Book Review: "Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand
This is the first time I come across a book of which I cannot make a proper summary. It is also the first time I come across a book so difficult to classify. I will do my best to explain this amazing book that is Atlas Shrugged.
In a country with worsening economic conditions, Dagny Taggart, vice president in charge of operations, works to repair Taggart Transcontinental’s crumbling Rio Norte Line to service Colorado, the last booming industrial area in the country.
Despite her efforts, there is a fact that difficult her job: Many of the country's most successful entrepreneurs are retiring and disappearing without a trace.
The situation of Taggart Transcontinental worsens after the Mexican government nationalizes the San Sebastian Line, which has been put into operation because of Francisco D'Anconia's copper mines. It is later discovered by Dagny that those mills are worthless and that D'Anconia has known it all the time.
Understanding that she is running out of time, Dagny decides to use Rearden Metal, a new material created by Hank Rearden which does not still have the approval of most metallurgists. This alloy is the only one that can fix the Rio Norte Line in time to save the company.
As time goes by, Dagny will realice that the dissaperence of the bussiness men is not a coincidence, but a conspirancy carefully planned to divest the world of its most brillant minds. That is to say, to take away the ones who can keep the world moving.
The world is dying. The question is: Who is to blame? Who is behind it?
Who is John Galt?
Why should you be reading it?
If you are looking for a typical science-fiction story with little hints of romance here and there, this is not your book. Atlas Shrugged is actually a philosophy manifesto trying to take the shape of a work of fiction. The qualification "novel" here is just a disguise. So again, if you are the kind of person who thinks that capitalism is destroying the world, you better run away right now.
I found this book almost overwhelmingly interesting for many reasons. I was not really a fan of philosophy when I was at school, and my formation in the subject is quite poor, truth be told. But when I started reading this book it felt like an imperative to make a little investigation in Ayn Rand's ideas, as a way of completing the experience. I advise you to do the same.
The title of the book makes reference to Titan Atlas, the mythological character who holds the world on his shoulders. Rand compares Atlas's responsibility to the one carried by the men of business in the story. It is divided into three parts, named in honor of Aristotle's laws of logic, each one consisting of ten chapters.
Atlas Shrugged made my mind overwork for weeks, which is always a good thing to say. I will now proceed to mention the most important subjects of the story and share my thoughts about them.
Religion and morality
The author's opinion on this subject has been controversial at the time, and for some it still is. Objectivism rejects the supernatural or anything that cannot be explained and proved through reason. In other words, it rejects the idea of God.
While it is true that the book specifically mentions religion just in a few opportunities, the moral values displayed by society allows us to see the similarities. This sense of morality proposes to fully live for others, but never for yourself. It states that suffering, not for your own sins, but for the others’, unjustly and submissively is the best and right thing for you to do. Of course, it does apply only in certain circumstances, given that corruption continues existing in the political as well as economic systems, and desitions in those ambits are made, sometimes not even in favor of important people’s interest, but also for mere caprice of the ones in charge. It reminds me of George Orwell’s double-thinking.
The society described in the book has the idea that people have no control over their lives, that there is nothing certain, not parameters to establish the difference between right and wrong.
But Ayn Rand points another thing that is quite interesting. When Dagny asks John Galt what was it that made him renounce the world and take his own path, his answer is one of the best lines I have ever read:
My refusal to be born with any original sin”
Galt refuses to accept society to charge him with guilts that are not his own, so he does exactly the same when it comes to supernatural authority. The character considers highly immoral the fact that religion “cut men in two”, meaning that it teaches men to consider their body and their soul as two irreconcilable enemies and that the only way to benefit one is to hurt the other; that our nature as humans is a sin itself.
Their myth declares that he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge- he acquired a mind an became a rational being. It was the knowledge of good and evil- he became a moral being. He was sentenced to earn his bread by his labour- he became a productive being. He was sentenced to experience desire- he acquired the capacity of sexual enjoyment (…) it is not his errors that they hold as its guilt, but the essence of his nature as a man.”
This is the topic of the book that made me think the most because, in some way, Ayn Rand managed to put into words many ideas I have about love and how it works.
Having received a Catholic education, this idea that you have to love everyone, especially the ones who do not deserve it was not foreign to me. I was told that, but I did not see it in the practice many times.
Ayn Rand explains love as a trade, something made in your own interest. She says that loving someone based on his flaws and mistakes, as a kind of obligation, as a moral debt that you owe that person, is wrong. Love should only be granted to a person based on his values, on the good things he can offer, on the pleasure it produces you to love him. It can sound cold to speak about feelings in that way, but what it means is that you should only love the people who you consider worthy of being loved, and never in the name of pity.
Love is the expression of one’s values, the greatest reward you can earn for moral qualities you have achieved in your character and person, the emotional price paid by one man for the joy he receives from the virtues of another”
When it comes to the love life of our protagonist though, I must confess that it confused me a little. During the first part of the novel, we are introduced to two of Dagny's romantic interests: Francisco D'Anconia, her childhood friend and first love, and Hank Rearden, the man with whom she shares her vision of the world, and who is undeniably attracted to her.
Francisco was presented as Dagny's past, so I never expected them to have another chance together. Her relationship with Rearden, while at first struck me as merely physical, some kind of "friends with benefits", ended up becoming the more realistic of the novel. I personally got quite fond of the couple.
And then, we have John Galt. May I confess at this point that I did not like this character that much? I know he was supposed to be the perfect man, the one with the clearest mind, the one who has no faults at all. Rand states at the end of the book that Atlas Shrugged's writing and publication is proof that men such as the ones she writes about exist. I do not agree. Hank Rearden could exist. Dagny Taggart could exist. John Galt could not. Men and women who share Rand's vision of the world certainly exist, but you will never convince me that a man with no flaws does too. I cannot empathize with a character who is calm and in control all the time
I will not say I was disappointed that Dagny chose Galt over Rearden (I have seen it coming) even though I would have preferred her not to. But I considered Dagny's ideas of love to be quite peculiar, at least in the practice, ever since I started reading. I think that Rearden's temper suited her better. When she confesses him that she is in love with another man, he takes it quite well, but I could not help to feel slightly heartbroken for his sake.
In spite of that, Dagny is my favorite character of the story and one of my favorites ever. I can relate to her in many things, but what was more touching to me was the description of her childhood and youth. It was the moment she earned my affection. The picture of the frustrated teenager, a girl who dreams to go out in the world and become someone, but gets increasingly disappointed at the way everything works reminded me of myself more strongly that I could tell.
She felt a bored indifference towards the inmediate world around her, towards the other children and adults alike. She took it as a regrettable accident, to be borne patiently for a while, that she happened to be imprisoned among people who were dull. She had caught a glimpse of another world and she knew that it existed somewhere, the world that had created trains, bridges, telegraph wires and signal lights winking in the night. She has to wait, she thought, and grow up to that world.”
At the end of the second part of the book Dagny has an unexpected meeting with a former worker of the 20th Century Motor Company, the place where she and Rearden had previously made an important discovery.
This man tells her the story of the Company. The 20th Century had once been an important and prosperous place, but after the death of its owner, his sons and daughter had taken control of it and started a plan of reforms. It consisted of distributing the work according to the laborer ability but paying him according to his need. This system obviously benefited the people that did not work at all and was nefarious for the ones who were good at their jobs. It started to put a man against the other, encouraging the bad, corrupting the good, and eventually ruined the Company economically.
At some point in the story, this system turns into one of the country's economic policies.
Any man who tried to play straight had to refuse himself everything (…)But the shiftless and the irresponsible had a field day of it. They bred babies, they got girls into trouble, dragged in every worthless relative they have, every unmarried pregnant sister for an extra "dissability allowance"(…) They found more ways of getting in "need" than the rest of us could ever imagine- they developed a special skill for it, which was the only ability they showed"
Does the situation sound familiar to you? Can you place it somewhere in your society? When I read this for the first time it took me like five minutes to associate it with my country's social plans. There are many people that are in a real need and deserve to be helped, but there is a big portion of the recipients of those plans who made the impossible to remain in "need", just as it is explained in the paragraph above.
But apart from that specific example, I can see a tendency to praise incompetence in many ambits. I learned it for the first time at school, where the children who did not study received facilities to pass, so they would not become demoralized, but the ones who did study never received any recognition.
This book was written during the '50s. Has the world always been like that, then?
As much as I enjoyed this book, there are still some technical points that I did not like. First of all, some unnecessarily long monologues. I read the first two parts of the novel very fast, but I got stuck twice in the third: The first time in the beginning, when Dagny is shown around the valley, and the second at John Galt's speech. During most of the book I was truly fascinated with the monologues, but after a while, it became kind of irritating. Every time a character started to speak (or even think) I was like "Here we go again!" In the case of Galt's speech, all the topics had already been mentioned by other characters through the story, so it felt repetitive. It is as if sometimes the author had forgotten that she was writing fiction.
I also have the feeling that the novel was altogether too long for my liking. But as I have said before, the monologues took a lot of space.
Atlas Shrugged is not for every reader, but I strongly recommend it. Even if you do not completely agree with the author's ideas, I promise you it will make you question the world you live in, and open your mind to a bunch of new ideas. Just give it a chance.
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