Atlas Shrugged Close Reading Part 1

Elliot Temple's picture
Submitted by Elliot Temple on Wed, 2017-10-25 01:00

This is a close reading of the beginning of Atlas Shrugged. I've found that every sentence is there for a reason. This contains spoilers for later chapters. I plan to go through more of the book and would appreciate feedback on this project (anything I should do differently?). I'm creating a website called Learn Objectivism where I will put this.

Chapter 1 – The Theme

“Who is John Galt?”

The novel opens with a sentence you won’t understand yet, but which is important throughout the book. Then it gives some hints. Eddie has causeless uneasiness.

Eddie asks the bum why he said it with a tense voice. The bum replies:

“Why does it bother you?”

There’s, apparently, something bad about asking who John Galt is, which bothers people. But why would asking about a person’s name be bothersome? That’s a mystery.

“It doesn’t,” snapped Eddie Willers.

Apparently it’s so bothersome that Eddie is lying.

Eddie gives the bum a dime, possibly to change the subject and end the interaction.

“Thank you, sir,” said the [bum’s] voice, without interest

What kind of beggar isn’t interested in whether he gets money? That’s something we’ll learn a lot about in this book (if we pay enough attention and give the ideas enough thought).

The face was wind-browned, cut by lines of weariness and cynical resignation; the eyes were intelligent.

The bum is weary and resigned, but is (or was) intelligent. In what kind of world does an intelligent person end up as a beggar? And how does that world compare to our own world?

Eddie Willers … wonder[ed] why he always felt it at this time of day, this sense of dread without reason…. with no source or object. He had become accustomed to the feeling, but he could find no explanation for it; yet the bum had spoken as if he knew that Eddie felt it, as if he thought that one should feel it, and more: as if he knew the reason.

This is sure gloomy. And it suggests that one should try to understand dread and gloom. Eddie had attempted to explain it, and failed so far, and that’s important. Rand is already communicating that ideas matter – and why. Ideas can help you understand gloom (which can help you do something about it).

What did the bum say? “Who is John Galt?” The bum spoke as if he knew the reason for Eddie’s dread, and he was partly correct, as we find out later. And that’s no coincidence. John Galt is the man who decided to stop the motor of the world! Though it’s not his fault that the world was so broken in the first place, and John is trying to solve the problem by no longer sanctioning and supporting an irrational society. He is, as the title puts it, the mythical Atlas, who holds up the world on his shoulders, and he decided to shrug and let the world fall, rather than be a party to major irrationality and helping sustain the irrationality.

Eddie Willers pulled his shoulders straight, in conscientious self-discipline. He had to stop this [fear, dread and unease]

Eddie wants to solve the problem, not avoid it. He wants to face it head on, on purpose. But he’s having a hard time. He needs more philosophy to deal with this, but he doesn’t know that. The need for philosophy is one of the book’s important themes. Here we’re seeing one concrete instance of it.

It’s the twilight, he thought; I hate the twilight.

Here, Eddie is already giving up somewhat, despite his attempt at self-discipline (in the same paragraph), and despite knowing he needs to solve this problem.

Eddie isn’t the type to give up easily. He’s been facing this problem for years, and failing. That’s taken a toll on his fighting spirit.

Long streaks of grime ran from under the pinnacles down the slender, soot-eaten walls [of skyscrapers].

Why aren’t the skyscrapers maintained well? This is more indication that something is wrong. There’s even a giant, ten-story crack in one of the skyscrapers.

The glow was red and still, like the reflection of a fire: not an active fire, but a dying one which it is too late to stop.

Rand is describing physical appearance, but at the same time she’s giving hints about the setting. The story takes place in a world like a dying fire, and at the start of the book it’s already too late to stop the fire from dying.

No, thought Eddie Willers, there was nothing disturbing in the sight of the city. It looked as it had always looked.

This is dishonest. At some point in the past, the skyscrapers were new, and men were capable of building them (which is harder than maintaining them).

He did not like the task which he had to perform on his return, but it had to be done. So he did not attempt to delay it, but made himself walk faster.

Eddie’s the kind of person who walks faster to face important but unpleasant tasks. Good for him! Since Eddie’s good at life and demonstrates integrity here, that indicates the problem with unease must be quite severe (or else he would have solved it).

Eddie Willers looked away. He had never liked the sight of that [gigantic] calendar. It disturbed him, in a manner he could not explain or define.

The phrase Eddie fails to remember here is “your days are numbered”. The phrase comes up later, but then he forgets the calendar, so he doesn’t make the connection.

Eddie Willers shifted his glance down to the street, to a vegetable pushcart at the stoop of a brownstone house. He saw a pile of bright gold carrots and the fresh green of onions. He saw a clean white curtain blowing at an open window. He saw a bus turning a corner, expertly steered. He wondered why he felt reassured—and then, why he felt the sudden, inexplicable wish that these things were not left in the open, unprotected against the empty space above.

Eddie doesn’t understand philosophy well enough. He knows that expert steering, bright carrots, fresh onions and clean curtains are good, but he doesn’t know why clearly enough. He’d have trouble putting it in worlds. Most readers are like that, too. They know those things are good, but they don’t know enough about why. The reasons get into philosophy, and the book can help you learn them.

The reason Eddie wants them protected is because he recognizes they’re in danger. He’s aware of grimy and cracked skyscrapers. Something’s wrong, and not everything in the world is clean or productive. However, Eddie doesn’t know the nature of the danger. The danger doesn’t come from the sky, and putting things indoors can’t protect them. The danger is bad philosophy, and it takes good philosophy to protect values like food.

he liked to see the display of goods, any goods, objects made by men, to be used by men. He enjoyed the sight of a prosperous street; not more than every fourth one of the stores was out of business, its windows dark and empty.

What low standards Eddie has to consider a street prosperous when around 20–25% of the stores are out of business!

It’s important that goods be made for men. That’s a pro-human attitude, wanting men to produce things for their own use in order to improve their lives. There are other attitudes possible, like creating objects to sacrifice to the Gods , some of which are illustrated in Atlas Shrugged.

One night, lightning struck the oak tree…. The trunk was only an empty shell; its heart had rotted away long ago; there was nothing inside

… It was an immense betrayal—the more terrible because he could not grasp what it was that had been betrayed.

Eddie would be better able to deal with the world’s problems, like John Galt does, if he organized his own thinking better. He’s pretty helpless against the threats because he doesn’t have the right intellectual tools.

The betrayal was the shape representing living power, without the power. It was a symbol of something it wasn’t. And this symbolizes what’s going on with society in the book.

He wanted no sadness attached to his childhood; he loved its memories: any day of it he remembered now seemed flooded by a still, brilliant sunlight.

Why would the past be better than the present? And why is Eddie clinging to memories instead of making his present life great? This is another indication that something’s gone wrong.

The words were harsh and glowing, like the sunlight. He listened in admiration and in wonder. When he was asked what he would want to do, he answered at once, “Whatever is right,” and added, “You ought to do something great … I mean, the two of us together.”

Glowing like the sun is good, but being harsh is bad. Right? So there’s an apparently a contradiction here! The negativity people have towards harshness is something Rand questions. We’ll find out more about Dagny Taggart later, and be able to judge for ourselves in what ways she is and isn’t harsh, and whether that’s good. (Note you’ll have to remember to consider this issue again later. You’ll learn more if you take )

Eddie, like most people, doesn’t expect to do great things, but at least he tries to be a good person.

“What?” she asked. He said, “I don’t know. That’s what we ought to find out. Not just what you said. Not just business and earning a living. Things like winning battles, or saving people out of fires, or climbing mountains.” “What for?” she asked. He said, “The minister said last Sunday that we must always reach for the best within us. What do you suppose is the best within us?” “I don’t know.” “We’ll have to find out.” She did not answer; she was looking away, up the railroad track.

Business is great. Earning a living is great. Eddie’s wrong, and this book explains why. Here we get an early indication of the issue which we can start to think about. What do you think is great?

The hero is more interested in railroads than winning battles, saving people from fires, climbing mountains, or Sunday sermons. Is she right?

Each of these examples was carefully chosen. War is destructive, and it’s better to produce. War should be a last resort for defense, not something to glory in. Saving people from fires is helpful, but that’s not what makes a great life. That’s just a rare, emergency situation, and it’s just trying to prevent a disaster rather than create something positive. Production – creating positive value – is a better place to focus one’s ambition in life. Climbing mountains is somewhat pointless. It’s OK (challenges are cool), but it doesn’t compare to producing things to keep men alive and better their lives. And the minister is an advocate of mysticism and altruism.

he still thought it self-evident that one had to do what was right; he had never learned how people could want to do otherwise; he had learned only that they did. It still seemed simple and incomprehensible to him: simple that things should be right, and incomprehensible that they weren’t. He knew that they weren’t. He thought of that, as he turned a corner and came to the great building of Taggart Transcontinental.

Rand frequently puts related things near each other as hints. Here, Eddie thinks of things being wrong as he reaches Taggart Transcontinental. That’s a hint that something is wrong with Taggart Transcontinental.

Eddie doesn’t comprehend the moral philosophy issues destroying the world, but Rand does. She’s introducing us to them. Many people are like Eddie, which is why he’s the first character introduced. Many people want to do what’s right, but see that others don’t, and they don’t understand. Many decent people see something’s wrong with the world, but they don’t know what to do about it. Rand is introducing this because she has answers.

The building stood over the street as its tallest and proudest structure.

This is like the oak tree. The “great building” looks tall and proud, but there’s rot within. Eddie knows about the rot, but he smiles anyway. The building is maintained, in contrast to its neighbors.

It seemed to stand above the years, untouched.

Untouched by what? Nature (e.g. weather) and immoral men (e.g. vandals). The building is a concrete symbol of abstract themes like man’s power over nature.

It would always stand there, thought Eddie Willers.

Eddie’s mistaken. Skyscrapers and railroads can be destroyed. They’re very strong, powerful and impressive in some ways, but there are some kinds of rot which can harm them. That’s what Eddie’s unease is about – he sees the danger, but not very clearly. We’ll get our introduction to the danger soon when Eddie talks with James Taggart.

Whenever he entered the Taggart Building, he felt relief and a sense of security. This was a place of competence and power.

As we’ll see in the discussion with James, Eddie is mistaken about this. It’s notable that Eddie still feels this way despite already knowing a great deal about the flaws of the company president.

Behind sheets of glass, rows of girls sat at typewriters, the clicking of their keys like the sound of speeding train wheels. And like an answering echo, a faint shudder went through the walls at times … from … where trains started out to cross a continent and stopped after crossing it again

This is part of the positive description of what goes on inside the Taggart building. Remember it, because there are comments about typewriters coming up later in this chapter.

And Rand is relating activities like typing to the railroads themselves. She does this both with the sound of the keys and the sound of the trains themselves. She’s right. The typists are part of what enable the railroads, it’s not just the engines. Get rid of the typists and the railroads would quickly fall apart. This helps relate the realm of physical action (like an engine moving a railroad) to the realm of ideas (they’re typing words, and we use words to express ideas).

Taggart Transcontinental, thought Eddie Willers, From Ocean to Ocean—the proud slogan of his childhood, so much more shining and holy than any commandment of the Bible. From Ocean to Ocean, forever

Instead of rejecting holiness entirely, like many modern atheists, Rand accepts the concept but disputes which things are holy and why.

The railroad should last forever – or at least until it’s surpassed by something better. But it doesn’t. Later the bridge over the Mississippi river is destroyed and so the railroad no longer goes from one ocean to the other.

Whether or not the railroad goes from the Atlantic ocean to the Pacific is a major plot point. Dagny’s desire to maintain the transcontinental railroad is what motivates her to return to New York from Galt’s Gulch. But she’s powerless to save the railroad.

he walked through the spotless halls into the heart of the building, into the office of James Taggart, President of Taggart Transcontinental.

The office being in the heart of the building is symbolism. James is, to some partial extent, the heart and leader of the company. But he’s rotten, and that’s a grave danger.

Rand wants us to see the contrast between the spotless halls (and other signs of virtue) and the company president.

[James had] a body with an elegance of line intended for the confident poise of an aristocrat, but transformed into the gawkiness of a lout.

Rand believes that form matches function more than most people realize. That’s one reason she uses symbolism like this. James had potential that he didn’t live up to. What made him a lout instead of an aristocrat? That’s important.

James also looks ten years old than he is. That’s not just the heroes being pretty and the villains being ugly. He’s careless with life and takes bad care of himself. His lifestyle choices affect his appearance.

“Don’t bother me, don’t bother me, don’t bother me,” said James Taggart.

James doesn’t want to face issues. He doesn’t want to deal with reality and its problems. He’s irritated by the visit and the expectation that he’d perform the duties of a railroad company president.

“It’s important, Jim,” he said, not raising his voice.

James was instantly emotional about Eddie’s visit, before Eddie even stated the topic. Eddie is prepared to be calm.

Eddie Willers looked at a map on the wall of the office. The map’s colors had faded under the glass—he wondered dimly how many Taggart presidents had sat before it and for how many years. The Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, the network of red lines slashing the faded body of the country from New York to San Francisco, looked like a system of blood vessels.

It looks like a system of blood vessels because transportation brings vital resources all across the nation.

There have been multiple comments about Taggart Transcontinental being old. E.g. Eddie’s grandfather worked for James’s grandfather. This is partly to establish the setting and tell us about the company history. What we’re dealing with is more like the fall of Rome than like a new, fad company that doesn’t last. The talk of years past is also to warn us that successful multi-generation projects can be destroyed.

He looked at James Taggart and said, “It’s the Rio Norte Line.” He noticed Taggart’s glance moving down to a corner of the desk. “We’ve had another wreck.”

Eddie looks at James and names the issue. James looks away from Eddie and proceeds to evade the issue:

“Railroad accidents happen every day. Did you have to bother me about that?”

James is making an excuse. He knows this is important, but he doesn’t want to face it.

“You know what I’m saying, Jim. The Rio Norte is done for. That track is shot. Down the whole line.”

Eddie’s trying very hard to be clear, but James doesn’t want to hear it:

“We are getting a new track.”

That’s a lie.

Eddie Willers continued as if there had been no answer: “That track is shot. It’s no use trying to run trains down there. People are giving up trying to use them.”

Eddie tries to focus the conversation on the concrete issues, rather than get caught up in James’ distractions.

”There is not a railroad in the country, it seems to me, that doesn’t have a few branches running at a deficit. We’re not the only ones. It’s a national condition—a temporary national condition."

The track is so bad the trains are crashing. This is scaring people off using the trains. James’ answer is that other companies have problems too, rather than trying to solve the problem. James adds that it’s temporary, meaning he expects the problem to somehow solve itself if he waits.

Eddie stood looking at him silently. What Taggart disliked about Eddie Willers was this habit of looking straight into people’s eyes.

Eddie has questioning eyes and looks attentive and puzzled. James doesn’t want to be questioned; James doesn’t want anyone paying careful attention to his lies; and James doesn’t want to acknowledge there’s any reason for puzzlement.

“What do you want?” snapped Taggart.

“I just came to tell you something you had to know, because somebody had to tell you.”

“That we’ve had another accident?”

“That we can’t give up the Rio Norte Line.”

Why didn’t someone else tell James? Why didn’t James seek out the information himself? It’s his job to deal with matters like this. We’re learning a lot about what kind of person James is, and what kind of people work for him. We’re also learning that Eddie has courage to confront the company president with an unwanted message.

James tries again to lie that the issue is the accident, when he knows it’s not.

“Who’s thinking of giving up the Rio Norte Line?” he asked. “There’s never been any question of giving it up. I resent your saying it. I resent it very much.”

James prefers to lie that there is no problem, rather than discuss solutions. That’s the kind of attitude which is causing the world’s problems (like the grimy skyscrapers, closed stores, broken windows, and large number of beggars).

“But we haven’t met a schedule for the last six months. We haven’t completed a run without some sort of breakdown, major or minor. We’re losing all our shippers, one after another. How long can we last?”

“You’re a pessimist, Eddie. You lack faith. That’s what undermines the morale of an organization.”

What pessimism? Eddie stated facts. How would faith contrary to reality help anything? James is more concerned with morale – people’s opinions – than facts of reality like trains being behind schedule and breaking down, and customers leaving.

“You mean that nothing’s going to be done about the Rio Norte Line?”

This is a wonderful reply. You should learn to say things like this. Eddie isn’t defensive about the charge of pessimism. Instead he replies to the implied meaning – that James is unwilling to address the issue.

“I haven’t said that at all. Just as soon as we get the new track-”

Eddie just checked on the status of their very delayed order for new track. It’s not coming. James knows that but doesn’t want to admit it. James even tries lying that the rail isn’t late because the current delivery date hasn’t passed yet (but the first two delivery dates already passed).

“What do you want me to do? I can’t run Orren Boyle’s business.”

More excuses.

“Well, what do you want me to do?”

“That’s for you to decide.”

James hates deciding or taking responsibility. He shouldn’t be a company president.

“Well, whatever else you say, there’s one thing you’re not going to mention next—and that’s Rearden Steel.”

This is silly because James has just mentioned it himself. They’re both aware of the issue – there’s a company they can get new track from – but James doesn’t want to admit what they both know.

“Orren is my friend.” He heard no answer. “I resent your attitude. Orren Boyle will deliver that rail just as soon as it’s humanly possible. So long as he can’t deliver it, nobody can blame us.”

James changes the subject so much. Their railroad is falling apart, their customers are leaving, their passengers are scared of wrecks … and James is talking about his social relationships and trying to deflect responsibility.

“Jim! What are you talking about? Don’t you understand that the Rio Norte Line is breaking up—whether anybody blames us or not?”

Eddie is thinking about reality, while James thinks about other people’s opinions.

“People would put up with it—they’d have to—if it weren’t for the Phoenix-Durango.” He saw Eddie’s face tighten. “Nobody ever complained about the Rio Norte Line, until the Phoenix-Durango came on the scene.”

James changes the subject again. He wants customers who have no choice so that he doesn’t have to run his company well.

“The Phoenix-Durango is doing a brilliant job.”

“Imagine a thing called the Phoenix-Durango competing with Taggart Transcontinental! It was nothing but a local milk line ten years ago.”

James is concerned with how prestigious the name is, and whether that prestige has a long history, rather than how good a job a railroad does. It’s like old money looking down on new money with no regard for who earned their money productively.

“Jim, we can’t lose Colorado. It’s our last hope. It’s everybody’s last hope. If we don’t pull ourselves together, we’ll lose every big shipper in the state to the Phoenix-Durango. We’ve lost the Wyatt oil fields."

The country is falling apart, but Colorado has new oil fields and has become highly productive. Eddie respects that and wants to be involved, but James isn’t very interested.

“Because Ellis Wyatt is a prodigy who—”

“Damn Ellis Wyatt!”

James damns intelligence and achievement themselves. Attitudes like that exist in real life, not just fiction. Rand’s writing about real world issues.

Those oil wells, Eddie thought suddenly, didn’t they have something in common with the blood vessels on the map? Wasn’t that the way the red stream of Taggart Transcontinental had shot across the country, years ago, a feat that seemed incredible now? He thought of the oil wells spouting a black stream that ran over a continent almost faster than the trains of the Phoenix-Durango could carry it.

Isn’t that an amazing story? Oil and railroads providing energy to a nation which fuels industrial progress and raises everyone’s standard of living. But people today don’t respect this story enough. They take the modern world for granted while attacking the things which make it possible, like capitalism.

That oil field had been only a rocky patch in the mountains of Colorado, given up as exhausted long ago. Ellis Wyatt’s father had managed to squeeze an obscure living to the end of his days, out of the dying oil wells. Now it was as if somebody had given a shot of adrenalin to the heart of the mountain, the heart had started pumping, the black blood had burst through the rocks—of course it’s blood, thought Eddie Willers, because blood is supposed to feed, to give life, and that is what Wyatt Oil had done.

To get the most from Atlas Shrugged, you have to think things through. By what mechanisms does oil help support life?

What’s the lesson from Ellis Wyatt having success with supposedly exhausted oil wells? Is it that some people are born geniuses? Or is it that there’s potential in the world for pioneers? Are people less productive because they give up, or because they’re inherently less capable? Is failure due to bad choices, like James Taggart’s efforts not to face reality? Can success be achieved with integrity and virtue? Atlas Shrugged has answers to these questions, complete with extended illustrations and philosophical explanation. At this point in the book, the questions are being raised for you to begin to think about. And Rand provides some initial answers. Speaking of Wyatt Oil:

It had shocked empty slopes of ground into sudden existence, it had brought new towns, new power plants, new factories to a region nobody had ever noticed on any map.

New towns is an example of how the oil gives life. And oil can fuel power plants and thereby power factories.

a new industrial state where nobody had expected anything but cattle and beets

Their expectations were part of what prevented them from accomplishing much like Ellis Wyatt.

One man had done it, and he had done it in eight years; this, thought Eddie Willers, was like the stories he had read in school books and never quite believed, the stories of men who had lived in the days of the country’s youth.

The actions of individuals matter throughout the plot. There are many real world examples of one man making a big difference, especially inventors and scientists. And there were people like John Rockefeller who founded Standard Oil; Steve Jobs who founded Apple; and Ayn Rand who wrote great books, which influenced millions of people.

Many people think about great men like Eddie does. But you can actually read history books about great men if you want to. E.g., Nat Taggart was partly based on James Jerome Hill, a real railroad man.

They said [Ellis Wyatt] was thirty-three years old and had a violent temper. He had discovered some way to revive exhausted oil wells and he had proceeded to revive them.

Ellis is a man of action. He made a discovery and proceeded. The temper is interesting. Why does a good guy have a temper? Is it a flaw, or does Rand see tempers in an unusual way? Or might Wyatt’s temper be exaggerated by people who misunderstand him? Misunderstandings of that kind are common with great people like Karl Popper and Ayn Rand. People often misunderstand strong ideas, confidence and criticism as anger.

“Ellis Wyatt is a greedy bastard who’s after nothing but money,” said James Taggart. “It seems to me that there are more important things in life than making money.”

James is bad at making money and resents the accomplishments of others. Making money in the free market is mutually beneficial – all of your trading partners benefit too or they wouldn’t trade with you. There are other good things in life besides money (e.g. philosophy ideas), but that doesn’t make money bad.

James proceeds to accuse Ellis of double-crossing Taggart Transcontinental. What did Ellis actually do? He started shipping oil on a better railroad. James wants to do business with Ellis without it being beneficial to Ellis.

“What does he expect? That we drop all our other shippers, sacrifice the interests of the whole country and give him all our trains?”

“Why, no. He doesn’t expect anything. He just deals with the Phoenix-Durango.”

James constantly makes excuses, and tries to confuse the discussion. Eddie makes straightforward, direct comments about the topic. This is a major difference which you can apply in your own life.

“I think he’s a destructive, unscrupulous ruffian. I think he’s an irresponsible upstart who’s been grossly overrated.” It was astonishing to hear a sudden emotion in James Taggart’s lifeless voice. “I’m not so sure that his oil fields are such a beneficial achievement. It seems to me that he’s dislocated the economy of the whole country. Nobody expected Colorado to become an industrial state. How can we have any security or plan anything if everything changes all the time?”

What’s wrong with upstarts? Shouldn’t people strive to do better and move up? Isn’t that something to respect? And hating success is something James feels particularly strongly about!

James doesn’t want to think about things and react to a changing world. He wants to freeze things in place and turn off his mind, as we’ll see later in the book.

What James is saying is monstrously evil. But it’s delivered aggressively, not apologetically. How can that be? I think we have the same problem in real life. Many monstrous evils are promoted aggressively, and they even claim the moral high ground, and there’s hardly anyone standing up to them effectively. Standing up to some of those evils is one of the purposes of Atlas Shrugged.

"Yes, I know, I know, he’s making money. But that is not the standard, it seems to me, by which one gauges a man’s value to society.

The focus on money is misleading. It’s better to say that he’s providing oil to people who want oil. That makes the value clearer.

And why are we judging his value to society? He’s just living his life and interacting with people on a voluntary basis. And who’s values get to be counted a society’s values, anyway?

And as for his oil, he’d come crawling to us, and he’d wait his turn along with all the other shippers, and he wouldn’t demand more than his fair share of transportation—if it weren’t for the Phoenix-Durango. We can’t help it if we’re up against destructive competition of that kind. Nobody can blame us."

James wants people to crawl more than he wants to fix his railroad tracks. James wants people to wait on him and be less demanding, rather than to figure out how to meet the demand on schedule. James is angry that someone else is doing a better job at running a railroad than he is. He says there’s nothing he can do about that. Why couldn’t he run his railroad better? What’s to stop him, besides his own bad attitude?

The pressure in his chest and temples, thought Eddie Willers, was the strain of the effort he was making; he had decided to make the issue clear for once, and the issue was so clear, he thought, that nothing could bar it from Taggart’s understanding, unless it was the failure of his own presentation. So he had tried hard, but he was failing, just as he had always failed in all of their discussions; no matter what he said, they never seemed to be talking about the same subject.

This is important. You can’t think for someone else, or make them think. You can’t force a mind. Eddie is wrong to blame his own presentation. And how to deal with this issue – people who don’t want to think – is important for how to deal with the world today.

“Jim, what are you saying? Does it matter that nobody blames us—when the road is falling apart?”

Eddie again tries to bring the discussion back to objective reality – the railroad is falling apart. But James isn’t interested in that, he focuses on social dynamics – what are people’s opinions?

James changes the subject again by insulting Eddie, then starts appealing to authority. Never mind the problem, never mind the railroad tracks, I’m in charge and you’re not!

“But may I ask whether it is your job to discuss these matters with me?”

“No, it isn’t.”

Eddie gives a direct, honest answer, even when it means facing something negative. Jim wouldn’t answer a question that way.

"Then why don’t you learn that we have departments to take care of things?

Because those departments aren’t taking care of it.

Why don’t you report all this to whoever’s concerned?

Because no one is concerned.

“I appreciate our childhood friendship, Eddie, but do you think that that should entitle you to walk in here unannounced whenever you wish? Considering your own rank, shouldn’t you remember that I am president of Taggart Transcontinental?”

This was wasted. Eddie Willers looked at him as usual, not hurt, merely puzzled, and asked, “Then you don’t intend to do anything about the Rio Norte Line?”

“I haven’t said that. I haven’t said that at all.”

James doesn’t want to say anything. He won’t say he’ll do something, and he won’t say he’ll do nothing. He tries to avoid committing to anything (like a decision) that he could be held responsible for.

Instead of addressing the issues, James is condescending and starts talking about social status. Good people don’t act that way. They’re more interested in the issue at hand than the rank of a person making a good point.

“Just as soon as the San Sebastian Mines get going and our Mexican branch begins to pay off—”

James made a decision about something, and it was a bad one. He keeps insisting it’s going well until the day it fully collapses. He still manages to keep his job and get other people fired instead.

What sort of decision did James make? He substituted Francisco D’Anconia’s judgement for his own. He thought that Francisco is good at making money and he could just follow along, rather than have to use his own mind. He was mistaken, and that’s an important part of the book. Dagny Taggart helps James keep his job longer, while Francisco fights him. But Dagny is the one doing normal things that look good, while Francisco is acting bizarrely! That’s mysterious and interesting.

“Damn my sister!” said James Taggart.

James is focused on people instead of issues, ideas and objective reality. James’ method of dealing with inconvenient facts is to ignore them and attack the people who speak them.

Eddie gives up and leaves. What would you say to someone like James? How could you get through to them? How should they be handled in general?

Pop Harper glanced up at Eddie Willers as he came out of the president’s office. It was a wise, slow glance; it seemed to say that he knew that Eddie’s visit to their part of the building meant trouble on the line, knew that nothing had come of the visit, and was completely indifferent to the knowledge. It was the cynical indifference which Eddie Willers had seen in the eyes of the bum on the street corner.

How guilty do you think Pop Harper is? Is James horribly guilty, but Pop isn’t? Or is Pop doing something seriously wrong by being cynically indifferent? Should Pop try to fix things, like Eddie? You should think about questions like these, and see what happens – and why – when the characters live in different ways.

“What are you doing?” Eddie asked, pointing at the pieces of typewriter.

“The damn thing’s busted again. No use sending it out, took them three months to fix it the last time. Thought I’d patch it up myself. Not for long, I guess.” He let his fist drop down on the keys. “You’re ready for the junk pile, old pal. Your days are numbered.”

There’s the phrase related to the calendar earlier: your days are numbered.

Earlier, typewriters were presented positively. They help the trains run! But now we discover that the typewriters are breaking and the repair people are ineffective. That’s big trouble if you think back to how typewriters are used in running the company, which was mentioned earlier, and realize what will happen to the trains without typewriters. Perhaps they’ll muddle by with handwritten notes, but it won’t work as well, they’re already having trouble running trains on schedule…

“It’s no use, Eddie,” said Pop Harper.

“What’s no use?”

“Nothing. Anything.”

“What’s the matter, Pop?”

Pop has given up and doesn’t want to clearly identify the reason, let alone try to fix it. But Eddie is still trying and wants to know what the problem is (so that it can be addressed). Giving up is a choice Pop made, and it’s the wrong one, and it causes many of his problems.

“I’m not going to requisition a new typewriter. The new ones are made of tin. When the old ones go, that will be the end of typewriting.

The world is falling apart, and hopefully you’re curious about why. The basic point of the book is to help people prevent our own world from falling apart.

You ought to go home, Eddie, turn on the radio and listen to a good dance band. Forget it, boy.

Rand has a problem with dance bands. People use them to shut off their minds. Dagny Taggart prefers better music with good meaning to it instead of anti-mind meaning, as we’ll see in the next scene. (It’s intentional that Rand brought up music like this right before transitioning to Dagny hearing the whistled concerto.)

Oh well, what’s the use? Who is John Galt?"

Pop quickly tells us a bunch more things wrong with the world – and wrong with his own attitude.

The first part of the book (the action from Eddie’s perspective) ends with the same question it started with. That’s intentional. (The Fountainhead both begins and ends with the name “Howard Roark”, a touch I like.)

chapter 3 analysis (does

Elliot Temple's picture

chapter 3 analysis (does anyone care?): (for sale for $1 or more, name your own price)

chapter 2:

Elliot Temple's picture

I posted the rest of chapter

Elliot Temple's picture

I posted the rest of chapter 1 at


Shane Pleasance's picture

"Atlas Strikes"

I want ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

... to acknowledge the effort that has gone into this and to promise to print it out and set aside time to digest it. I am currently reading The Brothers Karamazov and am acutely conscious of how much tighter and less tangent-prone Rand's prose is than that of this acclaimed master.

Atlas Shrugged

Kyrel Zantonavitch's picture

I think the above "close reading" of the text of 'Atlas Shrugged' suggests just how complex and well-written the novel actually is. It's well worth reading carefully to savor every element. 'Atlas Shrugged' is constructed like an extremely well-made and highly-detailed skyscraper. Like a Fabergé egg, even.

Micro and Macro

Kyrel Zantonavitch's picture

Ayn Rand's stunningly ambitious and tour de force novel 'Atlas Shrugged' is imminently worth a micro-analysis. It's also worth a macro-analysis. For example: Why did the rebels strike, instead of fight? Why did they retreat, instead of attack?

In the Rand-like novel 'The Transhumanist Wager' (by Zoltan Istvan, 2013) [plot spoilers ahead!] the tiny band of libertarian-style political revolutionaries react differently to their malevolent and threatening welfare statist world. Like in Rand's story, the heroes possess vastly superior intelligence, virtue, technology, and wealth. But Istvan's rebels use their superior abilities to counter-attack their enemies and then roundly, heroically defeat them. It's interesting to consider how 'Atlas Shrugged' would have been different if Ayn Rand had chosen that strategy and plot-line instead.

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