The portrayal of Communism in Ayn Rand’s We the Living

Length: 1102 words

‘We The Living’ is the first published work of Ayn Rand. The novel deals with Communism and its various drawbacks. Having escaped from Communist Russia into the United States during her late teens, the novel thus represents a first-hand view of her experiences in Russia. In this sense, the novel can be considered part autobiographical and part philosophical. Finding a publisher for the novel had been a great challenge, for not many in the industry saw commercial value in the theme. But eventually, the book was published in 1936 by Macmillan, and has since gone on to sell close to 4 million copies. Looking back retrospectively, the novel is seen to contain many elements of Rand’s philosophical system called Objectivism. Since Objectivism espouses the capitalist system (the laissez-faire variety), it can be seen as an antithesis to Communism. (Walker, 1994, p.51)

In ‘We The Living’ though, the thrust of Rand’s argument is more on political liberties granted to civil society under Communism. The author accomplishes this by suitably structuring the plot. Set in post-revolutionary Russia (between 1922 and 1925), the story narrates the lives of Kira Argounova (the protagonist), Leo Kovalensky and Andrei. The three characters are so constructed that they represent

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different socio-economic classes in Russia of the time. Kira comes from a well-to-do bourgeois family whereas Andrei is a revolutionary. Leo, on the other hand is against harsh authoritarian political system. (Branden, 1999, p.61)

The story depicts the struggle of three young, talented people to achieve life and happiness in Soviet Russia. It is about the

“manner in which the system destroys all three of them, not in spite of, but because of, their virtues. In order to obtain money to send Leo Kovalensky, the man she loves, to a tuberculosis sanatorium, Kira Argounova becomes the mistress of Andrei Taganov, an idealistic communist. Neither man knows of Kira’s relationship with the other, nor their hate is mutual. Leo is an aristocrat, Andrei, a member of the Soviet secret police. The idea that a woman would be forced to sleep with a man she does not love in order to save the life of the man she does love is not new; that is the situation in Tosca, for instance, and in many other stories.” (Branden, 1999, p.61)

Kira is a bold and independent girl, who refuses to conform to new mandates of the Soviet State. During the revolution, Kira’s and other bourgeois families were forced into exile, as the Red Army took control of their industry as well as living quarters. Once the dust settled politically and the exiled families returned home, they were despaired to see their private property being converted into mass communal dwellings. Their privately owned industry (textile factory in the case of Kira’s family) has been nationalized. (Walker, 1994, p.51)

Seen from the majority of poor Russian peasantry, the outcome of the revolution can be seen as a process of just redistribution of privilege and wealth. But Rand harbors no such sympathies, as she sides with the feelings of the recently dispossessed. The drastic change in fortunes of the bourgeois was presented by the author in empathetic tones. Much of this empathy emerges from the new biting realities under the Soviet regime. Not only was there much political and social chaos, but the Soviet leadership continued to pursue illegitimate means for completing the revolution. The standard of living declines rapidly post-revolution, as cities (including Petrograd) are filled with scenes of disorganization. Under nourished people waiting in long queues to avail of their rations is a common sight. By citing these ugly realities under the Communists, Ayn Rand implicitly bemoans the collective losses incurred by the nation, and especially the members of its bourgeois such as Kira. Discussing the novel with Nathaniel Branden, Rand elaborates on the character of Leo:

“The character of Leo was inspired by a man I was in love with. Nothing ever happened between us, just a few dates, certainly not an affair, and when he stopped calling me, I suffered horribly. In some ways, that was the most painful experience of my life. Much later, I heard that he ended up in a conventional marriage. What I saw in him, what he meant to me, is what I gave to the character of Leo in the novel.” (Branden, 1999, p.61)

If the character of Kira and Leo were tragic enough, then that of Andrei Taganov was more so. He is a participant in the revolution and earnestly believed that the radical change is for a good cause. He supports his brothers and sisters and tries to lift their standard of living. Reacting in good faith “to the deprivations he had suffered as a child, he sees communism as a system for the alleviation of the horrors of Czarist Russia. It is only after he experiences the system in action that he begins to realize the magnitude of his miscalculation.” (Gladstein, 1999, p.35)

The originality of the author’s handling of the subject is the way in which she intensifies and magnifies the conflict and makes it more complex. In similar love-triangle plots, the man to whom the woman sells herself is the antagonist whom the woman hates (she knows that she is selling herself). But in the case of Rand’s work though, the character of Andrei is not a villain. Not only does he sincerely love Kira but also believes that the feeling is reciprocal. He also does not know of her love for Leo. Kira, who never despised Andrei, eventually comes to respect him for his virtues. Hence, the plot is unique and the sentiments and actions expressed by the three characters are refreshing too. (Gray, 2010, p.48)

Another characteristic feature of the novel is the rather philosophical mindsets of the three characters. Their conversations tend to be heavy and deliberative. But Rand is trying to present a case against the principles of Communism through these lines. For example, “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 eachother to pieces, to the very bottom, they’d see that they had the same root.” (We The Living, 1936, p.17) Elsewhere in story it goes “Well, if I asked people whether they believed in life, they’d never understand what I mean. 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.” (We The Living, 1936, p.18)

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