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Introduction

The final novel written by Russian-born American philosopher and author Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged is a controversial and widely popular work. According to a 1991 Library of Congress report, it is considered the second most influential book after the Bible in the lives of its readers. A complex combination of mystery, love story, social criticism, and philosophical concepts, the 1,100-page novel embodies the author’s passionate celebration of individualism, free will, capitalism, logic, and reason.

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Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand, a.k.a. Alice Rosenbaum, was born on February 2, 1905, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her family was relatively wealthy; Rand’s father was a self-made man who owned a pharmacy. According to her biographer Barbara Brandon in The Passion of Ayn Rand, Rand was a precocious child who spent much time among adults, gathering information about the world around her. At the age of nine, she had already developed a strong fascination about the battle between good and evil, as well as her notion of the characteristics of the ideal man. “Intelligence, independence, courage. The heroic man,” she described him to her biographer. Rand later recreated this model in many of her fictional characters, including the mysterious John Galt in Atlas Shrugged.

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Plot Summary

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.

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Characters

A Hugh Akston

A famous philosopher, “the last advocate of reason” and a renowned teacher at the Patrick Henry University; John Galt, Francisco d’Anconia, and Ragnar Danneskjold were his students. Galt persuades him to leave the society that rejects reason and to join his cause, and Akston accepts, moving deep into the countryside and opening a small diner. In Galt’s utopian refuge, Akston dedicates all of his intellectual power to educating others in the philosophy of reason.

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Themes

A Individual vs. Society

The very title of Atlas Shrugged illustrates the rebellion of one person against the system. It evokes the image of the mythological giant whose job in the universe is to hold the world on his shoulders-until he shrugs and lets it fall. Likewise, the revolutionary John Galt exemplifies the conflict of one against many when he starts a rebellion against the entire system of corruption that has taken over the world.

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Construction

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.

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Historical Perspective

A The Red Scare

Atlas Shrugged, although clearly set in the imaginary communist equivalent of the United States, lacks orientation in time. As Ronald E. Merrill notes, “The American economy seems, structurally, to be in the late 19th century, with large industrial concerns being sole proprietorships run by their founders. The general tone is however that of the 1930s, a depression with the streets full of panhandlers. The technological level, and the social customs, are those of the 1950s. And the political environment, especially the level of regulation and the total corruption, seems to anticipate the 1970s. We are simultaneously in a future in which most of the world has gone Communist, and the past in which England had the world’s greatest navy.”

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Questions

Rand was the originator of Objectivist philosophy, embodied in Atlas Shrugged. Did Objectivism ever gain acceptance in mainstream philosophy? Why or why not?

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Compare and Contrast

1950s: Mao Zedong starts the Great Leap Forward in the People’s Republic of China, placing more than half a billion peasants into “people communes.” They are guaranteed food, clothing, shelter, and child care, but deprived of all private property. Today: China is one of the few nations in the world whose government is still modeled on Marxist ideology.

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Further Reading

Every utopian text draws, if only a little, from Sir Thomas More’s classic original. Utopia, published in the 16th century at the bloom of English Humanism, criticizes the existing social, political, and religious order in Europe from the viewpoint of an imaginary perfect society based on reason.

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