Study Guide

Atlas Shrugged Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Ayn Rand

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Music and Sound

Music and sound are running themes throughout the novel. It's no mistake that music is tied to the strike and to Galt's value system. Meanwhile, sound, unappealing, dangerous, and even deadly, is linked to the looters. As with many things in the novel, different aspects of a broad category – in this case types of sound – are used to symbolically differentiate the strikers from the looters.

Music is especially important to Dagny's character. When we first meet her, she is listening to music on a train:

She sat listening to the music. It was a symphony of triumph. The notes flowed up, they spoke of rising, and they were the rising itself, they were the essence and the form of upward motion, they seemed to embody every human act and thought that had ascent as its motive. . . .Somewhere on the edge of her mind, under the music, she heard the sound of train wheels. (1.1.2.3)

We actually learn Dagny's thoughts about and love of music, particularly Richard Halley's music, before we even learn her name. The style of this passage is notable; the sentence length is unusually long for this book, and the style is unusually fluid – there are no breaks between phrases. This may be a way to mimic the sound of the music itself and to emphasize Dagny's love of it. Her love of Halley's music, particularly his mysterious Fifth Concerto, signals her value system and the way in which she is already aligned, unknowingly, with the strike.

It is significant that music here is also linked to the sound of machinery and with motion. (Check out "Motors and Motion" below for more on this.) Galt's philosophy is a total one that united things like love, work, and happiness. So it's no mistake that music, which represents Dagny's views and philosophy, is directly tied to the railroad and Dagny's love of her work. Halley's Fifth Concerto emerges as a recurring motif, or repeated symbol, throughout the book, most notably during the John Galt Line's opening and Dagny's introduction to Atlantis:

She heard the sound of the waterfall before she saw the fragile thread that fell in broken strips of glitter down the ledges. The sound came through some dim beat in her mind, some faint rhythm that seemed no louder than a struggling memory...but another sound seemed to grow clearer, rising, not in her mind, but from somewhere among the leaves...she knew that she was hearing [the Fifth Concerto] now, hearing it rise from the keyboard of a piano. (3.1.1.60)

Again, Halley's concerto is directly linked to the theme of rising and movement, which are cast in a positive light. It's also notable that the music is tied to sounds of nature and the natural world. This helps indicate the type of peaceful place that Atlantis is, a where industry, art, and nature are in harmony.

The other Halley piece that plays a major role for Dagny is his Fourth Concerto. This one is often described as "tortured," and it's the one Dagny recalls in moments of pain and doubt, as during her plane crash in Atlantis:

She heard a piece of music in her mind, one she seldom liked to recall; not Halley's Fifth Concerto, but his Fourth, the cry of a tortured struggle, with the chords of its theme breaking through, like a distant vision to be reached. (2.10.2.26)

At the other end of the spectrum are the negative sound motifs associated with the looters. An example is the mysterious Project X, which uses sound waves to create a deadly weapon.

The machine is named the Thompson Harmonizer after it is unveiled, and Dr. Ferris explains that "there are certain frequencies of sound vibration which no structure, organic or inorganic, can withstand." (3.3.1.59)

This is a great metaphor for the way the looters operate. They use "sound" – their speeches, dialogue, and ideas – to effectively destroy the country. We see the effects of this destruction in the urban decay and in the individuals who are beaten down by the looters. It's no accident that characters like Hank and Dagny are perpetually unable to understand the looters and the seemingly meaningless and contradictory sounds coming out of their mouths. The looters' words are as deadly as their sound-wave weapon. While the music and sounds of Atlantis convey hope, the sounds linked with the looters bring destruction and even death.

Motors and Motion

If we had to pick one symbol to best represent the strike and Galt's values, we'd go with motors. Galt kicks off his strike by declaring that he'll "stop the motor of the world." He is also the nearly legendary inventor of "the motor" that Dagny discovers. This motor starts Dagny on a quest, which leads her to Galt and his strike. Apart from everything else he is, Galt is always mainly the "inventor of the motor" for Dagny:

But she knew that there was no meaning in motors or factories or trains, that their only meaning was in man's enjoyment of his life, which they served....She turned to Galt....She was looking at the inventor of the motor, but what she saw was the casual, easy figure of a workman in his natural setting. (3.1.1.73-76)

Motors serve as an expression and an embodiment of a certain philosophy here. Galt is fittingly the inventor of both the motor and a philosophical system that is embodied by motion.

Motors and movement are also closely linked to other characters in the strike. Dagny in particular is tied to motion; it's no coincidence that she runs a railroad. Both Dagny and Hank can fly airplanes, and we also see scenes of both of them driving cars. Motors and motion make up a major part of the values and the world of the strikers.

Education

After listening to all the speechifying of Galt and Co., it's easy to come to the conclusion that the looters and their followers are morons. Why are all these people going along with a value system with so many problems? The answer has a lot to do with one of the book's recurring themes: the power of education.

We don't mean the power of education in a cheesy, "the more you know" sense. Actually, we mean the really dangerous power of education. A lot of the characters in this book, who are otherwise good people, can't seem to break away from the values they've had hammered into them since childhood. Galt's crusade against the country's educational system is a deep-seated, philosophical one, aimed at changing the very way people think.

We get some signs of how education is a problem right from the start, in a conversation between the young Eddie Willers and Dagny:

"Not just what you said. Not just business and earning a living. Things like winning battles, or saving people out of fires, or climbing mountains." "What for?" she asked. "The minister last Sunday said we must always reach for the best within us. What do you suppose is the best within us?" (1.1.1.27)

In this scene Eddie gives us an early hint that the country's religious education and value system may be a problem. As a kid, Eddie has an idea of heroics that is opposed to business. We quickly learn that this is a bad attitude to have in this book. The religious critique isn't explicit, but the fact that Eddie references a Sunday sermon is telling.

Dan Conway provides another example of education gone awry:

"Dan," she said through her teeth, "fight it."

He raised his head. His eyes were empty. "No," he said, "It would be wrong. I'm just selfish."

"Oh, damn that rotten tripe! You know better than that!"
(1.4.6.31-33)

The victim of one of the looters' unjust laws, Dan Conway can't see his way past their rhetoric about sacrifice for the common good. It's a value he's probably been taught his whole life. The looters use people's educations and their commonly accepted ideas about morality to commit serious abuses of power.

Along with references to moral teachings, we get a lot of mentions of school, especially college. Patrick Henry University figures largely in the book; we hear a lot of the professors currently working there spouting off looter rhetoric and bad morals:

"There are no absolutes," said Dr. Pritchett [head of Philosophy at Patrick Henry University]. "Reality is only an illusion." (2.5.1.16)

We see the effect of that kind of teaching in the character of the Wet Nurse, Hank's Washington "advisor."

He never had an answer to "why?" He spoke in flat assertions. He would say about people "He's old-fashioned," "He's unreconstructed," "He's unadjusted," without hesitation or explanation; he would also say, while being a graduate in metallurgy, "Iron smelting, I think, seems to require high temperatures." He uttered nothing but uncertain opinions about physical nature – and nothing but categorical imperatives about men. (2.1.3.17)

The Wet Nurse, thanks to his education, has learned to judge people but not how to think independently. It requires a long, torturous journey for him to realize his errors, and he is tragically killed right as he comes to this realization.

The running theme of education helps emphasize the uphill battle Galt is fighting, and to show how easy it is for decent people to be blinded by really bad ways of thinking.

Lights and Darkness

This is a classic, if somewhat obvious, motif to use in characterizing the battle between the strikers and the looters. However, light and dark do more than just stand in for the good guys and the bad guys here. The oncoming darkness hints at approaching disaster and the increasingly rapid decline of society. It represents not just the looters themselves, but the disastrous effects of their regime.

We kick things off with a creepy twilight scene that really sets the stage for impending doom and disaster:

The light was ebbing and Eddie Willers could not distinguish the bum's face....But from the sunset far at the end of the street, yellow glints caught his eyes, and the eyes looked straight at Eddie Willers, mocking and still – as if the question had been addressed to the causeless uneasiness within him. (1.1.1.2)

At one point Dagny and Owen Kellogg set out to find help for a broken-down train. They literally walk away from the light, which represents civilization here, into darkness, seeming to travel both back in time and to some sort of alien world:

Then she found herself watching the light on the ties under her feet, watching it ebb slowly, trying to hold it, to keep seeing its fading glow, until she knew that the hint of a glow on the wood was no longer anything but moonlight. She could not prevent the shudder that made her turn to look back. The headlight still hung behind them, like the liquid silver globe of a planet, deceptively close, but belonging to another orbit and another system. (2.10.2.89)

The light and dark symbolism are sometimes flipped around in the book. Sometimes the strike itself is tied to twilight and darkness in positive ways, and other times the looters are associated with light in very negative ways. Take this scene during the launch of the John Galt Line:

The cliffs ahead were a bright, liquid gold. Strips of shadow were lengthening the valley below. The sun was descending to the peaks in the west. They were going west, and up, toward the sun. The sky had deepened to the greenish-blue of the rails, when they saw smokestacks in a distant valley. (1.8.7.47)

In this scene the twilight is cast positively and is directly linked to the "blue-green" of Rearden Metal, one of the most positive things in the book. The scene of the train going up toward the sun is also a heroic image. In a way, the train is defiant in the face of darkness, proceeding along in spite of it, so it has a positive rather than an adversarial relationship with twilight and night. Another positive connection between darkness and the strike is the blackout of New York city at the end. This may seem like a terrible event, and it is, but the blackout also signals that Galt's quest is complete. He and his strikers can now start planning how to rebuild the world.

Light is rarely linked to the looters, but when it is, it takes on a rather sinister aspect. In this scene, light is harsh, highlighting the bad situation in which Dagny finds herself:

There was a beam of white light beating down upon the glittering metal of a microphone – in the center of a glass cage imprisoning her with Bertram Scudder. (3.3.3.1)

For the most part, light and darkness are used in the novel to represent good and evil, the strikers and the looters, in the traditional sense. The instances where the typical light and dark associations are reversed are worth noting, though.

Dollar Signs

If Galt and his strikers had a sports team, its logo would definitely be a dollar sign. Their super secret clubhouse, Atlantis, actually has a gigantic dollar sign hanging above it. (We'll let the decorating crowd decide whether or not that's in good taste.) The dollar sign is featured on the cigarettes produced in Atlantis, and it is also the emblem that Dagny scrawls on Nat Taggart's statue as a signal for the strikers to come get her.

Why have Galt and his strikers taken on the dollar sign as their symbol? We'll let Owen Kellogg explain it, since he gets to the point faster than Francisco in his wedding-crashing money speech in Chapter 2.2:

The dollar sign? [It stands] for a great deal. It stands on the vest of every fat, piglike figure in every cartoon, for the purpose of denoting a crook.... It stands – as the money of a free country – for achievement, for success, for ability, for man's creative power – and, precisely for these reasons, it is used as a brand of infamy....It stands for the United States. (2.10.2.177-179)

That is a lot. Dollar signs are an appropriate emblem of Galt's quest and his values because they represent the things his value system prizes: money, capitalism, and America. Money itself is seen as a product of people's hard work and ability, which are also highly prized in Galt's value system. The dollar sign is seen as negative by the looters, so it is fitting that Galt's system, which opposes everything about the looters, would adopt it as a symbol of pride.

Additional Symbols, Images, and Motifs

Here are some other symbols, images, and running themes worth mentioning that we discuss at other points in this guide:

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