Atlas Shrugged: Ayn Rand’s Most Famous Novel Explained

20th-century writer and philosopher Ayn Rand was known for her philosophy of Objectivism and her fictional novels. Atlas Shrugged is her most well-known book - what does it say?

Aug 30, 2023By Susanna Andrews, BA Interdisciplinary Arts

ayn rand atlas shrugged famous novel explained


Ayn Rand was a Russian-born American writer and philosopher of the 20th century. Her last and best-known book, Atlas Shrugged, was published in 1957; she considered it her magnum opus of fictional writing. Although it initially received heavy criticism and still does to this day, it gained lasting popularity and has sold 10 million copies since its release. Three days after publication, it was ranked #13 on The New York Times Best Seller list. It was even adapted into a film trilogy!


Combining science fiction, mystery, romance, and philosophy, Rand influenced many different fields of study with her controversial views. The philosophy of Objectivism is woven throughout the novel, which addresses a wide range of topics from capitalism to property rights. In this article, we will explore the contents of Atlas Shrugged.


1. The Creation Story of Atlas Shrugged

Portrait of Ayn Rand by Oscar White, via The New Yorker


Rand’s prime intention behind the novel was to prove the need for highly motivated individuals who can make change happen and society’s distasteful response to them. The story attempts to imagine what would happen if these “prime movers” were to disappear. Rand depicts the crumbled state of the world that results.


This idea was inspired by a phone conversation in 1943 with writer and friend Isabel Paterson. From their discussion about writing philosophical fiction, Rand questioned what would happen if she and fellow creatives stopped production, which led to the concept of Atlas Shrugged. Her goal was to shine light on the value that rational self-interest holds by illustrating the effects of halting the execution of new ideas.

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She began writing her first draft in 1946, eleven years before the publication date. With initial thoughts of completing the book quickly, she realized the multitude of layers that made up the story required a deep dedication that would extend many years.


Battle of the Titans by Philip van Gunst after Giulio Romano, before 1732. Via Virtuelles Kupferstichkabinett.


This dedication included closing out a contract writing screenplays for film producer Hal Wallis and wrapping up her involvement with The Fountainhead’s film adaptation. During this time, she facilitated a philosophy group that was comprised mostly of her admirers. One member of the group was Nathaniel Branden, who would become a significant promoter of her philosophy of Objectivism and a romantic partner. This group was directly involved in listening to drafts of chapters and providing feedback. Originally titling it The Strike, she completely devoted her energy to the novel. She switched the title to Atlas Shrugged to reference the story of Atlas the Titan in Greek mythology. In the war between Titans and Olympians, the Titans lost, and as a punishment, the Olympian Zeus forced Atlas to carry the world on his shoulders. Rand uses this as a metaphor for the heavy responsibility carried by creatives and what would happen if they shrugged this off.


2. The Main Characters of Atlas Shrugged

Cover of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, 1957, via Esquire.


The premise of the novel is rooted in the disappearance of several well-established professionals in a variety of spheres of influence. These characters, once successful, change courses and pursue lower ventures. Society seems to be falling apart, and protagonists Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart attempt to understand the decay around them and repair the flaws they discover at every turn.


Rearden is a well-renowned industrialist and has produced a new alloy called Rearden Metal which he believes could save a failing economy. However, his invention is met with disdain from the government, the media, and scientists. The public attacks him as well, condemning him for his greed and desire to ruthlessly monopolize the industry. Rearden doesn’t care to respond, as he doesn’t evaluate his work morally. Although he loves his work and feels a sense of achievement from it, he is still unhappy; the criticism pervades his home life, and he struggles in a loveless marriage and shameful feelings regarding his sexuality.


Atlas by Lee Lawrie, 1937 via Wikimedia commons.


Dagny Taggart, who is the story’s heroine, is the Vice President of Operations at her company Taggart Transcontinental. Similar to Rearden’s dilemma, she loves her work and fights for her railroad while facing the failing economy and the government’s opposition. The president of the company is her brother James, who is an inadequate leader and makes irrational decisions. Dagny fails to accept incompetence, which she believes is her biggest enemy that’s creating roadblocks. Another employee at Taggart Transcontinental is Dagny’s childhood friend Eddie Willers, who serves as her assistant. His purpose is to reveal the significance of productivity and the devotion to those in power to mold society itself. He represents the average man who functions properly only when those capable of potentially causing massive change are supported.


The true personified embodiment of Objectivism is arguably the enigmatic John Galt, who is surrounded by mystery yet has a name recognized by all. His philosophy advocates for secularism over religion, which is associated with morality that functions to enable each individual’s enjoyment of life. Galt states, “The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.”


Rand believes religion denounces reason and capitalism and doesn’t encourage seeking out enjoyment on earth. The characters she writes about disapprove of the egalitarian ideals in society and the overpowering presence of government overall. Rand’s opinions about the ideal government powered by “the consent of the governed” and the ideal Capitalist economy that values individual freedom is revealed through Galt’s character.


3. The Primary Themes of Atlas Shrugged

Protesters at Chicago Tax Day Tea Party protest, by HKDP, 2009, via Wikimedia commons.


Rand has stated that the main theme of the novel, “is the role of the mind in man’s existence.” The emphasis throughout the story is the importance of the mind which carries all human knowledge and values. Contrastingly, the absence of the mind’s utilization is how evil is born. This comes down to reason and rationality as the most important elements to prioritize when forming judgments and justifications.


The protagonists are defined as thinkers who deem the worthiest cause the understanding of their work, themselves, and society as a whole. By ignoring their personal desires, they stay goal-oriented and never stray from their values. In comparison, the characters labeled as villainous ignore the facts of reality and act on their emotions. Rand holds the opinion that nothing can be achieved by being motivated by one’s feelings.


Rodin’s The Thinker. Image via LumenLearning.


As stated earlier, the dichotomy of selfishness vs. selflessness is explored in a way that questions morals held by many. In opposition to many hero and villain archetypes, the heroes are defined by selfishness, while the villains promote their selflessness and martyrdom. The selfish are denounced, yet their other characteristic qualities are ones that typically are praised, like honesty and achievement.


When two self-interested people work together to attain a common goal, the transaction is successful, and each party is satisfied. On the other hand, characters who sacrifice themselves in the name of being selfless end up adopting traits commonly associated with the selfish. Rand also presents love as selfish and sex as selfless, contrary to popular belief. Love involves placing value on another, while sex creates a spiritual and material union between the partners and with all of existence.


4. Objectivism as the Foundation for Atlas Shrugged

Portrait of Ayn Rand by Phyllis Fraser, 1957, via Heritage auctions.


In the Appendix of the novel, Rand sums up her philosophy of Objectivism and, in turn, reveals how the philosophy relates to the story’s premise:


“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”


Her direct experience living through different eras of political turmoil informed these individualistic beliefs. She was twelve years old when the Bolshevik Revolution that transitioned Russia to the Soviet Union led by Vladimir Lenin, a Communist and Marxist, occurred in 1917. Escaping meant that her family’s once bourgeois lifestyle now turned into a desperate state. She moved to the states as the Great Depression was brewing. Her distrust of Communism and Socialism due to her childhood experiences, and her observations of the Cold War, led her to dispute the belief in collectivism as a solution to conflict.


A magazine cover depicting class resentment between the rich and poor in 1932, via The University of Virginia.


At its core, Atlas Shrugged is a fictional story that is founded on a condensed account of Objectivism. Ethical egoism, which states that individuals with high morality only achieved this through acting on self-interest, is at the root of the novel.


Commentary on politics, economy, and business pervades this dystopian stage in which this story takes place. The “looters” strive for high taxation and government ownership. The “moochers” benefit from the production of creators but hypocritically despise those that provide. In the end, the mysterious Galt manages to gather business leaders and organizes a strike to stop production and leave the looters to fend for themselves. This highly controversial novel has continued to influence primarily people in positions of power, and is cited to be a modern classic.

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By Susanna AndrewsBA Interdisciplinary ArtsSusanna is an artist passionate about generating concepts for creative writing pieces and short films. During this process, she loves to research topics related to art history and philosophy to inform her ideas. She graduated from the University of Washington with a BA in Interdisciplinary Arts and lives in Southern California.