Atlas Summer: Atlas Shrugged: Part One: Chapters 3 & 4

Chapter III: The Top and the Bottom


Having introduced her readers to her bold and brilliant protagonists, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, Rand opens Chapter Three with an intimate look at some of the many, many spineless weasels who make up her menagerie of mediocrity.  In an ominously darkened rooftop barroom somewhere in Manhattan, Jim Taggart, Dagny’s idiot brother and the President of Taggart Transcontinental, Orren Boyle, idiot owner of Associated Steel, and assorted sniveling minions sit around a table and attempt to undermine their more successful but less politically connected competitors.  Jim wants to derail the Phoenix-Durango through collusion with his fellow railroad magnates. Orren wants to put the kibosh on Rearden Metal before it renders steel obsolete.  And all of this Machiavellian maneuvering is couched in the language of “progressive policies” and “social responsibilities.”   This scene raises the question of whether Rand is setting out to critique the very idea of altruism or if she’s suggesting that altruism doesn’t exist except as a justification for selfishness and tyranny.  I’m guessing both…

From here, Rand pulls back to offer a capsule history of the life of Dagny Taggart, engineering genius, and her dullard brother, put in control of the railroad thanks to mindless adherence to tradition and sexism.  One sign of Jim’s incompetent management of Taggart Transcontinental is his insistence on building a money-losing line into Mexico, where copper mining supremo/playboy Francisco d”Aconia has built the San Sebastian mine.  Dagny is convinced that the (communist?) government of the “People’s State of Mexico” will end up nationalizing the mine and the railroad that services it.  During his meeting with Boyle, Jim learned that Dagny had been using ancient wood-burning engines and decrepit rolling stock on the San Sebastian and he confronts Dagny about it.  The conversation is pretty much identical to the first conversation between the two: Jim sputters and whines, Dagny coolly insists on her demands, and in the end, Jim gives up and whines some more.  I suspect that this will be a recurring motif.

After dealing with Jim’s spastic colon, Dagny walks across the Taggart Transcontinental terminal floor, pausing to genuflect before a statue of her grandfather, Nathaniel Taggart, founder of the railroad.  It seems Taggart was the original self-made man, a “penniless adventurer” who built a continent-spanning railroad with his own two hands, having “never sought any loans, bonds, subsidies, land grants or legislative favors from the government.” He also, according to family legend, killed a corrupt legislator.  I’m thinking if Rand had lived long enough to see There Will Be Blood, she would have swooned over Daniel Plainview.

daniel-plainview.jpg there will be blood image by loguekev

Daniel Plainview: couldn’t hold Nathaniel Taggart’s jock strap.

The chapter ends back with sad, love-lorn Eddie Willers, eating in the Taggart Transcontinental cafeteria with an unnamed and silent co-worker. The subjects: the importance of renovating the Rio Norte line…and how amazingly awesome Dagny Taggart is.  Poor, poor Eddie. He might as well be writing her name on his Trapper Keeper.


Atlas Shrugged has barely begun and we’re already beginning to see Rand begin the process of dividing humanity into two discreet blocs: the extraordinary, brilliant, diamond-hard genius creators and the fleshy mass of jealous, mush brained sluggards.  It’s not hard to figure out which is which.  Greatness seems to be genetic in Rand’s characters.  Nat Taggart’s will and tenacity are reflected in Dagny, as are his physical attributes.  All the “good” people in this book are sketched in sharp lines.  The villains are more squishy, hunched and small.

Rand’s description of the rise of Nat Taggart is an early indicator that Atlas Shrugged is content to make it’s ideological case with as many dramatic shortcuts as possible.  Yes, Nat Taggart built his railroad without any federal land grants or subsidies.  Meanwhile, in the actual United States, the 19th Century railroad companies were the first large-scale recipients of corporate welfare: pretty much all the land west of the Mississippi was either Indian or Federal land, and this nation’s rail worthies made their fortunes thanks to massive land give-aways by the government.  I don’t care how bad-ass Nat Taggart was, he wasn’t going to defeat competing railroad companies that were grabbing free Federal land as far as the eye could see.


“Orren Boyle made a noise, swallowing his liquor.  He was a large man with big, virile gestures; everything about his person was loudly full of life, except the small black slits of his eyes.”

“Dagny’s rise among the men who operated Taggart Transcontinental was swift and uncontested.  She took positions of responsibility because there was no one else to take them.  There were a few rare men of talent around her, but they were becoming rarer every year.”  (Foreshadowing!)

“Dagny regretted at times that Nat Taggart was her ancestor.  What she felt for him did not belong in the category of unchosen family affections.  She did not want her feeling to be the thing one was supposed to owe an uncle or grandfather.  She was incapable of love for any object not of her own choice and she resented anyone’s demand for it.  But had it been possible to choose an ancestor, she would have chosen Nat Taggart, in voluntary homage and with all of her gratitude.”  There are like, fifty more sentences in that paragraph than necessary.  No wonder this thing’s 1300 pages long.

Chapter IV: The Immovable Movers

Chapter Four begins with another thick slab of meatloaf-rich metaphor, with Dagny surveying the shop floor of the United Locomotive Works.  “On her way through the plant, she had seen an enormous piece of machinery left abandoned in a corner of the yard.  It had been a precision machine tool once, long ago, of a kind that could not be bought anywhere now.  It had not been worn out; it had been rotted by neglect, eaten by rust and the black drippings of a dirty oil.”  JUST LIKE AMERICA!

Anyway, Eddie wets his pants while telling Dagny that her chief contractor for rebuilding the Rio Norte line has suddenly closed up shop.  This leads to a long, thoughtful walk through the darkened streets of New York, as Dagny makes her way to her apartment, where she listens to some Richard Halley concertos, while thinking about the musician’s life.  He struggled through years of failure and scorn from the musical powers-that-be before unveiling a massively successful opera.  He retreated from public life and stopped publishing music the day after it opened.

Jim Taggart is having an awkward, dumb conversation with his mistress when he gets a call that, just as Dagny predicted, the Mexican commies have nationalized the San Sebastian mines AND the San Sebastian railroad.  Thanks to Dagny’s foresight, the loses are minimal, leading Jim to take credit for his sister’s actions in front of the Taggart Transcontinental board of directors.  What a jerk!

They’re coming for your railroad…and your carne asada.

The National Alliance of Railroads (whatever that is) pass something called the “Anti-dog-eat-dog Rule” which bans newer railroads from competing in districts already serviced by long-time providers. This means that Dan Conway’s Phoenix-Durango line has to go out of business in six months, leaving the newly-discovered oil fields of Colorado all to Taggart Transcontinental.  Dagny, outraged, goes to see Dan Conway and tells him to fight the rule. Conway, dazed and disenchanted, declines to act.

With the efficient Phoenix-Durango soon to go out of business, Colorado oil genius Ellis Wyatt goes to see Dagny.  The success of Wyatt Oil now depends on the rapid renovation of the Rio Norte line, and Wyatt wants assurances that it will succeed. Dagny, all steely determination, tells him not to worry about it. She’s got this shit.


I am having a difficult time understanding how this book became such a touchstone for so many people.  Not because of the ideology, and not necessary because of the quality of the prose (although it’s occasionally laughable and never better than workmanlike).  It’s because the first hundred pages of this book consist almost entirely of the minute engineering challenges of a railroad company.  How did anyone even GET to the juicy and/or incendiary stuff without falling asleep first?

The “Anti-dog-eat-dog” rule?  Another way you can pick out the bad guys in this book: their horribly awkward way with words.


‘”The music of Richard Halley has a quality of the heroic. Our age has outgrown that stuff,” said one critic. “The music of Richard Halley is out of key with our times.  It has a tone of ecstasy.  Who cares for ecstasy nowadays?” said another.’  Atlas Shrugged: come for the thrilling tales of locomotive engineering, stay for the incineration of straw men!

“Dagny, whatever we are, it’s we who move the world and it’s we who’ll pull it through.” (Ellis Wyatt)

  1. A
    June 29, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    The main thing I learned from this blog post is that your idea of literary criticism is typing the implications of passages in capitals and making wannabe-humorous pop culture references to imply what you’re reading is so laughable it needs no explanation and anyone who reads it is a retard you wouldn’t like at all. Fortunately the average reader of Ayn Rand is probably more mentally developed than an insecure junior high school girl and won’t be convinced.

  2. TV
    June 30, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    “Fortunately the average reader of Ayn Rand is probably more mentally developed than an insecure high school girl …”

    The doubtfulness of this statement calls the rest of the comment into question.

    But it did remind me of this wonderful quote:

    “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

  3. A
    July 1, 2010 at 6:22 am

    Your response bleeds irony.

  4. June 20, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    In a strange way I liked the book a little more than you guys did, although Ayn Rand’s style swings between competent and wretched, her grasp of economics is childish and wildly wrong, her philosophy on human nature, sex, and even the basics of how to run a business are all horrifically wrong, stupid, and backwards, I kinda dig the whole comic book aspect of the whole thing. It’s like watching the Avengers, only with money instead of superpowers. And not as funny or sexy. 😉

    Been blogging about it myself recently and mentioned you, feel free to pop in if you like, I have at least two Ayn Rand followers irritated with me but at least being civil. 😉

  1. July 18, 2010 at 1:00 pm
  2. June 19, 2012 at 6:53 pm

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