A Part 1: Non-Contradiction
Atlas Shrugged opens in a devastated New York City with crumbling buildings, empty stores, and closed businesses. It is a vision of an impoverished country in a communist world system, which slowly but surely destroys national and foreign economy alike. As capable, productive workers and business owners are devastated by bureaucratic machinations, they begin to abandon the existing order one by one and mysteriously disappear. In the meantime, the political and industrial parasites support each other and live off of the creative and productive “giants” who remain and must support them on their shoulders. The apathy of the people is summed up in a new slang expression, “Who is John Galt?” which conveys hopelessness, fear, and a sense of futility, as well as everything unachievable and imagined.
In the first part of the novel, Rand introduces several industries that keep the weakened communist system from failing. Taggart Transcontinental, the economic artery of the United States on which all the other industries depend, is the largest and most reliable railroad in the country. Although Jim Taggart is the official president, it is his competent and capitalist-minded sister Dagny Taggart who actually runs the business. When a part of the railroad collapses, Dagny decides to rebuild it with the new and publicly condemned Rearden Metal, a revolutionary alloy lighter and stronger than steel. Hank Rearden, the inventor, is the self-made owner of Rearden Steel and several other related companies, and a fellow capitalist businessman who shares Dagny’s work philosophy. The new line is planned to connect the rest of the country to Colorado’s Wyatt Oil, the only flourishing refinery on the continent. Wyatt, Dagny, and Hank are united in their battle to preserve competition and productivity in the nation’s economy, so their own businesses can survive. The establishment, however, regards them as cruel and selfish businesspeople who only care about their work and the money they make from it.
Although the project seems to be doomed from the start due to governmental censure, the line is completed and has a successful first run; Dagny names it the John Galt line to spite her opponents. In the meantime, Dagny and Hank fall in love and begin a secret affair (secret because Hank is married). While on a vacation together, the two stumble upon a revolutionary model of a motor in an abandoned factory. Dagny begins a quest to find the engineer who invented it, but the search is a dead end; instead, she hires the promising physicist Daniels to try to finish the motor.
In the meantime, with the passing of a new communist law of equal opportunity, the successful businesses in the country are forced to reduce their production. The governmental excuse for this restriction is that the rest of the businesses cannot compete with them. Dagny, Hank, and Wyatt all take a serious financial blow; in his final protest before he disappears (like many before him), Wyatt burns down his refinery.
B Part 2: Either-Or
In the second part of the novel, the decay of the national economy continues. Francisco d’Anconia, Dagny’s childhood friend and former lover, seems to be running the family business of d’Anconia Copper straight into ground after many generations of flourishing success. Francisco befriends Hank and leads him to a conclusion that, in an unjust and abusive society, his work is worthless because it can only be used by parasites for their own survival and further exploitation. When Hank is put on trial for selling more Rearden Metal to a customer than the state regulations allow (in efforts to keep a supplier in business), he clearly understands the idea of a noble man’s guilt used as a weapon of obligation against him. However, the society still holds some reins on Hank: when his wife Lillian finds out about Dagny, she uses the information to establish herself higher in the hierarchy of corruption. Hank is blackmailed into giving all the rights to Rearden Metal to the State Science Institute, to be used in Project X-a destruction device based on sound waves and as powerful as the atomic bomb.
In the meantime, another set of laws is passed that takes away almost all the rights of individuals in the community; however, by this time even those who decide which laws to pass are becoming anxious because the resources are running out. Under the new pressure imposed by the laws, Dagny quits her job and goes to a cabin in the countryside. In her absence, a terrible accident occurs on the railroad: due to the establishment’s incompetence, the Taggart Tunnel caves in on one of the trains. Dagny rushes back to work, followed by Francisco, who tries in vain to persuade her to abandon the lost cause and quit the railroad she loves too much.
Upon her return, Dagny continues to try to salvage the railroad, cutting off some lines to make up for the others. On one of her trips across the deteriorating country, she meets a tramp sneaking on her train. The tramp tells her he used to work with a man called John Galt, a worker who abandoned the factory declaring he would stop the motor of the world before he would participate in the unjust system. With an ominous premonition, Dagny heads out to reach Daniels and prevent him from quitting his work on the motor, but she arrives only to see him taking off in a plane with “the destroyer”-a strange man who persuades the capable members of society to desert what they are doing. Dagny flies after them and ends up crashing in the Rocky Mountains.
C Part 3: A Is A
Dagny awakens in a damaged plane after a rough landing into a well-hidden valley in the mountains; the valley is the seat of Galt’s new world. Galt takes her on a tour of the place: all of the capable social “dropouts” gather here to establish their own free-enterprise system. Ragnar Danneskjold, a notorious pirate on the outside, works as the new world’s internal revenue service with the goal of returning to the competent all the wealth they have lost to the corrupt system. The motto of the valley is “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” The members of this community are on a strike of the mind, denying the most precious human resource to the outside society which opposes it. However, Dagny cannot stay in the new paradise, although she feels that she has fallen in love with Galt; instead, she returns to the decaying outside world to continue fighting alongside Hank for its preservation.
The country is falling into despair due to the overwhelming economic crisis; Lillian tries to use Hank’s affair to blackmail Dagny into reassuring the nation in a radio address, but Dagny turns the tables and instead reveals the blackmail on the radio. Another national broadcast is scheduled, this time to be given by the head of the state, but the airwaves are taken over by Galt who, in a lengthy speech, explicates his philosophy and beckons those remaining to escape and never let their strength be used by the weak.
Galt gets caught; the government, by this time in panic over the impending world collapse, tortures him to make him take over and restore the failing economy. Dagny, Francisco, and Hank manage to find and rescue him, but just then the old world crumbles: the lights of New York City go out, the motor of the world stops. The novel ends with Galt’s little army looking at the civilization they will rebuild under the sign of the dollar.