Book Review: Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged is author Ayn Rand’s most famous novel. It invites starkly differing views from readers.

Mira Saraf shares her thoughts after reading the mammoth book.

“Atlas Shrugged”, over a thousand pages in length (and I might add in hard copy printed only with the tiniest of fonts), is Ayn Rand’s final novel. It is overwhelming both in scope and in theory. The purpose of this review is not to explain Ayn Rand’s theories in general or define Objectivism, but simply to give you a layman’s viewpoint of this phenomenal novel.

Atlas Shrugged

In “Atlas Shrugged”, the world as we know it, is changing. For people who value achievement and success and profit through one’s own efforts such as Dagny Taggart, Vice-President Operations of Taggart Railroad and Hank Rearden, a steel tycoon trapped in an unhappy marriage, there is increasing government interference in the form of mandates and directives to share the fruits of their labour be it wealth, contracts, or incentives with their peers of lower ability who choose not to work as hard. Their success is no longer deserved as per this new world order, but it belongs to the people as a whole.

The government officials seek to suppress industrialists to a point where they produce as much as they can but earn only as much as they “need,” and are known increasingly as the “looters”. Among them are Dagny Taggart’s brother, Jim Taggart who spends his days cutting side deals with Washington and schmoozing in so-called intellectual circles. These circles emphasize the heart over the mind, compassion over meritocracy and subjective approaches to everything. The looters can never say anything in a straightforward direct manner, they must all talk around it, so the listener must guess what is meant by a particular statement.

Thrown into the mix are Francisco D’Anconia, the once brilliant heir to a copper empire, now simply a playboy who doesn’t take anything seriously, and John Galt: a person whose name that appears on everyone’s lips but of whom nobody knows the truth. “Who is John Galt?” people ask shrugging their shoulders as if it were a hypothetical question. Nobody really knows, and more interesting still, nobody knows why they use the expression.

When the industrialists start disappearing one by one, with their factories burned or shut down, Dagny tries to stop the person, whom she calls the destroyer, from robbing the world of its saviours. But somehow, no matter how hard she tries, she is not able to circumvent the conspiracy that could end the world as they know it. Eventually, at one point, she must make a terrible choice herself.

Rand’s views on the industry and the importance of personal excellence and achievement are very clear. The looters in her world, are extreme to the point of caricature. They display an extreme absence of reason, and do not value the importance of need over ability and achievement, and are basically corrupt. “I can’t help it, I couldn’t help it,” they like to say over and over again. Because for them, A is not A (one of the basic tenets of what Dagny learns is that there are no contradictions and A is always A), they can find all sorts of justifications for all sorts of things of varying logical merit.

Even though her views can veer on extreme, it is worth reading this for the perspective it brings. While she advocates selfishness and individualism, things that left-wing minded people like myself may not always agree with, there are merits to what she has to say for example – her views on rewarding effort and achievement for what they are with no intangibles. I was pleasantly surprised by how many things I actually agreed with.

Dagny herself is an anomaly, both from the viewpoints of industrialists and from the perspective of the other women in this world. She is one of the few people of business who still believes that her world can be saved through her efforts, while everything else crumbles around her. She is also one of the few women who value industry. Women like Lillian Rearden, Hank’s wife, look down on her. From that perspective, she is a woman in a man’s world, which means that it definitely fails the Bechdel test.

Her relationship with the men in her life embodies a certain power dynamic that is hard to articulate. While there are sometimes when she appears to be frustratingly submissive physically in certain situations, she also has the upper hand in many cases in a roundabout way. There are points where I felt the narrative become a little demeaning towards Dagny, but then she exercises a strength and force of her own, that is hard to articulate. She has her own agency and stands on her own right.  So the approach towards gender dynamics sometimes leaves me feeling a little torn, as there were scenes that I found insulting, and yet, there were so many instances where Dagny proved she had much more substance than all those men.

This book is one that gets under your skin and into your bones. I found myself thinking about Dagny and Rearden and their plight when I was away from the book. I read it obsessively, and while I’m relieved to have finally found out what happens, it’s one of those in which I feel a certain amount of sadness upon reading the last few words.

However, there are places where the story does drag, when her points are overstated, and become repetitive. There is a section towards the end of the book that is particularly guilty of this. I actually discovered several online discussions just about this section, and it’s merits, and apparently, there are some people that barely read the section at all, while others devoured it, and went back to re-read it. You’ll know it when you see it: it appears to be a section that most people are divided on.

Overall though, this book is brilliant and worth the one month I devoted to it. The story is engaging, and the philosophy is fascinating. I am inspired to attempt the 700+ page Fountainhead, after finishing this book.

Haven’t read it? Do give it a try. Read it? Let me know what you thought below!

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