography lesson.] :)


satomko profile image

satomko 4 years ago from Macon, GA Author

Thank you for your comments, phdast7, and I always appreciate a geography lesson.


LisaKoski profile image

LisaKoski 4 years ago from WA

I read Anthem and The Fountainhead but when it came to this novel I had a really hard time sticking to it. I read a little over 100 pages then had to stop because it just wasn't holding my attention at all. I really like your review of it here because you make a lot of interesting points.


satomko profile image

satomko 4 years ago from Macon, GA Author

I'm glad you enjoyed the review, LisaKoski. You probably made the right move in that if the book isn't holding your interest early on then you'd certainly find it cumbersome to get through several later sections. If you've read Rand's other works, though, you most likely have a good idea of her thematic focus.


Eckman 4 years ago

For a book that is 1,100 pages long,it takes reading a few hundred pages in to start to appreciate the story.i read it once every five years or so,5 times now and counting.


satomko profile image

satomko 4 years ago from Macon, GA Author

That's some dedicated readership, Eckman. Thank you for your comment.


Sunflower-reads profile image

Sunflower-reads 4 years ago from San Diego, California

Thanks for this great hub! I'm inspired to pick up a copy and start reading/studying Atlas Shrugged once again.

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