A Reader’s Guide to Atlas Shrugged, Part 4
Spoiler Alert: You do not need a reader’s guide to Atlas Shrugged—at least not for your first reading. Ayn Rand’s novel is clear, compelling, eminently readable, and perfectly comprehensible on its own terms. Yet Atlas is also a rich and complex novel, with an intricate plot in which dozens of moving parts mesh together and many minor themes are woven in amongst the novel’s big philosophical issues. It rewards further study, and my goal in this series is to share what I’ve learned about the novel over decades of reading it and thinking about it.
This series assumes that you have already read Atlas Shrugged. That means there will be plenty of “spoilers”: discussion of important plot points that will ruin the novel’s suspense for someone who does not already know how it all turns out. I don’t want any reader to find himself slapping his forehead in the middle of one of these articles and thinking: if only I hadn’t missed out on this experience that has now been wrecked for me.
So take this spoiler warning seriously. I mean it.
If you haven’t read the novel and need some inducement, read the overview I wrote on the 50th anniversary of its publication—then go read Atlas Shrugged, then come back to this.—RWT
This is Part 4 of an open-ended series.
Atlas Shrugged begins with the question “Who is John Galt?” Initially, this is meant as a figure of speech, as a rhetorical question that means something like, “Who can do the impossible?” But as the story progresses, we come to realize that it has a more specific meaning, and one that can be answered: that John Galt is a real person who has a central role in the plot. We get the answer at the beginning of Part 3, when Dagny Taggart crashes her plane in the hidden valley in Colorado and meets John Galt in person. (I did give you a spoiler alert, right?) We find out how big a role he has in the plot as all of the pieces come together: in addition to being the direct inspiration for the popular catchphrase, John Galt is the inventor of the motor, the third pupil of Hugh Akston and Robert Stadler, the “destroyer” who is making all of the industrialists disappear, and so on.
But we don’t just meet John Galt as a plot point, and the question “Who is John Galt?” is about more than the philosophy he stands for. Remember that his first direct appearance in the novel is a page-long description just of his face. Ayn Rand clearly wanted to show us John Galt, not as an abstraction, but as a real person, as an individual with specific characteristics.
Yet this is the thing many reader have difficulty with: grasping Galt as an individual, as a fully fleshed out, living person. I know that this was the case when I first read Atlas Shrugged. Hank Rearden, I understood. I had a very concrete sense of who Dagny Taggart was and what she would look and sound like. But Galt was still a bit of an enigma, and I’ve heard from other readers—not just uncharitable reviewers, but fans of the novel—who had a similar experience.
Yet Galt did eventually come together for me as a real character, which is where the uncharitable reviewers are wrong. If he does not come across initially as a fully real character, it is not for lack of actual characterization. Rather, I suspect that it is because of the nature of the character and the nature of the medium. Literature inherently relies on the reader’s imagination. An author provides a few telling details or clues to a character’s appearance, mannerisms, and voice, but only the reader can give him full concrete reality by projecting all of the details the author cannot describe. If the character of Galt is harder to grasp as a real person, it is because it is harder for a new reader to figure out how to imagine him.
(This, incidentally, is the big challenge—and opportunity—of a film adaptation, which has no choice but to make Galt fully real, providing to the viewer what a reader’s imagination might not be able to project.)
The reader’s difficulty in making John Galt real reflects the fact that Galt is Ayn Rand’s projection of a new kind of man, a man who is an embodiment of ideas that are far from the known and expected. So it’s not that the details aren’t there; readers generally start to appreciate them on the second or third reading. It’s just that Galt is a character so new that he takes a little getting used to.
This is, in fact, what makes him interesting. How disappointing would it be if we waited more than six hundred pages to meet John Galt, only to find that he fits some pre-existing mold, and it’s possible to take in his character in a few pages? To be the central figure of such a sprawling, complex mystery, he must be not only unusual but initially inscrutable. He has to be an enigma that takes time to unravel.
Ayn Rand provided her own analogy. A few pages after Dagny meets Galt, here is how she thinks about him.
She noticed that she had asked questions about every subject, but not about him. It was as if he were a single whole, grasped by her first glance at him, like some irreducible absolute, like an axiom not to be explained any further, as if she knew everything about him by direct perception, and what awaited her now was only the process of identifying her knowledge.
Since we, the novel’s readers, don’t have the benefit of Dagny’s direct perception, the process of identifying her knowledge about Galt means that Galt’s character is slowly unfolded to us over several hundred pages.
So what are the specifics of his character that help us to understand who he is and to make him real? Who is this John Galt fellow, really?
I have recently had occasion to look at this question in a lot of depth and with a certain degree of urgency, and here is what I gleaned.
First, for a guy who is famous for giving a very long, very philosophical speech, Galt’s style of speaking is the complete opposite in ordinary conversation. He is a man of monosyllabic answers and short declarative sentences. In roughly his first two pages of dialogue, he never speaks a sentence longer than six words: “I have known you for many years.” Complicated stuff. He gets drawn out a little bit more when asked about the “ray screen” that camouflages the valley. But he quickly returns to his penchant for “yes” and “no” answers.
The actual effect of this, particularly in the early scenes in the novel, is a paradoxical. On the one hand, Ayn Rand is heightening the sense of Galt’s inscrutability. His short answers are notable as much for what they leave out as for what they include. They are answers to the literal, direct meaning of Dagny’s questions, but they don’t volunteer answers to the wider mysteries she is trying to solve. On the other hand, he never evades the truth or dances around it. He never states a fact indirectly or in euphemisms. The signature exchange of these early scenes is when Galt is taking Dagny on a tour of the valley and he is pointing out the farms and businesses run by the vanished industrialists we remember from earlier on in the story, particularly the men from Colorado who supported the John Galt Line.
As they drove on along the edge of the lake, she asked, “You’ve mapped this route deliberately, haven’t you? You’re showing all the men whom”—she stopped, feeling inexplicably reluctant to say it, and said, instead—”whom I have lost?”
“I’m showing you all the men whom I have taken away from you,” he answered firmly.
This was the root, she thought, of the guiltlessness of his face: he had guessed and named the words she had wanted to spare him, he had rejected a good will that was not based on his values—and in proud certainty of being right, he had made a boast of that which she had intended as an accusation.
The simplicity of Galt’s speech reflects the direct simplicity of declaring the truth. Similarly, in reading through Galt’s dialogue, I noticed that there is a specific word that is characteristic of him. It’s subtle, but it is a word he uses repeatedly, which is not used frequently by any other character. The word is “sure,” used as an answer to a question, as in this exchange with Dagny.
“You knew that I was coming for Quentin Daniels?”
“You got him first and fast, in order not to let me reach him? In order to beat me—knowing fully what sort of beating that would mean for me?”
Used in this way, “sure” doesn’t just mean “yes.” It also means: I am certain of it. I am certain that it is true, and I am certain that it is good and right.
This leads us to the central aspect of Galt’s character, the key to his style of speech, his appearance, and his mannerisms: his sense of serenity. He is not serene in the modern, Zen Buddhist sense of shutting down the mind and shutting out the world. Quite the opposite. He is serene because he sees so much, because he sees the connections between events and understands why they are the way they are and have to be that way.
Remember the old prayer about having the serenity to accept the things you cannot change? This is a virtue Galt has mastered, without the need for prayer. He has mastered it, not just with regard to physical reality, but with regard to other people. He understands that one of the things he cannot change is the fact that other people have to make their own choices based on their own knowledge.
This is crucial to his relationship with Dagny. She spends most of Part 3 in a state of indecision, torn between her admiration for Galt and her refusal to abandon the fight for her remaining values in the world outside the valley. Yet even though this indecision puts Galt at personal risk, he is never angry or impatient with her. Having watched her and admired her for ten years, he knows the extent of her persistence in fighting for her values, and he knows that he will not simply be able to walk into her life and cause her to make an instant conversion. If he had thought he could do that, he would have done it much earlier. So knowing her state of mind, he accepts everything that follows from it.
You can see this particularly in the scene after Galt’s Speech when Dagny tracks him down at his apartment to make sure that he is still alive. He immediately realizes that Dagny has been followed and that he will be caught by the looters’ regime, yet here is his reaction.
She knew that his eyes were grasping this moment, then sweeping over its past and its future, that a lightning process of calculation was bringing it into his conscious control—and by the time a fold of his shirt moved with the motion of his breath, he knew the sum—and the sum was a smile of radiant greeting….
She saw the laughter in his eyes.
He then tells her, “I would have been disappointed if you hadn’t come,” because her need to find him is a reflection of how much he means to her. Yet at the same time he acknowledges that this means he will be captured and could be tortured or killed.
It is this preternatural skill at accepting the facts no matter what that makes his character so outside of the normal and makes him hard for readers to relate to or understand. His serene acceptance of all facts removes a lot of the commonplace motivations or emotional reactions that the reader would expect from an ordinary person. Galt is not prone to anger, jealousy, or even annoyance. That he doesn’t react like an ordinary person is what makes his character interesting. But for readers who have a hard time seeing beyond those ordinary, surface-level emotions and motivations, Galt will seem to have abnormal reactions to the events around him or to have no reaction at all. This is why some readers conclude that the character of Galt is empty and unrealistic. But Ayn Rand is asking us to rise to Galt’s level, to see the world from his perspective, and to emulate his virtue of accepting every fact as it comes. Which is, in fact, extraordinarily difficult to do.
Note one other distinctive characteristic of Galt. His usual reaction to big events is serenity combined with amusement. Again, this is because he sees so much and sees how events fit together—”his eyes were grasping this moment, then sweeping over its past and its future, [and] a lightning process of calculation was bringing it into his conscious control”—so by the time he reacts, he sees that an event which might seem like an unpleasant surprise was inevitable all along. His sense of amusement comes from seeing a larger picture and wider context in which a seemingly negative event actually has a positive meaning.
This is not to say that Galt anticipates everything that happens, and it is his reaction to the unexpected that provides the most interesting development of his character.
As usual, this goes against the conventional wisdom, which holds that the reason Galt is difficult to understand is that he has no “character arc,” no process by which his character undergoes a change in ideas or perspective. Because he is like an axiom, an irreducible whole grasped at once, he does not change. A character arc is important because seeing how a character changes is an important part of how we get to know who he is. This is one reason why Hank Rearden tends to be the character most readers understand. In the first two sections of the novel, he is the character who changes the most.
But Galt does have a character arc, not so much because he changes his character, but because the events of Part 3 draw out new aspects of his character that are different from what the reader might expect. When we first meet him in the valley, Galt is the man with a plan, the genius who instantly projects the causes and consequences of every event. Like a chess grandmaster, he sees every move twelve steps ahead. When we meet him, his big long-range plan, the strike of the men of the mind, is going according to plan and even better than planned. Yet he didn’t plan on Dagny’s arrival in the valley and her discovery of him and of the strike before she was intellectually and psychologically ready. That unexpected event will ultimately cause him to throw out his long-range plan and seize the moment, destroying the anonymity that had previously kept him safe in the outside world.
Galt’s character arc can be best be understood by looking at how it connects with Dagny’s character arc.
The development of both characters starts at the same point: at their first meeting after Dagny’s crash-landing in the valley. This may see odd, in Dagny’s case, because we have been following her as our protagonist for six hundred pages. Up to that point, she has been more than interesting enough to sustain our attention, but she has had no actual character arc. She has had a series of adventures and experienced triumphs and setbacks, but while her circumstances have changed, she herself has not changed—until she arrives in the valley, at which point she undergoes a dramatic shift.
In looking at Part 3 on its own, I had expected that the characterization of John Galt would be the biggest challenge. In fact, the biggest challenge is the characterization of Dagny. This is partly because, in the novel, Part 3 is not taken on its own. It follows hundreds of pages in which we have gotten to know Dagny very well, so when our protagonist arrives in the valley, Ayn Rand doesn’t feel the need to provide any further characterization for her. In the early scenes of Part 3, therefore, Dagny is used mostly as a vehicle for showing us the characters and way of life in the valley.
But the characterization of Dagny in Part 3 also reflects a shift in her character caused by her meeting with Galt. Up to that point, we are used to seeing her distinctive style of action, which I call “Dagny Taggart Mode.” The basic pattern goes like this: somebody rushes in to report an emergency, saying, “Miss Taggart, we don’t know what to do.” Dagny immediately assesses the situation, comes up with a solution, and starts giving orders. At some point somebody asks who’s going to be responsible for giving the orders, and she says, “I will.” This is what we see the very first time we meet Dagny, when the Comet is stopped at a defective signal, and it’s the last thing we see before she arrives in the valley, when she deputizes Owen Kellogg and Jeff Allen to get the “frozen” train moving again. That first scene ends with this description of her state of mind: “Through the dry phrases of calculation in her mind, she noticed that she did have time to feel something: it was the hard, exhilarating pleasure of action.” Similarly, here is the last thing Dagny thinks about before she crashes in the valley: “she felt, in a flash of its full, violent purity, that special sense of existence which had always been hers. In a moment’s consecration to her love—to her rebellious denial of disaster, to her love of life and of the matchless value that was herself—she felt the fiercely proud certainty that she would survive.”
Dagny is defined, through the first two parts of the novel, as the person who takes on responsibility: not just responsibility for acting, but for thinking, and above all for deciding. As a result, she is filled to overabundance with a confidence that she can achieve whatever she sets out to do.
Her character undergoes a sudden and total reversal in Part 3. She finds herself, for the first time in her life, unable to make a big decision: the decision to stay in the valley or go back to the outside world. Even when she does return, she remains torn between her own goals and Galt’s strike, and this causes her to become, also for the first time in her life, uncertain about her ability to achieve an important goal. She wants Galt, but she wonders whether he will forever remain outside her reach.
Her transformation begins with meeting Galt. She discovers that he is the destroyer she had been chasing and whom she has vowed to kill—but from the first moment she sees him, she also realizes that this is the ideal man she has been seeking her whole life, the “man at the end of the rails.” This dilemma continues to build and is summed up in its starkest terms in one crucial scene midway through Part 3, a scene that also sums up Galt’s character arc and the relationship between the two. This is the scene where Dagny discovers Galt among the menial railroad workers in the Taggart Terminal, and they finally consummate their relationship in one of the abandoned side-tunnels of the terminal.
This scene begins with the only time in Part 3 that we see her in full Dagny Taggart Mode. She is called in because the interlocking switching system that coordinates traffic in the terminal has broken down. Within minutes of arriving, she has arranged to fly in an engineer to fix the system, and she has devised a system to get traffic moving until the repair is complete. As usual, someone stops to object.
“There’s nothing in the union contracts about men standing with lanterns. There’s going to be trouble. The union will object.”
“Let them come to me.”
“The Unification Board will object.”
“I’ll be responsible.”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to be held for giving the orders—”
“I’ll give the orders.”
That’s our girl.
This, by the way, explains why Galt and Dagny consummate their relationship here and not earlier, in the valley (aside from the fact that doing so would deflate the romantic tension, leaving no further development of this plotline for the whole middle section of Part 3). It is precisely the fact that this scene begins with Dagny being so fully herself, so fully the woman of action—which she was not and could not be in the valley—that makes the moment irresistible to both of them.
But then what happens after their love scene? When Galt prepares to go back to work, Dagny breaks, grabbing his arm and attempting to keep him with her, which he firmly rejects. She then staggers out of the tunnel, overwhelmed by the mixed feelings of triumph and despair, and Ayn Rand brings us into her state of mind.
The temple of Nathaniel Taggart was silent and empty, its changeless light beating down on a deserted stretch of marble. Some shabby figures shuffled across it, as if lost in its shining expanse. On the steps of the pedestal, under the statue of the austere, exultant figure, a ragged bum sat slumped in passive resignation, like a wing-plucked bird with no place to go, resting on any chance cornice.
She fell down on the steps of the pedestal, like another derelict, her dust-smeared cape wrapped tightly about her, she sat still, her head on her arm, past crying or reeling or moving.
It seemed to her only that she kept seeing a figure with a raised arm holding a light, and it looked at times like the Statue of Liberty and then it looked like a man with sun-streaked hair, holding a lantern against a midnight sky, a red lantern that stopped the movement of the world.
“Don’t take it to heart, lady, whatever it is,” said the bum, in a tone of exhausted compassion. “Nothing’s to be done about it, anyway…. What’s the use, lady? Who is John Galt?”
Aside from providing a great moment of comic relief, as counterpoint to the high drama of the previous scene, this underscores the reversal of Dagny’s character: from full Dagny Taggart Mode to a derelict in despair, in less than one hour.
But what of Galt in this scene? We see his character arc summed up here as well. While they were in the valley and even after they left it, Galt’s plans and his person had not really been put at risk. While Dagny was in the valley, Galt was in control, setting the terms for her stay, and when he brought her back, he made sure that she could not return to the valley or find it again. So he was able to disappear into the same anonymity from which he had acted for the previous twelve years.
But when Dagny sees him among the workers, and when he chooses to follow her into the tunnel, he is very aware that he is surrendering his anonymity and raising the stakes of her decision. He does not necessarily put the valley or the strike at risk—his cause has progressed far enough to survive without him—but he definitely puts himself at risk, and he tells Dagny as much.
“I love you, Dagny. I love you more than my life, I who have taught men how life is to be loved. I’ve taught them also never to expect the unpaid for—and what I did tonight, I did it with full knowledge that I would pay for it and that my life might have to be the price….
“You know that you’ve broken me for once, that I broke the decision I had set for myself—but I did it consciously, knowing what it meant, I did it, not in blind surrender to the moment, but with full sight of the consequences and full willingness to bear them. I could not let this kind of moment pass us by, it was ours, my love, we had earned it. But you’re not ready to quit and join me….
“I am a trader, Dagny, in all things. I wanted you, I had no power to change your decision, I had only the power to consider the price and decide whether I could afford it. I could. My life is mine to spend or to invest —and you, you’re”—as if his gesture were continuing his sentence, he raised her across his arm and kissed her mouth, while her body hung limply in surrender, her hair streaming down, her head falling back, held only by the pressure of his lips—”you’re the one reward I had to have and chose to buy. I wanted you, and if my life is the price, I’ll give it.”
This is a sentiment he will reiterate later, after his speech, when she comes to his apartment and causes him to be captured.
“You haven’t seen the nature of our enemies. You’ll see it now. If I have to be the pawn in the demonstration that will convince you, I’m willing to be—and to win you from them, once and for all.”
So in the scene in the tunnel, Galt upsets his long-range plan for the sake of the irreplaceable experience of an exalted moment, and he has done so for the sake of a love that is more important to him than life itself.
So there you have the two character arcs combining in one event. But of course, a character arc is not complete at this point. A character arc generally begins with the character in his “normal” state of mind, until some kind of crisis changes his perspective, creating a sense of dramatic tension. Then in the climax of the plot, the dramatic tension is resolved and the character finds a new “normal” state which incorporates the way the events of the plot have changed him. In this case, the resolution of both story arcs is summed up in the first words Dagny and Galt speak to each other when he is rescued from Dr. Ferris’s torture chamber. Reversing the positions and dialogue of their first encounter, it is he who says to her, “We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?” And it is she who looks down and replies, “No, we never had to.”
In their first meeting, she was the one who had just emerged from a long period of danger and distress to regain the sense that the world she wanted could be achieved, and Galt was the one who had the philosophical and emotional certainty to affirm it. Now it is Galt who is emerging from the dangers he has chosen to face, and it is Dagny who now possesses the certainty to affirm that those dangers are insignificant and that the world is open to them. Those two parallel scenes, their initial meeting and their reunion after Galt’s capture and torture, represent the beginning and end of their intertwined story arcs and of the development and transformation of their characters.
Seeing how his character arc ends, we can go back and look at the essence of Galt’s development. In response to his encounter with Dagny, Galt’s character undergoes an unexpected development: he is the rational egoist who throws out his master plan for the sake of the experience of a moment and who declares his willingness to die for love.
Now isn’t that interesting?
But while this is a development of Galt’s character, revealing new aspects of his personality, it is not really an alteration. And that is what makes Galt’s character arc all the more interesting: he is still being a rational egoist. He is still being rational because he understands and accepts the consequences of taking what he wants, and he clearly understands the importance of that desire within the context of all of his other values. And he is still an egoist, in Ayn Rand’s sense of that word, because the pursuit of spiritual values such as romantic love is as important to him as the pursuit of material values.
This is a theme of Ayn Rand’s work that goes back to The Fountainhead: not merely defending egoism, but properly defining it. She challenged the false divisions between reason and emotion and between material and spiritual values. In The Fountainhead, she contrasted her hero with two characters, Peter Keating and Gail Wynand, who were designed as variations on the conventional view of selfishness; they were men who sacrificed their personal spiritual values for the sake of wealth, prestige, and power. Then she showed that these men were, in the end, sacrificing themselves and destroying their chance at happiness, while the idealist, Howard Roark, is the one who actually achieves his happiness.
In John Galt, she shows us a new and arguably stronger version of this theme: the man of reason who feels deeply and powerfully, and the egoist who is willing to die for love.
This redefinition of selfishness ties in to broadest philosophical theme of novel: the mind as the source of all values. The heroes in Atlas Shrugged are able to abandon the material results of their achievement, such as a factories and railroads, because they retain the ideas and qualities of character that make that achievement possible in the first place. As Dwight Sanders tells Dagny, Sanders Aircraft is “Wherever I am.” For the same reason, Galt can be willing to risk his life for love because the source of that love is the spiritual qualities that make all of his other values possible. If he were willing to give up on Dagny, to say to her, “Go ahead and take your chances out there in the word, I’m not going to stick my neck out,” that would be to renounce everything that made the other important values of his life—his motor, his strike, and his philosophy—possible.
This is what I mean by Galt representing so radically new a vision of man that it can take the reader a few attempts to get a sense of who he really is. It is only from a new perspective about human nature and human morality—which, far from being empty and unrealistic, is complex, fresh, and interesting—that you can grasp who this John Galt fellow really is.