“If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders — what would you tell him to do?”
The novel, that thus carries an apparent undertone of pessimism, is an extraordinary story of victory, as all other works of Ayn Rand are. Rand has the unique quality of succinctly combining idealism with reality, fiction with theories of politics, economics and governance, and creating heroes out of seemingly ordinary characters. All her works are tremendously impactful. The Fountainhead, Anthem and We The Living have been epics in their own right, and, the decision of which one is greater ultimately tends to be a personal choice of the Rand’s reader. This founder of the theory of Objectivism and champion of free Capitalism, in her novels, portrays the Individual as the Ultimate, the end to all means.
In Atlas Shrugged, the protagonist, Dagny Taggart, sees society collapse around her as the government increasingly asserts control over all industries, while society’s most productive citizens, led by the mysterious John Galt progressively disappear. Galt describes the strike as “stopping the motor of the world” by withdrawing the “minds” that drive society’s growth and productivity; with their strike these creative minds hope to demonstrate that the economy and society would collapse without the profit motive and the efforts of the rational and productive. The concern of the world collapsing is successfully transferred to the mind of the reader, with the society’s “drivers” and the real doers all refusing to succumb to the status quo and the decay. “Who is John Galt” is the sharp reminder of the escapers within us all, refusing to acknowledge reality and the individual who pines for expression but is put to death with every action that is second-hand.
The novel is set in the United States that was crumbling under the advancing pressure of socialism, surrounded by the fallen states such as “The People’s State of Germany” and “The People’s State of Mexico”. Divided into three parts, each honoring Aristotle’s laws of logic; it explores various themes, such as that of the Objectivist philosophy, damnation of the victim, Individualism, ownership of property, classes of society and sex among others.
All that is lost and vanished from the face of a once great nation, is found again in the society that Galt constructs which is the utopia that is only possible by virtue of creation and innovation.
This is a novel that is loved and hated with equal fervor. Loved for the way it idolizes Man- the Supreme Being, no more or less than that. Its no-grey-area conviction appeals to the uncompromising romantic. The novel is hated for its guts of hailing selfishness as a virtue, altruism and immoral; and nothing short of an evil.
The book, although written more than half a century ago, holds relevance at all times, and especially today, with the criticisms levied against capitalism in the face of the global financial crisis. Maybe the point that is often missed out by critics is that for Rand’s brand of laissez faire philosophy to be a success, there needs to be Rand’s brand of individuals running the motor of the world too.
Though John Galt is hard to find, with books such as this being so popular and revered, Atlas clearly, has not shrugged.
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