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Monday, February 20, 2012

Check your premises.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary

Atlas Shrugged is a story of struggle, pain, industry, love, and triumph. It follows Dagny Taggart, a railroad executive, from her first thrilling buds of excitement at getting to take over the family business to the moment when she must leave her railroad behind forever. The premise of the novel is that government regulations and attempts to "equalize" society have worn down industry mavens and caused them to quit, one by one. Dagny begins to believe that a "destroyer" exists and is getting to the tycoons just as they are at their weakest points. She spends much of the novel chasing after this "destroyer" and trying to get her fellow industry heads to remain and continue to fight against the "moochers" who are trying to use and abuse them. She finds a friend (and eventually lover) in Hank Rearden, a steel executive and creator of Rearden Metal, a new material that will revolutionize industry. He is married to a soulless bitch named Lillian Rearden, whom he eventually divorces. Dagny also has an ongoing friendship with Francisco D'Anconia, a boyhood mate of hers and Eddie Willers (Dagny's number 2 man) with whom she first dreamed of taking the world of industry by storm. He was her first love, but he mysteriously turns into a playboy who throws away his copper fortune systematically over a series of about 10 years. Dagny finds out much later that he took on this persona and destroyed his own copper company because he was leading a revolution to take the world back on his terms with his two friends, John Galt and Ragnar Danneskold. Everyone says "Who is John Galt?" when they don't know the answer to a question or they're feeling particularly hopeless, and it is only when Dagny accidentally crashes her plane into Galt's secret society in Colorado that she realizes he actually exists. Ragnar Danneskold has become a modern-day pirate, commandeering government ships and non-violently seizing what he sees as the property of the wronged industrialists. There are many other characters along the way (including Dagny's waste of space brother, Jim) but we focus mainly on these three and their battle to "stop the motor of the world" and restart it on their own terms. Dagny sees the world the industrialists have created in Colorado and simultaneously loves them for leaving and hates them for not believing that they can beat the moochers in the current world. She struggles to leave her railroad but finally does when Galt's life is in danger and she realizes there's nothing left to save. Eddie dies on the Taggart Comet's last run, throwing himself on the rails in the middle of nowhere when the Comet can no longer run and no one can fix it. Galt is captured by the moochers who try to force him to take over and save the economy. They torture him but he refuses to act "at the point of a gun" and Francisco, Hank, Ragnar, and Dagny save him and they all return to their secret society in Colorado. At the end of the book, Dagny and Galt walk into the forest and he tells her that the time has come for them to return to the world.

Spoiler Over: Continue Here

So, chances are if you know me AT ALL you know I love this book. Some of you may find this incongruous with the message of Atlas Shrugged which many mis-translate as a pure love of corporate greed. I have read this book at least 3 times before, and I truly believe after slowly and methodically reading her philosophy this time around that she is very often drastically over-simplified and mis-represented. Aside from the philosophy, I also think that Rand is an eloquent prose writer and lyricist and writes what I think is one of the best plots in any classic novel ever written.

There were some great names in this book (just very descriptive and indicative of personalities):

Moochers: Balph Eubank, Tinky Holloway, Wesley Mouch, Dr. Flloyd Ferris, Claude Slagenhop
Industrialists: Hank Rearden, Ragnar Danneskold, Francisco D'Anconia

I starred my favorite passages as I went alon. Here they are, in no particular order:

-Francisco and Rearden throwing clay at a furnace leak -- Hank really wants to be Francisco's friend, and he can tell that underneath the playboy facade is a true brother-in-arms. This is the first moment when Hank realizes that Francisco is really burning with a tension to keep his true industrial spirit hidden. They perform an old technique of literally throwing clay at a broken furnace part in Rearden's mills and Rearden is amazed that Francisco knows this technique and the two attack the vicious and dangerous crisis with camaraderie. Fantastic scene.

-Dagny taking Lillian's bracelet -- Hank makes his wife a bracelet out of Rearden Metal (it's the first thing forged of the new material) and as usual, she scoffs and makes fun of him and accuses him of just giving her a present to show off his newest creation. Hank sees it as the culmination of a decade of gargantuan effort to revolutionize not just the steel industry but any industry that could use this metal, from kitchenware to railroad ties. When Dagny hears Lillian making jokes about the bracelet to her moocher friends at a party, telling them she'd gladly swap it for a diamond bracelet, Dagny strolls right up to Lillian and offers her diamond bracelet in exchange. This is before Hank and Dagny are romantically involved, and are just business associates, but it's when we first see that their kinship in this world of desperate wannabes and I love imagining the look on Lillian's flabbergasted face. Lillian later accuses Dagny of making people think that she and Hank are having an affair because she sees Dagny at a party still wearing the bracelet, and Dagny blatantly refuses to take it off.

-The John Galt line's first run -- Dagny creates a pioneering new rail line that cuts across Colorado and the western states, and as an f-you to society's indifference, she calls it the John Galt line. It runs on a track made entirely of Rearden Metal (the first use of it publicly) and as she and Hank ride the freight train on the first run, they see that men all across the line have taken up arms to guard the rail all along the way. Still gives me the shivers.

-Dinner at Ellis Wyatt's -- Ellis Wyatt is an oil tycoon who is instrumental in Colorado's business boom in the book, and after the John Galt line's first run, he has Hank and Dagny over to his house in the middle of nowhere. This is the first time we get to see the hard-working industrialists break bread together, and it's also the first time that Dagny and Hank sleep together.

-Ragnar gives Rearden a bar of gold -- Part of the rules of the secret society are that no money from the outside world is to be spent there. In order to make this a reality, they deal only in gold. Ragnar has been stealing gold from various moochers and creating bank accounts in industrialists' names in the secret Colorado valley, claiming it as restitution for their suffering. He approaches Hank as he's walking from the mills to his home one night and presents him with a bar of gold to let him in on the secret. Hank is horrified and still disagrees with the extreme measures Ragnar is taking, but when the police approach them and ask if he's seen the famous pirate around (because he has an enormous price on his head), Hank looks straight at Ragnar and tells them that he's a business associate. We also realize that Hank was ready to shoot the policeman after they move on. I love the way Rand makes it clear that Hank and Dagny have such immense respect and kinship with Ragnar and Galt and Francisco but they are still completely conflicted about how they've chosen to conduct their revolution.

-Dagny escapes to the cabin -- Dagny tries to quit once before the true end of Taggart Transcontinental. The moochers have passed a "Unification plan" that requires, among other things, that companies produce exactly the same amount they did previously, that all patents become public property, and that all workers remain in their current positions. Rearden is forced to sign a "Gift Certificate" making the production process for Rearden Metal public knowledge because the moochers threaten to reveal his affair with Dagny and ruin her reputation. Dagny disappears to her family cabin, and Francisco comes to meet her, believing that she's finally ready to hear the truth of what he's been up to this past decade and join her in the secret valley. While he's there, though, she receives word that the Comet was sent into the Taggart Tunnel with a bad engine and the wrong type of fuel, causing a major explosion and the death of all the passengers. She can't stand to let incompetency win and let her railroad fail, so she returns. (She's VP, by the way. Jim is the "face" of the railroad, but Dagny really runs it.) This is a tough scene to read, because you think she's finally given in and her suffering will be over, but it's nowhere near over, and Francisco has to let her go again.

My apologies for the length this post has already achieved, but the book IS nearly 1200 pages. So cut me some slack. :) As the awful moochers would say, "It's not my Fault! No one can BLAME me! It's beyond my control!"

-Francisco discovers Rearden loves Dagny and Rearden discovers Francisco loves Dagny -- So as I mentioned previously, Rearden and Dagny are having an affair, and Francisco was Dagny's first love (and would still be her love if he hadn't seemingly turned into a wasteful playboy). Hank and Francisco have a friendship despite their fundamental disagreement over Francisco's strange behavior, and when Francisco ruined Hank by destroying one of his own mines, he told Hank, "I swear to you by the woman I love that I am your friend." Francisco shows up at Dagny's apartment one night, and as they're talking, Hank enters, using his own key. The moment is rife with emotion and pain and recognition and realization and heartbreak; Francisco realizes what it means if Hank has a key, Hank realizes what it means that Francisco is here, alone, with Dagny, and even though she hasn't done anything physical with Francisco since she and Hank got together, it's all too much for Rearden and he slaps Francisco in the face. Later when their secrets are all revealed and Francisco's motives are clear, Rearden begs forgiveness for his actions because he and Francisco are dear friends, but this moment is pure intensity.

-Dagny crashes in -- Dagny literally crashes into Galt's secret valley in Colorado. It's protected by a rayscreen that makes it look like it doesn't exist, but she follows Galt because he's just convinced Quentin Daniels, a brilliant young scientist, to quit and join them. Dagny hired Daniels to try to re-create the unfinished motor that she found (a motor that would revolutionize industry, and which she later finds out was of Galt's design) and she's so upset at his impending departure that she follows Galt in a plane to what she assumes will be her death by flying into what looks like a mountain range. She crashes her plane and sustains minor injuries, but what's so crazy is that because she can't send word out to the world that she's in the valley (no communication is permitted) Hank and Francisco spend weeks searching the mountains for the wreckage of her plane. They are both utterly heartbroken and desolate, thinking that she has died, and Francisco discovers when he comes to the valley that she is safe and, as they call her, a "scab" because she has a rightful place in the valley but hasn't agreed to give up on the outside world just yet. She gets to stay for a month while she recuperates and then she returns to the world. Poor Hank is left crawling over every inch of the mountains looking for Dagny, and she can't send him word that she survived until she actually returns, fully a month later.

-Dagny falls for Galt -- So it may seem to the outsider that Dagny has QUITE A FEW MEN after her in this novel, and... SHE DOES. She already told me she's going to share, so I think I'll take Rearden. AND FRANCISCO. She can have Galt. When she crashes in and she wakes up on the floor of the valley, she looks into this stranger's eyes (Galt) and simply says, "We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?" To which he responds, simply, "No, we never had to." The complete story of who he is and how he came to lead this revolution with Francisco and Ragnar comes to light over the next month, but this first few days when Dagny stay's at Galt's place and works to earn her keep by making him breakfast and ironing his shirts (as a paid servant, not a flimsy housewife) and falls deeply, madly in love with him are the best. She spends most of the month there trying not to reveal that she adores Francisco as a friend but she LOVES Galt, but it finally comes out. Dagny finally decides on the last day that she will return to the world, and Galt has said that he's undecided as to whether he will return. Just after Dagny makes her decision, Francisco turns to Galt and asks if he's made his decision. To which Galt immediately replies, "Yes. I'm going back." Francisco pieces it together, and Dagny finally receives confirmation that Galt loves her as much as she loves him. I just love the playful way that Galt pretends he hasn't made a decision and then MYSTERIOUSLY decides to return when Dagny decides to return.

-Dagny and Galt in the Taggart Terminal tunnels -- Tongue twister! Okay, so this as a euphemism. What I really meant to say was, "Dagny and Galt GET IT ON in the Taggart Terminal tunnels. When they return to the world, they have to pretend not to know each other (because it's become dangerous for Galt to be known for who he really is) but he's been working as a lowly track worker at Taggart Transcontinental for 10 years to "keep an eye on her". (I know, borderline STALKING, since he chats it up with Eddie Willers to get the scoop on Dagny, but it's mostly adorable and only 10% creepytastic). She can't stand not talking to him, though, so she gets him to follow her into one of the tunnels and they have mad, passionate sex. Then they go back to pretending they don't exist. Which is understandably a challenge.

-Hank discovers Dagny loves Galt -- I feel like we could do a mad lib with this line... "_________ discovers ________ loves ______." There's a lot of that going on here. When Dagny returns from the valley and Hank realizes she wasn't actually hurt that badly, he realizes she must have another reason for staying away so long. She confesses on the radio LIVE that she had an affair with Hank (to throw it in the moocher's faces, because they were trying to blackmail her to keep it a secret and she was like, What now, bitches!) but the whole time she talks about their affair she uses the past tense. When she meets up with Hank later that night, she doesn't know how to tell him that she was in a secret valley and fell in love with someone else, but he stops her and tells her he already knows. She's all, how could you? And he says, in a darling and tender turn of events, "The whole time you spoke of our affair, you used the past tense." It's a great literary trick and so perceptive of Hank.

Guess what, THERE ARE MORE! This IS my Favorite book. So there.

-"Frank Adams" saves the mills and Rearden -- Rearden's mills are mobbed by a vicious group of thugs under the moochers' orders and one man, a new furnace foreman leads the battle against the mob and saves Rearden from getting shot. This "Frank Adams" turns out to be Francisco D'Anconia, who began working for Rearden the same day that he blew up all of his own copper mines. Great, great scene. Also when Rearden is finally "taken" by the secret society.

-The Wet Nurse is shot -- Rearden has a Washington man assigned to him to deal with all the regulations and implement the new laws, and he's a young man Rearden calls the Wet Nurse. He has a change of heart over the course of the novel and ends up realizing that he'd rather protect Rearden from regulation and moochery than impose the government's whims on him. He even tries to get a real job from Rearden, to train and work in the mills, but Rearden points out that under the Unification plan, he'd be tried as a deserter if he tried to leave his job as the government flunky. Rearden is held up in a meeting with the moochers in New York when the mob happens, but he leaves and returns to Philadelphia before they intend and comes upon the Wet Nurse on the back road to the mills. The Wet Nurse tried to stem the tide of the mob and the government's thugs shot him in the back. Rearden realizes that the Wet Nurse dragged himself nearly 100 yards to try to get to the road to tell someone about the mob. Rearden holds the Wet Nurse in his arms as he dies. This scene never fails to make me cry.

-Galt's speech - Galt makes a 60-page, 3 hour long speech on the radio when the moochers are trying to make a speech about how to save the economy. He hijacks the airwaves and describes his philosophy and his plan to remake the world. He lets the moochers know that he can rebuild if they'll "get the hell out of the way". This was the first time I read the entire speech, word for word. It's worth it.

-Dagny goes to Galt's house -- After the speech, the entire country is trying to find Galt, and since he's stopped working at her railroad, she doesn't know whether he's dead or alive. Finally, she can't take it anymore, and she goes to his apartment. He realizes immediately that she has led the moochers straight to him, but he can't blame her because he was dying to see her, too. When the moochers' thugs show up, Dagny has to pretend to hate Galt and to have come to find him herself because otherwise they'll know how much she means to him and torture her to get to him. Galt is prepared to be tortured himself, but promises he'll kill himself before he'll let them torture her. This reminded me of the Hunger Games (which I read while I was reading this book - books one and two are GREAT and the third book is simply WRONG WRONG WRONG) and when Gale and Katniss each promise they'll kill the other before they let them get captured and tortured. They of course, fail to do so (who can really shoot their best friend/lover?) but it was a similar sentiment. When the doorbell rings and the moochers' thugs had arrived, I had to stop reading and go to Dennis's RA meeting and it was SO HARD! But then I came back and they opened the door.

-Francisco's note -- When Galt is taken prisoner after Dagny comes to find him, Dagny receives this note from Franciso:
Sit tight. Watch them. When he'll need our help, call me at OR 6-5693.

-Galt is saved -- Rearden, Dagny, Ragnar, and Francisco come to save Galt. The moochers have finally decided they can't get him to do what they want without the use of force, and even though they know in their hearts that he won't respond to torture, and that if they kill him, they'll all perish, they torture him anyway. Dr. Ferris uses this strange newfangled machine to torture Galt through electric shocks that don't leave permanent damage, but the machine breaks during the torture. In an ironic twist, no one in the room knows how to fix it (the men of the mind have departed) and Galt raises his head and calmly describes how to fix the machine so they can continue to torture him. At this, James Taggart has a total nervous breakdown (and says things like, "He hasn't even SCREAMED yet!" and finally realizes that he's lost it and Dr. Ferris and Wesley Mouch have to take him away. During this time, Rearden, Dagny, Ragnar, and Francisco break in (and I won't spoil it for you because it's really one of the best scenes in the whole book) and then Ragnar flies them back to the valley in his plane. We find out in flight that the entire male population of the valley flew out as well and were ready to storm the building to save Galt.

-The title of this post comes from Hugh Akston, the philosophy professor who taught Ragnar, Francisco, and Galt in college. He stresses to Dagny that if she thinks contradictions exist, she should check her premises. I love this (it comes up quite often in the book) because it's a great line, but it also reminds me of the scene in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when the professor asks the Pevensie children whether they are usually inclined to trust Lucy or Edmund after Edmund has been telling them that Lucy is making up Narnia and that she's crazy. When they say they're inclined to trust Lucy and the professor suggests that they should then perhaps believe in Narnia, they're flabbergasted (as was I!); it's only later in the series that we realize that the Professor is in fact Digory and he not only discovered Narnia, he created it.

The last thing Galt says to Dagny is, "The road is cleared. We are going back to the world."

Once again, I must put down my favorite novel and go back to the world. Onwards to timepieces and fruit.