A Reader’s Guide to Atlas Shrugged, Part 9
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
Atlas Shrugged was the first Ayn Rand novel I read, and it wasn’t until a year or two later that I read the earlier novel that made her famous, The Fountainhead. This isn’t an unusual route to her fiction, but it is probably more common to encounter The Fountainhead first. For her early fans, there was no choice; The Fountainhead had been a bestseller for about fourteen years before Atlas Shrugged was published. In more recent decades, many young people have encountered The Fountainhead in high school, where it is frequently assigned in classes and is considered something of a rite of passage for young people of an intellectual bent.
When I did get around to reading The Fountainhead, I was struck by how different the experience of reading Atlas Shrugged must have been for those who knew The Fountainhead first—to what extent a reader’s knowledge of the characters and issues in the earlier book, and its eventual resolution, would have colored his reading of the characters and motivations in this book. Specifically, there is one important respect in which Atlas Shrugged is not a straightforward intellectual continuation of The Fountainhead but seems like a reversal of it.
The question that jumped out at me was: Did Dominique Francon win?
To understand what I mean, let’s a take a look back at the plot of The Fountainhead, though first I should remind you of the robust spoiler warning on this article and extend it to cover both novels.
Atlas and The Fountainhead cover a lot of big issues in broad, complex plots that take on the entire state of the culture or, in Atlas, the fate of the world. But in the resolution of their plots, both novels hinge, if you will, on a woman changing her mind. Both novels feature an intelligent, strong-willed heroine who begins the story with a mistaken premise about the world, who then encounters an even more intelligent, even stronger-willed man who shows her that she’s wrong. The plot is resolved when, after struggling valiantly against this new truth, she accepts it.
This pattern is not an accident. Ayn Rand was herself a very intelligent, very strong-willed woman, and perhaps it is because she never found a man in real life who could surpass her that she projected that longing into her literature.
Though both novels have a similar pattern in this respect, they go in opposite directions in another respect.
The most important thing you have to understand about The Fountainhead‘s Dominique Francon is that she is Guy Francon’s daughter. Guy Francon is not by any means the worst villain in the novel, but he lives in the heart of the novel’s corrupt, second-handed “high society.” Dominique says she had “a wonderful childhood. Free and peaceful and not bothered too much by anybody.” But then she emerged into her father’s world, surrounded by Peter Keatings, and she came both to despise them and to believe that they ran everything and wouldn’t leave any chance to an independent mind. So she perversely seeks her self-destruction rather than live in a corrupt world with her high, independent standards. When she meets Howard Roark, the exact opposite of a Peter Keating type, she concludes that he has no chance and needs to be destroyed, too, in order to save him from a world in which he has no chance.
Early on, Dominique foreshadows this by telling Alvah Scarret the story of why she destroyed an exquisite antique sculpture.
“You know, I love statues of naked men. Don’t look so silly. I said statues. I had one in particular. It was supposed to be Helios. I got it out of a museum in Europe. I had a terrible time getting it—it wasn’t for sale, of course. I think I was in love with it, Alvah. I brought it home with me.”
“Where is it? I’d like to see something you like, for a change.”
“Broken? A museum piece? How did that happen?”
“I broke it.”
“I threw it down the air shaft. There’s a concrete floor below.”
“Are you totally crazy? Why?”
“So that no one else would ever see it.”
This is, of course, completely opposite from the approach of Roark himself, whose response to the Keatings and Ellsworth Tooheys of the world is that he doesn’t think of them. What he teaches Dominique is to ignore these “second-handers,” to focus on doing your work and upholding your own standards, and to persist until you break through on whatever level is possible to you. As he explains to her when she leaves to marry Peter Keating:
You must learn not to be afraid of the world. Not to be held by it as you are now. Never to be hurt by it as you were in that courtroom. I must let you learn it…. They won’t destroy me, Dominique. And they won’t destroy you.
Now let’s take this as our context as we begin the story of Atlas Shrugged—and for those of you who actually did read them in that order, this won’t take any imagination. As you read the first few chapters of Atlas, what character would you encounter who is the embodiment of Roark’s attitude? Who lives by the motto: The question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me? Obviously, that’s Dagny Taggart.
Dagny’s rise among the men who operated Taggart Transcontinental was swift and uncontested. She took positions of responsibility because there was no one else to take them. There were a few rare men of talent around her, but they were becoming rarer every year. Her superiors, who held the authority, seemed afraid to exercise it, they spent their time avoiding decisions, so she told people what to do and they did it. At every step of her rise, she did the work long before she was granted the title. It was like advancing through empty rooms. Nobody opposed her, yet nobody approved of her progress….
It was only in her first few years that she felt herself screaming silently, at times, for a glimpse of human ability, a single glimpse of clean, hard, radiant competence. She had fits of tortured longing for a friend or an enemy with a mind better than her own. But the longing passed. She had a job to do. She did not have time to feel pain; not often.
All she wants is to do her work, her way.
And who is the first character we encounter who seems to represent Dominique Francon and her attitude? Who seems to have given up on the world and to be bent on deliberately destroying things in order to hasten its collapse? He’s right there in the first few chapters: Francisco D’Anconia.
Francisco is introduced in a long flashback that builds up to the scene where Dagny confronts him about the disaster of the San Sebastián Mines and the enormous financial damage it did to her railroad. She begins to grasp the secret of why Francisco withdrew from her and became, to all appearances, a hedonistic womanizer.
“Of course, ‘investment’ is a relative term. It depends on what you wish to accomplish. For instance, look at San Sebastián. It cost me fifteen million dollars, but these fifteen million wiped out forty million belonging to Taggart Transcontinental, thirty-five million belonging to stockholders such as James Taggart and Orren Boyle, and hundreds of millions which will be lost in secondary consequences. That’s not a bad return on an investment, is it, Dagny?”
She was sitting straight. “Do you realize what you’re saying?”
“Oh, fully! Shall I beat you to it and name the consequences you were going to reproach me for? First, I don’t think that Taggart Transcontinental will recover from
its loss on that preposterous San Sebastián Line. You think it will, but it won’t. Second, the San Sebastián helped your brother, James, to destroy the Phoenix-Durango, which was about the only good railroad left anywhere.”
“You realize all that?”
“And a great deal more.”
“Do you”—she did not know why she had to say it, except that the memory of the face with the dark, violent eyes seemed to stare at her—“do you know Ellis Wyatt?”
“Do you know what this might do to him?”
“Yes. He’s the one who’s going to be wiped out next.”
“Do you…find that…amusing?”
“Much more amusing than the ruin of the Mexican planners.”
She stood up. She had called him corrupt for years; she had feared it, she had thought about it, she had tried to forget it and never think of it again; but she had never suspected how far the corruption had gone.
So as readers of The Fountainhead, we would look as this confrontation and see a replay of Roark vs. Dominique, but with the genders reversed. Which really seems to fit just fine, including the element of sexual tension between adversaries, unless you already know how Atlas Shrugged ends: with Francisco on the right side and Dagny coming over to join him.
So I pose the question again: Did Dominique Francon win?
Specifically, once we know all the details of Galt’s strike, his master plan to withdraw his people from the world and hasten the collapse of the existing system—is that a concession to Dominique’s worldview?
Certainly Dagny thinks so, up until the end. When we keep in mind the context of The Fountainhead, we can appreciate how profound a dilemma this really is for Dagny. She is trying to stay true to the creed of Howard Roark, but it’s not working out the way it’s supposed to.
This is a fundamental issue Ayn Rand kept returning to in her writing. On the sense-of-life level, you could describe it as optimism versus pessimism. There is a struggle among her characters between those who are able to find the moral fuel to keep fighting for their values in the face of opposition—versus those who succumb to despair. In her first novel, We the Living, this is embodied in the character of the bitter aristocrat Leo Kovalensky. In The Fountainhead, it’s not just Dominique. We also see elements of her pessimism in Roark’s mentor, Henry Cameron, whose bitterness and despair drives him to drink; in the sculptor Steven Mallory, who is driven to (almost) throw his life away by trying to assassinate Ellsworth Toohey; and above all in Gail Wynand, which explains why Dominique and Wynand end up together for so much of the story.
In Atlas, we see this same attitude unambiguously in the character of Dan Conway, who shuts down the Phoenix-Durango railroad, not just in response to an industry association ruling against him, but in response to his disappointment with the world’s response to his lifetime of work and achievement.
I find it interesting that Ayn Rand doesn’t really treat this as a moral issue. It’s an issue that comes before morality; it’s metaphysical. It’s about a basic outlook toward life and the world, and either you can muster it or you can’t. And she doesn’t entirely blame Leo Kovalensky or Henry Cameron or Dan Conway if they can’t muster it. After all, Ayn Rand once described Dominique Francon as herself in a bad mood.
So are the strikers in Atlas Shrugged a vindication of this pessimism? Did Ayn Rand succumb to this pessimistic side of herself?
I certainly have met a few Objectivists who seem to interpret it that way, at least implicitly. They glory a little too much in the end-of-days atmosphere of the later chapters of Atlas Shrugged, as if that were the goal. (And in the real world, they sometime advocate voting for the greater evil, as if the goal of politics is to hasten destruction.) They tend to have a Dominique-Francon-ish attitude that we should burn everything down because it’s not good enough.
And yet that doesn’t capture the actual spirit of Atlas Shrugged. If this is a metaphysical, sense-of-life issue, then Atlas should feel pessimistic. And it doesn’t, not by a long shot. So let’s figure out why.
First, notice one thing about the strikers that is opposite of Dominique Francon’s attitude in The Fountainhead. There is a scene in the middle of The Fountainhead when Howard Roark is supervising the construction of Janer’s Department Store in Clayton, Ohio. This is during the middle years of his struggle, when he is still working but mostly being blocked out of the big projects in New York. He is willing to work in an obscure, out of the way town, on a small scale, just to be free to do his work his way. When she finds her train passing through that little town in Ohio, Dominique can’t help going to see him. But she can’t deal with what she regards as a surrender or compromise with the world.
“Roark, it’s the quarry again.”
He smiled. “If you wish. Only it isn’t.”
“After the Enright House? After the Cord Building?”
“I don’t think of it that way.”
“How do you think of it?”
“I love doing it. Every building is like a person. Single and unrepeatable.”
He was looking across the street. He had not changed. There was the old sense of lightness in him, of ease in motion, in action, in thought. She said, her sentence without beginning or end:
“…doing five-story buildings for the rest of your life…”
“If necessary. But I don’t think it will be like that.”
“What are you waiting for?”
“I’m not waiting.”
I thought of this scene when reading a similar scene in Atlas Shrugged, but this time notice who is in which role.
When Dagny is in Galt’s Gulch, she finds that the former coal magnate Ken Danagger is now the foreman at the valley’s small foundry. Here is Dagny’s reaction:
Danagger was watching her as if she were a promising child he had once discovered and was now affectionately amused to watch…. “But why are you so shocked?”
“I…oh, it’s just that it’s so preposterous.” She pointed at his clothes.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Is this, then, the end of your road.”
“Hell, no! The beginning.”
Or consider one of the last scenes in the valley, when Dagny visits Francisco’s copper mine and finds him hauling ore with mules. You know where this is going, right? She insists that it would be easy to put in a small rail line and begins sketching out how she would do it.
She stopped. When she looked up at their faces, the fire had gone out of hers. She crumpled her sketch and flung it aside into the red dust of the gravel. “Oh, what for?” she cried, the despair breaking out for the first time. “To build three miles of railroad and abandon a transcontinental system.”
Who is Dominique Francon now, and who is Howard Roark?
All of the strikers have accepted the idea of giving up greater success in the outside world in order to have the independence to do their work on their own terms. That’s a Roarkian decision, while Dagny’s is the more Dominique-ish approach: If I can’t have everything, it’s not worth it.
Hence the actual optimism of the strikers in Atlas Shrugged. Galt’s strike is not a mercy killing intended to destroy the good which the corrupt world won’t allow to survive. It is an attempt to save the good and provide the foundation for rebuilding a better world.
Intellectually, Atlas Shrugged offers a new idea which explains why it is ultimately constructive to cause the collapse of the statist regime. Ayn Rand introduces “the sanction of the victim,” the idea that the regime depends on the support of the very people it condemns and seeks to sacrifice. This is what Hank Rearden eventually discovers when he asks Wesley Mouch and his entourage what they’re depending on to make their impossible schemes work, and he gets the reply: “you’ll do something.” So withdrawing that support is a necessary step to begin rebuilding.
That’s the intellectual explanation, but the issue is not conveyed to the reader only in intellectual terms. It is understood on a sense-of-life level. Like Howard Roark, the strikers in the valley are not just waiting for something better to happen. They are focused on enjoying their work and the independence to do it, on whatever scale is possible. This is the sense of optimism and growth that we see among the novel’s heroes, particularly when Dagny is touring their ideal society in Galt’s Gulch.
If there is a greater pessimism in Atlas Shrugged, it is in the setting—not in the valley, but in the state of the outside world. The world of Atlas Shrugged is not one in which Dominique Francon has won. It is one in which Ellsworth Toohey has won. The collectivists have won the battle for the culture and for political power. They’ve already taken over before the action of the novel begins, and they are merely consolidating their regime. So the question is not how to save the world from collapse, or how to survive in a hostile culture—the issues in The Fountainhead—and Dagny’s error is that she thinks those are still the issues. She’s trying to be Howard Roark in the world of Atlas Shrugged. But in Atlas Shrugged, we are already in a post-apocalyptic world, and the issue is how to salvage the last remnants from the rubble and start rebuilding and clearing the way for the future.
That she chose this kind of setting reflects, not a greater pessimism, but rather Ayn Rand’s more advanced stage of intellectual development when she wrote Atlas Shrugged. In The Fountainhead, she was ready to diagnose some of our fundamental cultural problems and to show in personal terms how to live in a hostile culture. In Atlas, she’s ready to take on the fate of civilization as a whole. So she puts civilization as a whole in jeopardy in order to show how to sweep away all the old obstacles and rebuild on the basis of a new code of living. While that setting seems pessimistic in the short term, it is optimistic in the long term.
The issue I have described as optimism versus pessimism is a profound theme running through all of Ayn Rand’s work, and particularly in Atlas Shrugged. But this isn’t exactly how she would have defined it. She defined it as the Benevolent Universe Premise. It is expressed in Atlas by Ragnar Danneskjold, explaining how he and his wife can face the hazards of his occupation.
“She can live through it, Miss Taggart, because we do not hold the belief that this earth is a realm of misery where man is doomed to destruction. We do not think that tragedy is our natural fate and we do
not live in dread of disaster. We do not expect disaster until we have specific reason to expect it—and when we encounter it, we are free to fight it. It is not happiness, but suffering that we consider unnatural. It is not success, but calamity that we regard as the abnormal exception in human life.”
The foundation for the Benevolent Universe Premise is the power of reason. Man’s ability to understand the world gives him the ability to take successful actions in it—to understand how to plant crops, build houses, cure diseases, and everything else. But this defines the issue in terms of man versus nature. What about man versus man? If the basis for optimism and a benevolent view of life is the power of reason, what about people who are not open to reason?
Steven Mallory is the one who describes this problem early in The Fountainhead:
“Listen, what’s the most horrible experience you can imagine? To me—it’s being left, unarmed, in a sealed cell with a drooling beast of prey or a maniac who’s had some disease that’s eaten his brain out. You’d have nothing then but your voice—your voice and your thought. You’d scream to that creature why it should not touch you, you’d have the most eloquent words, the unanswerable words, you’d become the vessel of the absolute truth. And you’d see living eyes watching you and you’d know that the thing can’t hear you, that it can’t be reached, not reached, not in any way, yet it’s breathing and moving there before you with a purpose of its own. That’s horror. Well, that’s what’s hanging over the world, prowling somewhere through mankind, that same thing, something closed, mindless, utterly wanton, but something with an aim and a cunning of its own. I don’t think I’m a coward, but I’m afraid of it.”
Mallory is describing what it is like to deal with people who are not open to reason, and he later describes this as “the root of evil.”
Ayn Rand’s answer, which she first develops in The Fountainhead but expands upon in much greater detail in Atlas Shrugged, is that the “drooling beast” is ultimately powerless. Irrational men are weak precisely to the extent that they are not open to reason. The person who refuses to think is filling his mind and life with dangerous blind spots that lead him toward disaster.
If Dominique’s fear of the world is based on the premise that the second-handers of her father’s social circle control the world, what she needs to discover is that they do not and cannot control it. Dominique herself describes this breakthrough in an internal monologue late in The Fountainhead, when she has finally thrown in her lot with Roark.
I have never been able to enjoy it before, the sight of the earth, it’s such a great background, but it has no meaning except as a background, and I thought of those who owned it and then it hurt me too much. I can love it now. They don’t own it. They own nothing. They’ve never won. I have seen the life of Gail Wynand, and now I know. One cannot hate the earth in their name. The earth is beautiful. And it is a background, but not theirs.
Dagny begins moving in this direction the first time she contemplates quitting and (though she doesn’t know it yet) joining Galt’s strike. This is after Directive 10-289, when she has walked out of her office and gone off to her cabin in Woodstock. She is thinking about her last lifeline of hope: her attempt to discover the secret of Galt’s motor.
But it is not true—she thought, as she stood at the door of her cabin, on this
morning of May 28—it is not true that there is no place in the future for a superlative achievement of man’s mind; it can never be true. No matter what her problem, this would always remain to her—this immovable conviction that evil was unnatural and temporary. She felt it more clearly than ever this morning: the certainty that the ugliness of the men in the city and the ugliness of her suffering were transient accidents—while the smiling sense of hope within her at the sight of a sun-flooded forest, the sense of an unlimited promise, was the permanent and the real.
In this context, we can see the role of that principle about the sanction of the victim, and how it connects to the sense-of-life issue of optimism and a benevolent universe. It is because the irrational cannot control the world that they need the help of the more rational men who work for them. Withdrawing that support does not mean withdrawing from the world. It means withdrawing the world itself from the ownership and control of the irrational.
What Dagny keeps holding on to, however, is her belief that the men in power cannot be totally closed to reason, that their will to live must make them ultimately persuadable. It is not until they capture John Galt and she see all of them interact with him that she realizes how fully she is wrong. At the climactic banquet honoring Galt and trying to convince him to save the regime, she observes that some in the audience are indifferent to Galt, some regard him with “a wistfully tragic admiration” but “if they saw him being murdered before them, their hands would hang as limply and their eyes would look away.” And then there are those who look on him with hatred: “They hate him for being himself—she thought, feeling a touch of cold horror, as the nature of their souls became real to her—they hate him for his capacity to live. Do they want to live?”
If they can encounter Galt and see what he is and still hate him, she concludes, then they don’t really want to live and will never be open to persuasion. In effect, she concludes that they really are Mallory’s “drooling beast,” but instead of throwing her into despair, this finally makes her free of any need to deal with them.
Perhaps Ayn Rand’s fullest and most poignant description of this issue came later, in a 1969 article, “The ‘Inexplicable Personal Alchemy’,” describing the motives behind a doomed protest against the Soviet Regime by a small group of young Russians in Red Square. If ever there were a hopeless context, it would be that of a Soviet dissident circa 1968. Yet here she found evidence of the Benevolent Universe Premise.
There is a fundamental conviction which some people never acquire, some hold only in their youth, and a few hold to the end of their days—the conviction that ideas matter…. That ideas matter means that knowledge matters, that truth matters, that one’s mind matters….
Its consequence is the inability to believe in the power or the triumph of evil. No matter what corruption one observes in one’s immediate background, one is unable to accept it as normal, permanent or metaphysically right. One feels: “This injustice (or terror or falsehood or frustration or pain or agony) is the exception in life, not the rule.” One feels certain that somewhere on earth—even if not anywhere in one’s surroundings or within one’s reach—a proper, human way of life is possible to human beings, and justice matters.
You can imagine how profoundly Ayn Rand would have appreciated what later dissidents—and some of the same ones—achieved 20 years later, all because they did not believe in the power or the triumph of evil.
Atlas Shrugged is an expression of a similar optimism. It is all about breaking through to that “somewhere on earth” where “a proper, human way of life is possible.”
The contrast between pessimism and optimism is encapsulated in the last lines of dialogue Galt and Dagny speak to each other at the climax of the plot, when they see the lights of New York City going out below them.
“It’s the end,” she said. “It’s the beginning,” he answered.
“It’s the end” is a leftover of the old, Dominique-style pessimism, which looks on the end of the world controlled by irrational men as if it were the end of everything. “It’s the beginning” is a statement of Atlas Shrugged‘s fundamental optimism: the belief that a world cleared of irrational obstacles is one that has been opened up to even greater achievement.