As the novel opens we find Dagny Taggart, vide president in charge of operations, struggling against worsening economic conditions to save Taggart Transcontinental’s Rio Norte Line which provides service to Colorado. This is the last place in America that is experiencing economic growth. She is struggling because, as we find out, the most talented entrepreneurs in the nation are all heading toward retirement.
The economic crisis is further complicated as the Mexican government nationalizes Taggart’s San Francisco San Sebastian Line. This line had been built by Francisco d’Anconia’s copper mills which turned out to be worthless. We discover that Francisco had once been a wealthy industrialist and Dagny’s lover. He is now a penniless playboy.
In an effort to fix the railroad’s economic problems, Dagny’s brother wields some political influence which destroys Taggert’s only competition in the area. In her efforts to save the Rio Norte Line, Dagny plans to use Rearden Metal which is benefiting from a new allow created by Hank Rearden.
At the same time, Francisco accuses Dagny of deliberately destroying d’Anconia Copper. Soon after this, Francisco appears at the Rearden Anniversary party in order influence his decision to help others.
Taggart’s stock crashes after the State Science Institute issues a denunciation of Rearden metal. This was a plan by Jim Taggart to rescue the line which backfired. This leads to the collapse of Taggart. Dagny decides to strike out on her own and start her own company in order to rebuild the line. This turns out to be a huge success.
She eventually becomes romantically involved with Rearden. The two of them stumble upon a motor in an abandoned factory which can run on static electricity. They go in search of the inventor. In the meantime, legislation is passed by the government which cripples all of Colorado.
A wealthy oil magnate, Ellis Wyatt disappears after setting fire to his oil wells. Dagny is compelled to cut down on trains. The situation continues to deteriorate as more people disappear. Dagny begins to suspect that there is a saboteur involved who is causing all of this deliberately. Francisco pays a visit to Rearden and asks him why he continues to do business in these losing conditions. A fire breaks out suddenly, and Francisco can see how dedicated Rearden is to his mills.
Rearden is charged with violating one of the new laws which are hampering business, but he refuses to cooperate. Rather than to see them as thugs, the state backs down and stops pursuing the charges.
Wesley Mouch, the economic dictator, requires the help of Rearden and his company in order to institute a set of socialist laws. Jim Taggart needs economic favors in order to rescue the Taggart company. He appeals to Rearden’s wife, Lillian who he knows wants to undermine her husband.
She exposes the affair between Dagny and Rearden, and Jim uses this information to blackmail Rearden. Under the new socialist laws, there is a clause called Directive 10-289, which demands that all new patents be turned over to the government. Rearden is eventually blackmailed into turning over his new allow in order to save the reputation of Dagny.
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Dagny decides to hide at a mountain lodge. After a huge accident occurs at Taggart tunnel, she returns to her position. At this time, she receives a letter from the inventor of the static electricity motor, and Dagny fears he will be destroyed by the repressive mechanisms at work in the government. In her efforts to prevent the inventor from disappearing, Dagny is involved in a plane crash in the mountains.
When she comes to, she finds that she is in a remote valley surrounded by all of the missing industrialists and entrepreneurs. They have gone into hiding in order to stage what they call a “strike of the mind” to protest the socialist laws which are destroying business and growth. It is here that Dagny meets John Galt, the man who invented the motor and the one who is destroying things. She ends up falling in love with him.
However, she cannot bring herself to give up her railroad and she returns to her business. Upon her return, she finds that the government has nationalized the railroad industry. The government tries to get her to address the public to reassure them about the new socialist laws. They attempt to blackmail her into speaking on their behalf. On the air, she reveals that she is being blackmailed, admits the affair between her and Rearden, and warns the public about the repressive laws.
As the government is on the brink of collapse, Francisco destroys the remainder of his holdings and goes into hiding. Politicians no longer maintain the pretense of working for the public good. The government’s practice of peddling influence leads to massive collapse; crop failures and general chaos ensue.
In an attempt to gain control over Francisco’s mills they stage a riot at Rearden Steel. The mill workers organize and fight back. Francisco ends up saving Rearden’s life. It turns out Francisco has been working under cover. He convinces Rearden to join the strike.
The head of the state prepares to announce the gravity of the economic situation, but John Galt interrupts the message by getting on the airwaves. He addresses the nation, describing the demands of the strikers. The government seizes Galt.
They torture him and try to force him to take on the role of economic dictator. Dagny and the strikers eventually rescue Galt after an armed battle with guards. They all return to the valley. Dagny joins the strikers’ movement as the country heads into complete collapse. The strikers prepare to return.