This epic novel takes place in the nearby future in the United States of America. The economics of the country is on the verge of collapse and the government tries to take more control up to the outright oppression. The rest of the world transferred to the socialist model of government, becoming Peoples’ States.
In such dire conditions, Dagny Taggart, vice president of the huge company named Taggart Transcontinental Railroad (and despite being only a vice president is in charge of almost everything) makes a risky decision. The track of the Rio Norte Line that is almost ruins has to be rebuilt as soon as possible. This track serves the vast oil fields of Ellis Wyatt and the whole industrial districts of Colorado. Repairing that track may greatly enhance the economics, which is essential in the current situation. The country’s wealth is plummeting, the factories are closing and the level of unemployment may soon hit the one of Great Depression. Considering the miserable state of world economics Colorado might be the only and last industrial center on all the planet. Moreover, Wyatt does everything to implement the cutting edge technologies to oil extracting, so it is also the only center that survives and is developing against all odds.
Still, Dagny is only the vice president. When she announces her intention to restore the train line to Colorado to help the country, the president of Taggart Transcontinental, James Taggart (who is also her brother) wants to make his corrections. While Dagny tries to sign a contract with Rearden Steel, the steel manufacturer that has good reputation and prices, James blocks it in any way possible, willing to do business with his friend Orren Boyle, the president of deeply corrupted and inefficient Associated Steel. Dagny persists: she wants the innovational alloy, Rearden Metal, to be used in the new rails. This alloy is invented by the metallurgist named Hank Rearden, who worked ten years to perfection. James insists that this alloy didn’t have enough of testing to put it right into the production. He doesn’t want to be responsible for any possible flaws of Rearden Metal, preferring old, costly but already used materials. Dagny, on the contrary, recollects her own university knowledge of engineering and physics and investigate the results of Rearden’s test herself. The tests show that the alloy is superior to any other metal and is perfect for making rails. Dagny takes all the responsibility for using it by herself.
Meanwhile the things are getting worse. If the general economic depression isn’t enough, the brightest minds of the United States are gone missing one by one. The wildest theories from conspiracy to enemy intelligence are spread, but no one can plausibly explain this phenomenon. Dagny didn’t pay lots of attention to it until it touched her company as well. Owen Kellogg, one of her best employees, she saw a bright career opportunities for, suddenly tells her that he is leaving Taggart Transcontinental Railroad without any explanation. This is weird, because he has excellent working condition and salary: one must be crazy to leave in such a dire unemployment around. Another her partner, McNamara, who was hired to do the actual work of rebuilding the railroad, sends her a notice that he goes to retirement immediately. More and more people who can move forward the economics, just go away. The pessimism covers all the country, the last sparks of hope are now dead. People start to repeat the same question that embodies all their despair: “Who is John Galt?” Dagny finds this question in her own lexicon and is extremely irritated with it. Nobody knows the exact meaning of this question or anything about this person. People just ask each other this rhetoric nonsense question to express all the hopelessness of the current situation. Dagne decides to fight until the end and not give up to the general despair. Despite all the misfortunes she finds another contractor to step in McNamara’s place.
The situation though continues to worsen. One of the working rail lines, San Sebastian Line, is claimed worthless and is nationalized by the Mexican government. The company spent millions to build this freight line that connected San Sebastian copper mines with the metallurgical factories. These mines belong to Francisco d’Anconia, one of the wealthier industrialists in the United States and Dagny’s childhood friend and former lover. Despite their relationship are long history and now Dagny despises him as a shallow playboy, she is sincerely worried about the state of his company. D’Anconia never was the brightest businessman, his latest ventures were a big mistake and his management politics caused huge financial losses both to him and his partners. When James learns about this situation, he makes an attempt to save at least some of the company income. Using his connections among the politicians, he lobbies the decision of the National Alliance of Railroads that is beneficial to him. The alliance votes for “anti-dog-eat-dog rule” that was prohibiting some methods of competition between companies. At the first glance the rule promoted fair play, but it simply put Phoenix-Durango Railroad, the main rival of Taggart Transcontinental Railroad on the field of freight traffic, out of the game. This helps to stabilize situation for a while, but for now Rio Norte Line becomes even more important to rebuild.
Francisco comes to New York and Dagny uses this opportunity to talk to him. She asks why did Francisco make such a foolish decision and why did he continued to shoot himself in the leg. D’Anconia blatantly said that he purposefully damaged both his d’Anconia Copper and Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, as well as lots of other companies that were affected by secondary damage. Dagny’s shock is immeasurable. She is unable to understand this destruction that borders with insanity. D’Anconia might be the risky man, but he always was the brilliant strategist and logical businessman without any suicidal ideas. At least when she saw him before. Soon afterwards Francisco attends the celebration for Hank Rearden’s wedding anniversary. All the Reardens except Hank – his wife Lillian, his mother and brother – aren’t business people. They are nonproductive idealists that pity the poor and feel that they are obliged to support the weak even with the cost of their own happiness. Hanks is disgusted with such attitude. He can’t love and respect his family anymore, but he (ironically) also feels that he is obliged to support and finance them for they are weak and unable to do anything by themselves. Francisco meets Hank to give him warning that the freeloaders (to whom his family belongs) are preparing something very bad for Hank and they have the tools to do this. Rearden tries to ask more, but Francisco doesn’t explain anything, saying that he came to the party just to become acquainted with Hank.
Although the reputation of the company is spoiled and her new contractor is incompetent, Dagny still works on rebuilding the Rio Norte Line using Rearden’s alloy. Hank also continues his invention, suddenly offering a revolutionary new bridge construction. This project is impossible to complete with any other materials, but Rearden Metal is durable enough for it to come to life. Seeing the possibilities of the alloy, the members of the State Science Institute, the government research organization, try to remove it from the market, because after such a prominent demonstration it will dominate the market, bankrupting all the other metallurgical companies. The State Science Institute members offer an enormous bribe to Hank for him to keep his alloy off the market. But, despite Rearden’s pragmatism, he is also an idealist who wishes to raise the economics and improve the life of the Americans. So he rejects the bribe disregarding its size. Then the Institute declares war. They issue a statement that has no factual background that claimed that Rearden Metal has weaknesses in its structure and can’t be used for railroad purposes. It seems like a final blow: the stock of Taggart Transcontinental Railroads plummets, the contractor quits, not willing to take such a responsibility and the railroad union lays veto on rebuilding of the Rio Norte Line. This is complete fiasco for Dagny. When her friend, a genius scientist and unquestionable authority in the Institute, Dr. Robert Stadler, refuses to defend Rearden Metal, though he knew that the statement was a complete fake, Dagny understands that now she is alone against the whole world.
She makes a decision that also is a declaration of war. She tells James Taggart that she takes the leave of absence from her position and will rebuild the Rio Norte Line with her own funds, as a private person. She signs the paper where she states that after the completion she gives the whole line, completely free of charge, to Taggart Transcontinental Railroads, as a gift from the private person. Dagny decides to change the name of the line and chooses “John Galt Line” – just to solidify her statement: Dagny fights not against the government or the corrupted scientists, she fights against the general pessimism and hopelessness around.
Suddenly she gets support. Rearden and lots of other Colorado businessmen stand together with her, investing into John Galt line. Of course, they have their own business interest, but they also join her in this unseen war. Rearden also finds himself deeply attracted to Dagny, both sexually and emotionally. He thoroughly dismisses these feelings considering attraction a big obstacle in common business. The government makes the next move, passing the Equalization of Opportunity Bill that prohibits owning companies by the individuals. Now Rearden, as an individual, can’t keep the mines that he desperately needs to produce his alloy. However he still seem to have enough to finish the John Galt Line. Moreover, he polishes the construction of the bridge on that line to perfection, showing off the superior qualities of Rearden Metal.
They win the war, completing the construction of the John Galt Line ahead of schedule. Dagny and Rearden board the engine cab of the first train running the line and it is the time of their triumph. Drunk with success they have dinner together and celebrate their victory at Ellis Wyatt’s home. There they stay together and make love, confessing their mutual affection for the first time. In the morning Rearden is very ashamed because of it, thinking that he allowed his primal part to defeat his emotionless logical side, but Dagny comforts him, saying that it wasn’t just sex drive, they both are in love and share the respect and admiration to the bravery and nobility of each other. Dagny gives away the line, as she promised, and they go to the vacation – now the real one – together with Rearden. Their journey resembles a honeymoon for the two nerds: they drive from one abandoned factory to the other, looking at them and discussing if they can be repaired. Finally they find one that is really worth repairing: the Twentieth Century Motor Company in Wisconsin. One of the ruined motors there allows to draw static electricity from the atmosphere and convert it to the one usable by humans. This motor can literally change the world, but now it is destroyed beyond reparation.
Dagny sees the infinite possibilities of this invention and decides to find the author. But her vacation is over and she must again defend her company from the advances of the government. She withstands an intense economic pressure from the less successful companies. They united to force the government to approve the series of laws that will oblige the big companies like Taggart Transcontinental Railroads to share their profits with them. But Dagny sees beyond that: the legislation that companies want would destroy Wyatt Oil and lots of other big companies of Colorado, render the John Galt line useless and take away any money that she can use to repair the rest of the rail system. But this time there is nothing she can do, even James’ connections are worthless now.
What she can do is to continue her search for the inventor of the motor. Finally she manages to find the widow of the chief engineer of the research department. The woman tells Dagny that the author of the motor was the young engineer who worked for her husband. She doesn’t remember his name, but she gives some hints about a man who can know him. This man is a mere cook in the diner at the outskirts of Wyoming. But he says that the inventor of the motor went into hiding and Dagny won’t find him unless he wishes to be found. Dagny understands that the cook is Hugh Akston, one of the greatest philosophers of the present.
While she was on her quest, Wesley Mouch was elected the new economic coordinator of the country and he immediately signed everything that the union of the small companies demanded. This led to bankruptcy of Wyatt’s oil business. Dagny immediately rushes to the rescue, but it is too late. When she reaches Colorado, Ellis Wyatt, in his final futile protest, burns his own oil wells and retires. After he is gone the situation in Colorado goes from bad to impossibly bad. Without the oil wells the economy, that was built around them, is destroyed. Other major industries that were dependant on oil, close, their owners also retire, their workers are fired. The scientists and industrialists capable of saving the day continue to disappear. The new Dagny’s line barely functions: there is nothing to transport anymore. Her only hope is the mysterious motor. Dagny returns to her search. She finds Robert Stadler, another fellow engineer, who suggests that the promising young scientist named Quentin Daniels is able to reverse engineer the motor and rebuild it. Quentin works in the Utah Institute of Technology and Dagny heads there.
Meanwhile, at James Taggart’s wedding, Lillian, Rearden’s wife, discovers that her husband is having an affair with an unknown woman. She uses her influence and Hank’s guilt to manipulate him back into the family life. Another prominent event is the speech of d’Anconia. The former useless womanizer now makes a brilliant defense of morality of producing wealth. His speech is so eloquent and persuading that even Rearden changes his mind about him.
Lillian isn’t the only one who wants to manipulate Rearden. The State Science Institute (the one who was the first to stand against Rearden) orders ten thousand tons of Rearden Metal for the project they claim is top secret. Rearden, still holding a grudge, refuses to trade with them. Instead Rearden signs the contract with the greatest U.S. coal miner, Ken Danagger, and sells his alloy to him. But the new laws that strangle everyone too successful declare the amount of the metal sold illegal. The Institute gets the perfect instrument to blackmail Rearden. Dr. Ferris from the Institute sends him an ultimatum: either Rearden sells the alloy to them, or he and Danagger will be put into trial for breaking the law. In the meantime Dagny comes to the conclusion that some evil will stay beyond all the retirements and disappearances. Someone is deliberately getting rid of the brightest mind to destroy the very bedrock of American economy. Dagny is afraid that Danagger is the next in the line. Figuring it out she rushes to him, but is too late – Danagger cheerfully tells her that he is going to retire and no one can persuade him to stay.
Francisco visits Rearden and they have a strange conversation about morality, rationality of altruism and other similar things. Suddenly Rearden gets the message that one of his furnaces was destroyed. Both Rearden and Francisco rush there and personally manage the reparation works. Soon Francisco departs. Later Rearden is put to trial, but instead of speaking in his defense, he gives another brilliant speech that he doesn’t consider his actions a crime, therefore the court has no rights to judge him. The man has the right to own what he produced and to trade it freely or to keep it. The government can’t have any rights to take this product from a man. It can, for sure, take it by force, it would be at least fair and honest, without pretending that everything is still ok and they are not a totalitarian regime. Rearden says that he is very proud of his work, his business and his inventions and he won’t give up until he has the power to defend himself. The audience bursts into applause. Even the judge accepts his speech and says that he isn’t going against the principles America was once built on. Rearden goes out of the court with a mere fine.
The suffocating laws and restrictions make all the major industrialists of Colorado retire and then disappear under suspicious circumstances. Taggart Transcontinental Railroads shuts down the Rio Norte Line, because the economy of the region is dead. Wesley Mouch desperately tries to make Rearden cooperate with the government. Mouch tries to press him through Taggart family, supposing that there is something more than business between them. Wesley offers James Taggart a deal: if he manages to persuade Hank to cooperate with the government, Mouch will personally ease the burden of bills on Taggart Intercontinental Railway. James decides to act through Lillian but it backfires badly, because now Lillian knows that Dagny Taggart is her husband’s lover.
Trying to stop the degradation of economic, the government passes another Directive numbered 10-289 that forbids workers to change their place of work and calling out all the patents for all the inventions – now they all belongs to government. America effectively is turned into a state of slaves. Hearing that news, Dagny decides to quit her business. Rearden stays, but his alloy will also belong to the government after two weeks. He is obliged to sign the transition of the patent, but Hank wants to stay on his position and personally refuse before he will be fired. But Dr. Floyd Ferris from the Institute, who comes with the document, plays very dirty. He promises to give all the information about his and Dagny’s affair to the press and do anything for dragging her name through the mud thoroughly. This is too much for Rearden: he realizes that he values his love to Dagny much more than any alloy. He knows that he had to divorce Lillian long ago and Dagny doesn’t have to pay for his mistake. With a heavy heart Rearden signs the document.
Dagny, in the meantime, moves to the hunting lodge that she inherited from her father. Now she doesn’t know what to do with her ruined life. She receives a message that the train crash ruined the tunnel on the main track of her company. Dagny has to return and apply her crisis management skills to the situation, rerouting all the traffic. While in New York she gets a letter from Quentin Daniels. He says that he is quitting because of Directive 10-289 that takes away all the results of his researches. Dagny rides to talk to him. During her journey she accidentally rescues a man and learns that he used to work in the Twentieth Century Motor Company. He tells her some interesting facts about the policy of the company: its slogan was clearly Communist: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need”. This resulted into the situation when the brightest ones worked for themselves and for the weakest ones too. The skilled engineers started to leave. The first one to quit was a young engineer who claimed that he will put an end to this by “stopping the motor of the world”. The name of the engineer was John Galt.
Suddenly Dagny’s train stops and the crew escapes it. The woman finds the airplane and continues her journey. In the airport she learns that Daniels have just left on a luxurious plane with another person. Dagny realizes that the owner of the plane is the evil mastermind and engages in a crazy flight chase, crashing her plane in the mountains. She finds a hidden valley of Atlantis, the new place for all the scientists abducted by the “destroyer”. John Galt lives here, he is the inventor of the motor and also the evil mastermind. All the other men she was so proud to know now also live there. They refuse to invent, create and work in such a world that is outside. It is a kind of strike against the sacrifice to government and their claim to have their own life and to rule it as they please. Dagny spends some time in Atlantis and gradually she falls in love with Galt. She discovers that Galt also loved her, though he never approached her, watching Dagny’s work for years. Still, as the “destroyer” he has to give her a choice: either to join the strike or return to the outside world and perish with it. Dagny’s heart is breaking but she refuses to stay and chooses to fight for her railroad. Galt then makes a risky decision – to return with her and to be near if she changes her mind.
Dagny returns and sees that her railroad is nationalized through Railroad Unification Plan. Now Dagny is a mere employee, she can’t make decisions only obey the orders. The first order to her is to prepare a reassuring speech to the public on the radio. She is threatened the same way as Rearden, with her affair with him. Dagny seems to agree, but when she is on air, she calmly admits that she was Rearden’s lover, and is happy and proud of it. She also adds that he signed the papers under pressure. Before the transition is cut, Dagny warns the audience that the government became a dictatorship and now poses threat to the nation.
Such policies only hasten the collapse of the state economy. Francisco d’Anconia disappears to Atlantis, destroying his property to not let it be nationalized. He left “looters” behind him – the small fake companies that wreak havoc, sucking the income from the big companies and disrupting the economy even further. The food rots in the train cars, the farmers start a riot, foot shortage is imminent and unemployment is overwhelming. It is the apocalypse of the economy.
Dagny continues to do her job, but once she notices that John Galt secretly follows her as one of the workers on the railroad. She walks to the abandoned tunnel and they have sex there for the first time, then both return to their duties.
Rearden also becomes a victim of the Unification Plan. The spies of the government slip into his factories and start a riot there, because Hank refused to obey the orders of the Unification Plan. Francisco d’Anconia also enters his factory in disguise and starts an anti-riot, helping the workers to defend their workplaces against the government thugs. When there is no more danger, Francisco tells Rearden about Atlantis, Hank retires and joins the strike.
The head of state, Mr. Thompson, prepares an emergency speech about the sacrifices each American shall be ready for in the name of the state, but suddenly he is cut off the air and John Galt speaks instead. He tells about the strike and that the best people of America demand freedom of thought and action and nothing will work properly until the dictatorship isn’t defeated. Galt demands to recognize the right to live, not to sacrifice oneself to alien ideas. Only when this demand is satisfied, everyone will return. The government starts to search for John Galt. They want to offer him the position of the dictator, so that he would rule with iron hand and bring America to prosperity. Galt refuses. But instead of him the government intel finds Dagny and warns her that certain members of the government want him dead, not on the throne. Dagny rushes to Galt to warn him, thus leading the chase right to his hideout. Galt is arrested. The government executives try to convince him once more, but he still refuses. Then they start to torture him.
Francisco, Rearden and Dagny lead the rescue squad of the strikers. They attack the State Science Institute where Galt is imprisoned. After a dire fight and killing the guards they manage to release Galt and return to Atlantis. Dagny and Galt can be together finally. All the inhabitants of the Atlantis wait until the regime collapses under its own weight and then they are free to return to the outer world.