A Reader’s Guide to Atlas Shrugged, Part 11
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
When we think about the moral and philosophical message of Atlas Shrugged, we tend to think about the big speeches. But her most important and powerful message is conveyed outside the speeches, and we get a hint of it in the dialogue leading up to the very first speech in the novel.
As I have pointed out elsewhere, the first speech comes about 400 pages in, during the big scene at Jim Taggart’s wedding. But in the preamble to that speech, we are given a guide for how to think about everything in the novel that is not a speech. Francisco D’Anconia has arrived at the wedding and is surrounded by curious onlookers, including Hank Rearden.
Standing unnoticed on the edge of the group, Rearden heard a woman, who had large diamond earrings and a flabby, nervous face, ask tensely, “Señor d’Anconia, what do you think is going to happen to the world?”
“Just exactly what it deserves.”
“Oh, how cruel!”
“Don’t you believe in the operation of the moral law, madame?” Francisco asked gravely. “I do.”
This is a fine example of the dry wit Ayn Rand particularly reserves for scenes with Francisco. There is the fact that the woman immediately assumes that whatever the world deserves must be bad. Then there is Francisco’s fondness for saying something he knows will be interpreted by everyone as sarcasm or outrageous provocation, but which he means with absolute sincerity.
Ayn Rand meant it with absolute sincerity, too. Francisco puts the idea in terms—”the operation of the moral law”—that she never quite uses anywhere else, but it can be clearly recognized as an alternative formulation of her theory of morality.
It is also a statement of her literary method in presenting her philosophy in the many pages in Atlas Shrugged that do not contain philosophical speeches. She does not just tell, she shows, and what she is showing us is the operation of the moral law.
The essence of both her moral theory and her literary style is that the choices each individual makes lead inexorably to certain consequences which are good or bad for the life of that individual. Her job as a writer is to show you, for each character, the steps along that course from the choices to their consequences. Her job as a philosopher is to identify the principles that make it possible to project those consequences ahead of time and to know which moral choices will lead, over the long term, to which results. In one of her later non-fiction essays, “The Objectivist Ethics,” this is what she offered as her definition of “morality”: “It is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life.”
In Atlas Shrugged, particularly early in the novel, this is shown on the simplest level in the triumphs of her heroes. Consider the first run of the John Galt Line, where the overwhelming theme is Dagny’s enjoyment of the reward of her earlier decisions.
This was not to be a solemn venture upon which their future depended, but simply their day of enjoyment. Their work was done. For the moment, there was no future. They had earned the present….
The things she had endured had now receded into some outer fog, like pain that still exists, but has no power to hurt. Those things could not stand in the face of this moment’s reality, the meaning of this day was as brilliantly, violently clear as the splashes of sun on the silver of the engine, all men had to perceive it now, no one could doubt it and she had no one to hate.
We have already seen, in the previous few hundred pages, all the obstacles in the way of building the line, and the courage, ingenuity, perseverance, and hard-won competence by which she overcame them. Later in this scene, as Dagny is looking at the motors of the locomotive and thinking about the meaning of the day, her inner monologue makes the moral theme explicit.
Every part of the motors was an embodied answer to “Why?” and “What for?”—like the steps of a life-course chosen by the sort of mind she worshipped. The motors were a moral code cast in steel.
The connection between moral choices and their consequences is not as glib as “good things happen to good people.” The rewards of the right choices are not always felt in the short term nor are they guaranteed independent of other circumstances. As readers of The Fountainhead know, Ayn Rand was willing to embrace, at times, the idea of the noble failure—such as Henry Cameron or even Howard Roark himself, up to a third of the way through the novel. Her heroes in Atlas Shrugged certainly suffer their share of disappointments and setbacks. She is more interested in portraying the consequences of moral choices over the long term.
In Atlas Shrugged, she is fascinated with the way in which choices and consequences are summed up over decades. Here is how she describes it for Hank Rearden early in the novel, as he looks back on his rise from the ore mines and the ten years he spent developing Rearden Metal.
He did not think of the ten years: What remained of them tonight was only a feeling which he could not name, except that it was quiet and solemn. The feeling was a sum, and he did not have to count again the parts that had gone to make it. But the parts, unrecalled, were there, within the feeling….
After a while, he realized that he was thinking of his past, as if certain days of it were spread before him, demanding to be seen again. He did not want to look at them; he despised memories as a pointless indulgence. But then he understood that he thought of them tonight in honor of that piece of metal in his pocket. Then he permitted himself to look.
What are the memories that stand out in his mind? They are about his moral choices.
He saw the day when he stood on a rocky ledge and felt a thread of sweat running from his temple down his neck. He was fourteen years old and it was his first day of work in the iron mines of Minnesota. He was trying to learn to breathe against the scalding pain in his chest. He stood, cursing himself, because he had made up his mind that he would not be tired. After a while, he went back to his task; he decided that pain was not a valid reason for stopping.
And then years later:
He had burned everything there was to burn within him; he had scattered so many sparks to start so many things—and he wondered whether someone could give him now the spark he needed, now when he felt unable ever to rise again. He asked himself who had started him and kept him going. Then he raised his head. Slowly, with the greatest effort of his life, he made his body rise until he was able to sit upright with only one hand pressed to the desk and a trembling arm to support him. He never asked that question again.
In keeping with the theme of Rearden’s character, these examples emphasize a kind of grim, stoical endurance. But Ayn Rand goes on to describe the consequences.
These had been his stops, the stations which an express had reached and passed. He remembered nothing distinct of the years between them; the years were blurred, like a streak of speed. Whatever it was, he thought, whatever the strain and the agony, they were worth it, because they had made him reach this day…
The dark road had risen imperceptibly to the top of the hill. He stopped and turned. The red glow was a narrow strip, far to the west. Above it, small at a distance of miles, the words of a neon sign stood written on the blackness of the sky: REARDEN STEEL. He stood straight, as if before a bench of judgment. He thought that in the darkness of this night other signs were lighted over the country: Rearden Ore—Rearden Coal—Rearden Limestone. He thought of the days behind him. He wished it were possible to light a neon sign above them, saying: Rearden Life.
Toward the end of the novel, James Taggart experiences a similar summing up of his life, and it’s a whole lot less pleasant.
What do you want?—some enemy voice kept asking, and he walked faster, trying to escape it. It seemed to him that his brain was a maze where a blind alley opened at every turn, leading into a fog that hid an abyss. It seemed to him that he was running, while the small island of safety was shrinking and nothing but those alleys would soon be left. It was like the remnant of clarity in the street around him, with the haze rolling in to fill all exits. Why did it have to shrink?—he thought in panic. This was the way he had lived all his life—keeping his eyes stubbornly, safely on the immediate pavement before him, craftily avoiding the sight of his road, of corners, of distances, of pinnacles. He had never intended going anywhere, he had wanted to be free of progression, free of the yoke of a straight line, he had never wanted his years to add up to any sum—what had summed them up?—why had he reached some unchosen destination where one could no longer stand still or retreat?
What “the operation of the moral law” means, in Ayn Rand’s view, is the operation of the law of cause and effect in the realm of morality. In these passages, the result is experienced psychologically, but that does not mean it is subjective. In her theory, life is the standard of moral value. By life she does not mean mere short-term survival but, as she puts it in “The Objectivist Ethics,” “the terms, methods, conditions, and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan.” That includes the kind of virtues she outlines in her non-fiction and in the novel’s philosophical speeches: virtues like rationality, honesty, productivity, courage, and so on.
But notice that in her theory, morality is basically a cause-and-effect relationship. Life is the goal, to which moral choices are the means. The nature of man and the requirements of human survival dictate that certain choices will advance that goal and certain choices will undermine them.
She explained this in more detail later, in her non-fiction writing. In “Causality Versus Duty,” she rejects an ethics centered on an impersonal duty, such as the “categorical imperatives” imagined by her philosophical nemesis, the 18th-Century philosopher Immanuel Kant. These moral imperatives spring out of nowhere and are to be followed without regard for means or consequences. Ayn Rand rejects this as an unlawful morality, a morality not governed by the law of cause and effect. In contrast, she describes hers as a morality of causality.
Reality confronts man with a great many “musts,” but all of them are conditional; the formula of realistic necessity is: “You must, if—” and the “if” stands for man’s choice: “—if you want to achieve a certain goal.” You must eat, if you want to survive. You must work, if you want to eat. You must think, if you want to work. You must look at reality, if you want to think—if you want to know what to do—if you want to know what goals to choose—if you want to know how to achieve them.
In order to make the choices required to achieve his goals, a man needs the constant, automatized awareness of the principle which the anti-concept “duty” has all but obliterated in his mind: the principle of causality—specifically, of Aristotelian final causation (which, in fact, applies only to a conscious being), i.e., the process by which an end determines the means, i.e., the process of choosing a goal and taking the actions necessary to achieve it.
In a rational ethics, it is causality—not “duty”—that serves as the guiding principle in considering, evaluating and choosing one’s actions, particularly those necessary to achieve a long-range goal….
The disciple of causation faces life without inexplicable chains, unchosen burdens, impossible demands, or supernatural threats. His metaphysical attitude and guiding moral principle can best be summed up by an old Spanish proverb: “God said: ‘Take what you want and pay for it.'”
You can see how this ties in to the formula of the “operation of the moral law.” The moral law is the unfolding of the consequences of moral choices, operating with the same inexorability as the laws of physics—or the laws of economics, as we can see in another passage where Ayn Rand traces the operation of the moral law.
Six weeks ago, Train Number 193 had been sent with a load of steel, not to Faulkton, Nebraska, where the Spencer Machine Tool Company, the best machine tool concern still in existence, had been idle for two weeks, waiting for the shipment—but to Sand Creek, Illinois, where Confederated Machine had been wallowing in debt for over a year, producing unreliable goods at unpredictable times. The steel had been allocated by a directive which explained that the Spencer Machine Tool Company was a rich concern, able to wait, while Confederated Machines was bankrupt and could not be allowed to collapse, being the sole source of livelihood of the community of Sand Creek, Illinois. The Spencer Machine Tool Company had closed a month ago. Confederated Machines had closed two weeks later.
The people of Sand Creek, Illinois, had been placed on national relief, but no food could be found for them in the empty granaries of the nation at the frantic call of the moment—so the seed grain of the farmers of Nebraska had been seized by order of the Unification Board—and Train Number 194 had carried the unplanted harvest and the future of the people of Nebraska to be consumed by the people of Illinois. “In this enlightened age,” Eugene Lawson had said in a radio broadcast, “we have come, at last, to realize that each one of us is his brother’s keeper.”…
She sat looking at the map, her glance dispassionately solemn, as if no emotion save respect were permissible when observing the awesome power of logic. She was seeing—in the chaos of a perishing continent—the precise, mathematical execution of all the ideas men had held. They had not wanted to know that this was what they wanted, they had not wanted to see that they had the power to wish, but not the power to fake—and they had achieved their wish to the letter, to the last bloodstained comma of it.
This is the particular power of Ayn Rand’s examination of the operation of the moral law. It allowed her to take the supposed good intentions of altruist PR slogans and trace out their disastrous execution in practice. It allowed her to show the real meaning of a moral doctrine by the operation of its laws.
The moral content of her literature leads some to denounce her style as a “morality play.” But it is interesting to contrast Ayn Rand’s approach to the kind of moralizing literature parodied by Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest, when a stuffily conventional literature teacher (circa 1895) describes how a novel should end: “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” This is the root, or at least the excuse, for the modern prejudice against happy endings in fiction.
In Ayn Rand’s works, the good do (on the whole) end happily, and the bad end unhappily. But they do not do so by her arbitrary decree or by a deus ex machina. Her approach to literature requires that she show the specific steps by which good or bad moral choices lead to good or bad results. More than that: the unfolding of the consequences of the characters’ choices is the main subject matter of her fiction and the central characteristic of what she named as her school of fiction, Romantic Realism.
Here is how she described it in The Romantic Manifesto.
The distinguishing characteristic of this top rank [of Romantic authors]…is their full commitment to the premise of volition in both of its fundamental areas: in regard to consciousness and to existence, in regard to man’s character and to his actions in the physical world…. They are moralists in the most profound sense of the word; their concern is not merely with values, but specifically with moral values and with the power of moral values in shaping human character…. In their stories, one will never find action for action’s sake, unrelated to moral values. The events of their plots are shaped, determined, and motivated by the characters’ values (or treason to values), by their struggle in pursuit of spiritual goals, and by profound value-conflicts. Their themes are fundamental, universal, timeless issues of man’s existence—and they are the only consistent creators of the rarest attribute of literature: the perfect integration of theme and plot, which they achieve with superlative virtuosity.
In short, Romantic literature portrays the author’s view of the operation of the moral law. The integration of theme and plot is another way of looking at the integration of moral choices and their consequences. This requires that the author show the intermediate stages between choices and consequences, and that she make it seem realistic, like the natural consequences of the characters’ choices, as the impersonal working out of the law of cause and effect.
This leads us to the scene that gives everyone the vapors, as if no author before in the history of literature has invented minor characters for the sole purpose of killing them off. I am referring, of course, to the Taggart Tunnel disaster, in which she conjures up a whole trainload of passengers in order to send them to certain death, just to demonstrate the evils of political corruption and buck-passing bureaucracy.
Actually, she created the tunnel disaster to serve the wider needs of the plot. At this point in the story, Dagny Taggart has quit her job and disappeared in protest of Directive 10-289, which imposed an economic dictatorship (directly based on a real Soviet measure, Universal Labor Conscription, imposed in 1920). But she quit on her own accord, and she is not yet ready to join John Galt’s strike—or the novel would be over. So Ayn Rand needs something to bring her back, a railroad disaster so big that she can’t bring herself to walk away from it. It can’t be a mere problem with the tunnel. It has to be a catastrophe.
But remember what Ayn Rand said above about the integration of plot and theme, about how you “will never find action for action’s sake, unrelated to moral values.” So the tunnel disaster has to be more than a random accident, more than the product of chance or individual incompetence. It has to be a direct consequence of the economic dictatorship being imposed on the country, a reflection of the entire system. So she writes a long set-up where she shows the impact of that system on the railroad. Under Jim Taggart’s cronyist management, the railroad has become so dependent on the favor of top DC politicians that he cannot refuse Kip Chalmers’s demand to get him to his West Coast political rally on time, even if doing so violates safety protocols. For the same reason, Jim has staffed Taggart Transcontinental with politically connected cronies, leaving no one with the courage to stand up to him. This is reinforced by the “Unification Board,” created under Directive 10-289 to control all hiring and firing. The board is staffed with similar political cronies, so no Taggart employee believes he will get a fair hearing when he is blamed for Chalmers’s delay. We see this dilemma through the eyes of the one man who does stand up, Bill Brent.
Mitchum would claim that the fatal order had been issued by and on the sole responsibility of Bill Brent, the chief dispatcher. It would not be much of a case, not a case that could bear close study, but it would be enough for the Unification Board, whose policy was consistent only in not permitting anything to be studied closely. Brent knew that he could play the same game and pass the frame-up on to another victim, he knew that he had the brains to work it out—except that he would rather be dead than do it.
It was not the sight of Mitchum that made him sit still in horror. It was the realization that there was no one whom he could call to expose this thing and stop it—no superior anywhere on the line, from Colorado to Omaha to New York. They were in on it, all of them, they were doing the same, they had given Mitchum the lead and the method. It was Dave Mitchum who now belonged on this railroad and he, Bill Brent, who did not.
This is the setup and the point of the scene. The people on the train die because the whole system has been corrupted. But that’s not all Ayn Rand wants to accomplish with this scene. The system has been corrupted, and not only are the politicians and crony businessmen in on it—so are the people themselves, including the passengers on the train. She isn’t letting anyone off the hook. She rejects the idea of a conflict between the elites and the common man, and she wants to make the point that the elites are corrupt because of the ideas and choices of the public that supports them. There, again, is that connection between choices and consequences.
So as the train trundles off to its doom, she rattles off the choices made by the passengers that created the system that is now about to kill them.
It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them.
The man in Bedroom A, Car No. 1, was a professor of sociology who taught that individual ability is of no consequence, that individual effort is futile, that an individual conscience is a useless luxury, that there is no individual mind or character or achievement, that everything is achieved collectively, and that it’s masses that count, not men….
The man in Drawing Room A, Car No. 6, was a financier who had made a fortune by buying “frozen” railroad bonds and getting his friends in Washington to “defreeze” them….
The woman in Bedroom D, Car No. 10, was a mother who had put her two children to sleep in the berth above her, carefully tucking them in, protecting them from drafts and jolts; a mother whose husband held a government job enforcing directives, which she defended by saying, “I don’t care, it’s only the rich that they hurt. After all, I must think of my children.”…
The man in Bedroom F, Car No. 13, was a lawyer who had said, “Me? I’ll find a way to get along under any political system.”…
These passengers were awake; there was not a man aboard the train who did not share one or more of their ideas. As the train went into the tunnel, the flame of Wyatt’s Torch was the last thing they saw on earth.
Remember that Wyatt’s Torch is an unextinguished oil fire left over from a previous set of government directives that destroyed the industrial renaissance in Colorado. So Ayn Rand is presenting the tunnel disaster as a kind of metaphysical retribution for this previous crime.
That, I suppose, is what sets off some readers. A typical complaint expresses horror that “everyone on board is guilty and deserves to die” for “the crimes that each person has committed against capitalism,” as if this is a mere political revenge fantasy. Such complaints are trying to validate Whittaker Chambers’s half-baked notion that Atlas Shrugged is secretly totalitarian in style, so that “a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber—go!'”
Ayn Rand’s critics never seem to miss an opportunity to miss a point. The scene is clearly a cautionary tale, urging us to avoid the kind of system in which such disasters happen. Moreover, if Ayn Rand were herself a character in the novel, we are left with little doubt what she would do. The one good guy in the story is Bill Brent, who “would rather be dead” than sign the order to let the train go into the tunnel. She makes clear that he pays a high personal price for refusing to cooperate, and she portrays him as a minor hero.
But Ayn Rand is not a character in the novel. She is its creator, and as such she operates according to different rules. The fiction author is the god of her little universe, and the characters are not independent beings whose lives are an end in themselves. They are what most theologies imagine humans to be: creatures of a higher power who live and die to serve its inscrutable purposes.
We understand this well in every other book, movie, or television show—perhaps a little too well. Today’s filmmakers blow up entire populated planets just to raise the stakes for the hero’s climactic fight scene (something done in both the Star Wars and Star Trek science fiction franchises). In “Game of Thrones,” murder and torture are doled out with such abandon, over so many seasons, that they cease to be mere plot devices and become a central theme of the series. But heaven forbid Ayn Rand should write a scene where people suffocate to death to demonstrate the disastrous consequences of Big Government. As with most literary complaints against her, this one is applied very selectively, only to the author with an unwelcome political and philosophical message.
There is obviously a certain amount of willful misinterpretation going on here, but there is also a deeper reason why people miss what is really happening in this scene. They try to personalize it, making the fate of the passengers seem like the mere product of Ayn Rand’s spite. If she is the god of her fictional universe, then these poor passengers are sinners in the hands of an angry god. These readers have deeply internalized the idea of moral judgments as the expression of arbitrary personal preferences. They don’t grasp the idea of phenomenon that is both moral and impersonal—where the values and choices are personal, but their working out according to the laws of nature is not.
Yet that is exactly the point Ayn Rand is trying to make. The characters don’t die just because she, the author, bears them personal animosity. They die as the inevitable, cause-and-effect result of the choices made by the majority of people in the world of the novel. They die to show the operation of the moral law, making good on Francisco’s prediction that the world will get just exactly what it deserves.
No, this is not the only thing that happens to the world in the novel, just as those who are committed to collectivist ideas are not the only people who populate that world. In the end, the point of the novel is not who ends happily and who ends unhappily. Literarily, the point is to find the drama in the unwinding of the consequences of moral choices. Philosophically, the point is to express in concrete terms a new theory of ethics in which morality is conceived as a cause-and-effect relationship between choices and goals.
The point is to show the operation of the moral law.