Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged Study Guide

A huge sweeping novel, which has never been out of print since its publication, Atlas Shrugged has become a part of the national dialogue about personal freedom, economic policy, and political philosophy in America. There have been several prominent business leaders who have called her work personally influential, the most famous among them the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan. The working title of the novel was "The Strike", and the overall plot of the novel is about a group of people who plan to stop the economic motor of the world in order to halt the collectivist policies of corrupt governments.

The novel was written as a direct answer to Rand's previous best-selling novel The Fountainhead. In it is a complete explanation of Rand's philosophy and the reasons underpinning it. It was the last novel she wrote; after 1957 Rand only wrote non-fiction. It is about the triumph of individualism, with a rational self-interest at the core of everything a human being should accomplish. In her journals she wrote of this book that its theme was to be "What happens to the world when the Prime Movers go on strike" (Rand ix). By creating a world in which certain people band together to stop the world's motor, and take away the most important products of the human mind, the true pillars of society, Rand believed, could be revealed. And these were not religion or mysticism, but rather that freedom of individuals to create the products of their own mind creates the most just and prosperous society on earth. All other societal systems, Rand argues, especially those with tenets of self-sacrifice at their core, are not life-affirming, but rather create cultures of unreasonableness and death.

The story is that of a man, John Galt, who decides to drop of out productive society as a physicist and work for years, with the aid of his friends, to remove the important means of production from the world. He does this because he sees the government sliding toward collectivist principles, and, Galt feels, the only way to stop it is to stop the motor of the world. He is helped by the richest copper heir in the world, Francisco d'Anconia, and a philosopher-turned-pirate, Ragnar Danneskjold. He meets and falls in love with the Operating Vice-President of a transcontinental railway, whom he has a hard time convincing to drop out of the outside world to join his "strike". She is sympathetic to his cause,but she is not ready to leave her family business. Galt and his friends create a secret world in a hidden valley in Colorado, awaiting the day that the looter government will fail. When it finally nears collapse Galt addresses the nation with his manifesto of individualism and the virtues of selfishness.

The novel was an instant success, sparking debate in all corners of the intellectual world when it appeared on the scene in 1957. A polemicist who could be vitriolic in her attacks on other philosophers, Ayn Rand created as much interest in her book as the contents of it. It has been casually attacked by most major philosophical schools of thought -- although it has often been ignored because the philosophy contained in it is presented by a non-academic in a novel form, rather than in discursive prose. Still, Atlas Shrugged presents perhaps one of the most widespread popular systems of philosophy in America today, continuing to spark debate after fifty years in print.