Review of Atlas Shrugged
“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.
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.”
Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Signet. 1996.
© 2011 Seth Tomko