Atlas Shrugged is a novel written by Objectivist founder and advocate Ayn Rand. It was originally published in 1957; today, it is published by Signet Books. If you are looking for it, it has ISBN numbers 0451191145 (mass market paperback), 0452011876 (Plume paperback), and 0525934189 (Scribner hardcover). It is also available in an online audio format at audible.com, as well is abridged audio cassette, unabridged audio cassette, and unabridged audio CD.
Writing a summary of this book is very difficult. It is a mix of a philosophical text and a novel, one that addresses a lot of contemporary issues and one that often drives directly to the heart of many of today's social questions. Rand's personal beliefs and ideas are expressed throughout this book and are so tightly intermingled with the plot that it is difficult to separate them. So, bear with me if I occasionally slip in some subjectiveness into what I hope will be largely an Objective discussion of this book. I am sure, however, that as I write this my own opinions will come through, so I'll be sure to make it clear if I fear I'm slipping too close to my opinion over fact (where it might not be obvious).
The Plot of Atlas Shrugged
The book mostly revolves around Dagny Taggart, a woman raised from an early age to be the head of Taggart Transcontinental, the largest and most powerful railroad in the United States. She falls in love with Francisco d'Anconia; like her, he is an industrial heir, but he will one day gain control of the world's biggest copper concern, D'Anconia Copper. The pair have a brief affair, but one day he reluctantly breaks things off, telling Dagny that he has made a difficult decision. He tells her mysteriously that she will soon feel as though he has betrayed her. Over the next few years, Francisco becomes a playboy, filling the newspapers with scandal and seemingly becoming a worthless person.
Over the next few years, America slowly descends into corruption and inefficiency. Dagny is made head of Taggart Transcontinental, then demoted to the position of Vice President in Charge of Operations in favor of her brother, who is portrayed as stupid and corrupt. The laws begin to hamstring industrialists through countless government regulations, and Dagny feels like giving up, but the love she has for her railroad keeps her nose to the grindstone. She is forced to fill positions with incompetent and weak-willed men, and as time goes on, the workforce becomes less and less capable. At the same time, the greatest minds are disappearing seemingly from the face of the earth; they are abandoning their industries and studies and abruptly disappearing, leaving behind a world descending into chaos.
In the midst of this, Dagny falls in love with Hank Rearden, the head of Rearden Steel, which is the only worthwhile steel concern left in the United States. He is also a skilled metallurgist, and he has invented Rearden Metal, a very strong and lightweight steel alloy which Dagny recognizes as having the power to revolutionize the railroad industry. The two of them build a railway made out of this steel and it is a great success; trains can move along it faster than ever before. But for seemingly no reason, the governments restrict its use and the newspapers deem it unsafe, so the new railroad has to close up shop.
On the verge of giving up, Dagny and Hank travel around the country in search of industrial machines with which to keep their crippled companies going. After several interesting side-trips, the pair wind up in an abandoned factory in Wisconsin, where they find the incomplete model of an amazing invention, an engine capable of gathering static electricity from the air and producing huge amounts of power. This engine could of course revolutionize every industry known to man, so Dagny sets out to study the discovery and perhaps find the discoverer.
Dagny hires a young scientist named Quentin Daniels to construct a prototype of the engine from the model and a few sketches she was able to find. Quentin agrees to do so and he is extremely enthusiastic about the project. As the years go forward, more and more businessmen and scientists are disappearing, and the government tries desperately to institute regulations to control those that remain. After a while, Dagny receives a letter from Quentin Daniels informing her that he will no longer work on the engine because he doesn't want to be responsible for giving the decaying world such a gift. She flies to his home to try to persuade him to keep working on the project, but she arrives just in time to see Quentin take off in another airplane. She follows the airplane into the Rocky Mountains, but suddenly the plane seems to crash into the rocks. Shocked but desperate, Dagny causes her plane to chase Quentin straight into the rocks, and she blacks out just as the plane reaches the floor; this is the halfway point of the book, both storywise and physically.
She is awakened by John Galt, who turns out to be the person who has been drawing away the industrialists and great minds. He was also the inventor of the engine that Dagny had discovered with Hank. It turns out that the rocky floor was just a disguise, and under it is a wonderful valley where all of the industrialists have gone, to be on strike from this crippled world. A few days later, Francisco arrives and informs her that he was one of the first men to quit. He remained as head of d'Anconia Copper in order to destroy it and bring many corrupt men down with it. As fascinated as Dagny is with the situation, she chooses to return to the railroad that she loves.
When she returns, Hank Rearden disappears after the government instigates a strike in his mill in order to force him to accept strict government regulation of the steel industry. Dagny is glad that Hank has left to join the industrialists, but still she stays. After a while, she discovers that John Galt has worked for Taggart Transcontinental for years, keeping an eye on her. She finds out where he lives, and the two have an affair.
One night, John Galt assumes control of every radio frequency in the United States and broadcasts a speech to the country, outlining his principles (essentially, it's Rand's way of sneaking in a thirty page essay on Objectivism into the novel). In response, the government stalks Galt, arrests him, and takes him prisoner. The President offers him the position of Economic Dictator, but Galt laughs in his face, demanding only freedom for himself and for everyone else. As a result, Galt is tortured and beaten, but he refuses to submit.
Seeing all this, Dagny realizes that by maintaining her railroad, she's merely helping to continue this situation. She retires from Taggart Transcontinental and a group of the industrialists break Galt out of the government installation in New York where he is being kept. As they fly away, the lights of New York City go dark one by one as the nation descends into darkness.
What Atlas Shrugged is About
Much like The Fountainhead, the underlying purpose of Atlas Shrugged is to express in novel form the ideas of Ayn Rand, mostly the philosophy of Objectivism. However, this novel takes a different view; rather than painting a picture how exactly people reflect Objectivist ideals in everyday life as in The Fountainhead, this novel takes the perspective of asking the question of what happens when all of the "good" Objectivists are removed from the world. As a result, this novel is probably more controversial.
Basically, Atlas Shrugged is a fictionalized depiction of the causes, results, and ultimate implications of man's slow descent into moral and philosophical self-destruction. The novel is set in the near future (actually, given that the novel was written in the 1950s, today it comes off like the recent past) but its many historical and contemporary references are meant to demonstrate that the dangers of intellectual stagnation are plausible and imminent. In other words, she chooses ideas and references to convince the reader that such things are actually going on.
In the novel, the intellectuals rebel against a society that preaches altruism and fair play. Basically, this novel's society at large is a society that teaches struggling victims that sacrifices for the sake of others is proper and moral and one that indoctrinates its youth with a vicious, destructive skepticism. In other words, she's painting a caricature of today's society. She paints the picture that need is the most important claim to virtue and thus productive, capable men are forced into virtual enslavement by a vicious code of directives intended to eliminate all economic class distinctions.
In this abstraction of today's world, she is partially right and partially wrong. Yes, the government does attempt to regulate industries and support the poor through programs such as welfare and ADC. On the other hand, the average American standard of living is higher than ever before; if you doubt this, simply ask as many elders as you can for anecdotal evidence, or simply dig into the statistics of the matter. Even adjusted for inflation, the average American is richer today than fifty years ago.
The characters in the novel are mostly just stylized representations of the two primary forces at work in Rand's world and in our world: rationality and irrationality. Those few who do not completely fit within one category or the other are specifically designed to demonstrate the conflict between the two forces within the framework of a single life; in other words, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden are major focuses of the novel because within them is the real struggle of the novel.
The book seems to say that morality stems from the ability to accept and fulfill man's potential as a rational being; this is perfectly in line with her philosophy of Objectivism. Because of this, the figurative heroes of the book (industrialists) gain a stronger sense of joy and passion from life than the other characters, simply because they are not afraid of reality due to the fact that they do accept man's potential for good in the world. In other words, she makes her heroes appear great to make her philosophy appear great.
John Galt is the principal hero of the novel. He is basically the ultimate human being in every way, especially in light of Rand's ideas. He is completely without fear and suffering; even as the government tortures him near the end, he revels in the fact that he is right. Basically, he represents Rand's ideal in every way, and where he doesn't (where the limits of her ideal lay), she fills in other positive characteristics. John Galt is the embodiment of her ideals.
There are two more major themes to be book, to my eyes. One is that the central character, Dagny Taggart, achieves a greater understanding of what is good and bad (at least, Rand's definition of good and bad) through living life itself. Only through the experience of living does Dagny begin to comprehend what is the ultimate good in this universe.
Another is that of memes. Memes play a major part in this book. The rhetorical question, "Who is John Galt?" is a common thread throughout the book, as is the whistling and humming of a symphony that was never performed. The underlying idea is that a great man creates the meme, but the simpler minds pass it around like intellectual currency.
Many of the minor characters in themselves raise interesting questions. Ragnar Danneskjöld asks moral questions about piracy. James Taggart brings about issues of ethics in business. Francisco D'Anconia makes one ponder the role of society's influence in big business and the worship of celebrity. This book is absolutely chock full of questions to ponder, so if you like your fiction with a dollop of thinking, this is probably right up your alley.
There are many more issues buried in this immense book. Read it, enjoy it, and think about it for yourself. You might not agree with Rand's ideas, but they are at least worth considering, especially when delivered with the sweet sugar coating of a novel form.