New York, Colorado, Urban decay, 1950s "alternate universe" America
We really could have just put "the world" for the setting, or at the very least America. This is a sweeping book with a worldwide scope. We have characters traveling all over the continental United States, and we hear about events everywhere from Argentina to England. It's no mistake that one of our main characters runs a transcontinental railroad. This is a book about a whole country of people and problems. There are a few main locations, though, that each embody certain sets of ideals and values.
Our umbrella setting isn't so much a place as it is a state of affairs: urban decay. The very first scene we get in the novel is a description of a creepy and gloomy New York City:
The clouds and the shafts of skyscrapers against them were turning brown, like an old painting in oil, the color of a fading masterpiece. Long streaks of grime ran from under the pinnacles down the slender soot-eaten walls. (126.96.36.199)
Talk about your symbolic language – these dirty old skyscrapers represent the city as a whole. New York in this world is only a shadow of its former self, a "fading masterpiece." Evidence of poverty and decay is everywhere. And we see the same scenes repeated all across the country, from Philadelphia to Starnesville, Wisconsin.
But we don't spend that much time on the streets in New York. Most of our time is spent at Dagny's apartment or the Taggart Transcontinental headquarters. Both are often described as beacons in the night, or safe havens of civilization amongst the grime and decay.
The other home we spend the most amount of time in, Hank Rearden's house outside of Philadelphia, is part beacon, part suffocating trap. Hank's house itself might not show evidence of decline, but the people inside it do. James Taggart's New York apartment also serves the same function; it is a civilized, wealthy space that covers up the moral and spiritual decay that it houses.
It's rather fitting that we spend time in both the businesses and the homes of major characters. Personal and professional lives are highly connected in the novel, and the settings reflect this.
After New York, our other major setting is Colorado. In contrast to New York, Colorado starts out as a booming, energetic place, best characterized by the exciting and successful train ride Dagny takes on the opening day of her John Galt Railroad Line. But Colorado soon falls victim to the economic depression and urban decay sweeping through the rest of the country.
The setting shifts after this. We began with Colorado contrasting to New York and we end with Atlantis, incidentally in Colorado, contrasting to the rest of the country. Atlantis is the name of Galt's secret hideaway, and it seems like some sort of heaven on earth compared to the rest of America. Everything in Atlantis is prosperous, peaceful, and beautiful. This includes the buildings, the landscape, and the people living there. For a book so concerned with philosophy, it's no mistake that Atlantis is an idyllic community, the headquarters of Galt's moral strike. New York, on the other hand, is a central location for the bad business and government plaguing the country, and it shows signs of physical decay accordingly.
The last thing to talk about in terms of setting is time period. This book reflects a sort of alternate universe 1950s America. As in real 1950s America, we see a lot of gender inequality: most women don't have jobs and they suffer from sexism. We also see evidence of overly oppressive communist governments, which the real 1950s America was very concerned about. At the time this book was published, the Cold War – a political, military, and ideological conflict between America and the Soviet Union – was going strong, and the world of Atlas Shrugged reflects a lot of Cold War issues in its political plot points and philosophies.