About the Atlas Chronology

Reprinted from the February 1995 issue of GoodPremises, Newsletter of the Austin Objectivist Society; revised and updated August 12, 2010.

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand provides a very richly textured fabric of events. Although the principal action of the novel spans only three and a half years, Rand makes frequent reference to formative events in characters’ youths, and provides an intricate decades-long progression of cultural decay leading up to the “present day” world of the novel. These references to past occurrences are provided where appropriate to set the appropriate context for understanding unfolding events.

Placing these past events in chronological order provides a complementary framework for integrating and understanding the massive quantity of detail provided in the novel. Once the temporal relations are clear, it becomes easier to see the connections (or lack thereof) between events. For instance, Hugh Akston retired [p. 138] more than six years before Simon Pritchett became head of the philosophy department at the Patrick Henry University [p. 129]. Noting this, it becomes evident that Pritchett’s ascendancy came not because he “triumphed” over Akston, but rather because he moved in to fill the vacuum left after Akston’s departure. Having noted the connection, one has further evidence for the impotence of evil.

The process of chronologically ordering the events of Atlas was not without difficulties. One of the first decisions I had to make was how to number the years. I could have arbitrarily chosen year “zero” as the opening year of the novel. Then the strike would begin in year “-9” and our three heroes would have graduated from the Patrick Henry University in year “-16.” I found the system of negative years awkward and contrived.

In the original version of my chronology, I chose to transfer my numbering scheme into a historical context and chose 1980 as a year that Ayn Rand might reasonably have been projecting for the opening year of the novel. This leads to Francisco and Dagny growing up in the 1950’s, and allows the events of the novel to be set more than two decades in “the future” relative to when it was published in 1957. Thus, there is ample time for cultural decay leading up to the initiation of the strike and to the novel’s beginning.

In view of the forthcoming Atlas Shrugged movie being set in the present day, I thought it would be interesting to update my chronology with the start of the novel set in 2011. The eeriness I felt as I updated the chronology to a 2011 start due to the parallels to current events convince me this was a good decision.

Of course, Atlas Shrugged is not just some kind of naturalistic portrayal of a particular potential future world that might have evolved out of the 1950’s or might be unfolding today. Rather, it is a work of romantic fiction, and as such presents a principled message applicable to all times and people. My purpose in adopting this particular dating scheme is to transfer the events of the novel to a cognitive context in which they may more easily be understood and integrated.

A further difficulty was in pinning down specific dates from the many relative times presented in the novel. The strike began ten years before the opening of the novel, but the novel begins in the fall and the strike occurred in the spring. Does ten years mean ten and a half or nine and a half? The preponderance of the evidence seemed to indicate nine and a half years.

One particular puzzle I worked hard to piece together was the year in which the State Science Institute (S.S.I.) was founded. John Galt “damned” Robert Stadler and ceased graduate work under him when Stadler endorsed the creation of the S.S.I [p. 184, 734]. This event is key to understanding the years between Galt’s graduation with his undergraduate degree (1995) and his initiation of the strike (2002). How much of this time was spent in graduate studies, and how much in industry?

Stadler’s age is never specified exactly with respect to any other event I could date. When we first encounter him, he is described as in his “early fifties” [p. 179]. He was 40, however, when the S.S.I. was founded [p. 178], and he tells Dagny that “…for thirteen years this Institute has had a department of metallurgical research…” [p. 183]. Thus Dr. Stadler can be no younger than 53, and no older than about 54 or 55. Choosing the younger value as more consistent with “early fifties” places the founding of the S.S.I. in 1999, indicating that Galt spent about four years in post-graduate studies, then about three years at the Twentieth Century Motor Company before initiating the strike.

In summary, my Atlas Shrugged Chronology provides a complimentary framework for integrating the events leading up to the opening of the novel. The chronology evolved out of my efforts to better understand the details of Atlas Shrugged being discussed by the Atlas Shrugged Study Group, and I appreciate the environment of inquiry the study group provides me. Suggestions and comments will be greatly appreciated.

For an alternate chronology, see Richard Lawrence’s version here. He’s got some details I overlooked.

(c) 1995-2010 by Hans Schantz