A Point of View
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand efficiently uses a third-person narrative that most often comes from the limited omniscient perspective of one of her protagonists. Thus, the reader knows everything that is going on in the life and mind of one character, until the focus shifts to another. The two characters on whom Rand focuses most often are Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden: the story evolves around their memories, impressions, thoughts, and feelings, and the plot follows their actions. This approach helps lead the readers to understand and identify with the character whose life they perceive in such intimate detail. Moreover, through third- instead of first-person point of view these major characters seem to be presented objectively. This device makes the author’s claims about the novel’s social systems seem more effective: readers who identify with Dagny and Hank are compelled to agree with their (and Rand’s) opinions in the novel, and to experience their “conversion” to John Galt’s revolution in their own beliefs.
For the sake of contrast, Rand occasionally shifts the point of view to let the reader in on the thoughts of less central characters (e.g., Eddie Willers, Jim Taggart, Dr. Robert Stadler) to represent different attitudes towards the political issues discussed in the novel. The portrayal of the “villains” in the novel is markedly condescending and negative; however, their perspective shows how seductive the ruling communist ideology can be and why it poses such a threat.
The symbols in Atlas Shrugged are abundant starting from the title: Atlas, the mythological giant who carries the world on his shoulders, symbolizes the class of capitalist workers whose work carries the weight of national and global economy, while the parasitic communist system reaps the fruits of their achievements. The prominent symbol of the capitalist order that recurs in the novel is the dollar sign: it is repeatedly cited by the corrupt communist characters in the novel as the emblem of evil. Capitalist industrialists are condemned by the society because they only believe in money and do not think that those capable of producing have an obligation to support those who are not.
The dollar sign is also the official symbol of John Galt’s revolution: he makes the sign in the sky when his fight is over. Dagny even attempts to track him down by following his mysterious brand of cigarettes with the sign of the dollar stamped by the filter. The cigarette is another symbol in the novel: the author describes it as “fire, a dangerous force, tamed at [man’s] fingertips” and compares it to “a spot of fire alive in [a thinker’s] mind.” Another spot of fire in the novel, Wyatt’s torch, symbolizes the rebellious spirit of the individual reigning over the darkness of a society that opposes reason.
Critic Ronald E. Merrill notes Rand’s use of Jewish symbolism throughout the novel. According to the Talmudic doctrine, 36 just men are the minimum needed to keep Sodom and Gomorrah from divine wrath. Interestingly, the great sin of Sodom was not sexual perversion but collectivism-just like the communist world in Atlas Shrugged. The exact number of “just men” withdrawn from the world and named in the description of Galt’s valley is 36. Similarly, Hank’s gift of a precious ruby necklace to Dagny echoes the proverb “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies” (Proverbs 31:10).
Using the technique of allusion, or indirect reference, Rand evokes the concept of utopia-a notion created by Sir Thomas More in the 16th century to present an alternative society as a means of critiquing one’s own society. The communist society in the novel represents a failed utopia: ideally a perfect system that grants happiness to all through to the equal distribution of goods, instead the communist society collapses in its own ineptitude and becomes hell instead of the promised paradise. John Galt’s new world, however, suggests the possibility of another utopia, outside the boundaries of the existing corrupt order where competent individuals can create and produce freely, without being exploited by their peers.
Early descriptions of the new world allude to characters and places from myths and legends. One of the rumors about Galt’s identity is a mythological allusion to the man who has discovered the lost island of Atlantis, but had to desert all his worldly possessions in order to live there in perfect happiness. Another fantastic rumor claims that Galt was a man who discovered the fountain of youth, but realized that he could not bring it to the people: they had to reach it themselves. The third calls Galt a Prometheus who changed his mind: after giving people the gift of fire and being punished for it, he withdrew the fire until they withdrew the punishment. Each of these references, rooted in the legendary, depicts Galt as a heroic, mythical character; they also symbolize parts of his philosophy and sacrifices needed in his quest. Like the lost island of Atlantis, Galt’s new world cannot be reached until one leaves behind everything that is trapped in the decaying old world. Likewise, as the fountain of youth is immovable, the reborn capitalist establishment is only available to those who can reach it themselves. Finally, Promethean fire is symbolized by the offering of everything that an individual produces, but the offering ends up withdrawn from the vultures of corruption until the punishment for capitalist success stops.