(A slightly revised version of this post appears in Capitalism Magazine, April 17, 2011)
I do not recommend the movie based—unfaithfully and ineptly, in my judgment—on Atlas Shrugged (Rand 1957) that opens today. (See my analysis of one scene here.) Instead, I urge every thoughtful individual to read the novel, again and again, and to urge your thoughtful friends to do so too.
There is a great deal of information and misinformation on the Internet about this novel, which I consider the greatest work of art I have ever encountered. Here is my way of describing the novel to those who have not yet read it.
The theme of Atlas Shrugged, the novel, is “the role of the mind in man’s existence.” (Rand  1975, 85.) For Ayn Rand, man’s basic means of survival is man’s mind, in particular, man’s ability to reason.
The novel deals with the role of the mind in all aspects of man’s life, including science, business, art, love, and sex. It deals extensively with the role of the mind in one crucial, often misunderstood, aspect of man’s life: the production of material goods. The novel focuses most on one kind of producer, what Ayn Rand (1967, 44) called “America’s persecuted minority”: the businessmen.
The novel depicts businessmen who—by their own independence of thought, inventiveness, integrity, and steadfast adherence to the facts and figures of reality (that is, by their own use of reason)—create prosperity on a grand scale. And the more prosperity that they create for themselves and bring to others through trade, the more that they are vilified as greedy and selfish, and the more that society—in the form of government and the pseudo-intellectuals and pseudo-businessmen who partner with government—tries to control them, to control their thinking, to override the independent thinking that created the prosperity in the first place.
The controllers—Ayn Rand calls them looters, because they take by force what others produce—count on the inventiveness and perseverance of the producers. The looters assume that no matter how much burden they load onto the producers—no matter how high the taxes or how stifling the controls—the producers will always figure out how to produce more and to bear the ever-growing burden. The producers are the Atlases who support all of mankind. But there is a limit to everything, and finally the burden becomes too great, and the producers begin to break down. And some of the producers decide that they are not going to take it anymore. But they don’t start a war or an armed rebellion. All they do is quit. One by one, individual producers quietly decide to stop thinking. Some of them retire early, some of them take menial jobs, and some of them just disappear. And one of the mysteries of the novel is this question: Is this some kind of organized strike, or is this simply the case of diverse individuals reaching the same conclusion without talking to each other about it?
But what I have just described is only the set-up of the story. The main conflict is not the producers vs. the looters, or good vs. evil. For Ayn Rand, evil is impotent and could not survive without the sanction of or tolerance by the good. A deeper conflict is good vs. good: some of the producers are against the others. Some of the producers have quit, but many of them have not. Some of the heroes who love each other passionately are on the opposite sides of this conflict. They are each other’s worst enemy, and they oppose each other with all of the power of their brilliant minds, but they also love each other and try to win each other over to their side. And the deepest conflict of all is the inner conflict within each producer who must take a side. Does he continue to struggle to keep his productive career and business going despite the greater and greater burdens imposed by the looters who live off of him, or does he abandon the productive career and business that he has poured his life and soul into?
(Added on 6/3/2011: Another form of inner conflict, related to all the other conflicts, is that some of the producers have adopted some premises from the anti-reason society that vilifies yet depends on them.)
In order to resolve these conflicts, the producers must first grasp—explicitly and in its crucial implications—the novel’s theme: “the role of the mind in man’s existence.”
The book jacket to the original edition of Atlas Shrugged (Rand, 1957) concludes, “It is a mystery story, not about the murder of a man’s body, but about the murder—and rebirth—of man’s spirit.”
It occurred to me that I should reduce my description above to one sentence, a kind of “plot-theme” that withholds spoilers, or a DeMille-like “situation” stated in thematic terms. (See Rand  1975, 85–86 for an explanation of her term “plot-theme.” In short, it is a one-sentence summary of the plot—like a ‘log-line’—stated in terms informed by the theme. See also Rand  2000, 57 for Ayn Rand’s account of Cecil DeMille’s term “situation.”)
So here is a DeMille-like ‘situation’: In continuing to use their minds to create great wealth in the careers they love, the men of the mind keep alive the unthinking society that oppresses them more and more.
And here is a plot-theme that backs off on spoilers, but that still gives away more than the ‘situation’: The men of the mind, the Atlases of the world whose productive careers keep alive the unthinking society that oppresses them more and more, must decide whether to continue supporting their oppressors or to abandon the careers they love.
Rand, Ayn (1957), Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House.
——— (1967), Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New York: Signet.
——— ( 1975), “Basic Principles of Literature”, The Objectivist 7(7): 1–7. Reprinted in The Romantic Manifesto, Second Revised Edition. New York: Signet, 80–98.
——— ( 2000), The Art of Fiction. [An edited transcription of a course on writing fiction given by Ayn Rand in 1958.] Tore Boeckmann (ed.) New York: Plume.