Rebirth of Reason


"Atlas Shrugged": A Novel of Human Action
by Edward W. Younkins


Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is a story of human action on a grand scale. In it Rand skillfully ties physical actions to important human values.  Although the author also deals with mental portraiture and analysis, her primary concern is with human action.  She selects and integrates actions and events that dramatize the theme of the novel which is “the role of the mind in human existence.” Atlas Shrugged is a story about human beings in action.  Rand thinks in essentials in uniting all the issues of the actions in the novel.  Her concern is with values and issues that can be expressed in action.  The story’s plot action is based on the integration of values and action and of mind and body.  Rand thereby shows actions supporting wide abstract principles. 

The Plot, Plot-Theme, and Plot Action

Atlas Shrugged’s plot-theme, the mind on strike, is the essential line of its events. It is the central means of presenting the theme and the main conflict and of linking the theme to the action. More specifically, the plot-theme is the “men of the mind going on strike against an altruist-collectivist society.” This is the central situation that dramatizes and expresses Atlas Shrugged’s abstract theme.

Rand presents conflict in terms of action thus creating a purposeful progression of events. To do this she portrays strong willful characters, the creators and the looters, who are in sharp moral conflict with one another. She thereby magnificently expresses the plot conflict in action. Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, the primary creators, philosophically are against the looters, but in action they support them. In addition, existentially Dagny and Rearden oppose Galt and the strikers but philosophically they agree with them. The plot of Atlas Shrugged is a story of human action from which moral issues cannot be separated.

The major plot of Atlas Shrugged is the story of the strike. Rand gradually supplies hints and clues with respect to the existence of the strike. Through the use and emphasis of subsidiary surface plots she is able to keep the events of the major plot hidden and to reveal the strike only in a step-by-step and retrospective manner. These secondary cover plots include: (1) Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden’s struggle to save their respective companies and industries primarily through the construction of the John Galt Line and (2) Dagny’s quests to find the inventor of the revolutionary motor and to find and stop the destroyer who is draining the brains of the world. Through the pursuit of the above objectives, the main plot is revealed, the mystery is solved, the question “Who is John Galt?” is answered, and the reasons for the collapse of the railroad and of industrial society are understood. The plot of Atlas Shrugged has an inexorable internal logic in which the intellectual puzzle is acted out and solved by the heroes.

There are dual lines of action in Atlas Shrugged involving the observable and the unobservable. We perceive Dagny and Hank struggling to build the John Galt line and searching for the inventor of the motor. We also see the looters, their policies, and the disastrous consequences of their policies. What is not discernible is John Galt removing the men of the mind from the world and relocating them in Mulligan’s Valley. The key link between these two levels of action is Eddie Willers who unknowingly feeds information to John Galt, disguised as the grease-stained worker with whom Eddie has lunch.

Rand portrays the heroes of Atlas Shrugged overcoming obstacles. It is they who move the world and carry it on their shoulders. They (especially Dagny and Hank) are shown to be self-starters and the motive power of their own happiness. The producers are dramatized as self-initiated valuers who go by their own judgment and seek their own well-being. It is the self-actuating rational valuers who propel the world and sustain it. Rand’s heroes are extraordinary characters who represent people as they could be and should be.

Atlas Shrugged is a study of the great producers who have the ability to see, make connections, and create what has not been seen before. It shows that the mind is at the root of the creation and maintenance of wealth. The passionate producer is the prime mover and visible hand in markets. Production, like existence, is a primary and rests on the laws of identity and causality. Consumption comes after, and depends upon, production. According to Rand, if human life is the standard, then productive work is a major virtue and entrepreneurs and industrialists can be viewed as potentially heroic. Recognizing the integration of mind and body, Rand contended that the rational, purposeful, and creative character of human action is manifested in the act of material production.

The construction of the John Galt Line most directly concretizes the mind’s role in human life. Much of the rest of the novel illustrates the consequences of the absence of the men of the mind. Atlas Shrugged teaches that prosperity and productivity depend upon the mind by showing both the presence and absence of the producers in the world.

Dramatization and Symbolism

The most crucial events in Atlas Shrugged are dramatized. The key events are shown to the reader as if they were occurring before his eyes. Rand also uses flashbacks (e.g., Eddie Willers  thinking back to his childhood) to convey important information. Less critical information is simply narrated.

Rand applies her inductive theory of concept formation in writing Atlas Shrugged, as well as in her other works of fiction. Rand projects important abstractions dealing with values, virtues, emotions, and so on in specific concrete actions. She first presents a visual description by means of providing essentials and then gives the philosophical or symbolic meaning of that description.

Atlas Shrugged is primarily presented to the reader in a form that a person would perceive it in real life. Although Rand chooses the focus or perspective, she presents the reader with direct and objective sensory evidence and does not tell him what to think or to feel. She provides information by giving the reader precise, concrete, objective facts and observational details. The reader is given the evidence in context and it is up to him to make a reasoned judgment.

Rand mainly dramatizes the meaning of Atlas Shrugged in action, but still effectively uses some symbolism as a subsidiary technique. She typically first illustrates an idea in action and then uses a symbol to bring conceptual or abstract content down to the perceptual level. It follows that there are no “floating symbols” in Atlas Shrugged. Rand has the reader initially experience particular concrete actions in order to have enough information to inductively derive and understand the principle involved, and only then does she employ a symbol to capture the essence of the abstraction. The idea that a visible or tangible symbol represents is something universal or abstract. Key symbols in Atlas Shrugged include: (1) The Oak Tree; (2) The Calendar; (3) The Bracelet of Rearden Metal (in the form of a chain); (4) Wyatt’s Torch; (5) The Sign of the Dollar; (6) Galt’s Motor; and (7) The Cigarette.


Rand adeptly presents the nature of the heroes and villains in Atlas Shrugged in terms of their motives. Her main means of characterization are actions and dialogue (i.e., words in the context of a character’s actions). By observing a Randian character’s actions and hearing his conversations, a reader is able to grasp the motives of the character and to discern what is at the philosophical root of the character. Rand masterfully integrates a character’s internally consistent actions, decisions, and words with his motives. The particular details she presents are related to wider fundamental abstractions and deeper motivations of the character presented. A man’s basic values and premises form his character and inspire him to action.

In her stylized portraits of the characters in Atlas Shrugged, Rand presents no random details and focuses on the essentials to understanding each character. By eliminating irrelevant and trivial attributes and actions, her characters become moral projections. Rand’s characters are persons in whom certain characteristics and behaviors are pinpointed more consistently and sharply than in typical human beings. Her method is to focus selectively on motives, traits, and especially actions that constitute character differences. Rand realizes that what a hero or villain in a novel does paints him better than what he says and enormously better than whatever the author may say about him. A man’s actions always reveal key aspects of his character such as the way he looks at life and his moral and mental positions. By excluding superficial or accidental facets of a character’s personality, Rand makes certain that attention is not averted from essential purposes and motives. As a result, the reader is able to gain clear and deep insight into characters such as the self-made martyred industrialist on mixed moral premises (Hank Rearden), the ideal epic heroine (Dagny Taggart), the supremely able man who enjoys an exalted life on earth (Francisco d’Anconia), the brilliant scientist turned moral traitor and looter-politician (Robert Stadler), the envious nihilist death worshiper (James Taggart), the vacuous power-luster (Lillian Rearden), and so on.

The Philosophical Speeches

The lengthy, philosophical speeches in Atlas Shrugged are integrated parts of the plot, make explicit the principles dramatized throughout the actions of the novel, and propel the story forward. For example, Francisco’s “money speech” addresses Rearden’s moral confusion, frees him from his feelings of guilt, aids him in his trial, and moves him closer to understanding what is wrong with the world and to joining the strike.

In addition, Galt’s speech on the radio ties together all the ideas previously dramatized in action in the novel, leads to Galt’s capture and the story’s climax, hastens the collapse, and makes the rebuilding of society easier. Galt’s speech is necessary in order to understand the climax of the novel. When the looters hear his speech, they realize that he is the best thinker in the world and thus search for him in order to enlist his help in saving the deteriorating economy,. It is the speech that moves Galt from mythical to concrete status in the novel.  The events and actions prior to the speech provide the inductive evidence needed to derive the principle that “the mind is man’s tool of survival.” By then the reader and the American people in the novel have seen the men of the mind in the world, their gradual disappearance, the effects of the looters’ policies, and the resulting crumbling of the world.  It is through this speech that Galt demonstrates the value of the men of the mind.  Galt’s long speech is warranted because the detailed and complex events previously presented concretize the message given in his speech. The knowledge contained in Galt’s speech is what convinced the strikers earlier in the novel to abandon their firms and to retreat to Galt’s Gulch. The philosophy of the morality of life embodied in the speech is what the producers needed to hear and accept in order for them to realize their own greatness and to stand up against the looters. Galt’s speech was not given until the American people were ready to hear it. In large part, his objective statement is addressed to the common but rational listeners in an effort to gain their support by going on strike themselves. After a brief introduction, Galt’s speech is broken into three parts: (1) the Morality of Life (i.e., The Code of the Producers); (2) the Morality of Death (i.e., The Code of the Looters); and (3) the importance of choosing the morality of life (i.e., acting as a rational human being).

A Novel of Free Will, Moral Codes, and Human Action

A Romantic novel like Atlas Shrugged presumes man’s free will, freedom to choose, and his ability to attain a purpose.  A rational being can select a goal, act to achieve it, and discover or create the means to accomplish it.  A human being can initiate and make choices about what he will do.  A person’s free will choice is the cause and the cause generates certain effects.

Atlas Shrugged dramatizes and explains that what is primary in studying human action is the nature of man and that man’s distinctive mode of action includes rationality and free will.  Rand portrays men as rational beings with free will who have the ability to form their own purposes and aims.  She shows that human action involves purposeful, intentional, and normative behavior.

Rand illustrates man as a rational being who needs a moral code to guide his actions.  She shows that the concept of value is the crucial and determining element in a man’s life.  The events and characters of Atlas Shrugged thus portray the philosophical principles that affect the actual existence of men in the world.  The conflict between the looters and the creators dramatizes the struggle between contradictory values and moralities.  Because human values are abstractions made from observations, the reader is given concretes in the novel in order for the abstract values to become real for him. 

By including only that which is essential, Rand illustrates the connections between metaphysical abstractions and their concrete expressions.  Atlas Shrugged is a feat of complex structural integration.  The author carefully selected the details with no event, character, line of dialogue, or description included that does not further and reinforce the theme of the importance of reason.  Nothing is thrown in arbitrarily.  Rand was aware of the specific purpose of every chapter, paragraph, and sentence and could state a reason for every word and punctuation mark in the novel.

Atlas Shrugged is the systematic dramatization of a rational philosophy that includes a view of life as exaltation and of the universe as benevolent.  It depicts conflict in action between whim-worshipping looters who seek power over men and the creators who accept, learn, and deal with the absolute laws of nature and existence.  The secondhanders are concerned with “who makes it possible?” meaning both whom they should enslave and whom they should get to enslave them. The creators are thus shown being sacrificed to the parasites.  Atlas Shrugged also dramatizes that the irrational looters need the assistance of rational people in order to succeed.  The moral code of self-sacrifice is used against and accepted by the creators who are made to feel guilt for their achievements and wealth.  This is the “sanction of the victim” moral principle.  In order to get the men of the mind and other rational (or at least semi-rational) people to withdraw their sanction of the altruist ethics, Galt shows the altruist ethics’ irrationality and inability to deal with reality through his persuasive arguments and the strike itself.
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