As the novel opens, protagonist Dagny Taggart, executive of the railroad company Taggart Transcontinental, attempts to keep the company alive in difficult economic times marked by collectivism and statism. Dagny's brother, James Taggart, the railroad's President, seems peripherally aware of the company's troubles but will not make any difficult choices, preferring to avoid responsibility for any actions. While this unfolds, Dagny is disappointed to discover that Francisco d'Anconia, her childhood friend, first love, and king of the copper industry, appears to have become a worthless playboy who is destroying his own business.
She meets Hank Rearden, a self-made steel magnate of great integrity, inventor of a metal alloy called Rearden metal, whose career is hindered by his feelings of obligation toward his wife, and whose business is in danger of coming under government control, and Dr. Robert Stadler, a physics professor who is a creator of the "State Science Institute," intended to release science from the demands of its capitalist sponsors - delivering it instead into the control of bureaucrats and politics. Dagny also becomes acquainted with Wesley Mouch, a Washington lobbyist who leads the government's efforts to control all commerce and enterprise, and Ellis Wyatt, founder of Wyatt Oil.
While economic conditions worsen, and government agencies gain increasing control over successful businesses, helpless people repeat the saying, "Who is John Galt?" meaning "Don't ask important questions, because we don't have answers." Dagny learns that the nation's innovators and business leaders are disappearing one by one under mysterious circumstances.
Dagny and Hank find the remnants of a motor that turns atmospheric static electricity into kinetic energy, along with evidence that the "Atlases" of the world, its "prime movers", seem to be disappearing due to the actions of a figure she calls the "destroyer". While searching for the motor's creator, Hank and Dagny begin to experience the futility of their attempts to survive in a society that hates them and resents their motivation and their ability to create and achieve.
In the final section of the novel, Taggart discovers the truth about John Galt, who is leading an organized "strike" against those who use the force of law and moral guilt to confiscate the accomplishments of society's productive members. With the collapse of the nation and its rapacious government all but certain, Galt emerges to reconstruct a society that will celebrate individual achievement and enlightened self-interest, delivering a long speech (seventy pages in the first edition) serving to explain the novel's theme and Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, in the book's longest single chapter.
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