This week marks the anniversary of the publication of Atlas Shrugged, a book which among libertarians needs no introduction. Ayn Rand’s defining work has remained popular for over fifty years, and the recent film is a testament to its continuing relevance. Atlas Shrugged, however, is not Rand’s best novel. The book is unsurpassed as an exposition of Objectivism, but, in my opinion, it lacks the vigor of Rand’s earlier work. The plot is too unbelievable for mainstream fiction, yet not fantastic enough to make decent science fiction. The culmination of the novel is surprisingly condensed and anticlimactic, especially compared to its bloated buildup. Extended monologues famously mark the high points of the novel but do little to advance the drama of the story.
Most of its characters are flat and unsympathetic. While Dagny Taggart’s passion is admirable, she seems inhuman. She is unable to understand or appreciate other characters, a flaw which hinders the reader from sympathizing with her. Hank Rearden, the most interesting of the main characters, still lacks any emotional power himself. Rand is excellent at getting the reader to root against the “bad guys” but rarely do her “good guys” command emotion in Atlas Shrugged.
The exception, of course, is Cherryl Brooks, the wife James Taggart parades to his false friends. Here we finally encounter a character that deserves our respect and sympathy. We see Cherryl’s hopes and dreams as a dime-store cashier. We then see the disillusionment that comes with her marriage to James, which finally leads to her suicide. While perhaps a bit baroque, Cherryl’s story is powerful—more powerful, certainly, than the escapism of the “strikers.” It’s a shame that her character is introduced so late and removed so quickly.
While Atlas Shrugged, in my opinion, is a bad book, Ayn Rand is not a bad writer—she’s a great one. Unfortunately, her most well known work is not her best. That distinction belongs to We the Living, which was originally published in 1936, turning 75 this year. It was Ayn Rand’s first novel, and her experiences in Soviet Russia were fresh on her mind during its development. While parts of the book draw on Rand’s own life, it is not autobiographical. Probably because of her close connection to the story, Rand’s writing in this book has a force unmatched in any of her other works.
We the Living prefigures the themes of Atlas Shrugged. Rand explores how the state, family, and society at large suppress the individual. Her treatment of these issues is more nuanced, with the world and the characters that populate it painted in shades of gray rather than starkly delineated in black and white. Good and evil exist in the world of We the Living, as they do in Atlas Shrugged, but the dichotomy is more real and more pernicious.
A reader of We the Living familiar with Atlas Shrugged might first be struck by the portrayal of love in the novel. Unlike the guilt-motivated “love” Hank Rearden has for his family, Kira Argounova, the heroine of We the Living, displays the common, almost unconditional love most people have for their family. Even when Kira’s family opposes her decisions, she still really loves them. Despite her sister’s increasingly fanatical religiosity— which Kira despises— Kira can’t help but be sentimental about her sister. In some ways, the relationship between Kira and her sibling Lydia may be influenced by Rand’s interaction with her own sister, who declined to stay in America with Rand much to her disappointment. Kira’s family, unlike Rearden’s, truly loves her. They reconcile themselves with the way she lives her life. There seems to be more humanity in this version of Soviet Russia than in the America of Atlas Shrugged.
Romantic love also seems more realistic in We the Living. Much of the plot is driven by Kira’s dual loves, Leo Kovalensky, a former aristocrat, and Andrei Taganov, the leader of the university’s secret police. The two men, seemingly opposites, change throughout the course of the book— a standard of literature largely absent in the personages of Atlas Shrugged. Leo, the scion of a fallen house and bold fighter of the regime, eventually betrays his ideals. He falls in with a cast of unscrupulous moochers and into the bottle. By the end of the novel, he is a thoroughly detestable figure. Ugly, pitiable, and wasted, he is the antithesis of Rand’s ideal. But Kira still loves him. Unexplainably, and in a way which the older Rand may have condemned, Kira continues to support Leo, going so far as to abuse Andrei Taganov’s genuine love for Leo’s benefit.
Leo cuts quite the tragic figure. He is the man of wasted potential. But Andrei’s story is more moving. At heart, Andrei is an admirable man. It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely character as a Randian hero. He is dedicated to the Communist cause, unbending in his principles and virtuous in a way reminiscent of Hemingway’s code heroes. He falls in love with Kira, and she feels drawn to him too. However, Leo remains Kira’s real love, and she exploits Andrei to support Leo. Just as Kira cannot stop loving Leo once he becomes a drunken gigolo, Andrei cannot stop loving Kira after she reveals her motives to him. He does realize just how far removed he is from his comrades, though. Unlike the apparatchiks that surround him, he maintains his principles and his individuality in spite of the collectivist philosophy he claims to espouse. These same apparatchiks depose him, excommunicating him from the party. His life’s work and life’s love now gone, he commits suicide.
The party members of the book, Andrei excluded, are the precursors of the hated moochers in Atlas Shrugged. They are chameleons and flatterers, without honor or principles. Their only motivations seem to be vindictive in nature. Instead of shaping the world around them, they can only react to the actions of the novel’s protagonists. It is disturbing, then, to see them “win.” Comrade Sonia, an evil pig of a woman, manipulates her way to the top. Pavel Syerov, a cowardly but silver-tongued young man, desires the prestige of party leadership. Even Kira’s cousin, the weak and Iago-esque Victor Dunaev, works to hide his upper class origins so that he can gain favor with the party. While none of these rogues can be happy, their ilk does ultimately destroy the true individuals of the story, which stands in contrast to the ending of Atlas Shrugged.
The novel’s ending is bleak, which seems fitting for a novel about the hardships people endured after the Russian Civil War. Just as the Bolshevists won that war, collectivism grinds down the remaining individualists, corrupting some and destroying others. This world is not without hope though. Kira and Andrei become martyrs for their refusal to give in. Kira dies with a smile on her face, just as the martyrs on the ikons which Lydia prayed to were said to have died. Should we speculate that maybe Kira is the martyr who will lend strength to future victims of collectivist totalitarianism?
Rand highlights love’s nature quite nicely in this book. She pinpoints its arbitrariness and, in the context of the setting, how totalitarianism can poison even the highest human emotions. She’s also able to convey powerfully and subtly the danger of collectivism and its link to totalitarianism. She eulogizes the erosion of morality, a consequence in her mind of the hobbling of the individual’s will. There’s as much philosophy in We the Living (or any great novel) as there is in Atlas Shrugged, but there is a nuance and vigor to Rand’s earlier work that her later material lacks. Atlas Shrugged is a novel that primarily attacks state imposition on capitalists. We the Living describes the more complete totalitarian degradation of the individual. Unassuming and profound, We the Living should be read by everyone who appreciates good literature. And, being the book’s 75th birthday, it is the perfect occasion to pick it up.