Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957 and promptly received a critical panning, because as a piece of literature it has the poetic sensibility of an instruction manual. But as a parable designed to promote a specific philosophical argument it is undeniably gangbusters.
Atlas, of course, is unlike most parables in that it’s as thick as a phone book instead of living comfortably as a short story. It is like most parables in that it isn’t known for its complex characterization. Taken together, these two features make the book pretty lame as an aesthetic endeavor. This has not at all stopped it from becoming a perennial bestseller and ideological bible for millions of impressed readers.
With that in mind, the novel and the philosophy it espouses are clearly inseparable. That philosophy is Objectivism, Ayn Rand’s personal invention, and I will briefly synopsize it now in categorial bullet points.
* Metaphysically, Objectivism is atheistic and materialistic.
*Epistemically, it rejects skepticism and the distinction between phenomenon and noumenon (and this bullet is where I most fundamentally disagree with Rand, by the way).
*Ethically, it promotes rational selfishness as the highest moral good and vilifies altruism as counterproductive, which is delightfully counterintuitive if not a little overboard.
*Politically, it is radically libertarian, even anarcho-capitalist.
*Aesthetically, it provides what I consider a necessary but insufficient definition of art, “a selective re-creation of reality according to the artist’s metaphysical value judgments,” which means that Atlas Shrugged is an artistic tour de force by its own author’s definition. I mean, seriously.
And honestly I think I could have just put that last bullet point at the head of the page and called it a day, because for good or ill that nicely sums up everything you need to know as you sit down to crack open Ayn Rand’s magnum opus.