As in my review of The Fountainhead, I will provide quick glances at the good, the bad, and the ugly of Rand's magnum opus.
The Good. This is going to be a bit of a challenge. We can begin with the prose style of the work. Many critics of Rand have complained about Rand's prose. Atlas, these critics claim, is verbose and badly written. Oddly enough, rarely are these critics very specific about their complaints; rarely to they provide specific examples of what they don't like. I suspect that some of these critics confuse Rand's tone with her writing style. Atlas, for all its faults, is not a badly written work. While Rand may not be the most elegant or inspired of prose stylists, she never fails to get her point across and her descriptions are rarely verbose.
While it would be difficult to defend Atlas as a work of serious literature on par with War and Peace, The Brothers Karamozov, or L'Éducation sentimentale, it would be possible to rank it higher if we regarded it as exemplifying a less demanding genre. This is precisely what reviewer John Chamberlain attempted in his review of Atlas for The Freeman. Chamberlain's review begins as follows:
AYN RAND’S Atlas Shrugged is bound to be a best seller, not because it is Tolstoyan fiction in the round (it isn’t), but because it deals with the most vital philosophical and economic issues of our times in the form of a wildly exciting parable. Here is the work of a supreme teacher.After quoting from some of the speeches in Atlas, and then lightly criticizing Rand for rejecting Christian charity, Chamberlain concludes as follows:
Despite its pedagogical lapses, however, Atlas Shrugged should make converts to the cause of freedom by the score. The novel is so deftly plotted, so excitingly paced, and so universal in its hero-villain intensity, that it will carry its message to thousands who would never be caught dead reading a textbook -- or even a difficult article -- on economics. Even libertarians who ordinarily despise fiction will want to read Atlas Shrugged for the insights that tumble out of the mouths of its dramatis personae on virtually every page.Chamberlain is suggesting that Atlas succeeds as propaganda. While that view could be disputed by those of us who don't find the novel all that convincing, even as propaganda, it's nonetheless a fact that millions of readers have been influenced in varying degrees by Rand's massive tome. Strange but true.
The Bad. Where do we start? Probably with the flat, one-dimensional characters. Nor is it solely an issue here of realism, although that would be a problem if Atlas were regarded as a work of serious fiction (as opposed to a thriller or a propaganda novel). Even as romantic characters, Rand's characters leave much to be desired. Simply compare the stick figures who populate Atlas with the characters in Dumas' Three Musketeers or Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. Neither of these romantic novels exhibit the same level or depth of psychological insight that we find in Tolstoy's War and Peace or George Eliot's Middlemarch. But for all that, Dumas character's, d'Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, still live and breathe. We can relate to them as human beings, as real people. Scott's characters are perhaps a little less colorful. But they're still far more human and interesting than the leaden, cardboard ciphers who populate Atlas.
Rand placed great stress on the plot. When asked what were the three most important aspects of fiction, she replied, "Plot, plot, and plot." And Atlas, in a sense, is very ambitiously plotted. And yet it's not clear that it altogether succeeds. The whole novel is over-written, over-planned, and way too self-consciously organized and plotted. It lacks spontaneity, freshness, the element of surprise. Everything, including the plot, is dragooned into the service of the message. And that message is Objectivism at its most dogmatic and unyielding. If you're an Objectivist, this might constitute the chief merit of the book. But if you're not an Objectivist, it becomes a tiresome exercise in special pleading.
The Ugly. The Winston Tunnel Scene, where Rand rationalizes why the people on the train deserve to die, should perhaps be considered in this category. But since we have already covered that scene here on ARCHN, there's no need to say anything more about it here. Other than the tunnel scene, I would select the general tone of the novel as its ugliest feature. On this point, I agree with Whitaker Chambers. He wrote of Atlas:
Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.And Chambers concludes:
We struggle to be just. For we cannot help feeling at least a sympathetic pain before the sheer labor, discipline, and patient craftsmanship that went to making this mountain of words. But the words keep shouting us down. In the end that tone dominates. But it should be its own antidote, warning us that anything it shouts is best taken with the usual reservations with which we might sip a patent medicine. Some may like the flavor. In any case, the brew is probably without lasting ill effects. But it is not a cure for anything.There is another feature of the tone which deserves comment, one which I find the most annoying. The novel's tone combines moralizing with an adversarial stance. It's as if Rand assumed that everyone who reads Atlas is somehow morally suspect and must be browbeat into agreement. This aspect of her tone is at its fiercest in Galt's Speech, which is not only long and boring and chock full of empty or dubious philosophic assertions, it also suffers the fault of constantly assuming the very worst about those listening (or reading) the darn thing. The whole screed wreaks with moral indignation, as if Rand is shouting at her readers: "How dare you disagree me, you disgusting little worms!"
This is the problem with authors who embrace philosophical principles that fail to square with sentiments prominent in most exemplifications of human nature. Since their doctrines clash with the sentiments of nearly everyone, they become frustrated at their inability to gain converts, and in their frustration, they resort to shouting people down and regarding everyone who disagrees with them with a scathing contempt. Hardly an edifying spectacle.