Though I don’t agree with much of her philosophy, I’ve been a fan of Ayn Rand’s writing for a long time. Her best-known books – “Anthem,” “The Fountainhead,” and “Atlas Shrugged” – seethe with a fiery intensity too often lacking in modern literature. Her heroes are bold, defiant individualists who persevere despite intense hardships…and remain true to themselves, no matter what the cost. Given that I’m spending most of my summer studying Russian, I looked forward to reading her first novel, “We the Living” – a semi-autobiographical work set in 1920s Soviet Russia. I expected it to be much the same as her other books – a story packed with electrifying prose, memorable characters, and overt philosophical underpinnings.
And while that’s true in some sense, “We the Living” is strikingly unique. More than any of Rand’s other novels, it is a story of human beings and their motivations. While Rand’s unique philosophy is certainly present, “We the Living” places drama above dogma.
The novel centers around Kira Argounova, a daring young Russian girl held back by her family name. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, proletarian zeal is at an all-time high, and anyone with questionable parentage is instantly blacklisted. As her family struggles to make a living in the rapidly changing city of St. Petersburg, Kira meets a strange man – Leo Kovalensky – who seems to share her passion and convictions.
The two soon embark on a passionate love affair, but are barely able to make ends meet. When Leo is diagnosed with incipient tuberculosis, Kira can find only one way to save his life: the world’s oldest profession. She becomes the lover of her old friend Andrei Taganov – a noble, idealistic young Communist high in the Party’s good graces. With help from Andrei, she is able to save Leo’s life…though neither Leo nor Andrei knows of the other’s existence.
At this point, it would be easy to write off “We the Living” as a sordid tale of sex and misery. Such a superfluous analysis, however, misses the point of the book. The heart of “We the Living” is its devastating critique of Soviet society, as shown through the eyes of three unique individuals. Though achingly painful at times to read, it plumbs the depths of human weakness to discern an important conclusion: life must have purpose in order to be meaningful.
What is this purpose? Rand doesn’t answer that question, although she hints at a nebulous concept of “personal achievement.” In many ways, “We the Living” reflects an emerging concept of Objectivism (her belief that self-interest is the ultimate good)…and her later works establish this philosophy in greater detail. Ironically, Rand suggests that there is more to life than mere profit. When an important character gains financial stability (through his own effort), he begins a loose and disparate lifestyle…which Rand portrays as grotesque. Perhaps even without realizing it, she reveals the greatest flaw of Objectivism: without moral standards that transcend the individual, life is ultimately empty and purposeless. And though Rand would later go on to repudiate altruism as an “evil” (since it interferes with self-interest), in “We the Living” self-sacrifice is celebrated.
The characters of “We the Living” are sharply different from those in Rand’s other works. There are no iron-willed, stoic warriors of individualism here…rather, the three characters at the heart of the story actually feel like real people. Themes of love, honor, and family are explored throughout, lending depth to an otherwise melancholy tale. It’s also worth noting that “We the Living” lacks long, impassioned philosophical speeches (such as Howard Roark’s courtroom address or John Galt’s radio broadcast). Rather, its themes are introduced more subtly.
Objectionable content is found in the form of strong sexual undercurrents throughout the novel. Though there’s nothing graphic or explicit, the emotional center of the book is a love triangle between three unmarried people. Importantly, these elements are not intended to titillate: rather, they provide a rough, raw look at human weakness and vulnerability. There’s a smattering of profanity and some disturbing imagery throughout, but little else problematic.
After finishing “We the Living,” I felt like someone should make a film version. It lacks much of the didacticism of “The Fountainhead” or “Atlas Shrugged,” and is driven by characters rather than by philosophies. (Not to mention, the dark story is surefire Oscar bait). Though sometimes difficult to read, it carries a powerful, almost Shakespearean resonance that elevates it above other historical fiction. Recommended for fans of Rand’s other works, and readers interested in a powerful, provocative look at early Soviet Russia.
Not Rand’s finest work, but a haunting, memorable story in its own right.