Understanding Ayn Rand: A Review of “We the Living”

Love thrives in the time of despair, I had read once. Love of Kira and Leo or Andrei falling in love with Kira all happened in the time when it was turmoil when each individual trying to survive anyhow anyway. But, when love is prefixed with a story we think or take it in considering it’s a love story. Ayn Rand’s We the Living have deal with love, but, this novel is more than that. 

The period of the novel is post-1917 Russian Revolution and the city is Petrograd, a city which was “…not born; it was created.” Argounov family had fled the city to Crimea after Alexander Dimitrievitch, father of Kira, the protagonist, was shed off forcefully his post of being a rich man–owner of a textile factory in the aftermath of 1917 Revolution. As Rand wrote, “Petrograd had seen five years of revolution. Four of those years had closed its every artery and every store…”

The story begins with their return to Petrograd after four long years. And have depicted the next four or five years.

Kira met Leo in a chance encounter after rejecting Victor, Kira’s cousin and while returning to her home. The love between them blooms at their first encounter when Leo consider her as some girls looking for money by offering self. Leo was the son of an Admiral who was court-martialed and killed for treason against the State. Kira met Andrei after a meeting at Institute where she had enrolled to become an architect. Their love story is a bit of complicated and very much of today, this time. Andrei loved her and never doubted her–seldom he does though.

After a time, Leo was diagnosed with consumption and need to be transported to the south where the winter is not severe. Kira entangled in the relationship with Andrei as his mistress. After the return, he opened a small shop in partnership with Communist officials Comrade Mozorov and Comrade Pavel Syerov. The shop was of smuggled food items like bread, millet, etc. Andrei in desperation to prove his love for Kira and not doubting she loves and lives with Leo investigate this and arrested Leo in charge of speculation.

When Kira faced him, he realized his mistakes and using his influences he set Leo free, and, afterward killed himself letting Kira questioned self “…she had killed him, or the revolution had, or both.” Leo left Kira after his return to become a gigolo. Kira in search of better hope decided to leave the city illegally after her passport was denied for not showing any valid reason. She, while, crossing the border was killed. Rand had given his killer, the guard, a name also as Citizen Ivan Ivonov.

There was also another love story–a sort of amalgamation of star-crossed lovers and unrequited love. It was between the cousin of Kira named Irina Dunaeva and a revolutioner against the State Sasha Chernov. Sasha being counter-revolutionary activist was convicted to a Siberian prison. Irina was also sentenced the same for being an aide. They got married just before the deported and got divided while transporting. Siberian prison means death; those who got transported there never returned. In the foreword, Ayn Rand confessed the fact of Irina being bearing her basic theme of sanctity which she had used in the sense of “supreme value.”

There were few more characters that stemmed from these stories. And they are not mere characters, they are individuals who’re were struggling to cope up with the new rules that were imposed on them especially the rich one or the bourgeoisie.

Like Mary Petrovna, aunt of Kira, reminiscent of the days before the revolution. Through Galina Petrovna, her sister and mother of Kira, Rand mentioned showing how the time was. Mary’s hands were famous “…and a poem had been written about–“Champagne and Maria’s hand.” They were frozen to a dark purple, swollen and cracked.” But, “…There are still plenty of things to sell.” her husband Vasili Ivanovitch states in the recent-earlier. He was also a famous trader and people used to recognized him by name instantly.

There’s another instance where Kira had to abandon her study being the daughter of a bourgeoise, the class enemy for the state. Rand had depicted the harshness of this time like this “It was spring again, and melting snow drilled the sidewalks…But those who were young had no thought left for spring and those who still thought were not young any longer.”

We the Living thus depict the post-Revolution Soviet Russia in its truest and honest form. This is more than a love story set in the time of chaos and anarchy or historical one depicting the lives and the citizen of the city which was “…St.Petersburg; the war made it Petrograd…”

The debut novel of Rand is not powerful if I compare to The Fountainhead, the only book of hers I read till now before I pick up We the Living. This novel is beginning, or sapling of a tree, which becomes a tree, an idea call Individualism. Here at some points, Kira had represented the idea of the selfishness, of the individualism in a subtle way. We the Living thus is not the depiction or explanation of the idea that Rand later established.

Her writing pattern or approaching certain scenes are so vivid that they evoke the image of the certain situations. The conversation between the Party Members, injecting a short bio of Andrei Taganov to establish him as a man you can rely on, as a man of strong virtue, the line for the ration scenes, the family scenes fighting for the old hold-on prejudice and hoping to regain sooner not later–they all had come to life through the writing of Rand.

My favorite one is in the later part of the novel, at the end, when Kira confront Andrei for his action in getting Leo arrested was depicted through dialogues and actions of the character, like Kira speaks to express her love for Leo “I’ve never loved him as I loved him in your bed!…”, and one can feel the shout as well as other parameters of the voice that Kira used, “…She laughed…stepping close to him. She screamed at his face…” or Andrei speaks after realizing his mistakes, “His voice broke…and his voice was firm as a doctor’s…” The whole argument and the confession through it were depicted in the deepest form letting me as a reader not only visualize the scene but listening to the characters.

We the Living, in short, is a novel that depicts a time that has not got mentioned in a wider way; a novel that speaks not through certain scenes or events but mainly through the conversations of the people used to had that time.

I had to lend her voice to surmise the idea that mainly went behind this novel, according to me, “…It is a story about Dictatorship, any dictatorship, anywhere, at any time.”

P.S. We the Living contains the best opening line I have read in recent time–“Petrograd smelt of carbolic acid.”

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9 thoughts on “Understanding Ayn Rand: A Review of “We the Living””

  1. What a coincidence Sangbad I just finished reading – the fountainhead from the same author. It was written in 1935. It’s a long book but worth the read. Story has a lot of character in it. Remarks about human behaviour and society are impressive. It’s background is of architecture, about skyscrapers and the power of media. Strength in character and being different. You would love reading it. It’s about Howard Roark and Dominique Francon. I loved it.

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  2. fantastic review Sangbad, i felt your passion for the writer and she is magnificent to say the least. I haven’t read this book but from your review I felt that sometimes we seem to force a person to like someone else just to spite us. We have such control over a person’s feelings when they fall in love with the image of who they think we are. I really enjoyed your engaging review. Well done.

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  3. I read We The Living for the first time when I was maybe 16 years old? It quickly became a favorite book, I don’t know how many times I reread it, must have been a lot, because I still vividly remember certain scenes, and It’s been at least 15 years since I last read it. I should read it again, see how much I’ve changed in 15 years.

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