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Transfiguring the Novel: The Literary Revolution in Atlas Shrugged

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 2, No. 3.

Author’s note: For those who have not yet read Atlas Shrugged but intend to, this essay will spoil the suspense of reading the novel for the first time.


Since its 18th-century inception, the novel has been properly glorified for its potential scope. It is not confined in place or time, as is drama, and does not require the performing arts as an intermediary. Since the novel is not limited to physical conflict but includes psychological action, it can provide profound insight into the inner lives of its characters. Nor is the novel restricted by such requirements of language as meter and rhyme, as is great poetry. The novel is, consequently, the most intellectual art form, containing vistas as expansive as the human mind itself, curtailed solely by the limits of a novelist’s imagination. It is an art form that can transport a reader from a character’s innermost private thoughts to the most grand-scale, globe-shaking physical conflict—and dramatize the causal link between the two. A skilled novelist can weave into his story a blend of thought and action, reason and emotion, past and present events, an individual protagonist and a sweeping array of supporting characters. In short, the novel is unique among art forms in its potential to dramatize the full range of human experience.

Ayn Rand actualized that potential.

This author knows of no other fictional work that is so thoroughly integrated on so vast a scale as Atlas Shrugged. The novel is a concordant literary synthesis of every essential element of human life.

Although Atlas Shrugged famously dramatizes a revolutionary philosophy, it is first and foremost a work of extraordinary artistic imaginativeness. The purpose of this essay is to analyze the novel from a literary perspective, focusing on its unparalleled artistic merits.

The Plot-Theme

Atlas Shrugged tells the story of a man who vows to “stop the motor of the world”—and then does. It is the story of an ancient, historic, virtually timeless evil that is destroying the world; and of a man who identifies the cure—one that consists of hastening the world’s demise in order to revitalize it from its deathbed. It is the story of Adam, of Aeneas (whose line established Rome), of Brutus of Troy (legendary founder and namesake of Britain)—of a first man who gazed on the earth afresh, who begot a civilization, and became a patriarch. But it is also the story of Prometheus, who, in Ayn Rand’s telling, withdrew his fire “until the day when men withdraw their vultures.”1

Atlas Shrugged is first and foremost the story of a strike. It shows what happens when the men of the mind, the real producers or creators of value—the inventors, scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, and industrialists—withdraw from a world that persecutes them.

This is what Ayn Rand called the novel’s “plot-theme,” the essence of the story, the factor integrating the plot and the abstract meaning conveyed thereby. “A ‘plot-theme’ is the central conflict or ‘situation’ of a story—a conflict in terms of action, corresponding to the theme and complex enough to create a purposeful progression of events.” Whereas Atlas Shrugged’s theme is “the role of the mind in man’s existence,” its plot-theme, which integrates the story’s events to this theme, is “The men of the mind going on strike against an altruist-collectivist society.”2

The hero, John Galt, states:

“There is only one kind of men who have never been on strike in human history. Every other kind and class have stopped, when they so wished, and have presented demands to the world, claiming to be indispensable—except the men who have carried the world on their shoulders, have kept it alive, have endured torture as sole payment, but have never walked out on the human race. Well, their turn has come. Let the world discover who they are, what they do and what happens when they refuse to function. This is the strike of the men of the mind. This is the mind on strike.”3

The United States government has devolved into a statist regime and is becoming increasingly dictatorial by the month. (The rest of the globe has already plunged into collectivist totalitarianism.) The thinkers, the workers fundamentally responsible for making modern civilization possible—the philosophers, the writers and artists, the scientists, the inventors, the entrepreneurs—are increasingly stifled and expropriated by the socialist rulers—in Ayn Rand’s terminology, the “looters.” The thinkers allegedly have a duty, an unchosen moral responsibility, to carry on their backs their less talented and less enterprising brothers and sisters, without regard for their own well-being. The dominant moral code of altruism, of selfless service to others, demands their sacrifice to the collective.

With the last desperate effort of exhausted, overburdened giants, the great thinkers, like the legendary Atlas, stagger under their earth-supporting load. The intellectuals and moralists propping up the looters’ regime impose their altruist-collectivist code on the American people and struggle to extirpate the last remnants of egoism and individualism—the commitment to an individual’s inalienable right to his own life, mind, and pursuit of his own happiness—from American culture. With the proliferation of altruist-collectivist dogma in the culture, the enormity of the injustice being perpetrated on the thinkers has not been identified.

John Galt identifies it. His solution is not armed revolution—but passive withdrawal. He goes on strike, and, over a period of years, takes with him the most brilliant and creative minds of American society. . . .

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1 Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Random House, 1957), p. 478.

2 Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto (New York: Penguin, 1971), p. 85.

3 Rand, Atlas Shrugged, p. 677.