George Barker on Atlas Shrugged

I first saw this comment as a posting on the Modern Library Forum, discussing the 100 best novels of the 20th Century. It stood out like a diamond shining in the midst of a garbage heap. I consider it a brilliant analysis of Ayn Rand's literary style. What is striking of course is that George Barker's specific analysis only pertains to the first page of the book, but similar comments could be made about any page chosen at random. Ayn Rand was a master at  literary craftsmanship.

George Barker is 24 years old. He has studied philosophy at George Mason University. Currently he is a computer programmer, but he plans to continue his studies in history and music. He wants to be a fiction writer and composer.

With an audience as varied as that of this forum I think it is meaningless to simply assert that such-and-such book is the best. By what standard? It is ridiculous to simply assert that "... it is apparent to anyone that Hemingway is better then Rand ..." It isn't apparent to me, nor to the many others who have voted for Ayn Rand.

I judge a book first and foremost as a work of art. The artistic elements of a work of literature are its theme, plot, characterization, and style. All of these elements must be present for a book to even qualify as literature. In a great work of literature they are each executed masterfully and integrated seamlessly. The theme is the driving force and each other element an expression of the theme.

I consider Atlas Shrugged to be the greatest literary work of the 20th century because it embodies these values more than any other book I've ever read. The result is that I get immense pleasure in reading it. The theme, plot, characterization, and style are present in practically every sentence.

Take the first few sentences: "Who is John Galt? The light was ebbing, and Eddie Willers could not distinguish the bum's face. The bum had said it simply, without expression. 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."

The theme of Atlas Shrugged is the role of the mind in human existence. This is demonstrated by the plot: the men of the mind go on strike. The characterizations illustrate the nature of those who live by their minds and those who do not. The style stresses the role of the mind in every aspect of human life. In the above example, the theme is introduced in the very first sentence of the book. The phrase "Who is John Galt?" is itself symbolic of society's neglect of the men of the mind and is developed throughout the novel. The next sentence: "The light was ebbing . .." Here theme, plot, and style all work together. Stylistically, the phrase has described dusk, but in such a way as to convey a sense of gradual loss. This integrates to the plot, the life source of the world is disappearing. The theme: the role of the mind, symbolized here by the light, in man's life. Then comes the characterization of the bum. His voice is expressionless, though there is mockery in his eyes which are caught by yellow glints "from the sunset far at the end of the street . . ." Nothing is left of this man but a reflection of what was. The sunset, representative of the disappearing mind, leaves a reflection in his eyes. He has given up. His mind is gone.

This level of integration is kept up throughout the book. The novel is not so much written as it is painted and composed. Add to this the fact that its content puts forth wholly unprecedented ideas; a revolutionary philosophy. It is the work of a towering genius.


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