We the Living by Ayn Rand (1936)

We the Living by Any Rand

We the Living (1936) was the first published novel by Ayn Rand, the ever-controversial Russian-American novelist. Set in post-revolutionary Russia, it reflected Rand’s opposition to communism and totalitarianism. It was, in her own estimation, her most semi-autobiographical.

Though the reviews the book received upon its initial publication were mixed, it became a bestseller. This set the stage for the popularity of her subsequent novels, especially The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, which sold like gangbusters — even though critics were even less kind to them.

Many reviews of We the Living appreciated the direct look at the effects of Soviet policies on society, but felt the writing was heavy-handed. As the New York Times put it, the book seemed “slavishly warped to the dictates of propaganda.”

 

Ayn Rand as an emerging author

When We the Living was published, Rand was already becoming known in certain quarters. Her play, Night of January 16th, had opened on Broadway the previous year. Like the books she would subsequently write, it was a critique of social conformity and a paean to individualism.

We the Living is the story of an aristocratic Russian family who returns to Petrograd in 1920, now under the Soviet regime, and their efforts to adapt to conditions of revolutionary society. Kira Agunova wishes to fight for keeping her individuality in tandem with this quest, takes two very different men as lovers. Intrigue, jealousy, and a critical look at Soviet politics keep the story moving along.

According to the Ayn Rand institute:  “Ayn Rand’s theme in We the Living is the supreme value of an individual life, and the evil of a state that claims the right to take and sacrifice that life.

Rand held that each individual has a moral right to live for his own sake, to pursue his own personal happiness. Although they each passionately want to live, Kira and Leo cannot live a human life because they are trapped in a society that refuses to recognize or respect that right by leaving them free …

Stated more simply, then, the main theme of We the Living is: the Individual against the State. Following is a generally objective review of We the Living that appeared when the book first came out in 1936.

. . . . . . . . . .

Ayn Rand

Philosophical Quotes by Ayn Rand
. . . . . . . . .

A 1936 review of We the Living by Ayn Rand

From the original review of We the Living by Ayn Rand in the Charleston Daily Mail, April 26, 1936: The story of We the Living by Ayn Rand has come out of Soviet Russia.

It could have been written only by one who had lived intimately the life of the communist regime. It could have been published only after an escape from that life had made it possible for the author to write as she pleased.

The book is primarily a wild cry for the right of the individual to “live for what he wants to live for.”

And secondarily, an indictment of the Soviets. It is wholly credible on the first score — somewhat less so, on the second. “We’re working for humanity,” cries one side. “The individual doesn’t matter.”

“If you must work for humanity,” cries the other, “that’s your business. I want to live for myself — for the something sacred and untouchable within me that makes me myself. Who gave you the right to forbid it?”

Miss Rand presents a question in terms of a dramatic novel, whose almost six hundred pages you’re likely to devour at a gulp. “Are you prepared to give up all the pleasures of modern Western culture … to work for the welfare of other people’s grandchildren in a world you will never see?”

“Decidedly no,” he answered. He could choose for himself. Kira Argunova couldn’t.

. . . . . . . . . .

We the Living by Ayn Rand

We the Living by Ayn Rand on Amazon
. . . . . . . . . .

A return to Petrograd

In 1922, when the struggle between the Whites and Reds had ended, Kira returned to Petrograd from Crimea, where her family had fled four years earlier to wait for the brief annoyance of the Revolution to blow over. Her father, mother, and elder sister Lydia were returning in a state of apathetic resignation.

Revolution, poverty, hunger, had no effect on the flame that burned within Kira, age eighteen, with her passion for truth and life — her own life. She was going to be an engineer, because “it’s the only profession where I don’t have to learn a single lie.” She was going to build — not for the Red State, but because she wanted to build. All she asked was to be allowed to study.

Yet something happened, not to dim, but to divert her purpose. She fell in love with Leo and brought to her love all the ardor and constancy of her spirit. Nothing mattered in the face of the needs of the bitter, imperious man who became for her the center of existence. To him she sacrificed her work, her integrity, and her friend, Andrei Taganov, a far finer person.

. . . . . . . . . .

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

See also Atlas Shrugged: Two Snarky Reviews

. . . . . . . . . .

Inevitable tragedy

Andrei’s flame — dedicated to the cause of Communism — burned as purely as her own. The result for all three — Leo, who was too contemptuous to fight Andrei, who fought until betrayal robbed life of its meaning, and Kira, who kept on fighting to the end — was inevitably tragic.

The story moves at a swift pace in a series of graphic vignettes and is told with a kind of subdued fire and intensity that breaks into a blaze toward the end. Kira flings her defiance of Andrei and all he represents into his face.

People and places come to life. Moods and sensations and atmosphere are evoked, so that you feel the gnawing of hunger, the agony of standing endlessly in line for the chance of a few scraps of food, the sick revulsion against life without privacy or cleanliness, the haunting dread of spies, the frenzied instances to fight free of the net closing in, the rebellion that beats its head out against stone walls and ends in lethargy or compromise or corruption or death.

. . . . . . . . . .

Quotes from We the Living

“We’ll meet again. We’ll meet when years have passed, and years make such a difference, don’t they?”

. . . . . . . . . .

“It’s a curse, you know, to be able to look higher than you’re allowed to reach.”

. . . . . . . . . .

“It’s because…you see, if we had souls, which we haven’t, and if our souls met — yours and mine — they’d fight to the death. But after they had torn each other to pieces, to the very bottom, they’d see that they had the same root.”

“It’s strange. There’s your life. You begin it, feeling that it’s something so precious and rare, so beautiful that it’s like a sacred treasure. Now it’s over, and it doesn’t make any difference to anyone, and it isn’t that they are indifferent, it’s just that they don’t know, they don’t know what it means, that treasure of mine, and there’s something about it that they should understand. I don’t understand it myself, but there’s something that should be understood by all of us. Only what is it? What?”

. . . . . . . . . .

“The basic cause of totalitarianism is two ideas: men’s rejection of reason in favor of faith, and of self-interest in favor of self-sacrifice.”

. . . . . . . . . .

“Well, if I asked people whether they believed in life, they’d never understand what I meant. It’s a bad question. It can mean so much that it really means nothing. So I ask them if they believe in God. And if they say they do — then, I know they don’t believe in life. Because, you see, God — whatever anyone chooses to call God — is one’s highest conception above his own possibility thinks very little of himself and his life.

. . . . . . . . . .

“I always know what I want. And when you know what you want – you go toward it. Sometimes you go very fast, and sometimes only an inch a year. Perhaps you feel happier when you go fast. I don’t know. I’ve forgotten the difference long ago, because it really doesn’t matter, so long as you move.”

. . . . . . . . . .

“But if I were given a choice — of all centuries — I’d select last the curse of being born in this one. And perhaps, if I weren’t curious, I’d choose never to be born at all.”

. . . . . . . . . .

It’s a rare gift, you know, to feel reverence for your own life and to want the best, the greatest, the highest possible, here, now, for your very own. To imagine a heaven and then not to dream of it, but to demand it.”

. . . . . . . . . .

“And what is the state but a servant and a convenience for a large number of people, just like the electric light and the plumbing system? And wouldn’t it be preposterous to claim that men must exist for their plumbing, not the plumbing for the men?”

. . . . . . . . . .

*This post contains affiliate links. If the product is purchased by linking through,  Literary Ladies Guide receives a modest commission, which helps maintain our site and helps it to continue growing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to The Literary Ladies Guide weekly newsletter

Celebrating women’s voices
with inspiration for readers and writers

  • Find your next great read
  • Get writing advice from authors you love
  • Enjoy fascinating facts and quotes
  • Discover women’s literary history

... and lots more (look for a bonus in your welcome letter!)
Email address
Secure and Spam free...