My entry for the annual Atlas Shrugged Essay contest, on the topic “Choose the scene in Atlas Shrugged that is most meaningful to you. Analyze that scene in terms of the wider themes in the book.”
In one of the final stages of Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart stands before Francisco d’Anconia , and declares : “I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”(1042) This scene, with all its associated implications, particularly in light of all the events that lead to it, is the one I find the most significant in the novel.
The main theme of Atlas Shrugged deals with the struggle faced by every honest, capable man in a dystopian world: the seemingly-endless fight against an evil which appears invincible, and the secession of those men of ability and action, in protest against the moral code imposed on them by that world. Through the eyes of Dagny Taggart, a representative of the ilk of able, proactive and efficacious persons – “the movers, the providers, the benefactors of mankind”(447) – Ayn Rand seeks to present the battle of the “men of the mind”(570) against the looters – those otiose masses which had lived off their rightful earnings for centuries and had condemned them to suffering for the sake of those very virtues which had enabled them to produce.
In the novel, Dagny Taggart is introduced as being the one “who runs Taggart Transcontinental”(24), one of those persons “who make [things] possible”(53), someone who has always lived only on the merits of her own actions, dictated by her own reasoning mind. Her life is devoted to the railroad, with her work being an expression of her love for her life and a symbolisation of her moral code. The novel revolves around her struggle – against the unworthy enemy which is ineptitude – “a gray spread of cotton that deemed soft and shapeless, that could offer no resistance to anything or anybody, yet managed to be a barrier in her way”(55), against the nameless “destroyer”(353) who seems to be causing the defection of all those men of ability who had built the new industrial world, and finally, against the growing sense of despair that her quest – to find the person with ” a consciousness like her own, who would be the meaning of her world, as she would be of his”(207), to know “[the] feeling that would hold, as their sum, as their final expression, the purpose of all the things she loved on earth”(207) – would end in vain.
In the first part of Atlas Shrugged, the movers are confronted by the “Anti-dog-eat-dog Rule”(75), one of the first policies implemented by the “moochers” in a bid to restrict and control the men capable of production. It leads to Dagny’s battle to build the John Galt line, so named in protest against the the fear and hopelessness with which people seem to face the world – a struggle to build the rail using Hank Rearden’s Metal, in recognition of its superlative quality and defiance against all baseless qualms; a challenge which, once overcome, seems to signify the end of all her struggles – in the form of the beginning of the “second Renaissance” (234) in the industries of Colorado. But this turns out to be a temporary victory, leading to the further issue of constraining directives by the looters, in an attempt to pillage the lawful profits of the producers. Thus begins “the field day of the little fellow”(324), the period when the industrialists begin to renounce their positions, their factories and properties, and vanish – leaving Dagny to struggle to identify the seemingly- incomprehensible reason behind their abdication.
As the plot unfolds, we see that alongside Dagny’s efforts to save the Taggart Transcontinental railroad is her increasingly-desperate crusade to find the inventor of the ruined motor, which she finds at the Twentieth Century Motor Company – “an entirely new type of motor that could have changed the course of all industry.” (303) This quest is shown as a part of her campaign to restore the world to a glory worthy of the men of ability; the absolute unwillingness to leave the world to the hands of the “worshippers of the zero”(937) – reflected in her despairing plea to those equals who surrender to the destroyer; the incessant cry of “Don’t let it go!”(603) – which is her petition to those heroes to stay back and help defend that which is “the best within us.”(14)
Through Dagny’s suffering, Ayn Rand seeks to show the suffering of the best among the heroes who are victims of the looters’ moral code – as she has “too much endurance, courage and consecration to [her] work”(714) to give up too easily. The torment she undergoes is greater than that of all the other strikers, because of her continual failure to accept the unavoidability of renunciation – “[the] total break with the world of [her] past”(979) – as the only solution to the moral crisis. Her capacity for tolerance dismisses all personal suffering as inconsequential, and though, like John Galt, she recognizes the wrongness in the world in the beginning of her career, in the form of the building of the San Sebastian Line, she considers the thought “Get out”(58): the concept of leaving Taggart Transcontinental, as inconceivable, and begins what she thinks is the fight to preserve the railroad, and all it stands for – the hard work and unfailing spirit of her ancestor Nat Taggart, as well as hers – not realising that she is working for his enemies.
The issuing of the “Directive 10-289″(497) acts as the breaking point of her tolerance, and she independently quits her work and begins her period of exile to “learn to live without the railroad—get the pain out of the way.”(560) Her search for answers is fruitless, because of her “certainty that the truth and the right [are] hers—that the enemy [is] the irrational and the unreal—that she [can] not set herself another goal or summon the love to achieve it, while her rightful achievement [has] been lost, not to some superior power, but to a loathsome evil that [conquers] by means of impotence”(563) – and she returns to her work to prevent the destruction of “the man who has an intransigent mind and an unlimited ambition, and is in love with his own life”(584) and to “maintain the last strip of [her world].”(584)
Her pursuit of Quentin Daniels – to stop him from quitting work on building the motor, leads to her accidental discovery of Galt’s Gulch and John Galt. In the latter, she finds the embodiment of all her values and the source of her motive power – “[her] love and [her] hope to reach [him] and [her] wish to be worthy of [him] on the day when [she] would stand before [him] face to face”(582) – and her battle becomes harder to fight, having heard the convictions of the strikers of the valley, but one which she is determined to continue, as she “cannot believe that men can refuse to see, that they can remain blind and deaf to [her] forever, when the truth is [hers] and their lives depend on accepting it.”(740) As a result, she does not take the oath, mentioned in the first paragraph, which is taken by all the strikers in protest against the exploitation they have undergone at the hands of the world, though “[it] has always been [her] own rule of living.”(671)
Having found Galt, the love that is “the greatest reward [she] can earn for the moral qualities [she has] achieved in [her] character and person, the emotional price paid by [her] for the joy [she] receives from the virtues of another”(946), her return to the world of the looters is accompanied by the torment of “the immensity of the hopelessness of finding him—if he did not choose to be found”(782). She continues fighting for her railroad; the thought – “There’s still a chance to win, but let me be the only victim”(916) as the only sustaining litany, when Rearden – her staunchest comrade in the struggle – abdicates, and she is the last of the heroes remaining in the moochers’ employ. It is then that John Galt addresses the world in the radio broadcast, in acknowledgement of his strike, and she unwittingly delivers him into the hands of his enemies.
“A sacrifice is the surrender of a value”(941) says Ayn Rand, through Galt’s speech, and she demonstrates how Dagny is faced with the conflict of having to give up one value for the sake of another – her love for John Galt for the sake of her love for Taggart Transcontinental; a conflict which cannot exist except in the world of contradictions created by the moral code of the looters; a conflict which makes her realise that “the heavy indifference she now [feels] for her railroad [is] hatred”(1017), when she seems to be transporting automatons who have no love for life, at the price of Galt’s life. Then she gives up the burden of slaving for the looters, by taking the oath in the scene mentioned – which represents the end of the unbearable struggle she has had to suffer for the sake of her rectitude, and her freedom and deliverance to the kind of world she deserves.
In terms of the wider themes of the book, Dagny’s defection paves way for the return of the strikers to the world, as she is said to be “the sole hope and future of Taggart Transcontinental”(713) and in her absence, the breaking down of the Taggart Bridge leads to the destruction of New York – which, at long last, signifies the complete success of John Galt’s strike.
Note : Page numbers are marked according to the 50th Anniversary Edition of Atlas Shrugged, published by Signet.