First published in 1957
When we think of epics, we typically think of long poems like the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and Popol Vuh. However, prose works like Moby Dick and The Lord of the Rings have also been recognized as epics, and it is this tradition to which Atlas Shrugged (1957) belongs. In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand provides us with epic heroes and villains, a foundation myth, a quest, a (secularized) trip to the underworld (Galt’s Gulch is simultaneously referred to as both an ark and the underworld), and the founding of cities, for example (see my article “Atlas Shrugged as Epic”). However, Atlas Shrugged is also part of a distinctly American tradition of epic—one more akin to the epics of Frederick Turner and to Moby Dick than to epics of other countries—where the future is open rather than (due to their stories taking place in the past) closed and with an inevitable outcome.
Atlas Shrugged opens with a question. “Who is John Galt?” This mystery man—who in many ways remains a mystery—is the epic hero who, coming from nowhere and no one, sets for himself the task of “stopping the motor of the world.”
In part philosophical novel, romance, mystery, suspense, mythology, and science fiction, Atlas Shrugged at first appears to be the story of two industrialists who, in the course of their business dealings, end up having an ongoing affair. Dagny Taggart and Hank Reardon are drawn close through their common struggle against various forces (including her brother and his wife) conspiring to prevent them from succeeding at building a railroad line—and using Reardon’s new metal to do it. Yet, they get the feeling that something more sinister is going on. Yes, the political machinations seeking to control and eventually nationalize various industries are sinister enough, but there appears to be someone else—whom Dagny calls “the destroyer”— actively attempting to destroy the world’s economy. She sets out in search of him, while simultaneously setting out in search of the inventor of an engine she and Hank discover in an abandoned automobile factory. This engine is incomplete, but clearly technologically advanced. She believes the inventor of such an engine could save the world, and perhaps even save them from the destroyer. Little does she know, they are one and the same person.
John Galt invented his engine—which runs off static electricity in the air—for an automobile plant. The owners (the children of the founder) decide to run it according to the philosophy of Karl Marx, causing the company to financially collapse and the people to resent and lose trust in each other. Galt comes to realize that he’s witnessing the emergence of an ideology which destroys “the good for being good,” will destroy the economy and society, and lead to tyranny. Thus, he decides to go on strike—a strike of the mind—and to recruit as many people as he can to join him.
Galt sets up a kind of anarchist utopia in a valley in the Colorado mountains, which he hides using technology that creates a hologram so that it appears from the air to be nothing but mountains. There he collects various heroes of the mind—scientists, artists, inventors, businesspeople, judges, philosophers, etc.—as each comes to realize, with a little prodding from Galt and his friends, Ragnar Danneskjold and Francisco D’Anconia, that they don’t have to fight, that they can go on strike and let the world fall apart until people realize that it is because of thinkers like them that they have all the things they enjoy, that one cannot simply take for granted all that exists in the world.
Opposed to Galt and his fellow strikers are businesspeople, politicians, scientists, artists, philosophers, etc. who have traded the use of their minds for power. Many are third-rate businesspeople engaging in rent-seeking and regulatory capture to bankrupt or seize the business of those who are more successful through invention and good management skills. The wealthy and powerful are the main villains, opposing a man from a working-class background who had neither wealth nor political power. His only power—and it turns out to be the most powerful kind—is his mind, his knowledge and understanding. While his enemies use force to attempt to control and rule the world, Galt uses persuasion to encourage those they’re trying to control to leave the world and live a life without trying to rule anyone.
Galt’s goal is no less than the foundation of a new civilization—first, in Galt’s Gulch, and then across the globe itself. This theme is repeated in not only the microcosm of Galt’s Gulch and the macrocosm of global civilization, but in the repeated references to Atlantis, which is identified as “the lost city that only the spirits of heroes can enter” (637), and which is claimed at one point to have been discovered by Galt (153-4). To achieve this, Galt concludes that he must bring the world to its knees, to show the world that those they look to as their saviors are in fact their jailors. To this end, he throws down the gauntlet with his radio speech that addresses the inherent flaws of the current system and the inherent virtues of the system he and his fellow strikers want to establish.
Despite a last-ditch effort to save their system by kidnapping John Galt in an effort to make him economic dictator (showing they have no idea what he’s talking about), the protagonists fail and their system collapses. Project X—a military project—is destroyed, but it kills millions of people in the process. The transportation system is in shambles along with the rest of the economy. The world is, in fact, brought to its knees. The novel ends with John Galt looking out at the world that he is now ready to reenter and make anew.
Camplin, Troy Earl. “Atlas Shrugged as Epic.” Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, vol. 19 no. 2, 2019, pp. 192-242. Project MUSE.
Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. NY: Plume. 1957/1999.