Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Importance of the Mind
The “strike of the mind” led by John Galt demonstrates this central theme of the novel. When the best creative minds are systematically removed from the world, their importance is laid bare. Without the great thinkers, society spirals quickly downward. The economy collapses, and irrational looters seize power. Rand’s belief in the central importance of the mind opposes the prevailing wisdom that labor is responsible for prosperity. As the events of the novel show, the mind enables creation and innovation and powers the engine of the world. Labor alone cannot achieve productivity and prosperity without the guidance of the mind.
The Evils of Collectivism
Rand sets out to demonstrate through the novel’s action what happens when governments follow socialist ideas. She argues that when men are compelled, through collectivism’s forced moral code, to place the needs of their neighbors above their own rational self-interest, the result is chaos and evil. Incentive is destroyed, and corruption becomes inevitable. The story of the Twentieth Century Motor Company illustrates this brilliantly. After the plant adopted a method in which workers were paid according to perceived needs and ordered to work based on perceived ability, the workers became depraved and immoral, each seeking to show himself or herself as most needy and least skilled. The plant failed, and the community was destroyed by mistrust and greed. For Rand, any economic or political plan based on sacrifice of the individual for the group leads to chaos and destruction.
The Need to Integrate Mind and Body
Rand rejects the mind-body dichotomy that is central to many philosophies and religions. She opposes the idea that the thoughts and achievements of the mind are pure and noble, but the desires of the body are base and immoral, and she presents Dagny as a character who also rejects the idea. Dagny is proud of her sexuality and sees her physical desires flowing logically from the evaluations and rationality of her mind. At first, Rearden accepts the mind-body split. His transformation occurs when he comes to integrate the two facets of himself into a rational whole.
Dr. Stadler represents another aspect of this mind-body dichotomy. He sees the pure science of the mind as removed from practical affairs and wonders why the mind that made the motor would bother with practical applications. For him, the mind is cut off not just from the body but from practical life. Again, Dagny represents the integrated whole when she concludes that the motor’s inventor worked within the reality of practical life because he liked living on earth.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The literary device of rhetorical questioning frequently draws attention to key thematic elements. The most obvious example is the unanswerable “Who is John Galt?” The question takes on many layers of meaning: as a slang reference to hopelessness and futility, as a source for speculation about the mythical figure who may have found Atlantis, and finally as a public response to Galt’s radio broadcast. Stadler’s “What can you do when you have to deal with people?” is another recurring rhetorical question that takes on different meaning based on context. For example, Stadler’s disillusioned question is turned against him when Floyd Ferris uses it to coerce him into speaking at the demonstration of Project X.
Motors are everywhere in the novel. The revolutionary motor built by John Galt embodies the power to harness energy and move things with it. Metaphorically, the motive power of the world is in the rational mind, and when the mind is withdrawn, the “motor of the world” begins to stop. In a real sense, motive power is essential to Dagny, who continually searches for decent locomotives to pull her trains.
Bridges serve to represent the great things that can be accomplished by the application of the mind. Rearden’s design for the bridge on the John Galt Line, the first to be made from Rearden Metal, shows a creative solution to a problem that he takes joy in solving. Similarly, the great Taggart Bridge, which links the East and West in a single transcontinental line, represents the product of Dagny’s grandfather Nathaniel’s tireless effort and ingenuity. The destruction of the bridge in the Project X disaster demonstrates that the products of the creative mind are no longer appreciated or understood, and the end is near.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Sign of the Dollar
The dollar sign is the symbol of the strikers. Their cigarettes are stamped with it, and their town square displays a giant dollar sign. For them, the symbol is not merely shorthand for money, but a symbol of a way of life. The dollar sign represents the things it is exchanged for, namely, the productive abilities of man and the goods and services created by the mind at work. The very existence of money suggests that there are goods produced and people able to produce them, which is what makes money meaningful and valued. In his “money speech,” Francisco says, “To trade by means of money is the code of the men of good will.” The strikers value the dollar so much that they have their own mint in the valley and use only gold as the standard for exchange.
The bracelet Rearden creates from the first batch of Rearden Metal symbolizes everything he has worked toward for ten years, and in a larger sense, the purest product of the unfettered, creative mind. It represents his pride in and love for his work, and he wants desperately to share these values with someone. Lillian, who hates and wants to destroy Rearden, misses the point entirely and wears the bracelet only to mock him. She wrongly interprets its meaning as a reference to her bondage, though it is clearly Rearden who is chained to her. Dagny, on the other hand, understands all that the bracelet stands for and shares the values it represents, as demonstrated by her insistence on trading her diamonds for it. In their reactions to the bracelet, we see a sharp contrast between the two women, and it becomes clear that Dagny is the one for Rearden.
Before Ellis Wyatt disappears to join the strike, he destroys his own oil fields by setting fire to them, and the fires continue to burn night and day. Wyatt’s Torch, as the huge flame comes to be known, symbolizes his unwillingness to sanction and participate in the looters’ system or to offer them any useful resources to drain. The flame is a powerful symbol of individualism and the refusal to surrender the mind. Wyatt’s Torch is the very last thing the passengers see before dying in the Taggart Tunnel disaster and the only part of the outside world visible to the residents of the valley.
Atlas, the hero of Greek mythology who carried the weight of the heavens on his shoulders, symbolizes the exploited industrialists, particularly Rearden, whose hard work and great strength support the parasites who live off their productive capabilities. When Francisco tells Rearden that he would advise Atlas to shrug and let go of his burden, he is referring to the strike and calling upon Rearden to lay down his burden and stop believing it is his duty to bear so much weight for the undeserving. Rearden’s only reward for his efforts is the persecution of a corrupt government and the exhaustion of carrying others. Francisco knows it is unjust for Rearden, or anyone, to be cast in this role. By recruiting him for the strike, he tries to show Rearden a way out.
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