We the Living by Ayn Rand (1936)
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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.”
A new author just becoming known
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.
Here’s a generally objective review of We the Living that appeared when the book first came out in 1936:
Passionate, Powerful Novel About Russia
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.
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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.
See also Atlas Shrugged: Two Snarky Reviews
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.
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