Book Review: Atlas Shrugged

Title: Atlas Shrugged

Author: Ayn Rand

Date: 1957

Publisher: Signet

ISBN: none, but click here to see it on Amazon

Length: 1074 pages

Quote: “We saw that we’d been given a law to live by, a moral law, they called it, which punished those who observed it—for observing it. The more you tried to live up to it, the more you suffered; the more you cheated it, the bigger reward.”

(Note: There’s a shorter opinion piece about Atlas Shrugged at https://priscillaking.blogspot.com/2013/02/can-students-be-required-to-read-atlas.html .)

Ayn Rand grew up in the middle of the Russian revolution and saw firsthand how dictatorship, even in the name of Communist ideals, bred corruption, degradation, and inefficiency. In Atlas Shrugged, she imagined how the process might work if the United States adopted Communist ideals. The result is an evolution rather than a revolution (in contemporary terms), but it’s still bloody.

Atlas Shrugged is classic science fiction; potential developments in physics and chemistry form a large part of the plot. Rand’s focus was on the big industries of greatest economic interest in the early twentieth century—metal, mining, railroads, building, and the new fad for automobiles. Other science-fiction devices used in the story are weird new explosives something like neutron bombs (only without fallout or radiation), sonic weapons, unexplained breakthroughs in radio technology, and of course the “rays” that shield “Atlantis.” Nevertheless, Rand was no scientist, and mainstream readers didn’t dismiss Atlas Shrugged as “merely” science fiction because the plot is mainly about the people; the technology could be changed to set the story either forward or back in history.

The main character, Dagny Taggart, is, if possible, harder to like than Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, and that’s saying a lot. Biology may prevent Dagny from committing outright rape, but she’s still a sadomasochistic sex fiend who doesn’t kiss, but bites. She ignores a loyal lifelong friend and an attractive admirer, and wrecks Hank Rearden’s home merely because she “wants” him. While Hank is sacrificing the business he loves for the woman he loves, Dagny is preparing to dump him for the man she eventually decides she loves. What turns her on, in her steamiest scene, is flouncing out of an evening party where a lot of rich men have been hanging on her word, in order to stand up, in her satin gown and velvet cape, and order a lot of laborers to toil all night doing their jobs in the old-fashioned way, which most of them would be too young even to know how to do. It’s not surprising that, although she plays the role of counsellor and grants a sort of absolution to her sister-in-law (“Taggart” means “priest”), Dagny has no female friends. What’s hard to believe is that, at the end of the book, she has any male ones. She’s at her best at work, where Rand convinces us that Dagny loves railroading the way writers love writing.

The story, in my opinion, self-sabotages in two main ways. The most obvious way is that, although it was written as a trilogy, it doesn’t work as a trilogy. The first third of Atlas Shrugged is stage-setting, and is likely to put readers to sleep if they don’t skip, skim, and miss things they’ll need to go back and look up later.  A corollary factor is that Atlas Shrugged is a story about middle-aged adults. It doesn’t read like The Rise of Silas Lapham toward the end, but it does for long enough that readers might expect that it will.

The other self-destructive tendency this novel has is Rand’s attempt to justify Dagny at her most repulsive. Rand apparently wanted to believe that Hank has a right to cheat on his wife, Lillian. Lillian deteriorates, as the plot moves along, from a half-educated, shallow, virginal debutante into an embittered hag. Yes, but Hank had a lot to do with that. Contemporary audiences understood the “waspish gaiety” in Lillian’s first scene to indicate that she’s not satisfied. Therefore, if Hank were really as brilliant as she’s supposed to be, he should have figured out that she wants something from him, and set aside some small portion of his mental energy for figuring out what that might be. She’s not his equal because she’s not been brought up to be his equal; she’s been brought up to be his student, an empty page for him to write on. That was what her parents thought he would want. If he really were a man any woman could admire, he would have accepted responsibility for finishing Lillian’s education, instead of blaming her for being ignorant about business, politics, and sex, and “falling in love” with Dagny. Which, as I think about it, I’m not sure I believe either; in real life, weren’t men like Hank usually scared of women like Dagny?

In real life Ayn Rand sometimes did behave like Dagny. Although married, she “honored” her male students with sexual favors and the idea that their wives weren’t good enough for them anyway, then dropped them, sometimes after the divorce, as younger and cuter students came along. Nathaniel Branden, the last younger man to be so “honored,”  wrote at some length about how and why this notion of adultery as compatible with personal honor was a mistake.

Then there’s another minor flaw: the world of Atlas Shrugged is demographically unbalanced. (I’m not sure how significant the imbalance was meant to be.) The world of this novel consists of North America, South America, and western Europe. All the important people except Dagny are middle-aged Caucasian men. No character is Asian, Native American, or even noticeably Jewish. No character is positively identified as African-American…but one of the baddies, Cuffy Meigs, has an African nickname, “bleary brown eyes,” and black curly hair. Meigs is the one whose irredeemable awfulness keeps the totalitarians from being able to destroy John Galt’s valley. Other characters, if described, have blond or red hair, blue or green eyes. Rand didn’t completely buy into the racist thinking of the early twentieth century, and wasn’t as impressed by Hitler and Mussolini as many Americans were in the 1930s—she was, after all, Jewish—but if readers wanted to believe that melanin in the human complexion indicated a lower level of evolution, Rand wasn’t going to argue with them. And she wasn’t trying to impress ethnic-minority readers.

Nevertheless, despite these flaws, Atlas Shrugged has some excellent features too. One thing I like is that, although John Galt and Ragnar Danneskjeld have been preparing for a real war against Jim Taggart, his friends, and their liberal-on-Communism philosophy, and although Hank and Dagny have been suffering psychological torture as they try to choose sides in the inevitable war, Rand finds a way to end the story without the war actually breaking out. John and Dagny won’t have to face off against each other, as they’ve feared, after declaring themselves “in love.” Lots of people have starved, killed each other in riots, or been killed as the industrial infrastructure of America has broken down, but people manage to avoid war. Hurrah.

The best part in the book is the short story a laborer tells Dagny by way of explaining the cliché “Who is John Galt?” Perhaps this story should have been chapter one; as it is, it comes just after the halfway point. John Galt was, in youth, the brightest and bravest laborer in the automobile company that went socialist. The story is about what he walked away from: the way even small-scale, benign, and semi-voluntary dictatorship inevitably corrupts people and their work. (The same group dynamics can be observed in the families of “helicopter parents,” which Rand luckily hadn’t had and chose not to describe—there are no real children in this novel.) The story is compact and readable, and true. Rand had firsthand knowledge; by now many of us share that knowledge.

The central idea of this book is that altruism is absurd because the highest good for all people does not require conflict between people. The main plot is that collectivist morality is debunked and reintegrated. Although Rand chose to write these ideas in the form of unlikely science fiction, others have written them better. One nonfiction book that comes to mind is The Conscience of a Conservative. Then there were the more idealistic versions of American history, the actual histories of schools like Berea College, the doctrines of several religious denominations, the histories of various communes and communities, even the histories of the businesses that began when an employee said “Why wait for the boss to retire? I’ll start my own store and run it my own way.” There are even recognizable undercurrents of the idea in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, in most of Elizabeth Enright’s books, in Carol Kendall’s books and several other favorites of the early and middle twentieth century. Rand might not have appreciated the link being traced, but the idea of separating from others in order to help the survivors of the others’ destructive choices is actually biblical.

As I contemplate the paradox of Rand’s life, I wonder whether she just needed to have reworked her material a few more times, or whether her work really was spoiled by her compulsive, reactionary atheism. There was room for love and joy in her philosophy. Why does it come through so badly? Rand spent so much energy railing against dysfunctional forms of “altruistic love” that she didn’t give herself much time to write about the joy of real love, although the reader who slogs through to the end of Atlas Shrugged will agree that the characters meant to be sympathetic seem to reach something like that kind of love in the end. The joy of friendship, partnership, synergistic work, seeing and feeling that what is good for one person really is what is good for another person, pulsates through Atlas Shrugged, but it tends to be covered up by rants and smut. When John and Dagny get together at last, the attentive (and mature) reader understands that they symbolize a return to social connection after a period of separation, but on the literal level they read like just another fling for a rich girl gone wrong.

Rand did stay married, even if it was an “open” (and childless) marriage. She did send money to her relatives who hadn’t been able to emigrate from Russia. She was hospitable, in her way, and had a large circle of loyal friends who have kept her books in print after her death in 1982. It was possible for some people to enjoy her company. Unlike Dagny, she even had a few friendships that weren’t based on sex, a few even with women. In her life as in her novels, she seemed to spend so much time railing against the kind of love she despised, the smother-mothering and guilt-tripping kind, that she found it difficult to say anything about the kind she probably did enjoy. Sad.

So, in conclusion…Atlas Shrugged is a severely flawed book by a severely flawed writer, but if you have a lot of time to kill and are old enough to stand those first 400 pages, you will eventually understand why some people love this book. I don’t love it. I don’t expect I’ll ever reread it. Rand spent eleven years writing it, and should probably have spent eleven more years revising it into something even libertarian feminist book lovers could be expected to enjoy. Nevertheless, by the time the plot gets moving, the last third of this novel is a satisfying read. Almost good enough to make up for the time you have to spend in the first two thirds to understand what’s happening in the last third.

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