Structural Aspects of Atlas Shrugged

Essay by
Lester H. Hunt

originally appeared in —

Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged
A Philosophical and Literary Companion

edited by Edward W. Younkins


This essay presumes that the reader is familiar with Ayn Rand's novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. If you haven't yet read them, you have a distinctive experience awaiting you! Warning: major plot spoilers.

A very intentional novel

One of the features of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged that makes it such an unusual book, especially for one that is so overwhelmingly popular, is how highly wrought it is. Whether or not it is true that, as the narrator of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground says, "there are intentional and unintentional cities", it is certainly true that there are intentional and unintentional books. And this is a very intentional book: every detail in it seems to mean something, to be intended to mean something. What I want to do here is to describe one of the literary methods by which Ayn Rand achieves the peculiar meaning-saturation of this book.

Flowing music, flowing metal

In the first chapter of Atlas Shrugged there is a passage that catches the reader's eye with its overt symbolism:

It was a symphony of triumph. The notes flowed up, they spoke of rising and they were the rising itself, they were the essence and the form of upward motion, they seemed to embody every human act and thought that had ascent as the motive. It was a sunburst of sound, breaking out of hiding and spreading open. It had the freedom of release and the tension of purpose. It swept space clean, and left nothing but the joy of an unobstructed effort. Only a faint echo within the sounds spoke of that from which the music had escaped, but it spoke in laughing astonishment at the discovery that there was no ugliness or pain, and there never had to be. It was a song of immense deliverance. (13)1

In the second chapter, there is another passage, near enough to the one that I just quoted that it can echo the first in the reader's mind. It is the description of the pouring of the first heat of the first order of Rearden metal:

... the first break of the liquid metal into the open came as a shocking sensation of morning. The narrow streak pouring through space had the pure white color of sunlight. Black coils of steam were boiling upward, streaked with violent red. Fountains of sparks shot in beating spasms, as from broken arteries. The air seemed torn to rags, reflecting a raging flame that was not there, red blotches whirling and running through space, as if not to be contained within a man-made structure, as if about to consume the columns, the girders, the bridges, of cranes overhead. But the liquid metal had no aspect of violence. It was a long white curve with the texture of satin and the friendly radiance of a smile. (28)

The second passage recalls the first because of its striking similarities: like it, is conveys a strong impression of a morning brightness emerging from darkness, of violently explosive energy. On a higher level of abstraction, the impression in both cases is one of happiness and freedom, of an aspiration which has escaped confinement. Yet the similarities between the two passages also highlight the differences. The later passage is dominated by an image of downward motion, of the liquid metal pouring out of the furnace, while the earlier one is dominated by images of upward motion. More importantly, the later one is a description of an industrial and technological artifact and, as such, of something that is placed by the most familiar ontologies in the realm of the body, while the former is a description of a work of art, the sort of thing that is conventionally consigned to the realm of the spirit. This sense of paradox, or more exactly, of a surprising similarity between opposites, is underscored by the deliberate paradoxicality of that latter passage, with its depiction of smiling innocence at the heart of danger and violence. The reader is prepared for a point of view in which seeming opposites are deeply connected, in which identity and connection underlie apparent difference and conflict.

Doubling of words and images

This point is underscored by repeated and prominent doubling of words and images in the early chapters of Atlas Shrugged, and by the structure of the chapters themselves. The first chapter both begins and ends with two identical lines of dialogue, "Who is John Galt?" The first occurrence of this line is delivered by an anonymous bum who never reappears, and the second by Owen Kellog, a talented young worker who has inexplicably resigned. The very title of this chapter, "The Theme", has a double reference: it could refer to the musical theme described in the passage I quoted above or, we realize later, it could refer to the single line that begins and ends the chapter. The second chapter, "The Chain", begins with the metal-pouring scene from which I have quoted, and we soon find out that the first thing made of the metal being poured is a small chain that Rearden gives to his wife. In the last line of the same chapter, his wife is describing the same chain, characterized at the beginning in terms of radiance and freedom, as "the chain by which [Rearden] holds us all in bondage" (43).

It is in the third chapter that this structural feature, the two ends united by similarity and yet contrasting, is the most pronounced and obvious. The title of the chapter is "The Top and the Bottom", and it begins in a dark, low-ceilinged, cellar-like room that actually is actually an expensive barroom on the top of a skyscraper. The bureaucrats and corporate executives who are secretly meeting there are at the top of their socio-political system in terms of power over it, though morally they are close to its bottom. The chapter ends with a scene in the employees’ cafeteria in Taggart Transcontinental, a sparkling, high-ceilinged room with "a sense of space and light" (62), but which is in fact underground. Only two men are meeting there, Dagny Taggart’s unprepossessing assistant Eddie Willers and an anonymous worker in grease-stained clothes, who we find out hundreds of pages later is the John Galt referred to at the beginning and end of the first chapter. These two men are near the bottom of the system as far as political power and prestige are concerned, though morally they represent its highest and best.

Attention to twinned elements

This particular sort of formal organization does not persist beyond the early chapters of the book, and would become rather oppressive if it did.2 However, as features of the early chapters, they are enough to cue the reader, from the outset, to be attentive to the dominant structural feature of the book: the "twinning" as I would call it, of meaning-bearing elements that are linked by salient similarities and at the same time opposed to one another in potentially significant- ways. Once the reader’s attention becomes open to it, this feature becomes omnipresent; never oppressive, but insistent enough to constantly influence the process of understanding.

The book contains, to begin with some of the less important examples, two marriages, both of which are oppressive and dysfunctional.3 They contrast, though, in that each as it were reverses the sex roles of the other: in one, the woman (Lillian Rearden) is the oppressor, while in the other it is the man (James Taggart). There are two steel magnates: one (Rearden) is a self-made man who has contributed a fundamentally new product to the economy, and the other (Boyle) who got his start with lavish government grants and has swallowed many small enterprises.

Two contrasting sub-plots deal with two lines of the Taggart railroad: one, the John Galt Line, serves the vibrant community around Wyatt Junction in Colorado, while the other serves the squalidly socialist People’s State of Mexico. Two of the memorable action set-pieces of the book are train rides. In one, Dagny and Rearden ride with breathtaking speed up into the mountain heights of Wyatt Junction. The other, dominated by the juvenile, bullying bureaucrat Kip Chalmers, chugs laboriously down into the depths of the earth, toward death. The second ride is clearly cross-referenced to the first: the last thing the passengers see "on earth" as their train is swallowed by the Winston tunnel is the distant light of Wyatt’s Torch. In a different way, the John Galt ride is twinned with another ride on the same line: in this one, Dagny rides alone and, instead of meeting a jubilant crowd at Wyatt Junction, finds a panicky mob and, in the distance, the burning ruins of the Wyatt oil fields. James Taggart’s Hellish relationship with Cheryl Brooks is twinned with Dagny’s affair with Rearden, which is consummated at the same time the James meets Cheryl (in both cases, in the wake of the triumphant John Galt ride).

Scientists & philosophers,
composers & utopians

The novel has two major characters with mixed premises, some sound and some unsound: Henry Rearden and Dr. Robert Stadler. These characters contrast in terms of the way in which they develop: Rearden develops in the direction of goodness and enlightenment, and Stadler in the direction of evil and confusion. There are also two physicists in the novel: Galt is a an individualist who refuses to work for the government and ultimately revolts against it, and Stadler cooperates with the government’s attempt to nationalize and monopolize scientific inquiry in the hands of the State Science Institute. Both physicists are closely associated with a single invention, though the nature of invention as well as the nature of the character’s association with it is sharply different in the two cases. Galt develops a new conception of energy as a means to creating his technological device. Stadler, who despises technology, develops his theory of cosmic rays — a subject that seems to have no technological implications — and ignores the workers at the State Science Institute who use his theory as a means to developing a new device for purposes of their own. The two inventions also have opposite characteristics. Galt’s device is a generator, which converts static energy into kinetic, while the Stadler device is a destroyer, a weapon of mass destruction, which turns living beings and human artifacts into shapeless mush. One converts the static into the dynamic, and the other, so to speak, reverses the process.

The book also has two utopian communities, both described in some detail. One is individualist and one is collectivist, one heavenly and one hellish. It also has two philosophers and two composers, each pair a study in very sharp contrasts. There are two institutions that are dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. The name of one of them contains a reference to Patrick Henry, a symbol of freedom, and the name of the other contains a reference to the state.

Ideas drive the narrative

Of course, these structural features of the book are not ends in themselves, nor are they inserted for the sake of some formalistic conception of beauty. In some cases, they serve to promote characterization or plot development. For instance, Dagny’s second ride on the John Galt Line, and the fact that it repeats the first with a dramatic difference, serves to emphasize an important plot point: the triumph of the John Galt Line has come to nought. It thereby indirectly brings out a point that is thematically important as well: namely, the fact that the events dramatized by the first one, and in particular the fact that Dagny and Rearden lent their productive talents to the support of the increasingly corrupt system, have actually contributed to causing the disaster revealed in the second, the destruction of the Colorado industrial community.

However, most of these instances of mirroring-with-a-difference serve to lead the reader directly into the ideas that drive the narrative and everything in it. The two parallel descriptive passages I quoted at the outset implicitly make a theoretical claim that gradually becomes explicit as the novel unfolds: namely, the claim that there is a deep connection between the realm of art and that of industry and technology, and more fundamentally between those of the body and of the spirit.

A related thematic claim is embodied in another pair of mirroring and contrasting passages. Francisco D’Anconia makes two philosophical speeches, both aimed at his "greatest conquest", the mind of Henry Rearden, and like the above two passages they also stand in sharp contrast, though in a different way. One is his speech on the nature of money (Part II, Ch. 2), and the other is his speech on the nature of sex (Part II, Ch. 4). Here the contrast is in the subject matters of the passages: both money and sex are consigned by conventional ontologies to the realm of the body, but to radically different and sharply contrasting aspects of the physical side of existence. The two speeches are, however, closely related, in part by the fact that they share to a considerable extent the same logical structure: both explain their allegedly brute, physical subject-matter as rooted in the mind. Money is a consequence of the mind’s capacity to produce, and sex is a consequence of our vision of our highest values and our conception of our relation to these values (that is, our self-esteem or the lack of it). Further, both speeches develop the thesis that people who in either case seek the effect without the cause, money without being productive or sex without having self-esteem, then the effect will only be to hasten their destruction.

Consciousness of similarities

These two examples of the twinning device suggest a somewhat broader thesis about how it functions in achieving the author’s purposes. As most of her readers know, a few years after publishing Atlas Shrugged, Rand worked out an epistemological theory which was based on the idea that some non-nominalist solution to the problem of universals must be true or knowledge itself would be impossible. Like any epistemology that is based on this idea, it places a peculiar sort of emphasis on consciousness of similarities: an indispensable component of knowledge is finding real similarities between things, common attributes that the things possess (though in different degree) that indicate that the things are of the same kind.4

One of the results accomplished by Rand’s twinning device is the directing of the attention the book’s readers in a way that invites them to make this sort of mental integration. Despite what you might think, a concerto and a new metal alloy are really instances of one kind of thing – the achievements of the human spirit. The fact that the two marriages in the book parallel parallel one another encourages the reader to focus on what is essential to them: the similar techniques employed by the two oppressors involved (James and Lillian) and to abstract from what is inessential (the genders of the oppressors).

The real beauty of the twinning device, however, is that in addition to prompting the reader to note similarities it is equally well suited to provoking them to carry out a seemingly opposite sort of mental process, one that according to the same family of epistemological theories, is also indispensable for the creation of human knowledge. If it is true that the foundation of knowledge is the noting of similarities that aims at discerning real categories of things, then the mind must also distinguish each category from others.5 The essential complement of noting real similarities is noting real differences. The fact that Rearden and Boyle, Galt and Stadler, are in certain salient respects similar throws a glaring light on their far more important differences. The fact that the two utopian communities have such different results compels the reader to consider the underlying differences that explain them. These distinctions that the reader makes in these cases are of course thematically central to Atlas Shrugged.

Discoveries & connections

Part of the power and the philosophical interest of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov lie in the way its plot construction places the reader in a position that mimics the thought processes recommended by the author’s epistemological views. We know that Dimitri did not kill his father. But his behavior and the trail of evidence he leaves behind him say otherwise. The Prosecutor, using his brilliant human reason, shreds the arguments presented by the defense. The only characters who look at the evidence and reach the correct conclusion are the two who love Dimitri: Alyosha and Grushenka. We, the readers, find ourselves thinking that, as these two characters look at the evidence, they are seeing it in the right way. Though it is clearly possible to see the evidence as the Prosecutor sees it, their way really does seem better. Though they are going by "faith" rather than reason, they seem to know the truth. And we find ourselves hoping that the simple peasants on the jury will follow their hearts and ignore the beguiling sophistries of the prosecution. We find ourselves, in other words, thinking as Dostoevsky says we should think.

In a similar way, Rand structures Atlas Shrugged in a way the gets the reader’s mind to mimic the sort of functioning that her epistemology treats as the best. Of course, this sort of mental functioning is one that is diametrically opposed to Dostoevsky’s mysticism.6 Her reader is immersed in a world in which rationality is possible and, indeed, is the best way to function. It is rewarded at every turn with new discoveries and new connections between them.


© 2006 Lester H. Hunt

  1. Citations to Atlas Shrugged will be in parentheses, giving the page number in the first hardbound edition: Atlas Shrugged (New York: Random House, 1957). Return to text
  2. To be more exact, it tapers off, rather than ending abruptly. Chapter IV, "The Immovable Movers", begins and ends with sentences about what it is that moves the world, sentences that seem to give sharply different accounts of the matter. Return to text
  3. Rather curiously, there is in all of Rand’s works no full-length portrait of a successful marriage. In The Fountainhead, it is true, Dominique and Howard are married, but the book ends immediately afterward. Return to text
  4. Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (New York: The Objectivist, 1967), pp. 16 and 17, and Ch. 2, passim. Return to text
  5. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pp. 40 and 41, and Ch. 5 passim. Return to text
  6. The relations between Dostoevsky and Rand deserve to be explored more fully than they have hitherto. To a considerable extent, the relation between them seems to be a beautiful example of negative influence: on crucial matters, her views look like inversions of his. Return to text


Lester Hunt teaches philosophy at
the University of Wisconsin at Madison
and blogs at
"E pur si muove!"


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