Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged Themes


Rand's theory of objective reality, morality, and aesthetics. It states that objective reality does exist, material achievement is one of the highest goals of humanity, and self-interest is the most moral and the only viable way to organize a society. It is fully presented in the book Atlas Shrugged through a story of a struggle against a collectivist government guilty of preaching self-denial and self-sacrifice.

Lack of sentimentality

While the main characters of most of the novel, Hank and Dagny, certainly do have deep feelings, they spend a large part of their time repressing them and hiding them from others. Excessive shows of emotion are considered products of a weak mind in this novel, and only the toadies of the collectivist government whine about their feelings, their needs, or their pain. Part of this is that Rand's idea that rationality is more important than instinct is a major part of the plot; the good characters act with their heads, most of the time, while the bad characters act in accordance with nameless emotions and unfulfilled needs.

Skewed characterization

Rand's good characters are nearly faultless: Dagny, Hank, Francisco, and especially John Galt are paragons of objectivist virtues. They are strong physically and emotionally, intelligent, practical, and rational almost to a fault. Their failings are usually ones of virtue, such as Dagny's tendency to believe too much in her power to change the world (ix), or Hank's gentlemanly conduct toward Dagny, though it went against his principles, when he was asked to sign over Rearden Metal to the government. The rabid attacks against the producers, and the utter lack of sympathy that anyone around them seems to have for them (save other producers) seems particularly skewed, with perhaps Cherryl Taggart being the one non-producer who shares the same values as Dagny and Hank. While these situations, such as Hank's persecution at the hands of his family, are skewed from what might occur in reality, they are created by Rand to make the point that society attacks most the people who run its engine. That is why the super-producers, such as Francisco and Galt, are determined to stop the motor of the world.

Sexual freedom

Dagny is a remarkably liberated woman for the 1950s, and she seems to have no qualms about conducting affairs with a married man without benefit of marriage herself. This is part of Rand's philosophy of the goodness of human beings and their desires, and Dagny and Galt, in particular, say that their work and their dedication to virtues has earned them the right to their sexual relationship. Sex can be traded as a commodity under Rand's philosophy, too, but not like the solicitation trade. For Rand the trade between two human beings in a sexual relationship must be for their mutual pleasure and spiritual benefit, and anything less than that cheapens both parties. Rand's ideas about sexual conduct were unusual for her day and age, and few systems of thought have duplicated her ideas.

Evils of Self-Sacrifice

Throughout the novel, Rand shows how vague ideas of self-sacrifice are detrimental to society as a whole. Perhaps the clearest object lesson is related by Jeff Allan, the tramp who Dagny takes in on the Comet (658). He was a worker at the Twentieth Century Motor Company when the Starnes heirs took it over. Under the collectivist policies of the Starnes, Jeff was made to work very hard for the needs of others, with no respite or bonus for him. He had originally voted for the policies, but was soon shown that it could only be administered through an authoritarian rule, and would only create a system of overworked good workers and professional cheats. This philosophy Rand applies to the modern welfare state.

Practical materialism

As Robert Stadler, the great physicist, says of John Galt "Why did he want to waste his mind on practical appliances?". There is no room in Rand's philosophy for the ivory-tower academic, unless his work can be shown to be a basis for other's works in practical fields. This prejudice against trade is a very old belief which can be traced back, in Western tradition at least, to the Roman Senate during the Republic. At that time it was forbidden for Senators to have any interest in trade; their income must come entirely from the fruits of their landholdings (which is a kind of trade in the general sense, but somehow considered by the Romans to be more worthy). This meant that only the upper, landed classes could gain access to the highest law-making body in their society. The prejudice against trade, and its association with the lower classes, has continued ever since, and has been transferred to some realms of academia, too. Stadler believes only in work for theory's sake; John Galt, the objectivist superman who is well capable of working on the kind of work Stadler does, refuses this and sets his sights on that most practical of scientific applications, the static-electricity motor. This is a function of the "love of life" principle of Rand's philosophy, for she believes that the ultimate product of the human mind is happiness.


The idea that contradictions do not exist is absolutely integral to Rand's philosophy. This underlies, especially, her assertion of objective morality. If something is good, such as humanity, it is wholly good, and any denial of its good creates evil. This means when self-denial and self-sacrifice are part of humanity's creed, evil and unhappiness will ensue for all mankind. This principle cannot be separated from any of Rand's arguments.

Motive power

Dagny thinks, several times in the novel, that the most important thing to her railway is motive power. This can be seen as a metaphor for the world - Rand believes that the motive power of the world, that is, the minds of people who are willing and able to produce important products for humanity, are its motive power. The motive power is the power of these people's minds, and when moral relativism or a denial of objective reality is preached, the power of these people's minds is hampered and will eventually be destroyed. John Galt, the inventor of a motor which would change the the world, is Atlas Shrugged's most perfect example of motive power, and when he, and others like him, withdraw their contributions to the world the engine of the world will eventually stop. This image of forward motion, and of the power of men's minds, is continued throughout the novel. Rand believes in progress, and that the power of the human mind has the capacity to continually make things better and happier for all people through self-interest.

Long speeches

Several times in the book a speaker talks for several pages to make a point about a certain philosophy or way of life. In most cases, when it is Rand's good characters talking, they are explaining parts of objectivism. The first long speech of this kind is in Part II Chapter II, when Francisco defends the system of exchange based on money, and the value of wealth. It is a brilliant speech, compact by Rand's standards, and falls on entirely deaf ears. This is a method used by Rand to create sympathy in the reader for the speaking character; usually only in one-on-one (or small, like-minded groups) discussions are the speaker and the listener at all sympatico. The most important speech in Atlas Shrugged is John Galt's sixty-page radio address in Part III Chapter VII. In this he sets out all the major tenets of objectivism, and addresses most of the main questions of political and practical philosophy of this system of thought. Though surprising in a novel, perhaps, and certainly an unusual method of narrative, the speech-making by the passionately intellectual characters of Atlas Shrugged is part of the long struggle of the producers against the looters.