Atlas Shrugged Writing Style
Mysterious, Blunt, Visual, Sweeping, Episodic
That probably seems like a random list, but all these styles are in fact interconnected. Just stick with us for a bit. This is a big book in more ways than one (not just in that it makes a great doorstop). It deals with big ideas and has a global scope, but that scope is also offset by lots of very intimate scenes and a focus on individual characters. So we have a play of different styles here, with a lot of alterations in style among chapters and even within chapters.
First up, have mysterious. Given that this book is largely a mystery (who is John Galt?) that's rather fitting, if a bit unoriginal. As with any good mystery, we have a lot of clues sprinkled throughout the book. These take the form of recurring themes, images, and phrases, recalled past scenes, and even chapter titles that reference scenes.
Take the title of the book's last chapter, "In the Name of the Best Within Us." This recalls the very first scene of the novel, where Eddie Willers remembers a childhood conversation with Dagny where he wonders what the "best within us" is. In the last chapter, Eddie remembers that childhood scene. Details like this are used as clues. Here we get a clue in the chapter title itself as to what the chapter may be about and which character might play a large role.
Even though we get lots of clues, we rarely get much explanation of them – hence the mystery. One of the best examples of the book's mysterious style is Eddie's one-sided conversations with a mystery friend, who turns out to be John Galt. We only ever hear Eddie's side of the conversations, which tend to give us a lot of detail about events happening in the book. For example:
"Nothing's going to stop us this time....Sure, I know who's going to lay the rail. McNamara, of Cleveland....We can count on him. There aren't many good contractors left....We're rushed as hell, but I like it. I've been coming to the office an hour earlier than usual, but she beats me to it. She's always there first....What?...I don't know what she does at night....Nothing much, I guess...She plays records....What do you care, which records?" (188.8.131.52)
The mystery friend is represented solely by ellipses here. We see the effects of conversations like these (for instance, McNamara disappears shortly after) without fully understanding the cause for a long time. This sort of mysterious link between cause and effect is common stylistically in this book. Characters frequently are puzzled by the behavior of others or feel they are nearing the edge of a big realization then abruptly pull back from it, leaving us hanging.
There was no reason that he had to remember the oak tree tonight. It meant nothing to him any longer, only a faint tinge of sadness – and somewhere within him, a drop of pain moving briefly and vanishing, like a raindrop on the glass of a window, its course in the shape of a question mark. (184.108.40.206)
We are frequently left without any "reason" for the way a character feels or behaves, or for events that occur. The style in this passage also uses a lot of significant imagery. In fact, the imagery in the book frequently gives us clues that the sparse language does not. Stylistically, the book is relatively short on detailed descriptions. We tend to get more metaphoric imagery than lengthy details about what a character is feeling, for instance. The style leaves a lot implied, which adds to the book's overall mysteriousness.
Blunt and Visual
The book's diction, or word choice, is generally both blunt and vague. This needs some explaining. On a sentence level, the narrative style uses few words to hint at a lot of things. As we've seen, the style is quite mysterious and rarely comes right out and says what things mean. Instead, the style bluntly tells us the facts of situations and uses things like powerful imagery to hint at the deeper meanings and themes of scenes. A good example of this complex style is the Taggart Tunnel disaster narration:
The lights of Winston kept growing smaller, each time they appeared; the black hole of the tunnel kept growing larger. A black veil went streaking past the windows at times, dimming the lights; it was the heavy smoke from the coal-burning engine....As the train went into the tunnel, the flame of Wyatt's Torch was the last thing they saw on earth. (220.127.116.111, 290)
The narrative doesn't come right out and say that the train is doomed, but the imagery pretty much screams it. We get lots of darkness and light symbolism here and thematic meanings; but the style itself is very to-the-point and doesn't use lots of long sentences or excess words.
But while the style uses lots of short sentences, it is still very sweeping in places. This book has a wide focus and deals with Big Issues, so it makes sense that the style sometimes reflects this. We get big, dramatic scenes even while, stylistically, the language used in the scenes isn't overly complicated. Let's check out an example:
Aloud she said, "I want you to know this. I started my life with a single absolute: that the world was mine to shape in the image of my highest values and never to be given up to a lesser standard, no matter how long or hard the struggle" – you whose presence I had always felt in the streets of the city, the wordless voice within her was saying, and whose world I wanted to build. (18.104.22.168)
Dagny is making a big speech here and is discussing big ideas; but the sentences and phrases she uses are pretty basic and pointed. She doesn't ramble on dramatically. What's also significant is that the style uses interspliced scenes here. We hear what Dagny is saying aloud as well as her internal thoughts, which recalls a scene from many chapters earlier where she has an inner monologue.
In many ways the style of the book resembles that of a movie script. It makes use of important visuals; we often recall past scenes in flashbacks and have repeated dialogue; and we have lots of dramatic sequences, like the tunnel collapse and Dagny's plane crash. In the above passage, you can almost imagine it as a movie, cutting back and forth between past and present while dramatic music swells. Ayn Rand actually worked in Hollywood as a script reader and later a scriptwriter, and we can see that experience stylistically reflected in Atlas Shrugged.
This brings us to our last major style category: episodic. Episodic is a way of saying that the style uses a lot of self-contained episodes or scenes that have a beginning, middle, and end. Episodic refers to the broader style of the book, looking at entire chapters and scenes. The other styles we've discussed were more focused on sentences and paragraphs. So style can cover a lot of different things.
In episodic style, scenes are all separate from one another, yet are still connected into a larger whole – like a movie, really. You'll have a scene with two characters having coffee, then you'll cut to another scene involving a different character in a store or something. You can also have scenes that cut and then jump forward in time. Here's an example in Atlas Shrugged:
"I couldn't help it, Jim!" it [the voice on the telephone] gulped. "I couldn't help it!...The government of the People's State of Mexico has nationalized the San Sebastián Mines and the San Sebastián Railroad."
"[. . .] and, therefore, I can assure the gentlemen of the Board that there is no occasion for panic."
[. . .] James Taggart stood at the long table, addressing the Board of Directors. His voice was precise and monotonous; it connoted safety. (22.214.171.124; 126.96.36.199-2)
There's a ton going on here. We have a scene that starts in medias res, a fancy Latin term for "in the middle of things." We hear about the disaster and then get a scene break where we enter into the middle of James's speech. The new scene itself begins with an ellipses, and we don't learn that it's James who is speaking until later in the paragraph. So we have two separate, but highly interconnected, episodes here.
Also, the style reflects a lot of the other things we've discussed. The sentences are short and factual, especially the narrator's description of James. We also get words that imply a lot even if they don't come right out and say it. The voice on the phone is described as "it" rather than "he," which says a lot about the kind of person speaking. This isn't so much a person as a panicky voice.
Within each chapter we usually have a whole series of scenes involving different characters and different times and places. The cuts between these scenes is generally very abrupt. And within each scene we may have flashbacks to previous events and clues that recall past scenes and phrases. All these scenes add up to a whole chapter, which often has a thematic focus. The chapters go together to make up a volume with a thematic focus. And the volumes go together to make up the book. It's like those Russian nesting dolls, where the smaller ones stack inside increasingly bigger ones.