Ayn Rand Rand, Ayn (Vol. 30) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ayn Rand 1905–1982

Russian-born American novelist, nonfiction writer, dramatist, scriptwriter, and editor.

Rand is chiefly remembered for her controversial novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), which promote her philosophy of "objectivism." This extreme form of individualism has been defined by Rand as "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."

Rand came to the United States in 1926, having witnessed the 1917 Communist revolution in Russia. Each of her four novels is a celebration of the individual versus collective society. We the Living (1936) is viewed as a polemic against totalitarianism and its disregard of the individual. Anthem (1938) is a science fiction novelette of a future primitive society in which the word "I" is forbidden. Rand's point in this work is that the individualism which had built a complex technological civilization has been smothered by collectivism.

These first two novels are considered lesser efforts than The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In these novels, Rand dramatizes her philosophy of objectivism in lengthy works designed to glorify characters who fulfill her ideals. Howard Roark of The Fountainhead is an architectural genius who refuses to bend to bureaucratic pressure. John Galt, Rand's spokesperson in Atlas Shrugged, leads a strike of society's most effective and creative producers in an effort to collapse the collectivist social system of the present to prepare the way for a new society based on Rand's ideals. In the closing sentence of a long oration, Galt presents the credo of objectivists: "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."

Critical and reader response to Rand's work has been sharply divided, with much of the disagreement focused on her philosophy. Inherent in her concept of the ego as the moving force behind all creative human endeavors is an unwavering advocacy of self-centeredness and its concomitant opposition to the altruism so important to Christian ethics. While some critics have praised Rand for writing novels of ideas, calling her a thoughtful spokesperson for laissez-faire capitalism, many others have found her work too simplistic and didactic. The arguments about her ideas continue today, although her influence has lessened since the 1960s and earlier, when her writings had a strong cult following. After writing Atlas Shrugged, Rand devoted her time to lecturing about her philosophy and defending it in several collections of essays. She also edited the Objectivist Newsletter, later renamed The Ayn Rand Letter.

(See also CLC, Vol. 3 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed., Vol. 105 [obituary].)

Harold Strauss

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["We the Living"] is slavishly warped to the dictates of propaganda. Actually Miss Rand can command a good deal of narrative skill, and her novel moves with alacrity and vigor upon occasion. It is only the blind fervor with which she has dedicated herself to the annihilation of the Soviet Union that has led her to blunder into palpable improbabilities. We refer strictly to artistic probability; we cannot here hold in question the facts upon which Miss Rand's political attitude is based.

To the unwary "We the Living" will possess the semblance of impartiality, for it is the story of a girl who was loved by two men—by Leo, an aristocrat, and by Andrei, a Communist. But the dice are heavily loaded in the favor of Leo from the beginning, for Kira, the girl, is the daughter of a formerly wealthy factory owner; aside from Leo's greater physical attractiveness, her background has imbued her whole being with a yearning for the gentility and individuality which he represents. Andrei, on the other hand, is a cog in the vast machinery of Soviet bureaucracy…. Kira is deeply attracted by him personally, but their political differences are too great ever to allow them peace….

Miss Rand spares no detail in her descriptions of diet, shelter, and the constant G. P. U. surveillance accorded former members of the upper classes. Nevertheless it is doubtful whether Kira would ever have turned to Andrei had not Leo been stricken with tuberculosis. In order to get Leo admitted to Crimean hospitals ordinarily open only to trade union members, Kira offers Andrei her body.

Leo is saved, but only at the cost of deception and intrigue by Kira. He returns in a cynical mood and plunges into forbidden speculation in foodstuffs, which he obtains by corrupting officials of the food trust. He is detected, however, and once more the good offices of Andrei are invoked. Andrei succeeds in clearing Leo only at the cost of his own party membership and eventually his suicide…. His sacrifice is in vain. Leo leaves Kira for another woman (as his individualism apparently entitles him to do) and we last see Kira making an inevitably fatal attempt to escape across the Latvian border from that Russia which had denied to her everything of meaning in life.

Harold Strauss, "Soviet Triangle," in The New York Times Book Review, April 19, 1936, p. 7.

Ben Belitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Ayn Rand] has written a novel ["We the Living"] to make it finally plain that the Soviet state, as far as she has been able to discover, is not only a farce on the face of it but is likewise fostering a race of "crippled, creeping, crawling, broken monstrosities." Miss Rand is determined that her readers shall have nothing less than the whole truth. Kira Argounova, her protagonist, speaks for her on at least one occasion: "For one insane second Kira wondered if she could tear through the crowd, rush up to that woman [a visiting English trade-union delegate] and yell to her, to England's workers, to the world, the truth that they were seeking." We are left to assume that "We the Living" is the answer. (p. 523)

From the very outset [Kira's] attitude toward the experiment in which she shares is one of contempt and ridicule; she "loathes their ideals but admires their methods"—which would conceivably make her a mystic. Not many chapters on, she offers herself to one Leo Kovalensky, a total stranger, a few moments after first laying eyes on him, because she "liked his face"; which, one is left to ponder, might in some way account for her "individualism." The remainder of the novel shuttles about aimlessly from bedroom to rostrum, with Kira playing the role of a patient Griselda to Leo's Don Juan. Much love-making occurs in the interim, and considerable speech-making, and one is bound to confess that the former is managed to vastly...

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William Plomer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One often wishes that writers would yield a little more to their satirical inclinations, and that goes for Miss Ayn Rand. From internal evidence one would guess her to be a middle-class White or Whitish Russian living in exile in America, and We the Living (a title of no particular significance) is so frankly counter-revolutionary that it ought to annoy readers of Red or Reddish sympathies. Writing, often graphically, of life in Leningrad in the 'twenties she seems anxious to show the corruption of those newly raised to positions of authority…. Miss Rand's account of the social upset following the Revolution is detailed and likely enough; she makes a certain amount of rather bitter fun of the workings of the new bureaucracy and of the lapses of the new orthodox into such unorthodoxies as private trading. But towards Kira, who stands for individualism and those little things like scent and lipsticks which Mean So Much to a woman, Miss Rand is altogether too partial. If Kira had played the game with nice Red Andrei instead of nasty White Leo … we might have liked her better.

William Plomer, in a review of "We the Living," in The Spectator, Vol. 158, No. 5664, January 15, 1937, p. 98.

Lorine Pruette

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ayn Rand is a writer of great power. She has a subtle and ingenious mind and the capacity of writing brilliantly, beautifully, bitterly. "The Fountainhead" … is a long but absorbing story of man's enduring battle with evil. It has drama …; it has poetry, sometimes a bit too lush; and it has a challenging conception. Good novels of ideas are rare at any time. This is the only novel of ideas written by an American woman that I can recall.

The background is architecture, a field relatively new to the fiction writer, and admirably adapted to the presentation of "the creator" and "the secondhander." Howard Roark is the creator, a tough guy who works cheerfully in the quarries if he is not allowed to build in his own way…. Against him is the charming lad who went to school with him and won all the prizes. Peter Keating continues to win all the prizes, to use his good looks, his personality and his lack of morals to make a rapid and fraudulent success. Against him, too, is Dominque Francon, because she loves him and fears and hates the corrupting, engulfing world.

Above all, Mr. Ellsworth Toohey … is Roark's enemy. Ellsworth Toohey is a brilliant personification of a modern devil. Aiming at a society that shall be "an average drawn upon zeros," he knows exactly why he corrupts Peter Keating and explains his methods to the ruined and desolate young man in a passage that is a pyrotechnical display of the fascist mind...

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Albert Guerard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Fountainhead"] tells of exciting events and colorful characters. It is daring, not offensive. Its style would satisfy the most exacting professor, yet it has the vim and snap of the best journalese. It is frankly intellectual, and fearlessly discusses life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but it never sinks to the highbrow….

The central character is an architect, or, if you prefer, it is Architecture. But the novel is not a technical study in fictional form…. The real subject—a boldly general one—is The Genius, or Superman, vs. the Rabble of "Second-handers."

The characters are hard to visualize, but they talk in human words: indeed, the presentation, all the way...

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John Chamberlain

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Atlas Shrugged"] is a work of fiction, a piece of inspired and thoroughly exciting story-telling that drags only in some of the lengthier speeches which tend to recapitulate points already established by the action. But it is so much more than a mere novel….

"Atlas Shrugged" will satisfy many readers on many separate planes of satisfaction. It has its Buck Rogers flavor—and pace—for those who delight in science fiction. It can be taken as a philosophical detective story…. It can be read as a Socratic dialogue on ethics, or as a profound political parable. Or, as Miss Rand would herself prefer, it can be accepted as a poetic celebration of man as an heroic being, "with his own happiness as...

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Ruth Chapin Blackman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In a statement published as a postscript to "Atlas Shrugged," Ayn Rand has defined her philosophy, "in essence," as "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."

"Atlas Shrugged" is [a] … polemic inadequately disguised as a novel and designed to dramatize these views. The result is an astonishing mixture of anti-Communist manifesto, superman, and the lush lady novelist Ethel M. Dell—a novel that does its own purpose a disservice through caricature and over-simplification.

Miss Rand postulates an America in a time of waning strength and...

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Granville Hicks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Atlas Shrugged"] comes among us as a demonstrative act rather than as a literary work. Its size seems an expression of the author's determination to crush the enemies of truth—her truth, of course—as a battering ram demolishes the walls of a hostile city. Not in any literary sense a serious novel, it is an earnest one, belligerent and unremitting in its earnestness. It howls in the reader's ear and beats him about the head in order to secure his attention, and then, when it has him subdued, harangues him for page upon page. It has only two moods, the melodramatic and the didactic, and in both it knows no bounds. (p. 4)

It would be pointless to discuss either the logic or the feasibility of the...

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Helen Beal Woodward

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Atlas Shrugged"] is the equivalent of a fifteenth-century morality play. Everyman, personified by Dagny Taggert, the strong-minded lady Operating Vice President of the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, and by her lover, Hank Rearden, the steel tycoon, struggles against the forces of evil as represented by the bureaucrats, the scientists who sell their minds to the bureaucrats, and the craven businessmen who string along for fear of honest competition. What Hank and Dagny do not realize is that Evil seeks to destroy them precisely because they are strong and fearless. To outwit Evil the half-legendary hero John Galt cooks up an apocalyptic conspiracy, a "strike of the men of the mind." Hank and Dagny are saved, but...

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Patricia Donegan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Purporting to be a novel, Atlas Shrugged is a cumbersome, lumbering vehicle in which characterization, plot and reality are subordinated to the author's expression of a personal philosophy. The book is a point of view stated and restated so often that even one who agreed with it would tire long before the book was completed.

Ayn Rand, whose last novel, The Fountainhead, was widely read fourteen years ago and was greeted with mixed reception from the critics, envisages a not-too-distant future in which society crumbles under the impact of the welfare state. Miss Rand, whose private obsession is private enterprise, has woven a story around this supposed disintegration. Several of her...

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Gore Vidal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The following essay was originally published in Esquire, July, 1961.]

Ayn Rand is a rhetorician who writes novels I have never been able to read. (p. 261)

This odd little woman is attempting to give a moral sanction to greed and self-interest, and to pull it off she must at times indulge in purest Orwellian newspeak of the "freedom is slavery" sort…. She has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who dislike the welfare state, who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts. For them, she has an enticing prescription: altruism is the root of all evil,...

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Nathaniel Branden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The projection of "things as they might be and ought to be" names the essence of Ayn Rand's concept of literature. In the wave of Naturalism that has engulfed the literature of the twentieth century, her novels are an outstanding exception. They are at once a continuation of the Romantic tradition and a significant departure from the mainstream of that tradition: she is a Romantic Realist. "Romantic"—because her work is concerned with values, with the essential, the abstract, the universal in human life, and with the projection of man as a heroic being. "Realist"—because the values she selects pertain to this earth and to man's actual nature, and because the issues with which she deals are the...

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Bruce Cook

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miss Rand is a profoundly poor writer. To say that her plots are absurdly tendentious, her characters no more than wooden puppets, and her diction utterly without grace or beauty (all of which is quite true) is to give no real idea of the quality of her novels. They are completely bad, from conception to expression.

All her writing might quite properly be called fantastic. It is not simply that two of her four novels deal with the future,… but rather an atmosphere common to all which is so charged with unreality that it reminds us of nothing quite so much as the dream world of a child….

[Her] opinion of contemporary fiction is so low … that she clearly feels herself...

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Gerald Raftery

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A surprising favorite among the high-school taste-makers is Ayn Rand's "Anthem" …, which is set in the far distant future and is remarkably free of its author's murky economics. Written nearly 30 years ago and published in hard cover about 10 years later, it enlarges upon ideas which are expressed in [H. G. Wells's] "The Time Machine" and implied in [Aldous Huxley's] "Brave New World"; it might almost be an extrapolation of [George Orwell's] "1984"—say, into 2084. The final scene depicts the hero, who has escaped from a deteriorated ant-like culture, vowing to restore the vanished technical civilization of our times and adopting as his motto the one word "Ego." This is somewhat more attractive than Miss Rand's...

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Philip Gordon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Throughout her long career as popular author and philosophizer, Ayn Rand has concentrated on her individualist-heroes to formulate from their absolute dedication to their own self-interests the model for all mankind. In contrast to those who have seen in the economic crises of the twentieth century the waste of capitalism, Rand, obsessed with the fear of collectivist association, has seen universal salvation possible only through even more intensive laissez-faire capitalism. In so far as exposing Rand's politics to a more enlightened historical awareness would be like smashing a pea with a hammer, this brief study suggests instead some intersections of Rand's fiction-tracts and popular culture in an attempt to explain...

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Mimi R. Gladstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Atlas Shrugged] is not generally considered to be philosophically feminist. In fact, it may not be on anyone's reading list for Women's Courses, except mine. But close analysis of the book's themes and theories will prove that it should be. Much that Rand says is relevant to feminist issues. Best of all, the novel has a protagonist who is a good example of a woman who is active, assertive, successful, and still retains the love and sexual admiration of three heroic men. Though the situation is highly romantic, and science fiction to boot, how refreshing it is to find a female protagonist in American Fiction who emerges triumphant. (p. 681)

The refrain of Atlas Shrugged is John Galt's...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Fountainhead (1943), railed against the dragon forces of boorish "collectivisim" and conventional aesthetic standards in this country as concerned citizen Rand determined to save America from "dying."… (p. 325)

Howard Roark, an architect-genius, persists in designing great buildings without sacrificing an inch of his integrity to the inevitably compromising demands of professional peers, opinion-makers, the public taste, and his clients…. Throughout the book he is implicitly compared with pusillanimous Peter Keating, college roommate and then fellow architect, whose overriding desire for commercial success makes him willing to accommodate anyone who promises to further his...

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Terry Teachout

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If your definition of a "modern classic" is a book which still sells briskly in both soft- and hard-cover editions a quarter-century after its publication, which deals with serious issues in a serious way, and which continues to stir up controversy as each succeeding generation discovers it, then—better brace yourself—Atlas Shrugged fills the bill. Sure, it's a preposterous book; sure, the reviewers demolished it; sure, virtually every reputable conservative from Russell Kirk to Frank Meyer rushed to repudiate it. Indeed, there aren't very many bad things to be said about Atlas Shrugged that aren't true. No novel of comparable quality has ever been so tenacious in its hold on the public, give or take...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Perhaps it is fair to say that if there is one message Ayn Rand the theorist would have wanted to leave us it is, philosophy matters! The recent death of Ayn Rand provides the occasion for us to recall the importance of this message. In the heat of contemporary social and political debates we often forget to consider basic principles. The writings of Ayn Rand will always be with us as a reminder that pragmatism and expediency are ultimately self-defeating. And it is in this spirit of a concern for basic questions that we wish to briefly outline some of Rand's basic theses here.

We see three central themes in the philosophy of Ayn Rand: 1) The major metaphysical and epistemological tenets of...

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Tamara Stadnychenko

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ayn Rand's Anthem is science fiction of the "after the big one" genre. The world has undergone a cataclysmic reversal; technology and science have all but disappeared, and the accepted social structure is relentlessly communal. Individualism is not tolerated. Indeed, speaking the "unspeakable word" I is the only crime which merits capital punishment.

The protagonist, Equality 7-2521, is a misfit. Despite lifelong indoctrination, he defies society's laws and mores, at first with an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame, and later with an increasing certainty that he, and not the society, is rational.

He travels the epic hero's Journey of Light, descends to physical and...

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