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Atlas Shrugged FAQ

1 Introduction and Contents

This FAQ addresses questions about Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged. These include questions about the book (availability, history, etc.), and its story. This FAQ was last updated on March 19, 2011.

The detailed contents are as follows:

1 Introduction and Contents
2 Studying Atlas Shrugged
    2.1 Where can I find a free online copy of Atlas Shrugged?
    2.2 Are excerpts of Atlas Shrugged available online?
    2.3 Where can I find online summaries and commentary on Atlas Shrugged?
    2.4 Are printed CliffsNotes or other study guides available?
    2.5 Isn't there an essay contest based on Atlas Shrugged?
3 Derivative Versions
    3.1 When does the planned Atlas Shrugged movie/mini-series come out? Has the book been made into a movie before?
    3.2 Why did it take so long for a movie to be made? Was Rand's estate interfering with the production?
    3.3 Has Atlas Shrugged been translated into my native language?
    3.4 Is there an audio edition of the novel?
    3.5 Has Atlas Shrugged ever been turned into a play, comic book, or other format?
4 Setting and Characters
    4.1 Who are the major characters?
    4.2 When is the story set in time?
    4.3 What physical locations are used for the story?
    4.4 Is "Galt's Gulch" a real place? Where is it?
    4.5 Why are the US President and Congress referred to as the "Head of the State" and "national legislature"?
    4.6 What is a "People's State"?
    4.7 Are any real people referred to in the story?
5 Plot Events and Themes (contains spoilers)
    5.1 How long would John Galt's speech last if it was actually read aloud?
    5.2 What happens to Eddie Willers at the end of the novel?
    5.3 Why does Dagny <spoiler omitted> the guard?
    5.4 How do the flashbacks and references to past events fit together chronologically with the "present-day" action?
    5.5 Does Rand use Jewish symbolism in the novel?
    5.6 Why do several important events in the story happen on September 2?
6 Miscellaneous
    6.1 Who is Ayn Rand? What else did she write?
    6.2 How long is Atlas Shrugged?
    6.3 Why is the book so long? Couldn't Rand have shortened it?
    6.4 Is it true that Atlas Shrugged is the second most influential book ever written?
    6.5 How many copies of Atlas Shrugged have been sold?

2 Studying Atlas Shrugged

2.1 Where can I find a free online copy of Atlas Shrugged?

There are no legally posted free copies of Atlas Shrugged online, because it is still under copyright protection. The estate of Ayn Rand and its publishers make a substantial amount of money selling copies of the novel, so they are not likely to authorize giving it away anytime soon.

2.2 Are excerpts of Atlas Shrugged available online?

Yes. See the "Related Links" list on the ORC Atlas Shrugged page for a list of excerpts available online.

2.3 Where can I find online summaries and commentary on Atlas Shrugged?

There are several sources available:

2.4 Are printed CliffsNotes or other study guides available?

Yes. Information on the printed Atlas Shrugged CliffsNotes is available online. A print version of the SparkNotes can also be purchased. Many libraries will have copies of Gale's Novels for Students (volume 10), which includes Atlas Shrugged. The relevant section can also be purchased for download, or the same material can be accessed online via Enotes with a subscription (limited excerpts available free).

2.5 Isn't there an essay contest based on Atlas Shrugged?

Yes. There is an annual essay contest for college students, sponsored by the Ayn Rand Institute. (This contest is not run by the Objectivism Reference Center. Please direct all questions about the contest to the Ayn Rand Institute.)

3 Derivative Versions

3.1 When does the Atlas Shrugged movie/mini-series come out? Has the book been made into a movie before?

In July 2010, filming wrapped on part one of what is supposed to be a three-part series of Atlas Shrugged movies. It is expected to be released on April 15, 2011. A number of efforts have been made over the years to produce a movie or mini-series based on the book. Ayn Rand was working on a mini-series script before her death, and other scripts were started in the years since. None of these efforts ever got past the initial planning and scripting work. Updates about the movie are are available at its Facebook page and via sites such as IMDB, Allmovie, and the Atlasphere's Ayn Rand Meta-Blog.

3.2 Why did it take so long for a movie to be made? Was Rand's estate interfering with the production?

Rand's heir, Leonard Peikoff, sold the movie rights years ago. The sale did not include any special conditions or controls. Therefore, Peikoff no longer has any direct say in whether a movie gets made, who makes it, or what kind of movie it might be.

As to why the movie took so long to enter production, there are many factors that can prevent a movie from getting made, including financial problems, schedule conflicts, inadequate scripts, etc. There are a number of cases where famous books have gone many years without a movie version being released.

3.3 Has Atlas Shrugged been translated into my native language?

The Ayn Rand Institute maintains a list of recent foreign language translations of Rand's books. Atlas Shrugged is not translated as often as her other books, probably because of its length. The ARI list does not necessarily include all older, out-of-print editions, so you might want to check used bookstores or online auction sites to see if you can find an older edition in the language you want.

3.4 Is there an audio edition of the novel?

Yes. Unabridged and abridged editions are available on cassette tape. The abridged version is also available on compact disc. The unabridged version spans a large number of tapes and is normally sold in three separate, multi-tape volumes. Audio files of the unabridged version are also available for download (in various file formats) from Audible.com.

3.5 Has Atlas Shrugged ever been turned into a play, comic book, or other format?

There are no presentations of the original story in any format other than the novel. However, there are a few derivative works in the form of extrapolations and parodies:

4 Setting and Characters

4.1 Who are the major characters?

There are numerous characters, but the following are the most important:

For more information on major characters, including some possible plot spoilers, visit one of these character lists:

4.2 When is the story set in time?

The time setting for Atlas Shrugged is not specified in the novel. It is typically interpreted as being either the near future, or the present in an alternate version of reality. The social mores presented in the story suggest the US in the 1940s and 50s (when Rand was working on the novel), while the economic and political conditions resemble a cross between the early 1900s and a dystopian future.

Rand's own description of the time setting to one fan was as follows:

You ask whether Atlas Shrugged represents the present or the future. The answer is: both. To be exact, the action of Atlas Shrugged takes place in the near future, about ten years from the time when one reads the book. (Letters of Ayn Rand, p. 613)

Rand made this comment in 1963, and indicates a shifting timeframe: the novel is always considered to be in the future, regardless of when it is read, and therefore it has no specific time setting other than "near future." Reinforcing this idea of a non-specific time setting, Rand comments on the time setting in The Art of Fiction, saying that "Atlas Shrugged is of no period" (p. 163).

Rand's comments notwithstanding, as social and economic conditions in the real world continue to change more and more from what they were when Rand wrote the novel, the "alternate reality" interpretation becomes increasingly more plausible than the "near future" interpretation. There is essentially no likelihood that the social and technological condition of the world would resemble the novel ten years from today, but it is possible to envision an alternative history in which collectivism choked off progress in the 20th century, so that technology became more or less stuck on early 20th-century standards (no computers, no jet airplanes, railroads as a primary means of transport, etc.), similar to what is depicted in the novel.

Both the futuristic and alternative history interpretations are discussed by Mimi Reisel Gladstein in her book about the novel, Atlas Shrugged: Manifesto of the Mind (pp. 40-44), and in Robert Hunt's "Science Fiction for the Age of Inflation: Reading Atlas Shrugged in the 1980s," in the anthology Coordinates: Placing Science Fiction and Fantasy (pp. 85-87).

4.3 What physical locations are used for the story?

The action of the novel takes place primarily in the United States, with references to events taking place in Mexico, Argentina, and on the high seas. Specific locations include:

The Wikipedia online encylopedia includes a detailed list of places mentioned in the novel.

4.4 Is "Galt's Gulch" a real place? Where is it?

The valley referred to in the novel as "Galt's Gulch" is Rand's fictional creation, but she was inspired by the town of Ouray, Colorado. As she described it in a letter to a friend:

Speaking of Atlas Shrugged, I was amused (benevolently) to hear that you chose Ouray as your favorite spot in Colorado. That is the little town I had picked for Galt's Gulch. To be exact, I marked it on a map as the right location, long before I saw it. Then, when I went to Colorado for research purposes and discovered Ouray, I fell in love with it. It is the most beautifully dramatic spot in the whole state, and it's even surrounded by a ring of mountains (though Galt's Valley would be somewhat larger). (Letters of Ayn Rand, p. 509)

Since the publication of the novel, some fans have attempted to create their own "independent" communities modeled after Galt's Gulch. One of these efforts was even named the "Galt's Gulch Project." These projects have typically come to nothing, and neither they nor their would-be locations have anything to do with what Rand was envisioning when she wrote the story.

4.5 Why are the US President and Congress referred to as the "Head of the State" and "national legislature"?

Rand intentionally avoided using the real titles. In her notes for writing the novel, she indicates that she did this to "avoid the honorable connotations attached to such a title as 'President of the United States' by another era and a different principle of government." (Journals of Ayn Rand, p. 454) In the world of Atlas Shrugged, the old terms had presumably been dropped at some time in the past. Similarly, most countries in the world have changed their names to "People's State" (see question 4.6 below).

4.6 What is a "People's State"?

Most countries are portrayed in Atlas Shrugged as having changed their names to include the term "People's State." Presumably this term was inspired by various Communist countries that referred to themselves as "People's Republics" (the People's Republic of China, etc.). The following specific countries are mentioned as People's States in the story (with the section and chapter of the references in parentheses):

The United States evidently has not changed its name. Whether all other countries have done so is unclear. Argentina only becomes a "People's State" late in the novel, and Chile appears to have changed only recently.

4.7 Are any real people referred to in the story?

One critic described the novel's internal historical references thusly:

Atlas Shrugged does not contain the name of a single real corporation, past or present (although D'Anconia Copper echoes, perhaps unconsciously, Anaconda); nor the name of any businessman, engineer, president, statesman, or inventor who ever lived; nor of any historical figure--neither Jesus nor Marx nor Adam Smith nor Stalin nor Hitler nor Napoleon -- nor (with a minute exception) of any author, artist, or composer; nor of any invention, movement, system, or theory -- including communism, fascism, evolution, or relativity -- that can be attributed to one person; nor World War I, nor World War II, nor any other event of the twentieth century or of any preceding century. (Robert Hunt, "Science Fiction for the Age of Inflation: Reading Atlas Shrugged in the 1980s," in Coordinates: Placing Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by George E. Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin, and Robert Scholes, p. 86.)

Hunt's description is slightly overstated, but essentially correct. There are very few direct references to any real people, and they are all historical figures:

In the history of the d'Anconia family, there are passing references to "the lord of the Inquisition" and "the Duke of Alba." Although there have been people with these titles, it is unlikely that Rand intended to refer to any real person when using them.

The absence of references to real people was intentional on Rand's part. In discussing the use of such references in fiction in general, she commented:

The rule is: Do not use anything of this nature more recent than a hundred years. Anything that has survived for a long time becomes an abstraction, but the fame of the moment is too temporary to include in a story which deals with essentials, not with particular details.

[...]

You have to be guided by your theme and by how abstract a level you are writing on. In We the Living, I had a lot of journalistic references [...]. When you deal with history, you obviously mention the concretes of the period.

In Atlas Shrugged, I hardly mentioned anybody younger than Plato and Aristotle. More recent references were proper in The Fountainhead because the fight for modern architecture occurred in a specific historical period. But Atlas Shrugged is of no period and therefore had to be kept the most abstract. (The Art of Fiction, edited by Tore Boeckmann, pp. 162-163. Omissions indicated with bracketed ellipses.)

5 Plot Events and Themes

NOTE: The information below contains spoilers for those who have not read the novel.

5.1 How long would John Galt's speech last if it was actually read aloud?

According to what Galt says later in the book, his speech supposedly lasted three hours. Contemporary audio recordings of the text confirm that this is the approximate time for reading the speech aloud.

5.2 What happens to Eddie Willers at the end of the novel?

The last scene to include Eddie Willers shows him stranded in the desert. At the end of the book, Eddie isn't dead, nor necessarily even abandoned, but he also isn't shown as having been saved. He might be rescued, or he might die in the desert. We just don't know, because Rand doesn't reveal what he does or what happens to him after he is stranded. This suspense is intentional: Eddie is supposed to represent the "common man," people who aren't inventive geniuses and leaders. His fate is left unresolved at the end of the book to reflect Rand's belief that the fate of ordinary people depends in many ways on the actions of people like Galt, Dagny, etc.

Rand described Eddie's situation in a letter to a fan:

Eddie Willers is not necessarily destined to die; in a free society, he will live happily and productively; in a collectivist society he will be the first to perish. He does not have the ability to create a new society of his own, but he is much too able and too honest ever to adjust himself to collectivism. (Letters of Ayn Rand, p. 564)

A detailed discussion of this character and his fate is provided by Andrew Bernstein in the CliffsNotes for Atlas Shrugged.

5.3 Why does Dagny shoot the guard?

The straightforward answer is that she shot him because he was preventing her from freeing Galt from the torture chamber. Some readers, however, are disturbed by Dagny's actions because she shows no reluctance or remorse for killing the guard. Others ask whether her actions should be considered an "initiation of force," which Rand elsewhere says is immoral.

To evaluate these issues, the scene (which can be read here) should be considered as a whole and within its context in the novel. Dagny does not simply walk up and shoot the guard. Initially she tries to trick him into letting her pass by claiming she has orders from a senior official. The guard is uncertain what to do, because he has conflicting orders and doesn't want to decide for himself. Dagny only pulls out a gun when he says he is going to alert his supervisor of her presence. Then she threatens him, but even under threat he refuses to take any sort of personal responsibility, even for saving his own life. Only after several exchanges where he refuses to make a decision (but continues to block the door), does Dagny finally shoot him. In these circumstances, there doesn't seem to be any reason why Dagny should show any further reluctance or remorse, since she has already given him several chances.

As to whether an initiation of force is involved, the placement of the scene in the novel makes it clear that Dagny is acting in protection of John Galt. Galt is imprisoned and has been tortured. Moreover, by this point in the story, the oppressive and immoral nature of the government that is holding Galt has been made clear. Numerous people have heeded Galt's call and joined the strike. The guard, however, is still there. He not only hasn't quit, he is actively helping keep Galt prisoner. In that context, it is clearly acceptable within Rand's moral views for Dagny to use force against the guard as part of the rescue of Galt. Rand would consider this a defensive, rather than aggressive, use of force.

5.4 How do the flashbacks and references to past events fit together chronologically with the "present-day" action?

The Atlas Shrugged Chronology places the events of the novel in chronological order.

5.5 Does Rand use Jewish symbolism in the novel?

Possibly, although this has never been proven. In his book, The Ideas of Ayn Rand, Ronald Merrill argues that Rand used allusions to Jewish symbolism and myth in a few places in the novel. Merrill's claims are interesting, but largely speculative, since he does not provide any external evidence to suggest that Rand intended to make such allusions.

5.6 Why do several important events in the story happen on September 2?

Rand began writing the novel on September 2, 1946. She set important events in the story on that date as a commemoration. Although it is not clear whether she was aware of it, this was also the twentieth anniversary of her first trip to Los Angeles, where she was living at the time.

The important events in the novel that happen on September 2 are:

6 Miscellaneous

6.1 Who is Ayn Rand? What else did she write?

Questions about Ayn Rand's life and works are answered in the Ayn Rand Biographical FAQ.

6.2 How long is Atlas Shrugged?

The exact number of pages varies according to how the book is printed (page size, font size, etc.). The first hardcover edition had 1168 pages. The first mass market paperback edition had 1084 pages. Present-day editions are of similar size. In The Art of Fiction, Rand says that "there are 645,000 words in it by the printer's count." (p. 4)

6.3 Why is the book so long? Couldn't Rand have shortened it?

The length of Atlas Shrugged is a common source of complaints about it. Negative reviews often say Rand is repetitive, making the same points repeatedly using multiple characters and situations, and then summing up her points in long, didactic speeches. There is some truth in these complaints, insofar as the novel is very long and does contain multiple representations of the same issues. If Rand had not already been a bestselling author, she might have been pressured into compressing or eliminating some of the seemingly redundant material. Given the scope of the story, the result probably would not have been a short book, but it wouldn't have been quite as long as it is. But in the actual circumstance, she was not subject to this type of editorial control because she was already popular and could dictate her own terms to the publisher.

To understand why Rand wrote the novel the way she did requires looking at her history as a writer. She had three previously published novels, which cover some ideas also found in Atlas Shrugged. Based on the reviews and reader letters she received for those books, it was reasonable for her to believe that many readers had not fully understood her. By providing even more examples and explicit speeches, she was trying to make sure that no one would miss the point. (Ironically, the subsequent reviews and reactions make it clear that some people misunderstood her anyway.) Some readers find this aspect of the book annoying; others don't have a problem with it.

6.4 Is it true that Atlas Shrugged is the second most influential book ever written?

No one knows exactly how influential Atlas Shrugged is, because there has never been a proper study done to check. The "second most influential" claim comes from a Survey of Lifetime Reading Habits conducted in 1991 by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress. Printed surveys were sent to members of the Club, asking them what books had most influenced their own lives. A little over 2,000 responses were received. The Bible ranked first, and Atlas Shrugged ranked a distant second. Because the survey targeted an audience of book lovers (members of the Club) and an active effort was required to mail in a response, it is likely that the results were skewed towards people who were influenced especially strongly by a particular book. Such a result cannot be reliably interpreted as reflecting the entire US population, although enthusiastic promoters of the novel sometimes make such claims. (The survey is also often inaccurately described as a "poll" or "study," and various incorrect sources are cited for it.)

Similar concerns affect a more recent list to an even greater degree. In 1998, book publisher Random House ran an online vote asking readers to name the "best" English-language novels of the 20th century. Atlas Shrugged placed first in this vote, with Rand's other novels placing high on the list as well. However, there was a considerable amount of campaigning by special-interest groups to promote particular authors and books. There were also only limited controls to prevent repeat voting and other "ballot stuffing" techniques. In the end, the results probably reflected the intensity of feeling among the most highly motived voters as much or more than the breadth of support for any of the top vote-getters.

Because of the limitations of these surveys, some critics attack them as "invalid" or "unscientific," but that isn't entirely accurate. The survey results are legitimate as long as one understands their biases and limitations. They reflect the strength of influence that the books listed have had on the specific groups involved in the surveys. What is invalid and unscientific is to attempt to generalize the findings beyond those groups without accounting for the skewed participation.

6.5 How many copies of Atlas Shrugged have been sold?

According to a press release from the Ayn Rand Institute, over 7 million copies had been sold by the US publishers as of January 2010, with sales in 2009 along being over 500,000 copies. This presumably does not include sales from other countries, whether in English or translated. By way of comparison, these are significantly higher sales than most books ever achieve, but signifcantly less than some other modern novels, such as Gone with the Wind or The Da Vinci Code, which have sales in the multiple tens of millions.

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