Atlas Shrugged

by: Ayn Rand

Part One, Chapters I–II

Summary Part One, Chapters I–II

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.