Chapter I (titled "The Theme"), the first in the ten chapters which comprise Part I ("Non-Contradiction"), introduces some of the major actors in the story. The first character is Eddie Willers, a no-nonsense man who works for Taggart Transcontinental Railway. He is on the street in New York, and is questioned strangely by a vagrant. "Who is John Galt?" Eddie gives him a dime, and avoids the question which the beggar asks: "Why does it bother you?" At this point in the story the reader does not know why a random beggar would ask "Who is John Galt?", or why such a question would disturb this unassuming office worker.
Willers goes into the Taggart Transcontinental building, to the president's office. James Taggart, who runs the railway, is described as an unattractive, vacillating man. The reader learns, through Eddie's flashbacks, that Eddie and James Taggart (Jim) were childhood friends, and that Eddie's family had worked for James's father and grandfather. The problem Eddie presents to James is concerned with Taggart's Transcontinental Rio Norte Line, a new line in the western United States. The line is currently not making money. The two men argue about the new track ordered for the line, which James has ordered from a friend's steel company. The company has failed to deliver the track for many months, and Eddie insists that James order track from a different company, Hank Rearden's. Rearden Steel would be able to deliver the rails quickly. James refuses, citing his friendship with the first steel company's president Orren Boyle, while complaining that Rearden gets all the railway business and it would be fairer to spread his business around. There are lucrative opportunities (such as the Wyatt oil fields) on the Rio Norte line, and Eddie sees James's refusal to speed up the improvement as headstrong stupidity. The problem is even more urgent since there is a distinct possibility that the Mexican government will nationalize the part of the Rio Norte line which lies within their borders.
The argument grows heated, and Jim and Eddie disagree about Jim's sister Dagny's opinion about the Rio Norte line. Willers leaves Jim's office, and has a brief encounter with Pop Harper, the head clerk. The old man is cynical about the company's outlook, and ends Eddie's and his exchange with the question "Who is John Galt?"
The scene shifts to a Taggart railway car speeding across the country toward New York. In the day car sits Dagny Taggart, who is fighting sleep though she has been up for two nights. She hears the music of a Richard Halley symphony (she thinks), and it takes her a few moments to discern that the music is actually the whistling of the young brakeman at the end of the car. Dagny asks the brakeman what symphony of Halley's the music is, and the young man replies that it was the fifth. There were only four symphonies of Halley's ever written known to the public.
Dagny finally falls asleep, and when she wakes the train is stopped. She goes outside to see what the matter is, and finds the train halted at a red light on a siding. The light appears to be broken, and if this train, the Taggart Comet, sits much longer it will not make it to New York in time. The Comet has never yet been late. Dagny talks to the engineer and the conductor and finds out that it is probably simply incompetence on someone's part that is causing the delay. Dagny authoritatively directs the engineer to "Proceed with caution to the next signal." (16) At first the men don't recognize her in the dim light, and when they ask who she is, she simply says "Dagny Taggart". The railway workers then do as she says, noting as she departs "That's who runs Taggart Transcontinental". (17) Because of Dagny's quick decision-making, the Comet reaches New York Terminal on time. She makes a mental note to replace the incompetent Ohio Division manager (who probably is responsible for this mistake) with her own hand-picked man out of New York, Owen Kellogg.
In New York, Eddie and Dagny are in Jim Taggart's office confronting him about the crisis on the Rio Norte line. Dagny is not putting up with any of Jim's obfuscations, so she informs him that she has ordered the necessary rail from Rearden Steel. Jim sputters his objections, particularly over the fact that the rail is to be made of a new alloy, Rearden Metal, rather than steel. This untried metal is available quickly, and Dagny trusts Hank Rearden enough to order a large amount of it. Jim will have none of it, saying this transaction must be approved by the board. Once again Dagny takes responsibility for a risky but well-reasoned decision, when she takes ownership of the order of Rearden metal. The confrontation between brother and sister ends with some ugly remarks from Jim about his sister's insensitivity.
In her own office, Dagny has a conversation with Owen Kellogg. He is leaving Taggart Transcontinental, and she politely inquires as to the reasons. Owen refuses to tell her why he is leaving, and he turns down her offer for a promotion to run the Ohio Division. Though she tells him she will pay him a great deal to stay, he refuses, ending the interview cryptically with "Who is John Galt?"
In Chapter II "The Chain" the first pouring of the new alloy, Rearden Metal, is happening at the Rearden Steel plant in Philadelphia. The alloy's inventor and the owner of Rearden Steel, Hank Rearden, is elated at his ten years' work come to fruition. A tall, gaunt, expressionless man, Rearden watches the "heat" (the term for a pouring of liquid metal) with fascination, and then walks off toward his home, bringing with him a crude chain bracelet for his wife, made of the first pouring of the alloy.
At home, his wife, his mother, and his brother (all of whom he financially supports) are waiting for him. Paul Larkin, a failed businessman and old friend of Hank, is also there. There is an uncomfortable exchange in the living room, where each of these people, except Paul, make fun of Hank or criticize him in an underhanded way. Since Hank is late and has missed a dinner at which the family had had company, they make remarks about him being an unimaginative workaholic, an irony when he has had such a triumph today with a metal of his own invention. Lillian, his wife, asks him to be home on a certain date for a party she plans to throw. Hank says that he cannot possibly commit to a date so far in the future – he may have to be away on business. Lillian placidly reminds Hank that the date that she is asking for is their wedding anniversary. He relents without expressing guilt, and agrees to December tenth for the party.
Hank gives Lillian the metal bracelet, about which she makes insultingly witty comments. "You mean…it's fully as valuable as a piece of railroad rails?" (36) Since Hank has not expressed the kind of emotion she wants him to about the anniversary party, Lillian does not express gratitude or pleasure at the significance her gift, which is the first use of the alloy that Hank has labored so long to produce.
Hank's friend, Paul, reminds him that his blatant capitalist ambitions (his "only goal is to make steel and to make money" 39) have made him unpopular in the business world. Paul, who knows something of business despite his own failures, advises Hank to hire a public relations expert to help him with Rearden Steel's image.
Hank then talks with his brother, Philip, who has vague ambitions of raising money for blatantly fraudulent charitable causes. Though Hank sees no use for Philip's kind of ineffectual philanthropy he nevertheless promises Philip the ten thousand dollar check his organization needs. This has the effect of making Philip feel emasculated, but he takes the money anyway. Philip, surprisingly, demands the money in cash. During all these conversations Hank's mother makes deprecating comments about Hank's selfishness and unfeeling nature.
"The Theme" certainly does introduce a theme of the novel: cynicism. The bum on the street and Pop Harper both have "cynical indifference," which Eddie Willers notices in their eyes. James Taggart nags Eddie to think more about relationships rather than making money, but he is really just an ineffective executive who hides behind sham sympathy. James presents a picture of almost ludicrous incompetence masquerading as a social conscience. The key thing to note here is that the sympathy or fellow-feeling that most characters exhibit is false or misguided – Rand has not revealed characters, yet, who have a sincere regard for humanity (other than the cursory care Eddie and Dagny have shown.) Rand shows the people who are interested in getting a job done and making money (Eddie, Dagny, Hank) as intelligent, clear-eyed, unsentimental characters, while those who spout platitudes about caring about others (Jim, Philip) are dangerously incompetent men who do much more harm than good. While the situations are somewhat exaggerated (it is hard to imagine the head of Rearden Steel and a successful inventor being this badly treated by the family he entirely supports, for example) the idea is that the world is run by successful, unsentimental people whose goals are entirely selfish, but who, by their actions, create industries and art for all the people of the world. These people, Rand is saying, are treated badly by the jealous, non-successful people (such as Philip, Jim Taggart, Mrs. Rearden, and their ilk) because they do not understand the essentially altruistic nature of the others’ selfish goals.
This idea will be expanded later in the novel, but for now we are introduced to the “producers” and their “products.” The characters thus far introduced as the successful, no-nonsense kind of people who are necessary to run the world are: Eddie Willers, an uncomplicated man who knows his own limitations, and also how to ally himself to power and do the right thing; Dagny Taggart, a woman in a man's business who similarly sees no need for sentiment in order to be effective; Owen Kellogg, a hardworking railroad employee who is unwilling to explain his motivations; and Hank Rearden, a well-meaning but extremely driven inventor and steel company owner. Richard Hadley has been referred to as a musical genius who only recently gained fame, but who has been appreciated by Dagny Taggart (and apparently others) for some time. He has not yet been introduced in person -- only the product of his genius, the bare whistling of a melody (a theme) of his by a railroad employee is enough to be recognized by Dagny, without further embellishment or accreditation. The products (in Dagny’s case the result of the on-time train because of her good decision and quick action, Hadley’s musical theme, and Rearden’s new metal alloy) will become of paramount importance in later chapters, and will become, in Rand’s thought system, a key ideas in her theory of objectivism.
“The Chain” returns to this idea of the result being the important thing, rather than the intention. The one moment of sentimentality that Hank Rearden shows – his production of the first “heat” (that is, pouring) of his new alloy was made into a linked-chain bracelet for his wife. In some people this might be considered a poetic and romantic expression of love; the sharing of an accomplishment of one’s own and a tribute to a loved one, but it is rebuffed cruelly by Rearden’s superficial wife. It is interesting how Rearden’s expression of sentiment (the product of ten years’ hard work on a potentially important industrial product) is not supported by his family and is, in fact, mocked, but Lillian Rearden’s similarly sentimental insistence on a party on the date of their wedding anniversary is fully supported by the everyone in the room. Rand is trying to show that people mistreat successful movers of the world badly, and misconstrue their motives. Both Dagny (and, by extension, Eddie) and Hank have their worthy efforts denigrated, and their good decisions criticized. It is a standard literary device to create sympathy in the reader for characters who are persecuted by other characters; in the first chapters both Dagny and Hank meet resistance. Also, we are introduced in this chapter to “the chain” around Hank’s neck – the hangers-on of his brother, wife, mother, and friend, all of whom are non-producers.
The characters around Hank and Dagny are portrayed as less than real, or even less than fully human. For example, Paul Larkin looks at Hank “with the eyes of an inhibited dog” (33). Lillian Rearden, who should be beautiful but isn’t quite, has eyes that are “lifelessly empty of expression” (Ibid). Hank’s mother, though she is unkind to him, insists on living with her son in his home. She is remarkably lacking in motherly feeling. Hank thinks that it is only his success that binds her to him, not love or affection. “His success, he had thought, meant something to her, and if it did, then it was a bond between them, the only bond he recognized” (37). Philip, Hank’s brother, is portrayed as base and grasping – his actions are called “childishly blatant” and “helplessly crude” (41). James Taggart, who should be the guiding light of Taggart Transcontinental and, as its president, be able to make the hard decisions that would make his company run efficiently, is thought by Dagny to hate to “to deal with Rearden because Rearden did his job with superlative efficiency; but she would not conclude it, because she thought that such a feeling was not with the humanely possible.” Any people different than, or not directly supporting, Dagny and Hank are considered weak, useless, insincerely sentimental, and even perverse.
Rand’s style is one that attempts to be transparent, and largely succeeds in this novel. The dialogue, though sometimes stilted (especially in the longer speeches of Hank or Dagny) rings true as far as diction and rhythm. There is a lack of mid-century slang, which would have made the text seem dated, or even sometimes unintelligible. Rand moves well from action to action, and starting in medias res with Eddie on the street in New York is a nice touch. The novel beings with “Who is John Galt?”, which at first seems like an abstraction, meant to encourage a line of philosophical inquiry, but Rand surprises us with it coming out of the mouth of a real-life bum on the street. The fact that Rand takes until middle of the first chapter to explain that “Who is John Galt” is a rhetorical question, meaning a question that nobody can answer, is clever, too. It appears to the reader that there is more to it, and there is.