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The Part and Chapter Headings of Atlas Shrugged (Part 1)

Learn how to grasp the mystery and the logic of Ayn Rand’s magnum opus.

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At over a thousand pages long and dealing with the fate of a civilization, Atlas Shrugged is a story of incredible scope and complexity. Its theme is the role of man’s reasoning mind in achieving all the values of his existence. Its plot is driven by a central question, a seeming contradiction: If the men of the mind are the creators and sustainers of man’s life, why do they continually lose their battles and witness their achievements siphoned off and destroyed by men who have abandoned their minds? The story focuses on how the men of the mind learn to ask and to answer this question, thereby putting a stop to their own exploitation.

To resolve the apparent contradiction demands of the heroes a ruthless commitment to logic: to identify the problem, learn its fundamental cause, and grasp the path to its solution. To liberate themselves, the men of the mind must discover, understand, and then practice a new set of philosophical principles. And for we as readers to really appreciate the story’s progression, the same exacting logical focus is demanded of us. The names of the three parts of Atlas Shrugged are certainly a tribute to Aristotle and his discovery of the laws of logic (as Ayn Rand herself describes the three parts in the afterword to Atlas Shrugged, “About the Author”). But they are more than this. They name the fundamental logical issue that the events of that part of the story are (and that we as readers should be) focused on. They, in conjunction with the individual chapter headings, serve as guideposts to direct our attention to central issues that must be understood and central contradictions that must be resolved in order to grasp both the mystery and the logic of Atlas Shrugged.

Let us explore how this is so.

I will discuss each of the parts and chapters of Atlas Shrugged in their chronological order, but I will not be recapping their events. This is not meant to be an exhaustive summary. Think of it more as a study guide. I am assuming familiarity with the events of each part and each chapter: Given that familiarity, I am trying to highlight how the part and chapter headings help integrate those events and thus enable us to gain a deeper understanding of the story and its meaning. (All quotations will be from the part or chapter under discussion, unless otherwise indicated.)


Part I of Atlas Shrugged begins with Eddie Willers’ attempt to convince James Taggart, President of Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, to face the considerable problems on its Rio Norte Line. This line provides service to the last booming area of the United States, the state of Colorado. Part I ends with Ellis Wyatt, the most productive of Colorado’s industrialists, setting fire to his oil fields and vanishing.

The main sequence of action in part I is the destruction of the only reliable rail line servicing Colorado, the Phoenix-Durango, and Hank Rearden’s and Dagny Taggart’s relentless effort to construct a replacement, the John Galt Line, a replacement fully worthy of the explosion of productivity taking place in Colorado. The principal paradox of part I is why Hank and Dagny face such tremendous opposition, from every corner of society, to their attempt to save Colorado, and why, when their desperate struggle eventually succeeds, their achievement and Colorado’s are nevertheless so easily, effortlessly destroyed.

As this main line of action unfolds, a multitude of other mysteries and seeming contradictions surface. Why, for instance, does an institution devoted to science, the State Science Institute, denounce the scientific achievement that is Rearden Metal? Why does Jim destroy the Phoenix-Durango, even though this jeopardizes the existence of his own railroad? Why won’t Owen Kellogg take the better job that Dagny offers him? Why is the philosopher Hugh Akston working as a cook in a diner? Why did Francisco d’Anconia, who possessed the promise of becoming one of the world’s great industrialists, turn into a playboy? Why has Wyatt abandoned his greatest love, his oil fields? Why, in a civilized world, is there a pirate roaming the oceans? Why does it seem like there is a fifth Halley Concerto, one of joy and deliverance, when Richard Halley composed only four? Why was the incomparable achievement of the motor abandoned as though it were worthless scrap? Who is John Galt?

Even wider questions arise. Pitted against the received views on these issues, the events of part I raise questions about who actually are the exploited and the exploiters in society, what really determines who rises to the top and who sinks to the bottom, and what actually is the relation between the spiritual and the material.

Only when Hank and Dagny learn to resolve, in parts II and III, all these questions and apparent contradictions will they understand the fate of the John Galt Line—that is, why, despite Hank and Dagny’s enormous life-giving power, their achievement had to meet the end it did.

Chapter I: The Theme

Atlas Shrugged is a mystery story, but it contains no false clues or leads. To unravel its mystery requires only philosophical acumen. Indeed, everything essential that is to be discovered is contained in preliminary form here, in the first chapter. As its title suggests, this chapter presages the destruction—and the rebirth—to come.

We get a glimpse, as Eddie Willers walks through the streets of New York City, of decay: bums asking for money, skyscrapers covered in grime, a prosperous street now consisting of one where only a fourth of its shops are out of business. Willers’ mood sets the tone. His apprehensive feeling that “your days are numbered” is accurate—this, he and we will later learn, is the consequence of Galt’s strike (12). By Galt withdrawing the men of the mind, the world’s days are numbered. Willers’ memory of the oak tree from childhood—his feeling of safety from its enormous vitality and strength, and his feeling of betrayal upon discovering it to be an “empty shell,” its “heart . . . rotted away long ago”—is not a causeless memory (5). The oak tree is what Taggart Transcontinental represents to the adult Eddie Willers; its great building gives him a “sense of security”; he thinks it will always stand (6). But its heart—the mind that rules it—has also rotted away. Its president is James Taggart—and we see what that means as Jim evades the problems on the Rio Norte Line and seeks to avoid the responsibility of decision.

The decision maker, the only reason Taggart Transcontinental still has a heartbeat, is Dagny. But though everyone knows that she’s the one who runs things, she is never officially given that recognition or sanction: she is Vice-President in Charge of Operation while Jim is president. Nevertheless, it is Dagny who, by her own admission, saves Taggart Transcontinental from the disasters created by Jim and the Board, such as Mexico’s imminent nationalization of Taggart Transcontinental’s San Sebastián Line.

But Dagny’s job is growing more and more difficult, because good men are now “so strangely hard to find” (17). And yet when she does find one, when she tries to promote to superintendent Owen Kellogg, a young engineer who loves his work, he refuses her offer—for no discernible reason.

What we are actually seeing here is the central conflict of the story: the parasite Jim, trying to exist off the achievements of the mind; Dagny, willing to carry him along in the name of her love for her railroad and for all of existence; and another mind, Kellogg, no longer willing to do penance for that love. And we witness the first effects of the strike on New York City; the strike will have succeeded when the lights of the city go out completely. We even get a glimpse of the fact that Dagny is the strikers’ most dangerous enemy; most dangerous in body, of course, because she is the one propping up the looters; but also most dangerous in spirit, because she is the only one who has the capacity to see the strikers for what they are: it is she who spots the young brakeman whistling Halley’s Fifth Concerto.

And we glimpse the causes of the conflict. Willers and Dagny are motivated by the right, but do not have the words to name it. Willers does not even know fully what is right—he learns this from Dagny—but like her his motive is to do “whatever is right” and to “always reach for the best within us” (6). The young girl looking down the railroad track, planning one day to run Taggart Transcontinental, knows what is the best within her. But even in adulthood, Dagny is unable fully to name why this is morally right and, especially, to understand the importance of so naming it. This leaves her vulnerable. It is her brother who seizes the realm of morality and so the moral high ground. Jim declares that it is only he that is moved by moral considerations and feelings; she is concerned with the “selfish greed for profit” while Jim is concerned with higher, more important things, like the whole nation and “the human element” (22, 20).

More deeply, we see that Dagny, who is unable fully to put into words even her own approach to existence (Halley’s Fifth Concerto gives her an emotional experience of it), cannot fathom her brother’s. She does not and has never accepted his view of morality; she senses that there is something not stupid but monstrous at the root of his moral slogans and motivation, but she cannot identify or even believe it. “She wondered why he resented the necessity of dealing with Rearden, and why his resentment had such an odd, evasive quality. . . . If she were insane, thought Dagny, she would conclude that her brother hated to deal with Rearden because Rearden did his job with superlative efficiency; but she could not conclude it, because she thought that such a feeling was not within the humanly possible” (19).

Even more deeply, we glimpse the source of their two opposing approaches to existence: James evades the responsibility of consciousness, Dagny embraces it. When we first meet Jim, he declares to the world outside his door, “Don’t bother me, don’t bother me, don’t bother me” (7). When we first meet Dagny, she has not slept for two days because “she could not permit herself to sleep; she had too many problems to consider and not much time” (14). In their first meeting in the book, Jim struggles to escape the responsibility of judgment, that is, to judge how to save the Rio Norte Line and whether to use Rearden Metal, while Dagny eagerly accepts it.

Thus all the central questions of the story are raised here, in the first chapter. And the answers, for Dagny as for the reader, are all to be found by answering the question with which the chapter begins—and mysteriously ends: “Who is John Galt?”

Chapter II: The Chain

This chapter’s title obviously derives from the bracelet made from the first pouring of Rearden Metal. At a gathering that includes the Rearden family and Paul Larkin, Hank Rearden’s wife, Lillian, refers to it as “the chain by which he [Hank] holds us all in bondage” (43). Expressing the prevailing moral attitude that the successful seek to oppress the less successful, she asks rhetorically: “What would happen to Henry’s vanity if he didn’t have us to throw alms to? What would become of his strength if he didn’t have weaker people to dominate? What would he do with himself if he didn’t keep us around as dependents?” (43)

But the contradiction is that Lillian’s description does not seem to match either Hank’s attitude and actions—or those of his family.

His family does not cower in his presence; on the contrary, it is they who berate and make demands on him. And Hank has spent the last ten years of his life not in domination of weaker individuals, but in pursuit of a metal superior to steel. Through prodigious thought and effort, he has finally succeeded. He desperately wants to celebrate, but the only salute he receives is a wordless grin of understanding from one of his workers. Indifferent to his family, he does not want to face them tonight, because they won’t understand. “He had never asked anything of them,” he thinks to himself; “it was they who wished to hold him, they who pressed a claim on him—and the claim seemed to have the form of affection, but it was a form which he found harder to endure than any sort of hatred. . . . They professed to love him for some unknown reason and they ignored all the things for which he could wish to be loved” (37).

The chain seems to run in the other direction. As a reflection of his own tremendous life-giving power, Hank is enormously benevolent. He views others as like himself; when he walks home from the mills, he feels “certain that every living being wished him well tonight” (32). Once home, however, he starts to wonder if his family actually does; but he reproaches himself: their insulting comments must be their form of expressing solicitude and affection. He struggles to understand them, but can’t. He certainly does not share their standards and does not feel guilty at their accusations; he smiles when Lillian tries to trap him because he forgot their wedding anniversary. He senses that they are radically unlike him, that they are disappointed that Lillian’s trap didn’t induce guilt and are “wounded by the mere fact of his being” (37). But then he tells himself, don’t “start imagining the insane” (37). His sense of justice does not permit him to “condemn without understanding, and he could not understand” (38). He will not impose his standards on them; even if he loathes their goals, their goals must mean to them what his mills and metal mean to him. They’re simply “bewildered, unhappy children”—and even if he cannot understand what they wish to achieve, he can help them achieve it; he can grant Lillian her anniversary party and Philip his funding for Friends of Global Progress (40).

In fact, Hank does not apply his standards fully even across his business. Larkin warns him not to announce his views too publicly—that they’re Hank’s mills and that his goal is to make steel and money; people regard his standards as antisocial. But Hank doesn’t “give a damn what they think” (39). Yet despite his incredible devotion to his business and its profits, he cannot bring himself to examine one area of his operations too closely: his man in Washington. Though he knows he needs one, “he could not quite convince himself that it was necessary. An inexplicable kind of distaste, part fastidiousness, part boredom, stopped him whenever he considered it” (40).

The deepest question this chapter raises is: What are Hank’s standards—and what would happen if he named and consistently applied them? His is a career of relentless effort to build his business, to earn, to grow, to achieve and to deserve ever greater achievements. Yet when he looks back on his life, something is missing. Standing straight, “as if before a bench of judgment,” he thinks of signs lighted against the darkness: “Rearden Ore—Rearden Coal—Rearden Limestone”; he wishes he could light a sign above them all, “Rearden Life” (32). This is an eloquent expression of his need for full self-esteem: he is efficacious, but does any standard exist under which his actions and entire life would be evaluated as moral? This is the deepest contradiction of the chapter: on the night of his greatest triumph, we see a lonely figure, desperate to celebrate, wondering “why happiness could hurt” (30).

Chapter III: The Top and the Bottom

This chapter opens with a meeting atop a skyscraper and closes with a meeting underground. But the top doesn’t seem like a top, and the bottom doesn’t seem like a bottom.

In a windowless, cellar-like room built on the roof of a skyscraper, Jim, Orren Boyle, Larkin, and Wesley Mouch meet in New York’s most expensive barroom. Using language that is at once conventionally moral and public-spirited sounding, and also vague and almost indecipherable, men of no particular achievement—Boyle’s start in business was through a two-hundred-million-dollar loan from the government and “nobody ever paid any attention” to Mouch—negotiate a deal (45). With their mysterious deal concluded, they discuss their attempt to cash in on the San Sebastián Mines. These do not seem like men fit to run anything. Why are they at the top of the world?

On the other hand, in the underground employees’ cafeteria of Taggart Transcontinental, in a sparkling room with “a sense of light and space,” Willers and a railroad worker—John Galt—discuss real problems (62). In language that is simple and clear, Willers outlines what Dagny, with his help, will do to save the railroad: build the Rio Norte Line, using McNamara as the contractor to lay the rail. These two employees appear competent men, the kind who can get things done. Why are they at the bottom?

The intervening part of the chapter provides clues to the answer. We witness Dagny’s rise through Taggart Transcontinental, her worship of ability, her brushing aside of accusations of conceit and selfishness, her embrace of responsibility as others seek to avoid it. But we also see her relation to Jim, as he rises through Taggart Transcontinental. She cannot understand his motives but she doesn’t think he is “smart enough to harm the railroad too much” (52). Like Hank, she cannot bring herself to examine Jim’s “Washington ability” too closely: “there were many kinds of work which were offensive, yet necessary, like cleaning sewers” (52). And in any event, she would always be there to fix any damage he caused.

Unable to understand Jim, it is she who makes his continued actions possible. His first project as president of Taggart Transcontinental is the San Sebastián Line, a project that bleeds losses for the railroad and undermines the Rio Norte Line. Because of that project, Dagny considers, for the first time, quitting, but shakes her head in angry denial: “she told herself that Taggart Transcontinental would now need her more than ever” (55). Because of Jim’s plan, two Directors and the Vice-President in Charge of Operation resign. “She never understood why the Board of Directors voted unanimously to make her Vice-President in Charge of Operation” (56). But the answer is contained in the novel’s next sentence. “It was she who finally gave them their San Sebastián Line” (56). After three years of their failures, she completes the line in a year. It is only because of her that Jim can remain at the top of Taggart Transcontinental.

Dagny, we see in this chapter, longs for her radiant kind of world, a world ruled not by ineptitude but by ability—an ability worth matching or beating. But that world remains hidden from her, in the underground of Taggart Transcontinental, because of her own contradiction: she longs for that world but constantly props up the ineptitude that is her brother. Even though Dagny does not realize it yet, her sanction elevates James and his ilk to the top and relegates Galt to the bottom.

Chapter IV: The Immovable Movers

The end of the previous chapter hinted at the supreme importance of motive power—it is the world’s motive power that Galt must stop—and this chapter highlights its importance.

Its central event is the National Alliance of Railroads’ passage of the Anti-dog-eat-dog-Rule, whose effect will be to destroy in nine months the best rail line to Colorado, Dan Conway’s Phoenix-Durango. The rule’s passage was part of the deal negotiated in the cellar barroom.

Dagny urges Conway to fight the injustice, knowing also that the rule will actually make her job in Colorado more difficult. But Conway’s motor has stopped. He who built an obscure railroad into a successful enterprise, no longer wants to fight. Why? Because he’s lost the conviction that he is in the right. The Alliance “had the right to do it,” he tells Dagny; “the world’s in a terrible state right now. . . . Men have to get together. . . . I suppose somebody’s got to be sacrificed. . . . I have no right to complain. The right’s on their side.” Deep down, he senses that the sacrifice of the best railroad to its inferior competition is “damn unjust!” But to fight it “would be wrong. I’m just selfish.” “Oh, damn that rotten tripe!” Dagny tells him. “You know better than that!” Conway answers: “I don’t know what is right any more. . . . I don’t think I care.” Wordlessly, Dagny knows that “Conway would never be a man of action again.” She wonders what has defeated him (77–79).

Conway has relinquished precisely what Dagny won’t. In the name of her own existence, she is dedicated to that which she sees to be right: she has always been “the motive power of her own happiness” (65). This conviction is why she is indignant about the Anti-dog-eat-dog-Rule. It is this conviction that makes Dagny (and those like her) an immovable mover: she originates motion in pursuit of the right and will not allow herself to be moved or deflected from her chosen path precisely because it is right.

In complete contrast to Conway and Dagny are Jim and Betty Pope. Theirs is the contradictory spectacle of conscious motion without purpose. “Here’s another day,” Pope declares, “and nothing to do” (70). Jim stumbles into the living room of his apartment, unable to remember why he’s there. He can’t be bothered to figure out why he does the things he does: the two of them slept together because that’s what people do. The only times he has the semblance of purposeful motion is when he can undermine Dagny, and more generally, achievement: he relishes the opportunity to put the skids under Dagny at the Board meeting and gloats over the destruction of Conway.

Dagny will have to learn that Jim’s motivation is the opposite of hers: not pursuit of the right, but pursuit of the right’s destruction. Dagny senses that Jim’s gloating over both Conway and her contains “a secret she had never suspected, and it was crucially important that she learn to understand it. But the thought flashed and vanished” (76). What moves men like Jim?

The question at once seems important and supremely unimportant. In Dagny’s kind of world, in the presence of immovable individuals like her and Hank Rearden, the issue seems unreal. “Don’t waste time trying to figure him out,” Hank tells her. “Let him spit. He’s no danger to anyone. People like Jim Taggart just clutter up the world” (85). He and Dagny will “save the country from the consequences of their actions” and then go on to greater achievements; the lunacy of people like Jim is “demented, so it has to defeat itself” (84). Within the minds of Hank and Dagny, there is room for only a single field of concern: concern for their vision of what Rearden Metal will create—a single-minded concern for movement toward that which they know to be right.

And yet, in contradiction to Hank and Dagny’s attitude, some seemingly immovable movers are disappearing. Taggart Transcontinental’s and the nation’s best contractor, McNamara, abruptly quits and vanishes, walking out on “a pile of contracts . . . worth a fortune”; Richard Halley gave up composing at the height of his success; and Francisco d’Anconia, who retains “the smile of a man who is able to see, to know and to create the glory of existence,” has become an aimless chaser of women (65, 69). Have they all been defeated, like Conway? (Or have they learned a new conception of the right?) And what will happen to Ellis Wyatt? Like Dagny, he is outraged by the Anti-dog-eat-dog-Rule—he who will be its next sacrificial victim. Wyatt knows he is in the grips of evil, and he is affected by its presence in a way that Hank is not: “You expect to feed off me while you can,” Wyatt tells Dagny (thinking she is like Jim), “and to find another carcass to pick dry after you have finished mine. That is the policy of most of mankind today.” In the name of what he knows to be right, Wyatt will not fade away like Conway. He will remain a man of action: “I may have to go; but if I go, I’ll make sure that I take all the rest of you along with me” (82).

This is not Hank’s attitude, but is there a crack in Hank’s motive power? Does he know that his course of action is right? “We’re a couple of blackguards, aren’t we?” he declares to Dagny in a strange tone of dispassionate wonder. But when he looks at his mills, there is “no guilt in his face, no doubt, nothing but the calm of an inviolate self-confidence”—self-confidence, without full self-esteem (88).

Chapter V: The Climax of the d’Anconias

This chapter’s name has an obvious derivation: because of his incredible mind, the childhood Francisco held the promise to become “the climax of the d’Anconias” (94). The chapter’s full effect is only to deepen the contradiction that is the adult Francisco.

Relentlessly purposeful, dedicated to d’Anconia Copper, admiring of money-making and of productive work as “the only system of morality that’s on a gold standard,” intensely passionate about Dagny—given what Francisco was, what could cause him to become what he has become? (100) And what has he become? Has he given up, like Conway? But then why take, Dagny wonders, “the ugliest way of escape”—an intelligence drowned in throwing parties and chasing women? (116). Moreover, when Dagny meets Francisco in his hotel room to discuss the San Sebastián mines, he does not seem like a man who has given up—and doubt is even cast on whether he chases women.

Clues to the answer are contained in Francisco’s childhood. Jim is resentful of Francisco’s ability, and Dagny senses that there is something dangerous in men like her brother, but Francisco dismisses her. “Good God, Dagny! Do you expect me to be afraid of an object like James?” (99). Francisco’s attitude slowly begins to change, however, in college; he tells Dagny that they are “teaching a lot of drivel nowadays” (99). And from college Jim acquires “a tone of aggressive self-righteousness”; it is “as if he had found a new weapon” (99). Dagny sees the first crack in Francisco’s seeming invulnerability shortly after college, when he’s working as head of the New York office of d’Anconia Copper. Looking out the window of his office for a long time, his face tight with “an emotion she had never believed possible to him: of bitter, helpless anger,” he says to her: “‘There’s something wrong in the world. There’s always been. Something no one has ever named or explained’” (111).

A few years after this episode, Francisco asks her whether she could give up Taggart Transcontinental, pleads with her to help him remain, and warns her that “I will have a reason for the things I’ll do. But I can’t tell you the reason and you will be right to damn me” (115).

The “things I’ll do” begin to emerge with the San Sebastian disaster. Francisco, it appears, has done it on purpose. Jim and his gang wanted to ride on Francisco’s coattails, so that knowledge on their part would be unnecessary. Why should Francisco have to exist in some different way? Why are they outraged when he does not prevent the nationalization of the mines, since this act is supposed to be good? Why is the People’s State of Mexico accusing him of defrauding them when his looted mines prove worthless?

When Dagny tells Francisco that he of all people should be fighting the looters, he answers that it is she whom he must fight. What amuses him most is that the San Sebastian disaster has helped destroy the Phoenix-Durango and will, he thinks, destroy Wyatt and then Taggart Transcontinental. She regards this as blasphemy to Sebastian d’Anconia—but he named those mines in tribute to his great ancestor.

Like Dagny, we are left to wonder: Could it be that in some inconceivable way Francisco has actually become what he promised to be: the climax of the d’Anconias?

Chapter VI: The Non-Commercial

What is the relation between the material and the spiritual? The conventional view is that either you are a spiritual person, who is therefore unconcerned with the material world, or you are a materialist, who is therefore preoccupied with money and devoid of any spiritual concern. The events of this chapter seem to contradict both notions.

The guests Lillian invited to celebrate her wedding anniversary are regarded as the spiritualists: the philosopher Dr. Simon Pritchett, the author Balph Eubank, the composer Mort Liddy, the magazine editor Bertram Scudder, the philanthropist Claude Slagenhop. Supposedly, their spiritual concerns are too lofty for the material world. But it is difficult to say just what those spiritual concerns are. It is clear what these men are against—Pritchett is against logic and man’s delusions of grandeur; Eubank is against free will, plot, happy endings, and stories that portray man as heroic; Liddy is against melody; Scudder is against property rights; and Slagenhop is against all ideas. But what are these men for? Whenever they speak of that, it always concerns controlling those who deal with the material world. Pritchett wants to reduce men to instinct and force them to be free, claiming that this isn’t a contradiction “in the higher philosophical sense”; Eubank wants to limit “the sale of any book to ten thousand copies”; Scudder and Slagenhop want to seize industrialists’ property (134–35). They all support the Equalization of Opportunity Bill, which would break up Hank’s business empire.

Hank is the materialist. And he certainly is intensely concerned with conquering the material realm by creating new products, like Rearden Metal, and building a business empire. But it doesn’t seem accurate to characterize Hank as devoid of spiritual concern. On the contrary, he seems a profoundly spiritual person, moved by the essence of spiritual motivation: the desire to do what is right. The reason he sits troubled and paralyzed in his dressing room, unable to finish getting ready for his anniversary party even though he believes he owes Lillian his presence there, is that for the first time in his life the knowledge of what is right is losing its power to move him. “The impossible conflict of feeling reluctance to do that which was right,” he thinks to himself, “wasn’t it the basic formula of moral corruption?” (131). All the while, he is haunted by his desire for Dagny, a desire he must struggle against and silence—a passionate desire to do what is wrong.

But even if Hank is spiritual, he doesn’t identify himself as such: the only terms he has are those of his society. “‘You don’t care for anything but business.’ He had heard it all his life, pronounced as a verdict of damnation. . . . He had never held that creed, but he had accepted it as natural that his family should hold it. He took it for granted—wordlessly, in the manner of a feeling absorbed in childhood, left unquestioned and unnamed—that he had dedicated himself, like a martyr of some dark religion, to the service of a faith which was his passionate love, but which made him an outcast among men, whose sympathy he was not to expect.” He thinks it his duty to provide Lillian with “some form of existence unrelated to business. But he had never found the capacity to do it or even to experience a sense of guilt” (127–28).

But though he doesn’t provide Lillian an existence unrelated to business, he does leave the spiritual realm to Lillian and her friends, thinking his world is unaffected by their prattle. But it isn’t. It is they who are pushing the Equalization of Opportunity Bill. The bill is a product of their irrational ideas—which is the reason why Hank cannot even take the bill seriously. “Having dealt with the clean reality of metals, technology, production all his life, he had acquired the conviction that one had to concern oneself with the rational, not the insane” (130).

Even more devastating than this, it is Lillian who has turned his sexual desire into his enemy. Just as she tries to make him feel guilty for his devotion to his mills—at the anniversary party she deliberately makes the bracelet of Rearden Metal look ugly on her arm—so she tries the same in regard to his sexual desire. She has degraded the act of sex and helped him conclude that his desire is materialistic, low, animalistic. But his desire remains, and he now thinks it’s his duty to struggle against it. Lillian did not succeed in regard to his work—he does not accept her evaluation of his mills. Why? Because he knows firsthand their actual meaning (though he does not yet have the words to fully name that meaning). But she does succeed in regard to his sexual desire, because he has no firsthand experience of its true spiritual significance, much less the words to name that significance.

It is this split between the spiritual and material that Dagny won’t accept. She longs for spiritual celebration of her material achievement and bemoans the fact that her world has nothing to offer, unable to understand why it doesn’t. Wandering the streets of New York (in “The Immovable Movers”), Dagny had looked for spiritual fuel—only to be met with the products of Lillian’s cocktail-party crowd, like “The Vulture Is Molting.” Francisco names what she feels at the party, among men who actually have nothing to celebrate: “what a magnificent waste!” (154). She desires a man worthy of her—unbeknownst to her, she came to the party only because Hank would be there—but finds no one in the world. Her desperate desire to have the bracelet of Rearden Metal comes from her struggle to preserve her view of the world, where the material and spiritual form an inseparable union. The bracelet is the material symbol of a supreme spiritual accomplishment.

So this chapter leaves us with the question of the actual relation between the spiritual and the material. The spiritual people, the intellectuals, artists and cultural spokesmen, the self-described “non-commercial,” don’t seem spiritual. They don’t seem motivated by the desire to do what is right, and they seem intensely preoccupied with the material realm. What are they after? What is their purpose? What does Lillian want? The supreme materialist, by contrast, seems the most spiritual figure, intensely concerned with doing what is right. But he dismisses the spiritual and moral realms, content to leave them to men who could not even be sweepers in his mills. Why? And why, more widely, is the world bereft of true spiritual grandeur? Why can’t Dagny find her equal?

Chapter VII: The Exploiters and the Exploited

Who are the exploiters and who the exploited?

The view that men like Hank, Dagny, and Wyatt have heard all their lives is that they exploit the Ben Nealys of the world. But isn’t this a contradiction? What does Nealy have to exploit? He can’t even do his job properly without the minds of Dagny and Wyatt to guide him. Dagny and Wyatt are not oppressors standing in his way; he is an obstacle standing in their way: Nealy simply quits the job as the denunciations of Rearden Metal escalate. Men like Wyatt do not seek to exploit the Nealys of the world, they seek to be free of such obstacles, which is one reason they have fled to Colorado.

The real exploiters are selfless, “public-spirited” men like Jim, Wesley Mouch, and Dr. Robert Stadler—and the exploited are individuals like Dagny, Hank, and Wyatt. In the name of the public interest, Jim has killed the Phoenix-Durango and now tries to loot the corpse. Jim constantly seeks to position himself so that Dagny sustains Taggart Transcontinental while he remains on top, doing nothing. After the crash of Taggart Transcontinental’s stock (a consequence of Jim killing the Phoenix-Durango), it is Dagny who must build the Rio Norte Line and save Taggart Transcontinental, risking her career, while he remains unaffected. “Nothing will change,” Dagny tells him, “except the kind of show you will put on for your friends . . . and the fact that it will be a little harder for me” (194). Mouch, similarly, has been on Rearden’s payroll, using it to advance up the ladder of power in Washington; Mouch then helps pass the Equalization of Opportunity Bill. And through the State Science Institute, Stadler forces all “the greedy ruffians who run our industries” to pay for his theoretical research. And to maintain the State Science Institute’s prestige, he also tries to keep Rearden Metal off the market. (How will the “greedy ruffian” Hank then fund Stadler’s research? This is one of the contradictions Stadler refuses to face.) More widely, the looters in Washington and New York are exploiting the last bastion of productivity, Colorado, a fact Dagny senses in the cab ride with Jim, seeing through the cab’s window all the products flowing into the city from the industries of Colorado.

Why do the exploited permit their exploitation? They don’t—when they can grasp the moral issue and the evil involved. Dagny stops the cab and leaps out when she learns that she is supposed to debate Bertram Scudder on whether Rearden Metal is a lethal product of greed. “You goddamn fool,” she declares to Jim, “do you think I consider the question debatable?” (175). Hank refuses the State Science Institute’s demand that he keep Rearden Metal off the market (or sell it to them, so that they can use it but keep it off the market). “Would you tell me,” Dr. Potter asks him, “just between us, it’s only my personal curiosity—why are you doing this?” Hank answers: “I’ll tell you. You won’t understand. You see, it’s because Rearden Metal is good” (182). Hank also refuses his mother’s demand to give a job to his brother Philip. He realizes that if he gave a job to Philip, he would be betraying his mills. “What are they, your mills—a holy temple of some kind?” his mother asks. “‘Why . . . yes,’ he said softly, astonished at the thought.” “Don’t you ever think of people,” his mother responds, “and of your moral duties?” “I don’t know what it is that you choose to call morality,” Hank answers. “No, I don’t think of people—except that if I gave a job to Philip, I wouldn’t be able to face any competent man who needed work and deserved it” (209).

But more often, they cannot understand the nature of the evil they face. Dagny is cautious around both Jim and Stadler, but cannot grasp their level of moral corruption. And because of her passionate love for her railroad, she will pay any price for it. She will leave Taggart Transcontinental and her position of Vice-President, perhaps never to return, in order to build the John Galt Line; she will agree to Jim’s terms; and she will go see Stadler about the State Science Institute’s statement on Rearden Metal. She accepts that Jim and the others will erect obstacles in front of her, but hopes they’ll leave her and Hank alone long enough to complete the John Galt Line; indeed, the one condition she imposes on Jim is: “keep your Washington boys off” (197).

Hank too cannot yet understand them: he cannot understand what motivates them and he doesn’t want to descend into their filth to find out. When his mother tells him her conception of morality is that “virtue is the giving of the underserved” Hank replies: “Mother, you don’t know what you’re saying. I’m not able ever to despise you enough to believe that you mean it” (209). When the Equalization of Opportunity Bill passes, Hank thinks to himself: “There is an obscenity of evil which contaminates the observer. There is a limit to what it is proper for a man to see. He must not think of this, or look within, or try to learn the nature of its roots” (215). And like Dagny, Hank too will pay any price for the love of his mills. Indeed, he barely has time to notice the price. The Equalization of Opportunity Bill and its evil fade from his mind as he thinks of a new type of bridge design, one combining a truss and an arch.

We see here again the question of the relation between the spiritual and the material. Dagny and Hank apply the right spiritual standard to the material realm when they see the issue—she refuses to appear on Scudder’s radio program and Hank refuses to hire Philip. But Dagny and Hank cannot understand the corruption of the mystics who split the spiritual from the material nor understand what these people are after in the material world. This leaves Dagny and Hank vulnerable to exploitation. For what the mystics seek is to be freed from the need to consider such issues as the true, the good, the earned, and the deserved when it comes to the “low,” “grubby” material world. Stadler wants to pursue his theoretical physics, unconcerned with whether his material means of doing so are deserved. Jim wants to be the President of Taggart Transcontinental, unconcerned with the need to earn his position. Hank’s mother wants Hank to give Philip a job he doesn’t deserve and to make it look like Philip is doing Hank a favor. What we see here is that the spiritual-material split is a way to escape justice—or better, to invert it, to insist that spiritual grandeur comes from inverting the requirements of the material world. Virtue, according to Hank’s mother, is the giving of the undeserved.

And so when Dagny goes to see Stadler to tell him that there is only one reason he must speak out in defense of Rearden Metal, “you must say it, because it is true”—she is actually sanctioning his evil and his exploitation of individuals like her (189). She is acting as if he is, like her, dedicated to the truth as an absolute.

Dagny herself doesn’t accept a split between the spiritual and the material, but she also doesn’t have the words to identify fully their union, and her vision of their actual relation is eroding. When the bum in the diner laments that there’s “no spirit involved in manufacturing or sex” and that morality is “judgment to distinguish right and wrong, vision to see the truth, courage to act upon it, dedication to that which is good, integrity to stand by the good at any price. But where does one find it?”—the joke, of course, is on him (177). He could find it if he looked straight at the woman sitting in front of him. But Dagny’s vision of the ideal is also slipping: she has stopped expecting to find people dedicated to the true and the good and has stopped expecting to find spiritual grandeur and celebration in the world. She doesn’t even realize that she’s attracted to Hank for precisely this need and desire.

We’re left to wonder: Is a person’s choice then either to become an exploiter of others, or to be exploited by an evil he cannot understand and thereby slowly lose his vision of the good? We do get glimpses of another possibility: men who are resigning and vanishing, men who refuse to be exploited but who do not themselves become exploiters. Is Francisco one of them? Dagny places Francisco on the side of the looters, but is he? This much we know: he will not help Dagny build the John Galt Line—and he tells her that John Galt will come to claim it.

Chapter VIII: The John Galt Line

In contrast to the previous two chapters, which dealt with the split between the spiritual and the material, this chapter showcases their unity. The longing and loneliness that Dagny feels, alone in her office of the John Galt Line, is the despair that her spiritual values will not be brought into material form, that the man at the end of the rails, and the love she would feel for him and he for her, will remain only “her own thought of what life could be like” (220). The spiritual should be made real. This is the meaning of the achievement that is the John Galt Line.

“It was a strange foreshortening between sight and touch,” Dagny thinks to herself as she sits in the fireman’s chair on the first run of the John Galt Line, “between wish and fulfillment, between—the words clicked sharply in her mind after a startled stop—between spirit and body. First, the vision—then the physical shape to express it. First, the thought—then the purposeful motion down the straight line of a single track to a chosen goal. Could one have any meaning without the other? Wasn’t it evil to wish without moving—or to move without aim? Whose malevolence was it that crept through the world, struggling to break the two apart and set them against each other?” (240–41). Looking through the cab, she wonders:

Who made it possible for four dials and three levers in front of Pat Logan to hold the incredible power of the sixteen motors behind them and deliver it to the effortless control of one man’s hand? These things and the capacity from which they came—was this the pursuit men regarded as evil? Was this what they called an ignoble concern with the physical world? Was this the state of being enslaved by matter? Was this the surrender of man’s spirit to his body? She shook her head, as if she wished she could toss the subject out of the window and let it get shattered somewhere along the track. She looked at the sun on the summer fields. She did not have to think, because these questions were only details of a truth she knew and had always known. (241)

This unity of spirit and matter, of a disciplined intelligence devoted to its life on earth, is the meaning of the John Galt Line. And this is what Dagny and Hank celebrate when they sleep together. She knows it, he doesn’t.

If we turn from Dagny and Hank’s creation of the John Galt Line to the world’s reaction, we see that their achievement is granted no moral recognition or spiritual significance. Eddie Willers senses the danger of this. “Why does she have to hide?” he asks the Taggart Transcontinental worker. “Why are they torturing her in return for saving their lives? . . . There’s something about it all that I can’t define, and it’s something evil. That’s why I’m afraid” (218). The presence of this evil is also the source of Wyatt’s rebellious anger, when he thinks that the John Galt Line will soon be destroyed. “To the world as it seems to be right now!” he shouts, and then throws the champagne glass across the room (250).

Why is the achievement that is the John Galt Line in such danger? The danger comes from divorcing the material from the spiritual—from Dagny and Hank creating the John Galt Line but not demanding the spiritual and moral recognition that is their due.

By contrast, it is precisely this divorce of matter from spirit that Galt won’t permit himself. He is in love with Dagny and wants to go to her, when he sees her alone, slumped across the desk of her office, thinking of him (though she doesn’t know it). Dagny is not ready to strike, and his action of entering her office would betray his vision of what he knows the world can be and in the name of which he is on strike.

Chapter IX: The Sacred and the Profane

If anything is regarded as sacred by the world, it is the moral sentiments Jim voices. He declares that the pursuit of profit is not a noble motive but working for others is, that building a rail line for prosperous industrialists when poor people need transportation is wrong, that inventing a new metal when numerous nations still go without iron is evil, that pride is the worst sin and selflessness the greatest virtue, that there are higher things in life than material products like rails and bridges, and that these higher spiritual things cannot be identified or measured. Jim’s relationship with Cherryl too would be regarded as noble, an act of charity toward her.

Yet Jim’s actual sentiments and actions seem to contradict this evaluation: far from being sacred, they seem profane. His moral slogans serve as weapons to discredit Dagny and Hank and to hold his own nonachievement as superior to their achievements. With the success of the John Galt Line, however, his self-deception is more difficult to maintain; he finds himself wishing they had failed, yet frightened by what this would reveal about himself if he faced it. Cherryl is the one person he wants to see after the success of the John Galt Line, because her misdirected hero worship at once props himself up in his own eyes—it is as though he were actually good—and also allows him to recapture a sense of superiority—by being able to successfully defraud her. Their encounter serves as “his revenge upon every person who had stood cheering along the three-hundred-mile track of the John Galt Line” (267).

And what in fact seems sacred, Dagny and Hank’s desire for each other, Hank, echoing the world’s standards, damns as profane. Hank has accepted one aspect of the spirit-matter split. As Jim denounces production as materialistic, so Hank denounces sex as animalistic; as Jim declares suffering the proof of virtue, so Hank declares pleasure the proof of vice. Yet his evaluation of their affair contradicts his actual experience: he is finding for the first time joy and serenity in his personal life. He’s starting to glimpse that his desire for Dagny and hers for him comes from the core of their beings: he asks Dagny to wear the bracelet made from the first pouring of Rearden Metal, the symbol of his productive ability, the symbol of his virtue.

More widely, the spirit-matter dichotomy is accepted by the world, and so what it should regard as sacred, it treats as insignificant or profane. Hank attends a banquet held in his honor because he thinks that his opponents have at last learned to appreciate the value of Rearden Metal—and for that, he would forgive anyone anything. But what he learns about them is that they don’t value anything, that they are merely going through motions copied from a better age. Both the John Galt Line and the productive explosion in Colorado should be regarded with reverence; Hank thinks it’s now “clear track ahead” and that after giving the world the demonstration he and Dagny gave it with the first run of the John Galt Line, the Equalization of Opportunity Bill will be scrapped (277). But that’s not the popular attitude, as expressed by Mr. Mowen.

Mowen thinks he has a right to live as he has always lived, his routine undisturbed. He does not look with reverence at Hank’s and Dagny’s or Colorado’s achievements. He seeks protection from them. There ought to be a law, he says, against businesses moving to Colorado. He should be protected from the dog-eat-dog competition of the Stockton Foundry—and Taggart Transcontinental should face more competition in Colorado. Hank shouldn’t be able to manufacture so much Rearden Metal that he disrupts other people’s markets—but Mowen should be able to get as much Rearden Metal as he wants. Wyatt’s output should be capped to “leave the little people a chance”—but something ought to be done about the shortage of oil in the city (272). Mowen wants a material existence that requires no thought or logical consistently—and he expects Washington, somehow, to make this possible. “Steps are being taken,” he tells Kellogg. “Constructive steps. The Legislature has passed a Bill giving wider powers to the Bureau of Economic Planning and National Resources” (273).

The nation should value industry (along with the ambition and greed that creates it), but as Dagny and Hank discover on their vacation, industry is disappearing from vast stretches of America. This fact is crystallized by the desecration of the motor. It was an invention that would have revolutionized the world, abandoned in a defunct factory. And even when the factory itself was looted, its most valuable treasure passed unnoticed, probably stripped for parts so that someone’s diapers could hang “on a clothesline made of the motor’s missing wires” (291).

In such a world, what can be the fate of the John Galt Line and Colorado?

Chapter X: Wyatt’s Torch

In one of its meanings, a “torch” refers to something that serves to illuminate, enlighten, or guide. Dagny and Hank are on two quests for which they need illumination and guidance: to find the inventor of the motor and to save Colorado.

The superlative achievement that is the motor has been abandoned, its promise unfulfilled and its inventor and his fate, unknown. How is this possible? Who invented it? What has happened to him? Even more desperately, the looters are threatening to destroy Colorado. But how can Hank and Dagny stop the looters? Hank knows of “no weapons but to pay for what he wanted, to give value for value, to ask nothing of nature without trading his effort in return, to ask nothing of men without trading the product of his effort. What were the weapons . . . if values were not a weapon any longer?” (303). Similarly, Dagny can see “no way of fighting, no rules of battle, no weapons” (298). What action could she take “against the men of undefined thought, of unnamed motives, of unstated purposes, of unspecified morality. . . . What were the weapons . . . in a realm where reason was not a weapon any longer?” (300).

Dagny senses that these two quests are linked, because the mind that could invent the motor would know how to fight the looters.

Wyatt’s burning oil fields—and that which caused him to light them—do illuminate both quests, but Hank and Dagny must learn to see this for themselves. They must learn that Wyatt’s act was not an act of rebellious despair but in fact the only way for Wyatt to fight the looters. They must learn to view their own achievements with full pride and to grasp that to fight evil, there cannot be even one act of cooperation, material or spiritual, with it.

Hank in particular is disarmed by guilt. In accepting an aspect of the spiritual-material dichotomy, he has damned as sin his joyous affair with Dagny. His sense of guilt now undercuts the righteousness he needs to fight the looters. “He did not know—as he sat slumped at his desk, thinking of the honesty he could claim no longer, of the sense of justice he had lost—that it was his rigid honesty and ruthless sense of justice that were now knocking his only weapon out of his hands. He would fight the looters, but the wrath and fire were gone” (303).

But Hank must also grasp the fundamental motive of his enemies. He now senses that there is something monstrous about his family; but at this point he still cannot believe that they mean what they’re saying. Yet he is beginning to see that the issue is crucially important. “Lillian,” he asks her, no longer on the defensive in their conversation, “what purpose do you live for?” When she answers that perhaps spiritual, enlightened people don’t attempt to do anything, and that they certainly don’t spend their time on the grimy job of manufacturing plumbing pipes, Hank answers: “‘I know that you feel contempt for the plumbing pipes. You’ve made that clear long ago. Your contempt means nothing to me. Why keep repeating it?’ He wondered why this hit her; he did not know in what manner, but he knew that it did. He wondered why he felt with absolute certainty that that had been the right thing to say” (308).

Dagny too is catching glimpses of the nature of the evil she faces. In the course of searching for the inventor of the motor, she comes across many variations of evil: Mayor Bascom, Eugene Lawson, Lee Hunsacker, the Starnes heirs. When Ivy Starnes tells her of the noble, spiritual plan they imposed at the Twentieth Century Motor Company—only to see it defeated by the selfish, base, materialistic nature of men—“Dagny heard a cold, implacable voice saying somewhere within her: Remember it—remember it well—it is not often that one can see pure evil—look at it—remember—and some day you’ll find the words to name its essence” (323). This is the essence she must grasp. She must grasp that Eric Starnes—“the man who gives his life for malice”—is the essence of evil (321). She must identify what she has now but sensed about Jim: that self-interest is not his motive.

If she could identify their motive, she would see that Wyatt’s fate—“Ellis Wyatt being choked, with his own bright energy turned against him as the noose”—must be the fate of all the life-bringers in the looters’ system (335). And then she would see that the actions of Midas Mulligan, of Judge Narangansett, of William Hastings, of the engineers at the Twentieth Century Motor Company, and of Ellis Wyatt are the only way to fight the looters—that in saving Jim’s neck, as she admits she has done, she is only tightening the noose around hers.

Her quest would then be over, for she will have solved the secret Galt solved and that involves, in Hugh Akston’s words, “something greater—much greater—than the invention of a motor run by atmospheric electricity” (331).

Image credit: BrAt82/Shutterstock.com

Continue to Part 2 here.

Reprinted from the English Language edition of Essays on Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” edited by Robert Mayhew and originally published by Lexington Books, an imprint of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc., Lanham, MD, USA. Copyright © by the author. Published in the English language by arrangement with Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, reprinting, or on any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.

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Onkar Ghate

Onkar Ghate, PhD in philosophy, is a senior fellow and chief philosophy officer at the Ayn Rand Institute. A contributing author to many books on Rand’s ideas and philosophy, he is a senior editor of New Ideal and a member of the Ayn Rand University faculty.

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