The Most Important Question in Atlas Shrugged

“Who is John Galt?” is the first line uttered in Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. It sums up much of the book’s theme as it is a cry of despair in the face of some unknown force at work in the world stopping its motor. But just as every shadow must have an opposing light, there is another question that provides hope in the face of despair. You see, “Who is John Galt?” may be the most famous question in Atlas Shrugged, but it is not its most important question.

There are so many thought-provoking questions the book asks more than once. “Who am I to know?” “By what right?” “What are we going to do?” “What do you want of me?” “What can you do when you have to deal with people?” All of these contribute to the overall theme of the book of man’s eternal struggle for self-fulfillment, but they don’t get to the heart of the matter. There is only one question that does that.

That question is “What for?”

“What for?” is sometimes cried out in despair by a character as the verbal equivalent of throwing their hands up in the air in futility. But it is also often asked as an honest question. After all, understanding the motive behind someone’s request can help us to decide whether or not it is worth our while to engage in the activity they are proposing.

I propose that we understand the use of “What for?” in Atlas Shrugged because it is such a prominent part of the book and yet it is hiding in plain sight. It provides answers to mysteries that characters grapple with and even give their lives to understand. So it’s worth our while to seek the answers behind this question.

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The Purpose

According to my count (which I admit could be off slightly), “Who is John Galt?” is asked 25 times. “What for?” is also asked 25 times. Not only that, but there are other variations of the question, such as “For what?” which is asked four times, “For what purpose?” which is asked twice, and at least a half dozen other instances of it being used in longer sentences, such as “What does it stand for?” and “Else what’s love for?” “What for?” is everywhere in Atlas Shrugged. Why? Or, to be more precise, what for?

The author answers this question for us on page 230 when Dagny is alone with her thoughts during her first train ride on the John Galt Line: “Why had she always felt that joyous sense of confidence when looking at machines?–she thought. In these giant shapes, two aspects pertaining to the inhuman were radiantly absent: the causeless and the purposeless. Every part of the motors was an embodied answer to ‘Why?’ and ‘What for?’–like the steps of a life-course chosen by the sort of mind she worshipped. The motors were a moral code cast in steel.”

A life without a purpose is like a priceless motor left to rot on a junk heap. There are many characters in the book who don’t understand the purpose they are working for. Some do their best to evade that knowledge while others struggle to figure it out. Those whose purpose is to defy reality and destroy all that is good seek to hide their intentions from themselves and others while those who want to embrace reality and create all that is good think that doing such things is self-evidently good and so there is no need to understand why they do them on any deeper level. But it is absolutely essential to understand their own motives because if they don’t have a sturdy foundation for their moral decisions, they can easily give way and crumble when challenged.

By the way, I think Ayn Rand would agree with me about the importance of this question, as evidenced by this passage from page 92: “‘I don’t know what sort of motto the d’Anconias have on their family crest,’ Mrs. Taggart said once, ‘but I’m sure that Francisco will change it to “What for?”’ It was the first question he asked about any activity proposed to him–and nothing would make him act, if he found no valid answer. He flew through the days of his summer month like a rocket, but if one stopped him in midflight, he could always name the purpose of his every random moment. Two things were impossible to him: to stand still or to move aimlessly.”

Opening New Perspectives

When characters ask “What for?” they sometimes yield some perspective-shattering results. I’ll give three big examples from the book.

Here’s an exchange on page 404 between Dr. Floyd Ferris and Hank Rearden in which Ferris is gloating that he knows Rearden broke the law to sell his metal to whoever he wanted:

“You honest men are such a problem and such a headache. But we knew you’d slip sooner or later–and this is just what we wanted.”

“You seem to be pleased about it.”

“Don’t I have good reason to be?”

“But, after all, I did break one of your laws.”

“Well, what do you think they’re for?

This sends Rearden into an astonished rumination on the nature of the men he is fighting. He thought that laws were always put into place to protect people and to uphold justice. But that is not always the case. Sometimes, such as in this case, they are designed to hurt the honest who wish to be law-abiding citizens and benefit the unscrupulous who wish to take advantage of others’ honesty. This is an incredible statement, and it’s made in the form of a seemingly offhand question.

Another example comes on page 531. After Rearden has been betrayed by just about everyone and has lost everything precious to him with the passage of a horrific new law that virtually eliminates all personal property, he is confronted by a bandit who claims to be fighting the looters on his behalf. When Rearden admits to him that he has no hope for the future, the bandit asks him, “What are you working for?” This causes Rearden to stop and really think about it. He had always thought that moving forward with his work and doing his best was a moral imperative, but now he starts to realize that all he can expect for his work is punishment, not rewards. Under such a system, he can’t survive because all his strength is being used to destroy himself. When confronted by the question of what he is working for, he finally beings to understand these things and eventually free himself from the chains of guilt he has worn all his life.

And finally, there is the exchange between James Taggart and his wife Cherryl on page 809. Cherryl is struggling to understand the nature of her husband and what he wants from her, but she hasn’t quite figured it out. She understands that he is evil, but she doesn’t understand how he can be evil for evil’s sake because he gets nothing out of such an arrangement. She doesn’t see that her idea of getting something of worth relies on her sense of offering value. He doesn’t see value or worth on her terms. He only values death and things that lead to it. He doesn’t want his life to add up to anything, nor does he want to understand the motive that drives him to do what he does because doing so would force him to admit his worthlessness. When she innocently asks, “Jim, what is it that you want to be loved for?” he reacts with mocking anger. He doesn’t want to be loved for anything because he knows he isn’t worthy of love by any objective standard. He is only worthy of contempt. Answering this “What for?” eventually leads to Cherryl’s suicide and James’ complete mental breakdown because the implications are so widespread that neither of them can handle reality after realizing what James Taggart (and naked evil) truly is.

What for

I’ve often wondered why a certain supporting character dies alone at the end of the book on a broken-down train. He’s nice enough, and he often acts as the reader’s voice when facing the seemingly inexplicable events that take place over the course of the story. But I’ve realized that the reason he dies is because he didn’t learn the answer to the question of “What for?” until it was too late. He didn’t understand the value and the meaning of his own life, and so he had to find out while dying next to a dead train that he had served his whole life. What is the answer? It’s hiding in plain sight. It’s stated in the opening chapter and as the title of the final chapter, “In the Name of the Best Within Us.”

Why should we strive for excellence and to live a purpose-filled life full of meaning and significance? In the name of the best within us. Always have a goal you’re working toward. Work at it until you finish it and then move on to something else. Never give your life to anything but that which will advance you as a person and increase the value you can offer yourself and others. Doing this might make you seem pompous or self-important to people who don’t live that way. So if someone demands to know you why you’re living your life in this way, give them what for!

This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.

All page numbers are from the Signet 1996 Centennial Edition of Atlas Shrugged ISBN 0-451-19114-5.

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About Robert Lockard, the Deja Reviewer

Robert Lockard has been a lover of writing since he was very young. He studied public relations in college, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in 2006. His skills and knowledge have helped him to become a sought-after copywriter in the business world. He has written blogs, articles, and Web content on subjects such as real estate, online marketing and inventory management. His talent for making even boring topics interesting to read about has come in handy. But what he really loves to write about is movies. His favorite movies include: Fiddler on the Roof, Superman: The Movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Back to the Future, Beauty and the Beast, The Fugitive, The Incredibles, and The Dark Knight. Check out his website: Deja Reviewer. Robert lives in Utah with his wife and four children. He loves running, biking, reading, and watching movies with his family.
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One Response to The Most Important Question in Atlas Shrugged

  1. Kevin says:

    Great article, Rob.
    Very clever and insightful writing, as always.
    I have been meaning to re-read this book as it has been nearly 10 years since I last read it.
    That question is one that I think we can all ask ourselves and benefit from a thoughtful consideration about it.

    Liked by 1 person

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