Study Guide

Atlas Shrugged Choices

By Ayn Rand

Choices

"Every man builds his world in his own image," he said. "He has the power to choose, but no power to escape the necessity of choice. If he abdicates his power, he abdicates the status of man, and the grinding chaos of the irrational is what he achieves as his sphere of existence – by his own choice." (3.2.4.40)

Galt here explains the consequences that come from refusing to make choices. We see the consequences of this refusal in scenes like the Taggart Tunnel disaster.

He had burned everything there was to burn within him; he had scattered so many sparks to start so many things – and he wondered whether someone could give him now the spark he needed, now when he felt unable to rise again. He asked himself who had started him and kept him going. Then he raised his head. Slowly, with the greatest effort of his life, he made his body rise until he was able to sit upright.... He never asked that question again. (1.2.1.26).

In a climactic moment for Hank, he realizes his own power and makes the choice to keep going. It's interesting that "sparks" are used as a metaphor here; the people involved with the strike are often linked to fire and light symbolism.

"Dagny! Help me to remain. To refuse. Even though he's right!"
She asked evenly, "To refuse what, Francisco?"

He did not answer, only pressed his face harder against her. (1.5.2.255-7)

Francisco has a moment of weakness and begs Dagny to help him refuse to join the strike; but it's notable that even in his moment of weakness, Francisco is still willing to make some sort of choice, rather than refuse to choose at all.

She was looking at the bracelet of blue-green metal.

She felt the movement of something being torn off her wrist, and she heard her own voice saying in the great stillness, very calmly, a voice cold as a skeleton, naked of emotion, "If you are not the coward that I think you are, you will exchange it."

On the palm of her hand, she was extending her diamond bracelet to Lillian. (1.6.1.60-2)

Dagny publicly confronts Lillian and forces her to hand over the Rearden Metal bracelet. In a way, Dagny forces Lillian to make a choice, even though Lillian probably didn't see that she had a choice. To refuse would embarrass her.

"Ted, you won't be the next one to go?" she had asked him, on his recent visit to New York; she had asked it, trying to smile. "He had answered grimly, "I hope not." "What do you mean you hope? – aren't you sure?" He had said slowly, heavily, "Dagny, I've always thought that I'd rather die than stop working. But so did the men who're gone. It seems impossible to me that I could ever want to quit. But a year ago, it seemed impossible that they ever could.... I can't tell what I'll do when I see it – whatever it was that they saw when they went." (2.2.1.3)

Ted Nielsen hits upon one of the main fears in the book: the fear of not knowing. Not knowing why people are making the choices they are making and what sort of choice you might be confronted with in an unknown situation. The unknown cuts off people's ability to judge and to decide, which causes a lot of anxiety for people who prize their power of rational choice.

"Gentlemen," she said, "I do not know what sort of self-fraud you expect to feel that if it's I who name the decision you intend to make, it will be I who'll bear the responsibility for it. Perhaps you believe that if my voice delivers the final blow, it will make me the murderer involved.... I cannot conceive what it is you think you can accomplish by a pretense of this kind, and I will not help to stage it." (2.5.1.33)

Dagny delivers a smack-down to the Board here by refusing to make a difficult choice for them .

Her only power was the power of his own virtues. What if he chose to withdraw it? (2.4.1.58)

Hank begins to realize the power of choosing retreat here. This paves the way to his joining the strike, which is all about choosing to do nothing in order to accomplish something.

"Mr. Rearden," said Francisco, his voice solemnly calm, "if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood... his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders – what would you tell him to do?"

"I...don't know. What...could he do? What would you tell him?

"To shrug." (2.2.6.13)

Francisco handily explains the title here, noting that the metaphorical Atlas can choose a nonviolent way to combat violence. This illustrates the book's peaceful protest theme.

She had said she would give her life for one more year on the railroad. She was back; but this was not the joy of working; it was only the clear, cold peace of a decision reached – and the stillness of unadmitted pain. (2.9.1.5)

It's interesting that Dagny finds a sort of "peace" in the midst of pain. Peace for her comes from making a decision, however difficult. In a sense, the only way people experience any emotions at all is through choice. We can see the contrast with the apathetic, beaten-down people in Starnesville, who don't choose anything.

"There's only a worn thread holding the continent together. There will be one train a day, then one train a week – then the Taggart Bridge will collapse and -"

"No, it won't!"

It was her voice and they whirled to her. Her face was white, but calmer than it had been when she had answered them last.

Slowly, Galt rose to his feet and inclined his head, as in acceptance of a verdict. "You have made your decision" he said.

"I have." (3.2.6.68-72)

Dagny's choice here seems a bit like an involuntary reflex, which is interesting given the amount of emphasis Galt and Co. place on rational decision-making.

"Such is the future you are capable of winning. It requires a struggle; so does any human value. All life is a purposeful struggle, and your only choice the choice of a goal. Do you wish to continue the battle of your present or do you wish to fight for my world?" (3.7.1.397)

Galt delivers his version of the St. Crispin's Day speech (a famous pre-battle speech from Shakespeare's Henry V) when he calls everyone to join his crusade. There are shades of Aragorn from The Return of the King here, too.

"Better come along, Mr. Willers," said the conductor.

"No!" cried Eddie, clutching the metal rung as if he wanted his hand to grow fast to it.

The barker shrugged. "Well, it's your funeral!" (3.10.2.97-99)

Eddie takes his refusal to let go of everything the railroad stands for (civilization, achievement, reason, hard work, heroism) to literal extremes here when he refuses to abandon the broken-down train.