Ayn Rand is an odd figure in our political and cultural climate. She is one of the most popular authors of the twentieth century—her books have sold over 25 million copies—despite the fact that she wrote long, dense tomes about political philosophy. She’s beloved by many and hated by more. Yet many politicians tout the controversial Rand with a fervor usually reserved for Founding Fathers and Jesus.
Rand functions as a kind of ideological shibboleth, a password into the club of self-reliance and small government. But many readers also really love her. They cherish her books with a passionate intensity that’s impossible to ignore.
Although I’d read The Fountainhead—and liked it quite a bit more than I expected—I had never read Atlas Shrugged, which Rand herself considered her greatest work and which gets mentioned the most in discussions of her literature and philosophy. Given all the fuss about Rand and specifically this book, I felt like not reading it was a gap in my knowledge. What was it that Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Mark Cuban, and so many others found so exciting about this novel?
So I read it.
And at the risk of sounding intemperate, Atlas Shrugged is by far the worst book I’ve ever read. This is true on a purely aesthetic level, leaving aside Rand’s abhorrent philosophical views—though the philosophy embedded in the book only makes it much, much worse. The prose is tedious, the characters are absurd and the story is both repetitive and nonsensical. On virtually every page there is something to insult the reader’s intelligence. It is somehow both consistently infuriating AND incredibly boring. The English language is worse off for having been contorted into the shape of this misbegotten novel.
But allow me to elaborate…
The general story of Atlas Shrugged is well-known: The world’s “prime movers”—the industrialists, manufacturers, financiers, etc.—go on strike because the world’s irrationality and immorality have made it inhospitable to them. They don’t just go on strike, though; they disappear, fading into obscurity or retiring to a secret valley founded by John Galt, the strike’s leader. The plot is now famous largely due to the novel’s immense success, but Rand sets it up as a sort of mystery. As the book opens, nobody knows why these business leaders are disappearing. It just seems to be a feature of a fictional future that is gradually sliding into dystopia.
Rand’s main characters are a pair of industrial leaders who, for some reason, have been left behind by Galt: Dagny Taggart, the Vice President of Taggart Transcontinental Railroad; and Hank Rearden, President of Rearden Steel. They have not been claimed by Galt’s strike, but it is not due to a lack of ability on their part: They are both very much examples of what might be called Rand’s Superheroes.
Rand’s Superheroes comprise a breed of mythical uber-individualists who have never actually been seen in real life, but who populate all of Rand’s novels. These Superheroes are truly amazing. They succeed without assistance and invent amazing things out of nothing. Obstacles do not impede them. Neither personal attachments nor insecurities can hold them back. Success is so natural to them that they have no sympathy for the failures of others. They are kind of like ideal humans, except you’d never want to be friends with them.
Take, for example, Rand’s heroine, Dagny, who determined to run her family’s Taggart Transcontinental Railroad as a child: “She was fifteen when it occurred to her for the first time that women did not run railroads and that people might object. To hell with that, she thought—and never worried about it again.” That’s how the Superheroes deal with centuries of entrenched sexism—they simply ignore it and plow forward (or Lean In, I guess). The lack of female CEOs in the 1950s, then, must simply have been because not enough women thought “to hell with that,” and stopped worrying about it.
Hank might be even more impressive than Dagny. As the novel opens, he has invented Rearden Metal, a wonderful, magical metal that is “tougher than steel, cheaper than steel, and will outlast any hunk of metal in existence.” We know this because Dagny and Hank say so, and the Superheroes can always be trusted. Every scientist and metallurgical “expert,” on the other hand, is portrayed as either callously manipulative or hopelessly compromised. Yet the world kowtows to these authorities, who warn that Rearden Metal is “dangerous” without any evidence to support their claim. (You know how industrial and government leaders are always deferring to warnings from scientists about the dangers of a potential profit-maker…) As a result, nobody trusts Rearden Metal initially—nobody except for Dagny, who orders it to build her new railroad.
Even Dagny’s own board resists her, under the control of James Taggart, the company’s President and Dagny’s brother. Despite sharing DNA, James and Dagny are total opposites—while Dagny is a Superhero, James is one of Rand’s villains. He recoils from responsibility and disdains accomplishment. He doesn’t want to be the first to use Rearden Metal because he doesn’t want to be blamed if it fails. Plus, he tells Dagny, “We give all our business to Rearden… We ought to help the smaller fellows to develop.” (You know how CEOs are always looking out for “the smaller fellows”…). In order to circumvent her board and build her new line out of Rearden Metal, Dagny leaves to start her own company, which she dubs “The John Galt Line.”
Along the way, Hank and Dagny fall in love, or whatever passes for “love” in Rand’s philosophy. It is only natural that Hank and Dagny, as the only competent people left in their world, would be drawn to each other. As he tells her early in the novel, “We’re a couple of blackguards, aren’t we? We haven’t any spiritual goals or qualities. All we’re after is material things. That’s all we care for.” This stilted, speaking-the-subtext dialogue is what passes for romance in the novel, but Dagny and Hank are portrayed as so like-minded that it is baffling why they don’t sleep together earlier.
The only real obstacle to their ultimate consummation is that Hank is already married. But his wife, Lillian, is perhaps the most cartoonishly malevolent character in a novel that is not lacking in cartoonish malevolence. The marriage was based on little besides expectation and convenience—Hank being a man too proud for brothels but too sensual to abstain from sex.
A woman stuck in such a marriage could be a fascinating character, but Lillian is just a vampiric devil-woman, intent only on destroying Hank’s greatness. Lest we think that her sour marriage has turned Lillian into this wretch, Rand makes clear that this was her goal from the beginning: “Lillian had chosen him for his strength, his confidence, his pride… but the destruction of that power had been her goal.” She is heartless and cruel, and Hank’s initial loyalty to her is an example of his misplaced steadfastness. When he finally does sleep with Dagny, he is not betraying his wife but liberating himself from her clutches.
In Dagny he finds someone who doesn’t just recognize his genius, but is willing to submit herself to it. Indeed, their sex scenes describe a kind of consensual rape, which Rand idealizes as the purest form of intimacy:
“Yet she knew… that the triumph was his, that her laughter was her tribute to him, that her defiance was submission, that the purpose of all her violent strength was only to make his victory greater—he was holding her body against his, as if stressing his wish to let her know that she was now only a tool for the satisfaction of his desire—and his victory, she knew, was her wish to let him reduce her to that.”
Of all the revolting, dehumanizing things in Rand’s philosophy, the worst is her outright misogyny and her glamorization of rape. Rand is somewhat inured to these criticisms, since her main protagonist is female and Rand herself is a woman, but there is no question that Rand’s depiction of women is hateful. Dagny is pretty much the only positive female character*—the rest are all, like Lillian, some combination of stupid, spoiled, and self-absorbed—and all of her good qualities are described as masculine. When another character criticizes Dagny for not being the “woman” of the Taggart family, she takes it as a compliment and responds: “I’m the man.”
*The only possible exception to this is Cherryl Brooks, a poor shopgirl who marries James only because she mistakenly credits him with all of Dagny’s accomplishments. Brooks is sympathetically portrayed, since she is attracted to the achievements of Dagny and Hank, but she is still presented as a submissive simpleton who is too dumb to realize how worthless James is and too weak to do anything of her own. She throws herself off a bridge once she realizes figures this all out.
Dagny’s chief feminine virtue is her eager willingness to submit to the wills of the Great Men populating Rand’s novels. There is the pleasure she takes in being physically dominated by these men (and so we don’t think this is just something Hank and Dagny are into—because, of course, there’s nothing wrong with liking rough sex—the same rape-level descriptions accompany each of Dagny’s sex scenes, with three different partners) but also her willingness to gratify these men out of bed. When Dagny finds herself in the Valley of Superheroes started by John Galt (nicknamed “Galt’s Gulch” in an unintentionally unpleasant alliterative accident), she doesn’t take a job working a railroad, teaching, running a store, or any of the other activities we see the male Superheroes* doing in the Gulch; she works as Galt’s housekeeper, cooking his meals and cleaning his home. The pinnacle of female achievement, it seems, is to do a woman’s work for the right man.
*The male/female ratio in Galt’s Gulch appears more skewed than in an Ivy League math department.
It’s revealing that, although Dagny is the primary focus of the story, the great invention that opens the novel—Rearden Metal—is the product of someone else. Dagny’s main role is, once again, recognizing a man’s brilliance. What makes Hank uniquely qualified to have invented his metal, or Dagny to recognize its impact is never explained. In Rand’s world, this is simply how invention works: Great ideas spring forth fully-formed from great minds, and the lesser folk need to be convinced of their importance.
Of course, this is nothing like how invention works in the real world, which is generally a gradual process of collaboration and combination, of people tweaking ideas and improving the devices of others. Take steel, the predecessor to the fictional Rearden Metal. There is a reason steel is not called “Johnson Metal”—steel was not “invented” by anyone. Steel was developed independently by various ancient cultures, often using slightly different processes depending on the uses of a particular group. The Bessemer process, which revolutionized the production of steel, was named after the first person to patent the process, but it had been developed by various figures for over a century, and was actually patented almost simultaneously in the United States by William Kelly.
Virtually every major invention in the history of the world has proceeded this way. James Watt “invented” the steam engine by modifying someone else’s design; Galileo refined the design of a telescope that had been invented by others; Alexander Graham Bell developed the telephone with the help of Elisha Gray and Antonio Meuci; Steve Jobs helped invent the personal computer by borrowing the graphical user interface from Xerox; etc.
Neither are these great minds the infallible Superheroes Rand makes them out to be. People who are famously right about some things are just as famously wrong about others: Galileo helped prove heliocentricity, but thought tides were caused by the rotation of the Earth. And inventors are often misguided about the uses of their inventions: Thomas Edison famously dismissed the idea of using a phonograph to play music. This does not diminish the accomplishments of any of these people—it’s just how the process of invention works.
Except in Rand’s novel. In her world, Superheroes just see what the rest of us cannot. Not only can Hank Rearden invent a new metal on his own—he also develops a new kind of bridge that can be built with it. It’s not just Rearden Metal that works this way; when we finally meet John Galt, we discover that he has invented a new kind of engine that runs on static energy harnessed directly from the atmosphere. It is “the greatest revolution in power motors since the internal-combustion engine” and in doing so Galt “arrived at some new concept of energy. He discarded all our standard assumptions… He formulated a new premise of his own.” Of course, only Dagny knows of this invention, because Galt is on strike and won’t share it with the world. That such a reinvention could occur entirely in the mind of one person, with no collaboration, advice, or assistance, without a trace of the discovery even remaining once the inventor disappeared, defies every shred of evidence in the history of human invention.
But this a frequent feature of Atlas Shrugged: Whenever reality does not accord with the philosophy Rand is trying to espouse, she just ignores reality. Despite her novel’s gargantuan size, several things are glaringly absent. Probably the most obvious omission is children: There are no kids at all in the novel. Every character could rent a car. None of the major characters have kids; none of the secondary characters have kids. There is never any mention of any of them wanting kids or planning for kids. We hear ever so briefly about Dagny’s “childhood” but she bears no real resemblance to a child in these pages—they are only there to illustrate that she was destined for greatness from an early age. This would be slightly strange in any novel—in one that goes on for 1,168 pages, it is shocking. It is like reading a novel in which the sun never appears.
Even the concept of “family” is only barely included: Hank has, in addition to his wife, a mother and brother who leech off of him and for whom he has no affection. Dagny despises her brother James, who rivals Lillian in monstrous wickedness. Their parents are never even named. The idea that these family members might have similar genetic dispositions, or a history of love and affection towards each other never once enters the novel. In Rand’s reality, the only function of a filial relationship is to pass down wealth—siblings are totally fucking useless.
The reason for these omissions, though, is obvious: Family and children represent a real inconvenience for Rand’s philosophy. Rand is obsessed with individualism and self-reliance; she abhors charity and “causeless affection.” But children are not self-reliant. They have no skills. You have to feed them and take care of them and buy them things and waste your time making sure they don’t run into the street or stick their fingers into electrical sockets. And they are the primary recipients of “causeless affection”: Babies don’t “earn” your love. They drool and poop their pants and cry when you’re trying to sleep. And what do parents get in return? Is there some big windfall down the road? Unless your kid turns into Justin Bieber or something, the only thing kids tend to give their parents is a bill for an overpriced education.
Shockingly, most parents love their children anyway. They happily sacrifice their own desires to give better lives to their kids. Children recognize this, and tend to feel indebted to their parents throughout their lives. Similarly, siblings, even when they are very different people, tend to feel loyal to each other, even if they fight throughout their lives. Rather than address how these complicated feelings would fit into her philosophy, Rand chooses to simply pretend they don’t exist.
Glaring omissions like this abound throughout the novel. Although the novel is so preoccupied with the economy, there is no mention of debt. This can partially be explained by the fact that most of the main characters are heirs to great fortunes: Dagny and James to the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad,* and Francisco D’Anconia, Dagny’s first rapist lover who is now operating as a mole on behalf of Galt, to D’Anconia Copper, the greatest fortune in the world.
*When Dagny has to start the John Galt Line, there is a brief question of how she will fund her own company. Luckily, she has $7 million of stock in Taggart. Rand never says how those of us who don’t have millions of dollars invested in family railroads are supposed to start companies.
But the entire concept of debt seems foreign to Rand. At one point, D’Anconia* gives a speech on the power of money in which he lays out the principles of a free and growing economy, but he never says anything about debt. Trying to imagine an economy without debt is like trying to imagine music without notes, but since it presents a problem to Rand (How can people start businesses if they have too much debt? Why can some debts be renegotiated, but not others? Are people really “free” to enter into contracts if they have to pay back creditors?), she ignores it.
*Credit where it’s due: Rand’s skill in naming characters is almost Dickensian. Her Superheroes all have names that are full of hard consonants and strong syllables: Hank Rearden, Dagny Taggart, Ken Danagger. And her villains get names like Balph Eubank, Bertram Scudder, Wesley Mouch, and Claude Slagenhop, which sound weak and look somehow misspelled. If you can ignore the absence of almost any ethnic variety in her names, it’s pretty fun.
Similarly, for a novel that spends the bulk of its time explicitly arguing against traditional Judeo-Christian virtues like charity and loving thy neighbor, there is startlingly little mention of religion or God. The characters only use Judeo-Christian teachings as justifications for their nefarious purposes. There is no hint that religion might offer anyone actual comfort, or teach virtues that are worth teaching.
But perhaps the most offensive omission: Late in the novel, one of her Superheroes has the gall to declare that “the United States is the only country in history…where wealth was not acquired by looting, but by production, not by force, but by trade.” This comes after another Superhero has insisted that America has “no fortunes-by-conquest.” How a writer could unironically declare that American wealth was not acquired by force and conquest—ignoring centuries in which slavery was written into law and the thousands of Native Americans killed for their land—and still hope to retain credibility boggles the mind.
Making all of this especially ironic is Rand’s stated devotion to reason and reality. Her Superheroes are constantly priding themselves on their refusal to delude themselves (“We never make assertions… We do not claim—we prove.”). When John tells Dagny the rules of Galt’s Gulch he explicitly declares, “Nobody stays here by faking reality in any matter whatever.” And yet “faking reality” might as well be the subtitle to Atlas Shrugged. All inconveniences are ignored out of existence. Despite being written in the 1950s, there is absolutely no mention of racism or segregation; the entire concept of race is absent from the novel, as all the characters are not just white, but Anglo-Saxon. Anything that might present a real ethical challenge—like war, genocide, slavery, environmental destruction, ethnic conflict—is completely omitted.
A mantra Rand repeats throughout the book is that, “Contradictions do not exist. If you think you have a contradiction, check your premises.” Indeed, Rand has written all of life’s apparent contradictions out of her novel by simply changing her premises. There is irony, for example, in the fact that Dagny works for a transcontinental railroad, given that such a railroad is a textbook example of private industry working with the government.
For all of Rand’s mistakes and misrepresentations, her philosophical shortcomings pale in comparison to her aesthetic ones. Atlas Shrugged is, above all else, a poorly written mess of a novel. On the most basic level, the prose is stilted and clunky—it reads like it was translated into English by Google Translator. Take a sentence like this: “Unaccountably, by an association of feeling that astonished her, she remembered what had conveyed to her recently the same sense of consummate joy as his.” Or: “Her faint apprehension grew into a question mark, and the question mark turned into a drill, cutting deeper and deeper into her mind through the evenings that followed.” How exactly does a question mark turn into a drill?
Some of Rand’s aesthetic shortcomings are just strange, like her inability to describe faces that are not smiling. At various times characters wear smiles that are “of weariness, of pity, of incredulous revulsion,” or a smile that “was like a moan of pain,” or “a look that was almost a smile.” Sometimes characters faces are “made expressionless by the hint of a smile,” and in at least one case Dagny “saw a brief sparkle in his eyes, which was not a smile.” Yes, thank you, Ayn, for reminding me that a sparkle in someone’s eye is not the same as a smile.
But the problems go much deeper than that. There is Rand’s addiction to speeches: Every one of Rand’s Superheroes and most of her characters talk in speeches. They go on and on for page after page. The monologues are not glimpses into a character’s psychology or stories that propel the plot forward—they are simply lectures delivered in the same didactic, preachy style that all of her characters speak in. Though nobody would mistake Rand’s plot for subtle, she was apparently so worried that her points would not land that she had to stop everything and homilize for a dozen pages. And then again fifty pages later. And then again 100 pages after that. And then once more before the book ends, just in case you forgot.
Indeed, the novel’s “climax” is a radio speech John Galt gives to the country that goes on for 70 pages. Read that again: 70 pages. That’s about 33,000 words, or roughly 121 times the length of the Gettysburg Address. Jesus does not speak for 70 pages in the entirety of the Bible. The speech is longer than The Metamorphosis. It’s longer than The Death of Ivan Ilych. It’s longer than “The Grand Inquisitor.”
But the length is secondary to the speech’s main problem: It is So. Damn. Boring. It has nothing to do with the plot or the characters—it’s just a lecture in philosophy. And not a good lecture. It gets tons of things wrong. It’s full of weirdly false assertions (“An instinct for self-preservation is precisely what man does not possess.” “There are no conflicts of interest among rational men.”), blatant sophistry (“If a mother buys food for her hungry child rather than a hat for herself, it is not a sacrifice.”), and arguments against straw men (“Why is it moral to serve the happiness of others, but not your own?”). At times it reduces to philosophical mad-libs: “If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness… If that which you claim to perceive does not exist, what you possess is not consciousness.” It’s like listening to an Intro to Logic lecture given by an 11-year-old.
And the entire plot hinges on this speech. It is, as I said, the thematic climax of the novel, the moment that Galt reveals himself to the public and offers the world a choice between his philosophy and its current path to destruction. Yet it is simply unbelievable that people would actually listen to it or, if they did, follow the meandering logic of it.
So it’s not just that Rand’s prose is inorganic and clumsy, or that her characters are long-winded and dull. The novel simply fails on a structural level. On one level, this is because her philosophy is so heavy-handed and free from nuance that there’s no suspense in the story: Of course Rand’s Superheroes are going to win because they are simply better than everyone else. If things were to end tragically for her Heroes or triumphantly for her Villains, it would negate everything she’d spent that past 1,168 pages lecturing about. The reader knows the essence of the resolution early on—the details of how we get there barely even register.
But Rand also experiments with structure in ways that are legitimately daring. John Galt, the novel’s hero, doesn’t actually enter the novel until 700 pages in. Other characters disappear and reappear. Fully-developed backstories are inserted at surprising points throughout the book. Some of this stuff actually works—the novel is meticulously plotted and well-mapped out (I could imagine an alternate reality in which Rand became a decent writer of thrillers). But for the most part it’s just repetitive. Since every character fits neatly into Rand’s classification,* adding more of them doesn’t enhance the story.
*In addition to Superheroes like Galt/Rearden/Dagny and Villains like James/Lillian, there is a third class, which might be termed Ordinary Folk. Ordinary Folk are represented best by Eddie Willers, Dagny’s loyal lackey who harbors unrequited feelings for her. While not capable of great things himself, Willers recognizes the brilliance of Rand’s Superheroes and is eager to devote himself to doing their bidding. In Rand’s telling, most workers are Ordinary Folk, happy to work for Superheroes and only blocked by the Villains who run unions and the government (because the actual, bloody history of labor relations is, of course, completely ignored by Rand).
It’s Rand’s depiction of Ordinary Folk that is most insulting. First, because they are the only characters even vaguely recognizable as real people. But also because it’s so patronizing. The Superheroes say positive things about Ordinary Folk, but none of them get the happy endings reserved for the Superheroes. Brooks kills herself and Willers is not invited to Galt’s Gulch. For all his loyalty, he is left to get torn apart by the Villains.
And introducing Galt so late in the novel really doesn’t work. By then so much time has been devoted to Dagny’s relationships with Francisco and Hank that her affair with Galt feels rushed. It doesn’t help that Francisco and Hank both accept being ditched by Dagny so magnanimously (because Superheroes never let anything petty like emotions get in the way), thereby draining the relationship of any drama it might have.
For all its careful plotting, then, Atlas Shrugged lacks any drama. Which is a real shame, because a book so long ought to be building toward something. But once Galt has made his speech, Rand seems eager to dispense with her story and allow her Superheroes to triumph.
So what exactly is the appeal of Atlas Shrugged? You might think I couldn’t find one, but that’s not really true. It’s a terrible book, but it’s obvious why people like it. There’s a Calvinist appeal here, one that so neatly divides the world into Us and Them, good guys and bad guys, the saved and the sinners. Because of course nobody reads Atlas Shrugged and identifies with James Taggart or Lillian Rearden. You couldn’t if you tried—they’re unrecognizable as humans.
Instead, Rand presents her Superheroes, and her novel whispers seductively in your ear, saying: “You are like them. Deep down, you are this awesome. If you haven’t done anything as great as inventing a new kind of metal or reconfiguring the entire concept of energy, it’s only because they haven’t let you.”
And the book gives names and faces to this “they.” The novel’s absurd and overwrought depiction of its villains is part of what makes it so appealing. Evil characters say things like, “The purpose of philosophy is… to prove that knowledge is impossible,” or that scientific advancement is bad because “it would be unfair to lesser scientists.” They advocate limiting the sale of all books to ten thousand and confiscating all corporate profits. This could work as satire, except Rand presents it as not only a realistic and legitimate worldview, but the dominant worldview.
It is what the Superheroes are up against and, as a corollary, what sympathetic readers must face in the real world. And since the opposition is so obviously evil, it’s OK to dismiss them. Any attempts at government regulation, or taxation, or any policy you may not like, are merely the symptoms of a deranged philosophy. There is no need to seriously reckon with them.
People will believe this, but not because Rand’s arguments are persuasive or her illustrations realistic. They’ll believe this because it’s very comforting to hear that the world can be neatly divided into Heroes and Villains. It’s very comforting to hear that the world’s problems could all be fixed if we could just convince other people of how right we are. It’s very comforting to hear that the world contains no inconsistencies, no truly impossible challenges, no conflicts of interest among rational men. These are the kinds of myths we tell children to help them sleep better, and which have dictated the work of every great propagandist in history.
This is what makes Atlas Shrugged such a terrible book. It is terrible not just for its artistic sins, misguided philosophy, and outright misogyny. It is terrible for how it condescends to its readers, offering false truths and seductive aphorisms and calling it philosophy.
In the “About the Author” section of my copy of the book, there is a message from Rand: “My personal life is a postscript to my novels; it consists of the sentence: ‘And I mean it.’” So she means it. Like that’s an excuse. Like that’s not the whole fucking problem…