Atlas Shrugged Close Reading
I want to show how much interesting stuff Rand’s writing contains. Every sentence has a purpose. But it’s a huge project to comment on all of it. So I went through four chapters of Atlas Shrugged to show what being thorough is like. If you read well, look closely, and think things over, then you could notice this much great stuff in every chapter.
These comments contain spoilers. This is intended only for someone who’s already read the whole book, and I point things out that I wouldn’t expect anyone to catch on their first reading.
I recommend reading the book, a few paragraphs at a time, and thinking about it yourself before reading my analysis of that part. Bold text in quotations is emphasized by me.
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 has a tense voice when he asks why the bum said it. 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 words. 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! And this is New York City! Just like in real life, it’s one of the best cities…
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.
This is one of many uses of light-related words for positive symbolism. That’s a common theme in our culture, primarily because light enables sight, and we value sight. Sight helps in the process of using our minds to understand the world and deal with it effectively, and English actually mixes up sight and understanding (“I see” means “I understand”). Light is also associated with fire and warmth.
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 apparently there’s 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 notes to keep track of issues to revisit.)
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 older 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, as blood vessels transport resources throughout the body.
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.
This relates to a major theme: Rand’s criticism of people caring more about who is blamed for problems than for the actual problems. It comes up again e.g. with the Winston tunnel disaster. People cared more about whether they would be blamed for anything than whether passengers died in the tunnel.
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.
Eddie reframes the discussion. This isn’t just about a few repairs. The whole line is at stake, and James’ policies will lead to giving it up. James doesn’t want to admit that he’s choosing to give up the line, and will arrange things to avoid blame, but that’s what he’s in the process of doing. James also doesn’t want to take the steps necessary for not giving up the line. James doesn’t want to face reality. James’ comments are so far from facing reality that it’s a bit jarring when Eddie brings the conversation back to reality.
“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).
James says what he hasn’t said. What has he said?
“What do you want me to do? I can’t run Orren Boyle’s business.”
James is lying. His excuses are false, and he knows it. He’s suggesting there’s nothing he can do because he doesn’t have control over Boyle’s business, but he could order the rails from Hank Rearden.
“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.”
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. He’s concerned about social interactions (like friendships) and the opinions of others (especially who blames who). He’s not very concerned with what happens in the non-social part of the world involving things like railroad tracks, industrial production, transportation, and crashes.
James is changing the subject intentionally. He does this often. Here, he avoids talking about Rearden Steel.
“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. And he cares about people’s complaints and opinions, not the quality of the railroad.
“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.
Why does Ellis produce so much oil when his father didn’t? He didn’t suddenly find dramatically better employees or new natural resources. He, individually, is the difference. His mind is more productive.
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?”
“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.)
She sat at the window of the train, her head thrown back, one leg stretched across to the empty seat before her.
Dagny Taggart isn’t named for the first time until later, when she gives her name to the engineer after instructing him to get the train moving. That adds intrigue as we wonder whose perspective we’re getting, and what kind of person they are. And it helps us initially judge her character by her thoughts and actions, not by her name and station.
Why is her head thrown back? That’s a sign of confidence or joy. It’s like standing up straight and facing the world with no fear. What does the stretched out leg mean? She’s relaxed. And isn’t it wonderful that confidently facing the world (or joy) and relaxation can go together? They usually don’t. Most people don’t want to stand up to face the world at all, and if they do it they feel tension and anxiety.
Note that Dagny sitting at a train window with her head thrown back is repeated as the opening of part 2, ch. 10:
She sat at the window of the train, her head thrown back, not moving, wishing she would never have to move again.
The difference in her attitude is important and relates to the problems she’s encountered as the book continues.
The phrase “head thrown back” is used five times in Atlas Shrugged. Four are Dagny (the two times on a train, once when listening to Richard Halley’s Fourth Concerto, and once after having sex with Hank Rearden). The other use of “head thrown back” is Hank thinking about Dagny.
The window frame trembled with the speed of the motion, the pane hung over empty darkness, and dots of light slashed across the glass as luminous streaks, once in a while.
Why does it matter that the window frame is trembling? The train is going fast, and that’s impressive. Trains are powerful technology.
The darkness indicates there’s plenty of space in the country for growth. There’s room for new cities. The train is great, and there are some lights (which indicate electricity and civilization), but there’s so much more to do.
The train can function in the dark, and so can people with electric lights. This is an example of man’s triumph over natural conditions like darkness. That’s one of the main things technology does – it makes the world more to our liking instead of how the world naturally happens to be. This comes up again throughout the book, e.g. when Francisco D’Anconia offers gratitude to Hank Rearden on a stormy night (part 1, ch. 6):
Francisco looked silently out at the darkness.…
“It’s a terrible night for any animal caught unprotected on that plain,” said Francisco d‘Anconia. “This is when one should appreciate the meaning of being a man.”
“You stood here and watched the storm with the greatest pride one can ever feel—because you are able to have summer flowers and half-naked women in your house on a night like this, in demonstration of your victory over that storm. And if it weren’t for you, most of those who are here would be left helpless at the mercy of that wind in the middle of some such plain.”
Rearden’s voice hardened. “I haven’t asked for gratitude. I don’t need it.”
“I have not said you needed it. But of all those whom you are saving from the storm tonight, I am the only one who will offer it.”
Returning to ch. 1, Dagny wears an expensive, old coat; she hasn’t bothered to replace it. She doesn’t pay much attention to feminine concerns, but does have some feminine elements: she’s wearing stockings and heels. This fits the rest of the book: much of the time she could be a male character, but not always. She’s listening to music:
It was a symphony of triumph. The notes flowed up, they spoke of rising … upward motion, they seemed to embody every human act and thought that had ascent as its motive.… It swept space clean, and left nothing but the joy of an unobstructed effort.
Ascent and rising are good. Most people say they agree with this, even though they don’t act like it (e.g. they don’t do much to rise in their lives). The idea that effort is good and joyful is more controversial. The emphasis on unobstructed effort is a notable theme of Atlas Shrugged: the heroes don’t want help, they just want to be left free to achieve. As long as no one stops them, they’ll accomplish a lot.
Only a faint echo within the sounds spoke of that from which the music had escaped, but spoke in laughing astonishment at the discovery that there was no ugliness or pain, and there never had had to be.
The music comes from a different kind of world: one with suffering, obstructions, descent, failure, unclean spaces, and things to keep one down. But this is mentioned only faintly because the composer found a better attitude to life and better way of dealing with the world. He discovered that ugliness and pain are unnecessary. That’s a major theme, and we learn how it’s possible throughout the book.
She listened to the symphony, thinking: This is why the [train] wheels have to be kept going, and this is where they’re going.
What’s the purpose of a railroad, metal, or material wealth? They can help enable human beings to accomplish their goals. They make men more powerful and enable more ambitious projects. But tools can be used for good or ill. The symphony conveys the moral code men should have, favoring joy, freedom, productive effort, and ascent; not sacrifice, obstructions/regulations/controls, avoiding action, and equality.
she knew that it was written by Richard Halley
In The Fountainhead, several characters recognize Howard Roarks’ work without needing to see his signature. This is realistic: great work stands out, and pioneers each do things their own unique way.
She thought dimly that there had been premonitory echoes of this theme in all of Richard Halley’s work, through all the years of his long struggle, to the day, in his middle-age, when fame struck him suddenly and knocked him out.
This is an important warning. Fame is overrated and has dangers. Notice how none of the heroes seek fame. They focus on living their lives and doing work they like, not on impressing others.
a brakeman … was whistling the theme of the symphony.
The content of ideas is what matters, not the presentation. You don’t need a concert hall, an orchestra, a major publisher, or an academic journal. Don’t look for prestigious mediums and venues; look at the work itself.
she said slowly and very carefully, “Richard Halley wrote only four concertos.” …
“Yes, of course,” he said. “I’m wrong. I made a mistake.”
This is a strange scene for a new reader. Why would someone whistle a concerto that doesn’t exist, admit it, then deny it and act disinterested? It’s an initial encounter with the book’s primary mystery about John Galt and the men who retire.
She watched the expert efficiency of his movements as he went on working.
He doesn’t seem like the kind of person to make a mistake about the Halley concerto. This is a hint, too.
She had not slept for two nights, but she could not permit herself to sleep; she had too many problems to consider and not much time
She’s very busy and matters are urgent. She’s trying to solve problems of some sort. What kind of person works on solving important, urgent problems? Why don’t most people do that?
She’s riding the country’s fastest train, which gives information about the quality of Taggart Transcontinental, and is relevant when the train stops:
She … asked, “How long have we been standing?”
A man’s voice answered indifferently, “About an hour.”
The man looked after her, sleepily astonished, because she leaped to her feet and rushed to the door.
She doesn’t want to waste time. She tackles problems immediately. Most people find this surprising and are passive.
There was a cold wind outside, and an empty stretch of land under an empty sky. She heard weeds rustling in the darkness.
When civilization breaks down (in this case, something is stopping the train), we’re left with nature: cold wind, empty land, weeds and darkness. Men and their accomplishments, like trains, are what give us good lives and protect us from those bad parts of nature. But civilization shouldn’t be taken for granted, things can go wrong. In this scene, something small has gone wrong and stopped a train. In the broader story, society follows the wrong moral code and destroys itself both spiritually and physically.
Contrasts between nature and civilization are common throughout the book, e.g. when Dagny and Hank go drive around on vacation, before reaching Starnesville (part 1, ch. 9):
The leaves sparkled, swaying in the wind. They spread for miles, from grass to brush to trees, with the motion and all the colors of fire; they seemed to celebrate an accomplished purpose, burning in unchecked, untouched abundance.
Rearden smiled. “There’s something to be said for the wilderness. I’m beginning to like it. New country that nobody’s discovered.” She nodded gaily. “It’s good soil—look at the way things grow. I’d clear that brush and I’d build a—”
And then they stopped smiling. The corpse they saw in the weeds by the roadside was a rusty cylinder with bits of glass—the remnant of a gas-station pump.
It was the only thing left visible. The few charred posts, the slab of concrete and the sparkle of glass dust—which had been a gas station—were swallowed in the brush, not to be noticed except by a careful glance, not to be seen at all in another year.
They looked away. They drove on, not wanting to know what else lay hidden under the miles of weeds. They felt the same wonder like a weight in the silence between them: wonder as to how much the weeds had swallowed and how fast.
Similarly, characters in Galt’s Gulch talk about what they’re going to build, and what can be done with undeveloped land and resources. When Dagny visits, she talks about how they could create a small railroad track there to improve it. And when she first tries to retire, she keeps thinking of productive projects and then stopping herself (and the stopping herself is torture). And Dagny wants not just a continent, but a continent with a Rearden Metal track across it from ocean to ocean. She wants a better continent, an improved continent, which is more suitable for human life than the natural state of the continent.
The speed which weeds swallow things in this passage is important too. Civilization has to be maintained! Civilization can fall apart faster than most people realize if the wrong ideas are followed. We later learn what ideas the 20th Century Motor Company followed to bring ruin to this area. It’s one of many examples of the tangible, concrete power of ideas (the invention and consequences of Rearden Metal are another example).
they seemed to be waiting in placid indifference.
The train crew and few passengers who went outside are not men of action. We’re about to see how a better kind of person handles a problem:
The conductor spoke up. “I don’t think we had any business being sent off on a siding, that switch wasn’t working right, and this thing’s not working at all.” He jerked his head up at the red light. “I don’t think the signal’s going to change. I think it’s busted.”
“Then what are you doing?”
“Waiting for it to change.”
In her pause of startled anger, the fireman chuckled. “Last week, the crack special of the Atlantic Southern got left on a siding for two hours—just somebody’s mistake.”
“This is the Taggart Comet,” she said. “The Comet has never been late.”
Dagny has high expectations; these men have low expectations. Dagny is angry at the idea of waiting for a broken light to change, which isn’t going to change. The conductor and fireman both know it’s a mistake, but aren’t doing anything about it. Dagny expects the Comet to be taken seriously and treated as important; its own crew doesn’t.
“You don’t know about railroads, lady,” said a passenger. “There’s not a signal system or a dispatcher in the country that’s worth a damn.”
She did not turn or notice him, but spoke to the engineer. “If you know that the signal is broken, what do you intend to do?”
Dagny is focused on productive action, not idle comments about other trains being late which downplay the importance of getting this train moving.
The dark gray eyes were direct and disturbing, as if they cut through things, throwing the inconsequential out of the way.
Dagny’s eyes are described as matching the action she just took: she just ignored the inconsequential and focused on the core issue of the next step to take in regards to the broken signal.
“Lady, I don’t intend to stick my neck out,”
These men are more interested in whether they’re blamed for problems than whether they solve problems.
“… our job’s to wait for orders.”
They’re more interested in obeying than acting appropriately for the situation.
“Your job is to run this train.”
Dagny knows they were hired to move the train. The purpose of their employment isn’t to follow orders or dodge responsibility.
“Not against a red light. If the light says stop, we stop.”
They’re not acting like human beings with minds. They did think about it and form correct judgements, but they don’t want to risk acting on their own judgements. They used their minds on the side, as a tangent, but they aren’t applying their conclusions to life.
“Whoever’s responsible for it, he’ll switch the blame to us if we move. So we’re not moving till somebody tells us to.”
They’re more interested in office politics than running a train. It’s strange though: why would they be blameless if they made the terrible decision to sit in front of a broken light for hours, unnecessarily making the Comet late? What sort of company assigns no blame for harmful inaction, but is ready with severe punishments when a mistaken action is taken? A company shouldn’t have biased policies to discourage action and promote inaction!
“How long do you propose to wait?”
The engineer shrugged. “Who is John Galt?”
They propose to wait indefinitely. They’re helpless and will wait for someone else to act. But they’re actually capable of action; they do know what to do, they just won’t do it. They’ve learned to live as if they’re helpless. There are incentives encouraging them to be helpless.
She said, “Proceed with caution to the next signal. If it’s in order, proceed to the main track. Then stop at the first open office.”
Dagny makes decisions and proceeds with life instead of waiting around for someone else to solve her problems.
“If there’s any trouble, are you taking the responsibility for it, Miss Taggart?”
After challenging her authority and discovering her identity, and receiving orders, they still want to be very clear that moving the train is her action, not their action. Pathetic!
The conductor followed her as she walked back to her car. He was saying, bewildered, “But . . . just a seat in a day coach, Miss Taggart? But how come? But why didn’t you let us know?”
She smiled easily. “Had no time to be formal. Had my own car attached to Number 22 out of Chicago, but got off at Cleveland—and Number 22 was running late, so I let the car go. The Comet came next and I took it. There was no sleeping-car space left.”
The conductor shook his head. “Your brother—he wouldn’t have taken a coach.”
She laughed. “No, he wouldn’t have.”
Dagny is rich and important, but is willing to travel without luxury because her priority is doing her work (which requires traveling quickly, not wasting time). James Taggart, the company President, is a different kind of person who destroys the railroad.
“That’s who runs Taggart Transcontinental,” said the engineer; the respect in his voice was genuine. “That’s the Vice-President in Charge of Operation.”
The President does not run the railroad, and that’s well known, but somehow he remains President. Something’s wrong there. Why does Dagny put up with working for him? He keeps making things harder for her, but she wants to run the railroad so she keeps saving him from the results of his errors throughout the book. That’s a mistake. Instead of being an Atlas holding James up, she should shrug (stop supporting and enabling him).
She thought: It’s cracking to pieces, like this, all over the country, you can expect it anywhere, at any moment.
The world situation in the book is dire. This is an early indication, which the reader should become curious about. What went wrong? Why? What could be done about it? An attentive reader can find answers to these questions in the book.
She knew that the superintendent of the Ohio Division was no good and that he was a friend of James Taggart.
One type of corruption is hiring based on friendship, favors and personal connections, rather than merit. This is an example of how ideas – about how to treat people, how to interact socially, and whether to be biased for friends – have concrete results like train delays.
Good men were so strangely hard to find.… it was Owen Kellogg who ran the Terminal. She had watched his work for some time; she had always looked for sparks of competence, like a diamond prospector in an unpromising wasteland.
How easy or hard are good men to find today, in the real world? This issue merits serious comparison. You can keep it in mind as you read. E.g. consider if each statement or action is something you could imagine people doing in the real world, or not?
I believe, as Ayn Rand did, that good men are uncommon. But men aren’t born bad; they are destroyed by bad ideas in our culture, particularly by bad philosophy, and commonly before age ten.
Through the dry phrases of calculations in her mind, she noticed that she did have time to feel something: it was the hard, exhilarating pleasure of action.
Dagny likes action. Good people enjoy acting. But most men – in the book, and in the real world – commonly seek to avoid action. Instead of looking for opportunities to do more, they look for excuses to do less.
She watched the tunnels as they flowed past: bare walls of concrete, a net of pipes and wires, a web of rails that went off into black holes where green and red lights hung as distant drops of color. There was nothing else, nothing to dilute it, so that one could admire naked purpose and the ingenuity that had achieved it.
Bare concrete is a good thing, to be appreciated. It’s effective. It comes from human ingenuity and accomplishes a purpose well. The visible, functional form of industrial civilization should receive greater recognition and appreciation. People should learn to better integrate their ideas. Many people think transportation is good, but see it’s physical manifestations negatively. The same thing goes for smokestacks and electricity; washing machines and having clean clothes; factories and the products they produce; billboards and the products they sell. People should adopt a more unified, cohesive view of the matter. They should learn to apply the positive emotion they have for electric lights to the power plants and factories which enable them to see during the night. (Worse, many people today have more positive emotions for candles than lightbulbs. They ignorantly glorify a more primitive world they don’t understand and would actually hate to live in.)
She thought of the Taggart Building standing above her head at this moment, growing straight to the sky, and she thought: These are the roots of the building, hollow roots twisting under the ground, feeding the city.
The “roots” are metaphorical, and are underground just like real roots. They make the building a metaphorical tree which is “growing” straight and tall, as is proper. The roots “feed” the city because trains bring in food and goods. And they feed the Taggart Building by bringing in profits.
She sat on the arm of the big chair facing James Taggart’s desk, her coat thrown open over a wrinkled traveling suit.
This conveys Dagny’s informality twice. Her suit is wrinkled; she didn’t take the time to change it after arriving. And she’s sitting on the chair’s arm, not in the chair, which doesn’t serve an important purpose, she just doesn’t care about doing things the “proper” way.
James has “his head drawn into his shoulders” because he doesn’t want to face Dagny. Eddie is her:
bodyguard against any waste of time
Consider what sort of person could have that bodyguard. It’s not just a rich or important person. The train crew who sat around at the red signal couldn’t have a bodyguard like this because they waste their own time on purpose. You need to value your time before you can value protection against wastes of time. James Taggart has even more status and money than Dagny, but doesn’t have a bodyguard like Eddie.
“The Rio Norte Line is a pile of junk from one end to the other,” she said. “It’s much worse than I thought. But we’re going to save it.”
The problem is severe, but Dagny is confident about facing it.
“Oh, did Orren Boyle say he‘ll—”
“I’ve ordered the rail from Rearden Steel.”
Dagny is a doer, not a permission-asker. She doesn’t devote her effort to avoiding trouble, like the Comet train crew. Her goal isn’t to find out what she’s supposed to do and then do that. She tries to figure out what should be done, and gets it done.
“Dagny, why don’t you sit in the chair as one is supposed to?” he said at last; his voice was petulant. “Nobody holds business conferences this way.”
James is avoiding the subject of the rail order. And he denies that Dagny exists, to her face, which is actually a common theme of how great men (particularly pioneers who don’t put their effort into conformity) are treated. He says “nobody” does what Dagny is currently doing. Dagny responds confidently; she’s willing to stand up to the attack instead of backing down or getting defensive.
James cares what one is “supposed to” do with a chair; Dagny doesn’t. She cares what works; sitting this way is perfectly capable of getting her business completed (it doesn’t somehow prevent her from listening or speaking). James goes through life, like most people, trying to figure out what he’s “supposed to” do, and doing that; he’s a conformist. (Who decides what you’re supposed to do? Society? Someone above you? And why is that superior to your own judgement? James is near the top of society and he still has this conformist attitude!) And notice how James’ comment is not about the efficacy of Dagny’s sitting position. It’s more like, “You’re not doing what other people do. You’re not fitting in.” Indeed! So what?
“But the Board hasn’t authorized it. I haven’t authorized it. You haven’t consulted me.”
She reached over, picked up the receiver of a telephone on his desk and handed it to him.
“Call Rearden and cancel it,” she said.
James hates making decisions and being responsible for anything. He shouldn’t run a company!
James Taggart moved back in his chair. “I haven’t said that,” he answered angrily. “I haven’t said that at all.”
“Then it stands?”
“I haven’t said that, either.”
She turned. “Eddie, have them draw up the contract with Rearden Steel. Jim will sign it.” She took a crumpled piece of notepaper from her pocket and tossed it to Eddie. “There’s the figures and terms.”
And that’s that. Done. Settled. James won’t stand up to it, so it will happen.
Note the informality of the contract: it’s crumpled notepaper in her pocket, not official stationary in a briefcase.
“… And I don’t see why I should be made to take the responsibility.”
“I am taking it.”
James is like the Comet crew: he doesn’t want to take responsibility for action. Dagny does. As you read the book, pay attention to whether you’d be eager to take the actions Dagny does, or hesitate and avoid responsibility.
If she were insane, thought Dagny, she would conclude that her brother hated to deal with Rearden because Rearden did his job with superlative efficiency; but she would not conclude it, because she thought that such a feeling was not within the humanly possible.
Is it possible? The book explains that it is. This is something interesting to be kept in mind as reading, and to learn more about as you go. There’s also some more information about this immediately:
“It isn’t fair,” said James Taggart.
“That we always give all our business to Rearden. It seems to me we should give somebody else a chance, too. Rearden doesn’t need us; he’s plenty big enough. We ought to help the smaller fellows to develop. Otherwise, we’re just encouraging a monopoly.”
Rearden is big because he does a good job; James states that he wants to deal with a “smaller” (inferior, which is the reason for being smaller) supplier.
James uses “monopoly” as an excuse. Do “monopolies” worry you and play a role in your political-economic thinking? If so, this is a warning that you may be incorrect.
“Why do we always have to get things from Rearden?”
“Because we always get them.”
Dagny makes simple, direct statements which get to the point. It’s wonderful. Is that how you speak? Could you use the book to learn to speak more like Dagny, if you paid attention to that while reading?
“I don’t like Henry Rearden.”
“I do. But what does that matter, one way or the other? We need rails and he’s the only one who can give them to us.”
“The human element is very important. You have no sense of the human element at all.”
Fully understanding what James means by the “human element” – and whether it plays a role in your own thinking – is something to work on as you read the book.
“They’re not going to be steel. They’re Rearden Metal.”
She had always avoided personal reactions, but she was forced to break her rule when she saw the expression on Taggart’s face. She burst out laughing.
Dagny normally focuses on motors, rails, tunnels and wiring, not people. How much do you focus on people? How much should one focus on people? Is life about figuring out what other people want you to do, and shifting responsibility to others, and following orders? Or is it about building things which work and transforming the natural world according to your judgement?
Rearden Metal was a new alloy, produced by Rearden after ten years of experiments. He had placed it on the market recently. He had received no orders and had found no customers.
Why would Dagny order something with no customers? Is it good or bad? Is everyone else being passive and foolish, and trying to avoid the risk of ordering a new invention instead of continuing with the status quo?
“Drop it, Jim. I know everything you’re going to say. Nobody’s ever used it before. Nobody approves of Rearden Metal. Nobody’s interested in it. Nobody wants it. Still, our rails are going to be made of Rearden Metal.”
“But . . .” said Taggart, “but . . . but nobody’s ever used it before!”
James is so intellectually outclassed. Dagny knows what she’s talking about and has confidence to match. James tries to stand up to her anyway instead of appreciating her competence and being glad someone knows what they’re doing. Dagny should be rewarded for her knowledge and initiative; but she isn’t, and she puts up with it. Why would she put up with this mistreatment, and should she? We find out later: she puts up with it because she wants to run the railroad, but she’s making a mistake.
He observed, with satisfaction, that she was silenced by anger. He liked to observe emotions; they were like red lanterns strung along the dark unknown of another’s personality, marking vulnerable points.
James is people-oriented instead of reality-oriented like Dagny. He uses anger as a weapon. What kind of person finds that satisfying? He observes emotions to find vulnerabilities; he deals with people by exploiting their vulnerabilities to control them; and he enjoys this. Is that a despicable evil Rand made up for her novel, or can you see any ways it relates to the real world? Do you know anyone who is partially like that? What about you; are you really nothing like that?
But how one could feel a personal emotion about a metal alloy, and what such an emotion indicated, was incomprehensible to him; so he could make no use of his discovery.
Caring about metal is so foreign to James that he’s lost, because he’s so focused on dealing with people.
“The consensus of the best metallurgical authorities,” he said, “seems to be highly skeptical about Rearden Metal, contending—”
“Drop it, Jim.”
“Well, whose opinion did you take?”
“I don’t ask for opinions.”
“What do you go by?”
“Well, whose judgment did you take?”
Dagny is an independent thinker. Are you? Can you learn anything about how to be more of an independent thinker from her example?
“But whom did you consult about it?”
“Then what on earth do you know about Rearden Metal?”
“That it’s the greatest thing ever put on the market.”
Dagny doesn’t accept James’ framing of the issues. No matter how much James doubts, it has no effect on Dagny’s confidence. She says “greatest” instead of backing down. Only an actual argument could change her mind, e.g. lab results showing a flaw with the metal.
“Because it’s tougher than steel, cheaper than steel and will outlast any hunk of metal in existence.”
“But who says so?”
She looked at Rearden’s formula. She uses her mind to judge things instead of accepting the say-so of authorities. How much do you take on authority? Whose authority is it, and why do you trust them? Do you ever read primary source scientific papers? What do you do when authorities disagree, as often happens? Do you side with the majority of experts? Is that a good, rational method?
“Well, if it were any good, somebody would have used it, and nobody has.” He saw the flash of anger, and went on nervously: “How can you know it’s good? How can you be sure? How can you decide?”
“Somebody decides such things, Jim. Who?”
“Well, I don’t see why we have to be the first ones. I don’t see it at all.”
Dagny wants to be a pioneer; James actively wants to not be a pioneer (he’s not indifferent, he’s hostile to it). Are you a pioneer? If you aspire to be a pioneer, you can observe the characters in the book and learn what kinds of things are compatible and incompatible with being a pioneer.
Do you make judgements and have confidence in the power of your mind? Are you never really sure of anything? That’s not some abstract issue; it has major importance in what kind of life you have. Things like that are the difference between living like Dagny or James.
“Do you want to save the Rio Norte Line or not?” He did not answer.
He won’t even say “yes” to that. Have you seen people refuse to answer direct questions like this? I often have seen it. If you haven’t, perhaps you aren’t asking clear enough questions about important matters.
“… Do you want us to pull through or not?”
“We’re still the best railroad in the country. The others are doing much worse.”
“Then do you want us to remain in the hole?”
“I haven’t said that!
James tries to avoid making even simple judgements about basic issues. He avoids judgements that should be easy. Then, after only hinting at his meaning, he denies having said it. He doesn’t want to speak (or think, or live).
“… Why spend money when we have no protection against a competitor who’ll destroy our investment?”
What sort of “protection” does James want? The government on his side, using force to ensure he gets money regardless of whether he earns it.
The proper sort of “protection” is competence: do a good job and don’t get heavily outcompeted and you can earn a profit from customers who voluntarily pay you.
“Because the Phoenix-Durango is an excellent railroad, but I intend to make the Rio Norte Line better than that. Because I’m going to beat the Phoenix-Durango, if necessary—only it won’t be necessary, because there will be room for two or three railroads to make fortunes in Colorado. Because I’d mortgage the system to build a branch to any district around Ellis Wyatt.”
Apparently Ellis Wyatt is so good at producing oil that he’s the highest priority railroad destination in the country, by far.
James worries about competitors because he might lose; Dagny fearlessly plans to make her own product the best. How purely and fully consistently do you have Dagny’s attitudes, not James’, in your life?
“I’m sick of hearing about Ellis Wyatt.”
James does dislike achievement, skill and more broadly morality – as Dagny thought was “insane” earlier. Learning to recognize people like this is important so you don’t misunderstand the world. (Look at what happens to Dagny throughout the book because she doesn’t understand it, whereas John Galt does.)
“I don’t see any need for immediate action,” he said; he sounded offended.
James never does.
“Just what do you consider so alarming in the present situation of Taggart Transcontinental?”
“The consequences of your policies, Jim.”
Dagny doesn’t shy away from naming the issue, even when it’s offensive.
“That thirteen months’ experiment with Associated Steel, for one. Your Mexican catastrophe, for another.”
When Dagny makes judgements, she knows specifics.
“The Board approved the Associated Steel contract,” he said hastily. “The Board voted to build the San Sebastián Line.
James doesn’t want to take responsibility for his own policies! Being anti-responsibility is an intellectual attitude with huge, practical consequences for life, as the book will illustrate. These are examples to learn from; would you try to dodge responsibility for your policy because a Board approved it?
“Because the Mexican government is going to nationalize your line any day now.”
“That’s a lie!” His voice was almost a scream. “That’s nothing but vicious rumors! I have it on very good inside authority that—”
James has “authority” instead of judgement about the nationalization. Dagny has judgement; she turns out to be right. You might consider: Dagny is right over and over (and was before the book started), so why doesn’t James consider her judgement to be an authority to listen to? What sort of authorities does he listen to, and why them? And what sort of authorities do you listen to, and what’s the difference between your way of choosing authorities and James’ way?
“Don’t show that you’re scared, Jim,” she said contemptuously.
He did not answer.
In what way did James show that he’s scared? Dagny doesn’t typically pay much attention to emotions but she noticed this. It wasn’t just his near-screaming voice tone, it’s also his falsely-confident bluster. Dagny is good at recognizing bluster without substance because she knows what substance is.
“I refuse to consider, I absolutely refuse to consider the possibility of the San Sebastián Line being nationalized!”
“All right. Don’t consider it.”
What James chooses to consider, or not, won’t affect reality.
She remained silent. He said defensively, “I don’t see why you’re so eager to give a chance to Ellis Wyatt, yet you think it’s wrong to take part in developing an underprivileged country that never had a chance.”
“Ellis Wyatt is not asking anybody to give him a chance. And I’m not in business to give chances. I’m running a railroad.”
James changes the subject when he doesn’t want to face an issue. This happens often. Dagny could speak to any relevant issue.
James advocates altruism – sacrificing the interests of the railroad to help some “underprivileged” people. (He doesn’t specify that it’s sacrifice, but it is.) And he prefers to help weak, poor, needy, and ineffective people rather than people who merit help by their virtues. He seeks out vice and avoids virtue (perhaps because virtue makes him look bad).
Dagny is correct that a business isn’t a charity. The point is to provide transportation – profitably, which means it’s efficient instead of economically destructive.
“That’s an extremely narrow view, it seems to me. I don’t see why we should want to help one man instead of a whole nation.”
“I’m not interested in helping anybody. I want to make money.”
Making money is how to help people, because it involves mutual benefit instead of sacrifice and destruction. And helping the most productive people best helps the whole nation anyway. Look at the consequences to the nation when Ellis Wyatt goes out of business later, and consider if helping some blighted areas, so they’re a little less worse off, compares in importance.
“That’s an impractical attitude. Selfish greed for profit is a thing of the past. It has been generally conceded that the interests of society as a whole must always be placed first in any business undertaking which—”
“How long do you intend to talk in order to evade the issue, Jim?”
“The order for Rearden Metal.”
He did not answer.
Rather than an argument, James claims that other people already agree. Dagny doesn’t concede that! Again he ignores her existence, to her face.
Her slender body, about to slump from exhaustion, was held erect by the straight line of the shoulders, and the shoulders were held by a conscious effort of will.
Dagny is holding this conversation, being assertive and thinking clearly, while exhausted. (Recall the previous scene, on the train, which mentioned she hadn’t slept for two nights. Then she fell asleep for a little while by accident.) That makes it all the more impressive. She seems energetic, confident, powerful, sharp and wise!
The beautiful legs, slanting down from the chair’s arm in the center of his vision, annoyed him; they spoiled the rest of his estimate.
James is annoyed by beauty! What perverse values he has!
“Why didn’t you wait until you got back to New York and—”
“Because I had seen the Rio Norte Line.”
James wants to delay action indefinitely; reality won’t wait.
“Well, I need time to consider it, to place the matter before the Board, to consult the best—”
“There is no time.”
“You haven’t given me a chance to form an opinion.”
“I don’t give a damn about your opinion. I am not going to argue with you, with your Board or with your professors. You have a choice to make and you’re going to make it now. Just say yes or no.”
Yes or no is an important issue. Ultimately you have to make decisions: decide yes for something, and no for the alternatives. People often try to avoid this and make their decisions unclear.
Do you respect professors more than Dagny does? If you do, perhaps you should reconsider. What do you actually know about professors? How are they portrayed in the story, and what knowledge do you actually have that many professors are different? How much is the government involved with the universities in your country, and could that harm their ability to do science and other scholarship in an objective, effective way?
“That’s a preposterous, high-handed, arbitrary way of—”
“Yes or no?”
Do you ask people yes or no questions often? Do you repeat them, without tangents, when they aren’t answered? Have you tried that and seen how people respond? I have. People often won’t answer simple, direct questions. And they often won’t answer “yes” or “no” to yes or no questions, even if you ask for a “yes” or “no” answer like Dagny has.
“That’s the trouble with you. You always make it ‘Yes’ or ’No.‘ Things are never absolute like that. Nothing is absolute.”
“Metal rails are. Whether we get them or not, is.”
Have you noticed people who have an issue with absolutes? That’s common. Are you such a person? Do you stand up to people about absolutes, or just like them privately and let other people you disagree with dominate the public world?
People claim they are sophisticated because they see shades of grey everywhere and avoid firm, clear judgements about anything. They see a shifting swamp of confusion in the world, and never sort it out and identify any decisive issues with clear answers to judge, and then think their ignorance and general fear of thinking is nuance…
She waited. He did not answer.
“Well?” she asked.
“Are you taking the responsibility for it?”
“Go ahead,” he said, and added, “but at your own risk. I won’t cancel it, but I won’t commit myself as to what I’ll say to the Board.”
James doesn’t really care about the railroad, he just doesn’t want to be blamed for anything. (Why is he in charge of the company then?) He won’t approve Dagny’s decision; he will wait and see how it works out and then try to retroactively take that side of the issue. Business success requires more than hindsight!
“Say anything you wish.”
Dagny doesn’t care what James says. I respect that. She cares about railroads, not speeches to Boards. But she’s mistaken. James ruins her railroad because she didn’t demand the respect she was due.
She rose to go. He leaned forward across the desk, reluctant to end the interview and to end it so decisively.
Dagny is done; she got her rail. James wants some shades of grey.
“You realize, of course, that a lengthy procedure will be necessary to put this through,” he said; the words sounded almost hopeful. “It isn’t as simple as that.”
James doesn’t want things to be simple or decisive. He wants hedges, time-consuming procedures, etc.
“Oh sure,” she said. “I’ll send you a detailed report, which Eddie will prepare and which you won’t read. Eddie will help you put it through the works.
Dagny considers the procedure the kind of waste of time that Eddie is her bodyguard against. And she knows it’s pointless: James won’t even read the details.
“… I’m going to Philadelphia tonight to see Rearden. He and I have a lot of work to do.” She added, “It’s as simple as that, Jim.”
One can make decisions and act. Lots of complications are unnecessary baggage.
“Other people are human. They’re sensitive. They can’t devote their whole life to metals and engines. You’re lucky—you’ve never had any feelings. You’ve never felt anything at all.”
Pay attention, throughout the story, to who feels what, and who doesn’t.
Dagny’s interests and character are not a matter of luck. She made life choices, as did James.
As she looked at him, her dark gray eyes went slowly from astonishment to stillness, then to a strange expression that resembled a look of weariness, except that it seemed to reflect much more than the endurance of this one moment.
Dagny has dealt with this kind of thing her whole life. Have you? If not, why not?
[Eddie] was the only person who found it completely natural that she should be the Operating Vice-President of a great railroad, even though she was a woman.
The free market isn’t sexist, it’s merit-based.
When they entered her office, when he saw her sit down at the desk and glance at the memos he had left for her—he felt as he did in his car when the motor caught on and the wheels could move forward.
Rand uses lots of metaphors about motors and motion, and it also has literal meanings like moving a train and its cargo. John Galt, the inventor of the motor, stops the motor of the world! And this dialog is typical (part 1, ch. 9):
“ … of what use is a railroad without motive power?”
“Of what use is anything, for that matter, without it?”
Without motors we’d have animals. (“She had forgotten the literal shape and usage of horsepower; she did not like to see its return.”) And without that, people pushing plows by hand (“In a distant field, beyond the town, they saw the figure of a man moving slowly, contorted by the ugliness of a physical effort beyond the proper use of a human body: he was pushing a plow by hand.”).
She was glad to see that she had been right in her vague recollection of [Owen Kellogg’s] appearance—his face had the same quality as that of the young brakeman on the train, the face of the kind of man with whom she could deal.
She works for James, who isn’t that type of man. She can’t deal with James. We see the results as the story continues…
“For a personal reason.”
“Were you dissatisfied here?”
“Have you received a better offer?”
Kellogg gives direct answers to questions (lots more I didn’t quote). Compare this to the conversation with James.
“It’s the post of Superintendent of the Ohio Division. It’s yours, if you want it.”
His face showed no reaction, as if the words had no more significance for him than for a savage who had never heard of railroads.
“I don’t want it, Miss Taggart,” he answered.
How can a great employee, whom she wanted to promote, react like this? It’s mysterious. Great employees care about their work. We eventually learn the answer to this mystery from ch. 1.
“I thought you loved your work.”
This was the first sign of emotion in him, just a slight widening of his eyes and an oddly quiet emphasis in his voice when he answered, “I do.”
Kellogg does love his work.
“Perhaps I am being unfair by coming here to tell you that I’m quitting, Miss Taggart. I know that you asked me to tell you because you wanted to have a chance to make me a counter-offer. So if I came, it looks as if I’m open to a deal. But I’m not. I came only because I . . . I wanted to keep my word to you.”
Kellogg values honesty. Something strange is going on.
How strange do you actually find it? Many people see no connection between moral character and life. They think people love their work in random shades of grey, and honesty is taught at church but doesn’t effect one’s work. It’s only strange if you understand the connections between ideas and actions, and between the moral and the practical.
“Nothing, Miss Taggart. Nothing on earth.”
He turned to go. For the first time in her life, she felt helpless and beaten.
Dagny is helpless, for the first time in her life, because she’s encountered ideas that she doesn’t understand. Try to identify everything about the power of ideas as you read this book, and any other book. It’s a crucial theme that (in our culture) takes lots of effort and examples to gain an intuitive grasp of.
“Who is John Galt?”
This was the first line of the chapter and the last line of Eddie’s section, and now it ends the chapter too. It’s also mentioned one other time in this chapter, by the engineer regarding how long he plans to wait before taking action to get the train moving. John Galt is mentioned sparingly but with impact.
This comment is actually literal: John Galt is the man who persuaded Kellogg to quit.
Some of you are thinking to yourselves, “This is good. I like it. But I already knew most of it.” If so, I’ve got a challenge for you. Write your own analysis, like this, for chapter 2 or 3. See how well you can do it on your own, then compare with my analysis. (If you write analysis of anything by Ayn Rand, please share it with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d like to read it.)
Read the chapter 2 analysis.