Why Is John Galt?

by Peter Saint-Andre (2001)


Two old friends, Alexandra and Jason, meet for coffee a few years after graduating from the same liberal arts college. They had shared an interest in Ayn Rand during their school years, although Jason got more deeply into the philosophy than Alexandra, who preferred reading novels to poring over books of Objectivist philosophy. After they catch up on their post-college activities, eventually discussion turns to Rand...


"Hey, I finally got around to re-reading Atlas Shrugged," Alexandra volunteered.

"Cool, what did you think?"

"Well, for me the central question of the novel is: Why is John Galt?"

"You mean, 'Who is John Galt,' don't you?"

"No, why."

"I'm not sure I follow."

"Well, he doesn't seem necessary to me."

"Doesn't seem necessary?! He's the main protagonist, the central mystery of the story, 'the man who holds the rails'!"

"All the same, I don't think he adds that much to the novel -- in fact, I think it would be a lot stronger without him."

"Well, you can't make an assertion like that and expect me to swallow it whole. What's your argument?"

"Think about it: what does Galt do that Francisco couldn't have done?"

"Um, discover an inexhaustible source of energy, maybe?"

"OK, maybe not Francisco exactly, but someone very much like him, except a genius at physics -- though I always was skeptical of Galt's engine, sounds like perpetual motion or cold fusion to me."

"That's the whole science-fiction aspect to the story."

"Yeah, I guess. But anyway, it struck me how Galt is this godlike figure who doesn't seem real -- maybe even a Nietzschean übermensch. And he's not even like some Greek god who at least has a lot of personality, such as Zeus or Hera. Galt is awfully wooden and two-dimensional."

"Well, I'll grant you that Galt is a bit of what Rand used to call a floating abstraction, but that doesn't mean he's not necessary to the plot."

"True. But on a second reading, I'd say Galt is something of a deus ex machina. While he's there in the background throughout the novel, he shows up in person only when Dagny wakes up from her plane crash in Mulligan's Valley, at the beginning of Part III. He doesn't have much time to develop as a character."

"That gets back to your point about Galt being kind of two-dimensional. I still don't see how that affects the plot."

"It affects the impact of the novel. If the hero of a novel is two-dimensional, that makes the story a lot less powerful than it could have been otherwise. And that's a pity, because Rand had a much better-developed character ready to hand: Francisco."

"Hey, I like Francisco as much as the next guy, but how could he have filled Galt's shoes?"

"He possessed the intelligence to have the same kind of insights Galt had about the role of the producer in society, and the guts to start the strike."

"I suppose."

"Plus it bothered me how Francisco gives up so much in the story. I mean, he sacrifices his relationship with Dagny for the sake of the strike, and eventually loses her to Galt. I feel it would have been more just for him to win Dagny back at the end. As it is, he is a sad and lonely person at the end, which I don't think he deserves."

"I guess he wasn't quite good enough for Dagny."

"How can you say that?! He doesn't measure up against Galt, but that's an inhuman standard to make anyone live up to."

"Maybe Dagny realized at some level that Francisco wasn't the right one for her."

"I don't think so. I mean, they were involved for years! The only reason they split up was because Francisco renounced her when he gave up his family's business for the sake of the strike. He gave up everything -- both his work and his love. All so that Rand could introduce Galt full-grown from the head of Zeus later in the novel."

"Actually, that's not quite true, because Galt was there from early on. Don't forget, he went to college with Francisco and Ragnar."

"That reminds me! Isn't it bizarre that Dagny never met Galt at that time? I mean, she and Francisco were deeply involved during his college years. You can't tell me that she never went to visit him at college, or that he never mentioned these amazing friends of his."

"If I recall correctly, Rand explicitly describes this scene where Dagny asks Francisco about school, and whether he's met anyone interesting. He says yes he has, but she doesn't press him on it."

"Press him on it?! Why wouldn't he be more expressive about his friends? I mean, if you befriended a world-historical genius in college, wouldn't you talk about that person with your girlfriend?"

"I guess I would, but this is a novel we're talking about here."

"So Rand introduced entirely unrealistic behavior into the novel so that she could bring Galt in fresh later on. I don't buy it."

"Maybe they didn't talk about it because it didn't seem important or their conversations were focused on other things."

"Things more important than friendship? Like D'Anconia Mines or Taggart Transcontinental? If that's the case, then I think Rand is portraying an awfully desiccated view of human relationships."

"Perhaps, but that wasn't her focus in the novel. The theme of Atlas Shrugged is the role of the mind in human life. It's not a love story."

"Says who? It sounds like there's a false dichotomy here. Are you saying that the mind plays no role in love?"

"No."

"Well, maybe it doesn't play a role in the relationship between Dagny and Francisco because they didn't communicate about 'trivial' things like friendship."

"You know what I meant -- the novel is about the importance of the productive class in society. It's an inversion of the whole Marxist analysis of class, in a way."

"So is that why Francisco couldn't be the guy who stopped the motor of the world -- because he was too aristocratic?"

"Ha, I hadn't thought of it that way."

"Rand does seem to have a preference for these heroes who rise from obscurity. And they usually come from Ohio. Galt fits that mold to a T. Maybe there's a bit of the proletarian element in there."

"Well, I wouldn't go that far. Rand was a die-hard opponent of communism and all it stood for. That's why she escaped from the Soviet Union."

"I'm not denying she hated communism, but I do find it curious that she focused so strongly on heavy industry, like steel mills and railroads and such. The communists did the same thing."

"That's purely superficial. She did that to show the integration of mind and body, not out of any agreement with Marxism!"

"You're probably right, but I find it an interesting parallel."

"Interesting yes, but it's nothing ominous, if you ask me."

"But what about Francisco? Here's this joyous person who gives up everything for the sake of the strike. It appears Rand was quite willing to have her characters sacrifice the personal to the political, just like the Marxists. That's not quite consistent with a philosophy which holds human happiness as its highest value."

"I don't think Rand would agree with you on that. Her philosophy isn't some kind of hedonism, it says there are certain requirements for human living. It's pretty clear in the novel that tyranny was on the way in, and Francisco fought against that."

"OK, but why does she have to introduce Galt, who gets the girl in the end? If Francisco had started the strike, then he could have won her back in the end and the final outcome would have been a lot more just."

"Well, again, if Francisco had started the strike, the first person he would have convinced to join him would have been Dagny, and then there wouldn't have been the dramatic conflict between the strikers and the scabs."

"Why not? Maybe he wouldn't have been able to convince her early on and they would have broken up over it. Then when she sees the light, he could have won her back."

"You're pretty hung up on this issue, aren't you -- seeing those two get back together?"

"Not for its own sake, but for the sake of the story. I think the injustice of Francisco losing everything detracts from the power of the novel. Especially because Galt doesn't add anything, since he's so two-dimensional."

"Well, one thing he adds is a brooding sense of mystery. Right from the first sentence of the novel, you're wondering who this John Galt guy is. I think you'd lose that mystery element if you got rid of Galt."

"Hmm, that's a good point. In a thousand-page novel you have that luxury. But I still think that if I had to write a film script based on Atlas Shrugged, one of the first things I'd do would be to remove Galt in order to streamline the story. Change around Francisco a bit and make some relevant adjustments to the plot and you'd never notice the absence of Galt. He's simply not central to the idea of the novel, at least not in the way Roark is to The Fountainhead.

"Well, that's not a fair comparison, since Atlas Shrugged is so much more monumental than The Fountainhead. The scope is huge."

"Maybe that's my problem with Atlas Shrugged: the epic scope drowns out everything else, and it's not on a human scale anymore. It seems to me that Galt is just part and parcel of that."

"Perhaps. I mean, you raise some good points, but I must say that Galt's presence and the epic scope of the novel never bothered me."

"Well, you were a philosophy major!"

continued...


Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Randian Reflections