Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand – Plot Summary
Summary of the 1957 book “Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand”
It starts with Dagny Taggart who is the Operating Vice President of Taggart Transcontinental, a giant railroad company originally pioneered by her grandfather, attempts to keep the company alive during difficult economic times marked by collectivism and statism. While Dagny runs the company from behind the scenes, her brother, James Taggart, the railroad’s President, is peripherally aware of the company’s troubles, but will not make any difficult choices, preferring to avoid responsibility for any actions while watching his company go under. He seems to make irrational decisions, such as preferring to buy steel from Orren Boyle’s Associated Steel, rather than Hank Rearden’s Rearden Steel, despite the former continually delaying delivery of vital rail. In this as in other decisions, Dagny simply goes ahead with her own policy and challenges him to repeal it. As this unfolds, Dagny is disappointed to discover that Francisco d’Anconia, a true genius and her only childhood friend, first love, and king of the copper industry, appears to have become a worthless playboy who is destroying his family’s international copper company, which has made him into one of the richest and most powerful men in the world.
Hank Rearden, a self-made steel magnate of great integrity, has recently developed a metal alloy called Rearden Metal, now the strongest and most reliable metal in the world. Hank chooses to keep the instructions to its creation a secret, sparking jealousy and uproar among competitors. False claims are made about the danger of the alloy and are backed by government agencies. As a result of this, pressure is put on Dagny to use conventional steel, but she refuses. Hank’s career is hindered by his feelings of obligation toward his manipulative wife, mother, and ungrateful younger brother, who show no appreciation for everything he provides for them. Dagny also becomes acquainted with Wesley Mouch, a Washington lobbyist initially working for Rearden, whom he betrays. Mouch eventually leads the government’s efforts in controlling all commerce and enterprise, intentionally destroying the common man’s opportunity to build a largely successful, free-market business. The reader also becomes acquainted with Ellis Wyatt, the sole founder and supervisor of the successful enterprise Wyatt Oil. He is a young, self-possessed, hard-working man — one of the few men still loyal to Dagny and Hank’s efforts in pushing for a system of business free of government meddling and control.
While economic conditions worsen and government agencies continue to enforce their control on successful businesses, the naïve, yet weary mass of citizens are often heard reciting the new, popular street phrase, “Who is John Galt?” This sarcastic phrase is given in response to what tend to be sincere questions about heavy subjects, wherein the individual can find no answer. It sarcastically means, “Don’t ask important questions, because we don’t have answers”, or more broadly, “What’s the point?” or “Why bother?”
Dagny begins to notice the nation’s brightest innovators and business leaders abruptly disappearing, one by one, under mysterious circumstances, all leaving their top industrial businesses to certain failure. The most recent of these leaders to have vanished is Dagny’s friend Ellis Wyatt, who, like the others, has suddenly disappeared into thin air with no warning, leaving nothing behind except an empty office and his most successful oil well now spewing petroleum and fire high into the air (later to be named “Wyatt’s Torch”). Each of these men proves to be absent despite a thorough search put on by ever-anxious politicians, who have now found themselves trapped within a government that has been “left to dry”, by its leaders in business — utterly helpless without them.
In a romantic subplot, Dagny and Hank fall deeply in love. Rand refers to their love as a purer kind of love than the one that most men and women experience. These two people have a similar purpose in life, and they see in each other a kindred soul. In the universe of the novel, men and women with purpose are rare and, to an extent, deified — thus making their love especially sacred. Hank (who is still married to another woman) goes on vacation with Dagny on a drive across the United States. They discover, amongst the ruins of an abandoned factory, an incomplete motor that transforms atmospheric static electricity into kinetic electricity. Deeply moved by the significance of a motor which has the potential to completely transform the world, Dagny sets out to find the inventor.
In addition to the inventor of the motor, Dagny also makes it her mission to find the reason so many important people keep disappearing. These two quests converge when Dagny flies to Utah to speak with a scientist she has working on reverse-engineering the motor. While still at the airfield, she discovers the scientist has just flown off with a mysterious man. Dagny follows the plane to where it mysteriously disappears, eventually crash-landing through a “ray screen” used to hide Galt’s Gulch – the hidden Atlantis where John Galt has been bringing those he recruits. John Galt proceeds to explain the series of events which led to an organized “strike” against those who use the force of law and moral guilt to confiscate the accomplishments of society’s productive members.
Unable to give up her railroad to destruction, Dagny leaves the valley as soon as she can. As the nation is collapsing, Galt follows Dagny back to New York City (where she learns he has been working in plain sight for her railroad as a lowly laborer), where he hacks into a national radio broadcast to deliver a long speech to the people (70 pages in the first edition), serving to explain the novel’s theme and Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. As the government begins to collapse following Galt’s message, the leaders decide the only way to restore order is to capture Galt and force him to save them. While they succeed in following Dagny to him and subsequently taking him prisoner, they are unable to turn Galt, who is eventually freed in a rescue mission by a group of friends. While they are flying back to their hidden valley, they see the lights go out in New York City – the indication that their mission has been completed. The novel closes with a brief section where the strikers complete their preparations and Galt announces that they will return to the world.
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