Eddie Willers, special assistant to the vice president of Taggart Transcontinental, walks toward his New York office. An anonymous homeless man asks, “Who is John Galt?” after Eddie gives him some money. Eddie is disturbed by the phrase, a slang reference to all that is hopeless and unknowable. As he looks around, he sees businesses failing everywhere. He remembers an oak tree he saw destroyed by lightning as a child. Eddie meets with the railroad’s president, James (Jim) Taggart, about another wreck on the Rio Norte Line. He argues that the track must be replaced, but Taggart says he cannot do anything until the new track arrives from Orren Boyle’s Associated Steel. Eddie wants to use Rearden Steel, but Jim reminds him that Boyle is a good friend and deserves a break. Eddie counters that they risk losing every major shipper in Colorado to the Phoenix-Durango, a rapidly growing young railroad run by Dan Conway. They have already lost the support of Ellis Wyatt, an entrepreneur who has found a way to revive exhausted oil wells. Wyatt Oil switched to the Phoenix-Durango when Taggart could not keep up with its shipments. Jim tells Eddie that nothing can be done.
After a trip to examine the Rio Norte Line, Dagny Taggart, Eddie’s boss and Jim’s sister, sits aboard a train, listening to the notes of a fantastic symphony. It turns out to be just a brakeman whistling. He tells her the tune is Richard Halley’s Fifth Concerto. When she tells him that is impossible, since Halley only wrote four concertos, he becomes evasive. Later, Dagny awakes to find the train has stopped. When she investigates, she finds the engineer refuses to take responsibility for moving the train ahead. She identifies herself and orders him to move the train. Seeing how hard it is to find good men, she makes a note to herself to promote a talented employee named Owen Kellogg.
At a meeting with her brother Jim, Dagny tells him that the problems with the Rio Norte are worse than they thought, so she has canceled the order with Orren Boyle and placed an order with Rearden Steel for a new alloy called Rearden Metal. Jim complains that she had no authority from the Board and that they should give Boyle a chance as a “little guy” up against the larger Rearden Steel. He denounces her choice of Rearden Metal, an unproven new material that no one has been willing to try. Dagny does not care what the others are doing. She knows that Rearden Metal is the best substance on the market. Jim evades the issue, but finally agrees to put the order through.
Dagny calls the Music Publishing Company to inquire about Halley’s Fifth Concerto, but is told that Halley has dropped out of public life and has not published anything in eight years. Owen Kellogg comes to see Dagny. Before she can offer him a promotion, he informs her that he is quitting. She tries to discover his reason, but he seems to have none. She offers him anything he wants to stay, but he refuses. If he loves his job, she asks, why leave? He shrugs and answers, “Who is John Galt?”
Hank Rearden watches happily as the first heat for the first order of Rearden Metal is poured. As he walks home, he thinks of the ten years of trial and effort that yielded the new alloy and of his early years of hard work in the mines and his steady rise to ownership of mines and mills. Arriving home he finds his wife talking to his mother, his brother Philip, and Paul Larkin, an unsuccessful businessman and old friend. He apologizes for being late but finds that he cannot tell them about Rearden Metal, knowing they will not share his joy. His family insults him and his devotion to his work, scolding him for working so much and not caring about them. He presents his wife Lillian with a bracelet, a chain poured from the first order of Rearden Metal. His mother reprimands him for thinking that his metal should be like diamonds to his wife. Rearden feels only an incredible sense of exhaustion and confusion over what his family wants from him. Although he supports them, they seem to want to hold some claim over him. They profess love for him, but despise all the qualities in him that he feels are worthy of love. Paul Larkin approaches Rearden and advises him to ease up on his individualism. He reminds Rearden that he should pay attention to “his man in Washington.” Rearden knows that every day it becomes more important to have a strong lobbyist and protection against the legislature, but he cannot bring himself to think about it with any conviction.
In these early chapters, Rand clearly establishes the state of the nation. Decay is rampant and unavoidable. Businesses are failing, and companies that remain in business face shortages and delays. People respond with a helpless sense of doom, epitomized in the rhetorical question, “Who is John Galt?” The question represents a melancholy shrug, a declaration of defenselessness before a force too terrifying and massive to combat or even comprehend—a pervasive hopelessness and loss of spirit. The oak tree that Eddie remembers serves as an apt metaphor for society’s decay. Eddie recalls that after lightning struck the tree, he looked inside to see that it was already dead, and the trunk had been a mere shell all along. Similarly, society has begun to decay from the inside out.
From our first introduction to them, we see the sharp contrast between Dagny and her brother Jim. Each represents a different side in the central struggle of the book. Dagny is strong, bold, and confident, and represents Rand’s vision of capitalism. She finds joy in productive, meaningful work. She makes decisions based on rational, objective facts. Her choice of Rearden Metal is based solely on her study of its merits and potential to yield profit. Jim, on the other hand, is weak and depends on public opinion for his decisions. He fears using Rearden Metal simply because no one else has used it yet. He is an example of Rand’s view of socialism, with its focus on sacrificing for the public good and helping “little guys” even when others have better products.
The issues of personal responsibility and commitment to work are also demonstrated in these chapters. The weak deflect blame and refuse to take actions for which they might be held responsible, while the strong rely on their own judgment and accept responsibility. The engineer on the train will not move it from its siding until Dagny agrees to be responsible for the orders. Jim argues that the situation on the Rio Norte Line is not his fault and refuses to agree to the purchase of Rearden Metal unless Dagny will take responsibility for it. In this environment of deflection and apathy, men of talent appear to be disappearing, a fact that Dagny has begun to notice. The withdrawal of Richard Halley from public life is mysterious, even more so after Dagny hears his Fifth Concerto (which does not exist, according to his publishing company) whistled by a brakeman on the train. She is also perplexed by the retirement of Owen Kellogg. Despite a promising career at Taggart, he leaves a job he loves, offering no reason and no stated plans. Dagny wonders why the irresponsible remain while the talented men seem to be first to quit.
In Hank Rearden, Rand offers an example of a successful industrialist moved to joy by the fruits of his own labor. He believes in what he can see and make, and is driven above all else by his love for his work. He is self-motivated and self-actualized, though his family calls him selfish. He is selfish in the sense that he is motivated to do things for himself, not for the benefit of others. For Ayn Rand, being motivated by his own values makes Rearden not only successful but virtuous. His family stands in sharp contrast to him. They are driven by their own weakness to take from him, while encouraging him to feel guilty. Their ability to control him depends on his acceptance of his guilt. This dynamic is central to the looters’ way of life. By making the strong feel guilty for their strength and responsible for the weak, the looters are able to continue living off producers without producing anything themselves. Rearden fails to understand this paradigm in his personal life even while recognizing it in his work. This split in his personality represents a weakness he must overcome. When he gives the bracelet of Rearden Metal to Lillian, she comments that it represents the bondage in which he keeps them, but clearly Rearden is the one enslaved to his family.
The seemingly casual conversation between Rearden and Paul Larkin offers the reader an ominous foreshadowing of the political events to come. As a self-made man, Rearden has little patience for the games one must play in politics. Preferring to spend his time in his lab and mills, he has not been closely involved in his “Washington Man’s” activities, an omission that will have grave consequences.