Saturday, July 23, 2011

We the Living Lives On

Rand, Ayn. We the Living. New York: Signet, 1964 (1936).

It has been nearly a decade since I first picked up We the Living, and I'm surprised to find that I like it nearly as much now as I did on my first encounter with the story. Like many of Rand's other novels, We the Living is heavily skewed to promote her then-foundling philosophy of objectivism, a worldview that is a slightly more selective and glorified form of humanism, and, like any book that strives so singlemindedly to promote one particular perspective, the plot of We the Living occasionally falls a little flat under the weight of Rand's arguments and analyses. Nevertheless, this is a terrific and important novel, and worth reading for the story as well as the glimpse into a mindset of yore.

Kira Argouvna has a whole world ahead of her. She's young and strong, has been admitted to the Technological Institute to study engineering (she, like many of Rand's protagonists, dreams of building magnificent and seemingly eternal structures), and even has, after not too many pages, a male admirer or two. Her papers appear to be in order, and even the poverty of her slightly-too-independent family is not enough to discourage her from the joys of her studies (and boyfriends). Yet times are hard, and her family's struggles go unnoticed until even Kira loses most of the things that once brought her happiness. As her aristocratic ties become ever more dangerous, Kira struggles to keep her family satisfied, make a home and career for herself, and save the man she loves, yet her country and her circumstances seem to fight against her at every opportunity. Rand paints a poignant--if bleak--picture of life in communist Russia and manages to sculpt one of her most compelling characters into life as her novel progresses. One-sided in spots, We the Living paints a stark and probably quite honest picture of one woman's experience in a dark and troubled world, and although Rand claims in the preface to her Signet edition that the novel is more about ideals than about history, real history and realistic experiences leak onto the pages of this novel and cannot be completely overlooked. The philosophy is heavy-handed, but the story itself is compelling and magnificent.

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