Ayn Rand American Literature Analysis

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Rand’s fiction embodies the philosophy of Objectivism. She wants to provoke a philosophical response from her readers, to make each one choose a side. Objectivism asserts an uncompromising individualism, in which human beings’ rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are paramount, and their primary social obligation is to respect the rights of others. Rand believed that in modern times, the greatest threat to freedom is collectivism, the belief that the state, whether Communist, Fascist, or democratic, can control humans, especially by infringing on the right to hold property and to buy and trade freely. She supported capitalism as an expression of the highest freedom and loved the United States for its commitment to individual rights.

In keeping with this philosophy, all of Rand’s heroes and sympathetic characters are self-reliant and self-starting. They are frequently tall, lean and hard with strong, craggy names like Howard Roark, Dagny Taggart, and John Galt. They are makers and builders: architects, inventors, and industrialists. They love their work and respect competence above all. Rand’s villains, often referred to as second-handers or looters, tend to be pudgy, formless, and weak with names such as Wesley Mouch or Ellsworth Toohey. They live parasitically off the labor or ideas of others, to which they feel entitled. Frequently they support government programs to redistribute wealth from the producers to weak people like themselves. Their moral standards lie in what others think. As one villain says, “Give your soul. To a lie? Yes, if others believe it. To deceit? Yes, if others need it.” The conflicts in Rand’s stories, therefore, are between different sets of values.

Rand uses several techniques to develop her themes. One of the best-known is having her characters make long speeches expounding their philosophies. Rand often excerpts these passages into her nonfiction, further reinforcing the connection between fiction and philosophy in her writing. More compelling are the brief, one-line passages which sum up an entire philosophy, like the venomous Ellsworth Toohey’s remark, “Genius is an exaggeration of dimension. So is elephantiasis. Both may be only a disease.” Rand also allows physical details to advertise her characters’ inner natures, as when a minor villain is said to carry a gun in one pocket and a rabbit’s foot in the other, demonstrating his brutality and irrationality.

Rand adheres to a romantic theory of art which holds that art should make moral ideals concrete. She rejects naturalism, preferring to portray people as she thinks they should be. Her characters do not sound, look, or act like people in the real world, even when they are taken from real-life models. This belief violates some tenets of modern literature. If modern literature stresses ambiguity in characterization, Rand has clear-cut heroes and villains. If modern tastes favor the downbeat and question happy endings, Rand never loses faith in her heroes’ ability to triumph. Rand took her cue from the great Romantic nineteenth century novelists like Victor Hugo, who wrote about highly charged historical events and larger-than-life characters.

Rand also uses the techniques of popular fiction. Her long novels have the strong drive and pace of the best thrillers. Some have the futuristic settings of science fiction. Like a mystery writer, she often teases her readers with questions and puzzles, such as the riddling catchphrase of Atlas Shrugged, “Who is John Galt?” Rand’s literary works also all have love-story plots or subplots. Her heroes and heroines love each other passionately because they see value in each other. Her novels, though tame by today’s standards, were considered very sexy in their day.

Although sex in Rand’s work sometimes resembles conquest...

(This entire section contains 2207 words.)

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or even rape, she asserted that sex is a joyous act between consenting adults. Certainly, her strong female protagonists expect and even demand the best from their men. Rand’s popularity continues long after her death, though critics and scholars have often ignored or dismissed her work. Recent academic studies, such as Mimi Reisel Gladstein’s books, suggest that Rand is getting serious attention and respect. Perhaps Rand will belatedly receive the literary recognition she often sought.

The Fountainhead

First published: 1943

Type of work: Novel

Architect Howard Roark fights against nearly overwhelming odds to build according to his own vision.

The Fountainhead’s major theme is the need for integrity and independence as exemplified in the career of Howard Roark. Roark is the fountainhead, or productive force, in the novel. To develop this theme, Rand places Roark in contrast with three other men, Peter Keating, Ellsworth Toohey, and Gail Wynand.

The novel begins with a jarring contrast. Howard Roark is expelled from the Stanton Academy on the same day that Peter Keating graduates with honors. Roark is the true architect, making a building’s design fit its purpose, while Keating’s practice of architecture seeks to please other people. In New York, Roark works for Henry Cameron, a brilliant, unconventional architect whose career and body are in decline. Cameron becomes Roark’s mentor, but he is also a foreboding image of how the world may destroy Roark.

After Cameron retires, Roark begins working for a series of architects but keeps getting fired because he will not bend to mediocrity. Roark designs in one style—-his own—-and ignores architectural fashions and traditions. Keating, meanwhile, advances in his career. Every time he has to design a building on his own, however, he turns to Roark for help. In this way Rand dramatizes the nature of the “second-hander.” Keating cannot produce because he worries about how his buildings will be received, while Roark, the fountainhead, can think on his own.

While working at one firm, Roark meets the intellectual Austen Heller, who appreciates the young architect’s work. Heller gives Roark his first commission and the money to open his own architectural firm. A string of commissions comes in but then peters out. Roark eventually closes his offices and finds works cutting stones in a quarry in Connecticut.

There Roark meets Dominique Francon, a beautiful, intelligent woman, who despises the world for its worship of mediocrity. Rand once described Dominique as “myself in a bad mood.” Dominique destroys the beautiful art objects she loves in order to keep the world from ruining them. Roark and Dominique come to love each other deeply, but their acts of love are savage. In New York Roark and Dominique develop a unique romance. Dominique believes that the world will destroy Roark as it destroys every person or thing of integrity. Rather than see him end up like Cameron, she tries to ruin his career before it starts. Her charm and wit, as well as the newspaper column she writes, turn potential clients away from Roark.

Dominique’s campaign against Roark brings him to the attention of architectural critic Ellsworth M. Toohey, a selfless humanitarian. As one would expect from Rand, Toohey is the novel’s villain. He and Dominique collaborate against Roark but for different reasons. Toohey hates Roark because he is great, and greatness is an affront to the average man.

Despairing of any personal happiness, Dominique enters into two loveless marriages, one to Peter Keating and the other to newspaper publisher Gail Wynand. Wynand is a might-have-been Rand hero—a slum boy who became a self-made millionaire. Wynand has Roark’s brains and drive but not his independence. Wynand’s tabloid newspapers control mass opinion by selling news to the lowest common denominator. Despite their differences, Wynand and Roark eventually become friends.

Peter Keating receives a commission for the Cortland Building, a public housing project. Roark actually designs it, demanding only that Keating ensure that the building follows Roark’s plans exactly. Keating fails in this, and the resulting building travesties Roark’s design. Roark, having no legal recourse, dynamites the Cortland building.

Following Roark’s arrest, Wynand puts all his power behind Roark, and his power evaporates. Wynand’s control over public opinion is a sham—the public listened to him only when his papers preached what they wanted to hear. Wynand thought he had the world on a leash, but “a leash is a rope with a noose at both ends.”

At his trial, Roark defends himself with a speech expressing the novel’s intellectual core. The man who invented fire, it begins, “was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to light.” Civilization was built by a few creative minds—always facing public disapproval. Roark argues that he blew up a housing project which only he could have created. The jurors acquit Roark, who marries Dominique at last. Wynand gives him a commission to design the greatest skyscraper in the world.

Atlas Shrugged

First published: 1957

Type of work: Novel

In a near-future world, John Galt and his cohorts remove themselves from the world and destroy a collectivist society.

Atlas Shrugged is the fullest expression in fiction of Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. The novel begins sometime in the near future. Technology and fashion are close to what they were when Rand wrote the novel, but private property has been abolished in most countries, now called “People’s States.” Shortages, delays, and excuses are commonplace. The United States still maintains some freedom, but the government increasingly dictates terms to producers through planning boards and economic directives. A few notice that gifted people in business, the sciences, and the arts are vanishing.

The novel’s opening line, “Who is John Galt?” introduces Rand’s theme: the value of the productive individual. John Galt institutes a strike by the world’s best minds against a collectivist social order. While Galt is the book’s spirit, the main plot line focuses on Dagny Taggart, the vice president of Taggart Transcontinental, whom reviewer Mimi Reisel Gladstein has called “probably the most admirable and successful heroine in American fiction.” Another important character is Hank Rearden, a self-made steel magnate. The novel’s villains ruin the world by confiscating the wealth of the productive.

Dagny, aided by Hank Rearden and his new company Rearden Metal, tries to save her foundering railroads by rebuilding one of the company’s abandoned lines (which she renames the John Galt line) into Colorado, one of the few states with a growing economy. Rand shows the joy of achievement through a thrilling account of the line’s construction. Dagny and Hank persevere and triumph. Hopes for an economic turnaround in Colorado are dashed, however, by a series of new laws crippling the state’s businesses. Rand’s heroes can control nature but not politics.

While on a trip, Dagny and Rearden—now lovers, though Hank is married—find in a ruined factory a new, revolutionary type of motor. Dagny dedicates herself to finding the motor’s inventor, a quest giving the novel a mystery-story appeal. The motor also develops the novel’s main themes. The abandoned factory was once owned by the significantly named Twentieth Century Motors. The company’s failure suggests the failure of the entire twentieth century, while the motor symbolizes the driving intellect, which the looters ignore or abuse.

Meanwhile, the United States starts turning into a “People’s State.” Hank Rearden succumbs to government directives rather than have his affair with Dagny be made public knowledge. Rand demonstrates how Rearden’s shame gave his enemies their power over him. Dagny’s search for the motor’s creator fails. She hopes that the bright young engineer Quentin Daniels may discover the motor’s principles. Daniels, like so many talented people, then goes missing. Dagny flies after him in her plane but crash-lands in a hidden valley.

The valley is called Galt’s Gulch. Here Dagny finally meets John Galt and hears his story. Galt had created the motor, but when Twentieth Century Motors became a collectivist enterprise, he started his strike of the productive and gifted against the looters. His old friends and teachers, Francisco d’Anconia, Ragnar Danneskjöld, and Hugh Akston, retired to the valley, later joined by others, or fought the looters in their own ways. Like Atlas, the mythical giant, they held up the world, and now they are shrugging off their burden.

Dagny falls in love with Galt, but she remains a “scab.” Eventually America’s economy collapses as resources are allocated to the politically savvy. Among Rand’s telling examples is the loss of the Minnesota wheat crop, which rots because the trains that might have carried it to a starving nation instead transport a Florida soybean crop, the pet project of a Washington string-puller.

The novel’s climax comes when Galt takes control of radio broadcasting and gives a long speech, which may be encapsulated in the motto “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” Eventually Galt is captured and tortured, while the novel’s villains show their absurdity by ordering Galt to give orders, in order to make the world run. Galt’s friends fly out from the hidden valley to rescue him. They return, bringing Dagny Taggart, while the lights of New York City go out, the final image of a bankrupt society. With the looters purged, Galt and his friends return to the world.


Ayn Rand Long Fiction Analysis