Questions and Topics for Discussion
by Leonard Peikoff
Ayn Rand is one of America’s favorite authors. In a recent Library of Congress/Book of the Month Club survey, American readers ranked Atlas Shrugged—her masterwork—as second only to the Bible in its influence on their lives. For decades, at scores of college campuses around the country, students have formed clubs to discuss the works of Ayn Rand. In 1998, the Oscar-nominated Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, a documentary film about her life, played to sold-out venues throughout America and Canada. In recognition of her enduring popularity, the United States Postal Service in 1999 issued an Ayn Rand stamp.
Every book by Ayn Rand published in her lifetime is still in print, and hundreds of thousands of copies of them are sold every year, so far totaling more than twenty million. Why?
Ayn Rand understood, all the way down to fundamentals, why man needs the unique form of nourishment that is literature. And she provided a banquet that was at once intellectual and thrilling.
The major novels of Ayn Rand contain superlative values that are unique in our age. Atlas Shrugged (1957) and The Fountainhead (1943) offer profound and original philosophic themes, expressed in logical, dramatic plot structures. They portray an uplifted vision of man, in the form of protagonists characterized by strength, purposefulness, integrity—heroes who are not only idealists, but happy idealists, self-confident, serene, at home on earth. (See synopses later in this guide.)
Ayn Rand’s first novel, We the Living (1936), set in the post-revolutionary Soviet Union, is an indictment not merely of Soviet-style Communism, but of any and every totalitarian state that claims the right to sacrifice the supreme value of an individual human life.
Anthem (1946), a prose poem set in the future, tells of one man’s rebellion against an utterly collectivized world, a world in which joyless, selfless men are permitted to exist only for the sake of serving the group. Written in 1937, Anthem was first published in England; it was refused publication in America until 1946, for reasons the reader can discover by reading it for himself.
Ayn Rand wrote in a highly calculated literary style intent on achieving precision and luminous clarity, yet that style is at the same time colorful, sensuously evocative, and passionate. Her exalted vision of man and her philosophy for living on earth, Objectivism, have changed the lives of tens of thousands of readers and launched a major philosophic movement with a growing impact on American culture.
You are invited to sit down to the banquet which is Ayn Rand’s novels. I hope you personally enjoy them as much as I did.
About the Books
Atlas Shrugged (1957) is a mystery story, Ayn Rand once commented, “not about the murder of man’s body, but about the murder—and rebirth—of man’s spirit.” It is the story of a man—the novel’s hero—who says that he will stop the motor of the world, and does. The deterioration of the U.S. accelerates as the story progresses. Factories, farms, shops shut down or go bankrupt in ever larger numbers. Riots break out as food supplies become scarce. Is he, then, a destroyer or the greatest of liberators? Why does he have to fight his battle, not against his enemies but against those who need him most, including the woman, Dagny Taggart, a top railroad executive, whom he passionately loves? What is the world’s motor—and the motive power of every man?
Peopled by larger-than-life heroes and villains, and charged with awesome questions of good and evil, Atlas Shrugged is a novel of tremendous scope. It presents an astounding panorama of human life—from the productive genius who becomes a worthless playboy (Francisco d’Anconia)—to the great steel industrialist who does not know that he is working for his own destruction (Hank Rearden)—to the philosopher who becomes a pirate (Ragnar Danneskjold)—to the composer who gives up his career on the night of his triumph (Richard Halley). Dramatizing Ayn Rand’s complete philosophy, Atlas Shrugged is an intellectual revolution told in the form of an action thriller of violent events—and with a ruthlessly brilliant plot and irresistible suspense.
We do not want to spoil the plot by giving away its secret or its deeper meaning, so as a hint only we will quote here one brief exchange from the novel:
“I…don’t know. What…could he do? What would you tell him?”
The Fountainhead (1943) introduced the world to architect Howard Roark, an intransigent, egoistic hero of colossal stature. A man whose arrogant pride in his work is fully earned, Roark is an innovator who battles against a tradition-worshipping society. Expelled from a prestigious architectural school, refused work, reduced to laboring in a granite quarry, Roark is never stopped. He has to withstand not merely professional rejection, but also the enmity of Ellsworth Toohey, leading humanitarian; of Gail Wynand, powerful publisher; and of Dominique Francon, the beautiful columnist who loves him fervently yet, for reasons you will discover, is bent on destroying his career.
At the climax of the novel, the untalented but successful architect Peter Keating, a college friend of his, pleads with Roark for help in designing a prestigious project that Roark himself wanted but was too unpopular to win. Roark agrees to design the project secretly on condition that it be built strictly according to his drawings. During construction, however, Roark’s building is thoroughly mutilated. Having no recourse in law, Roark takes matters into his own hands in a famous act of dynamiting. In the process and the subsequent courtroom trial, he makes his stand clear, risking his career, his love, and his life.
The Fountainhead portrays individualism versus collectivism, not in politics, but in man’s soul; it presents the motivations and the basic premises that produce the character of an individualist or a collectivist.
The novel was made into a motion picture in 1949, starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, for which Ayn Rand wrote the screenplay. The movie, available on video, often plays on cable TV and at art-house cinemas, where it is always received enthusiastically.
We the Living (1936), Ayn Rand’s first and most autobiographical novel, is a haunting account of men’s struggle for survival in the post-revolutionary Soviet Union. In a country where people fear being thought disloyal to the Communist state, three individuals stand forth with the mark of the unconquered in their being: Kira, who wants to become a builder, and the two men who love her—Leo, an aristocrat, and Andrei, an idealistic Communist.
When Leo becomes ill with tuberculosis, Kira strives to get him the medical attention needed to save his life. But she is trapped in a society that regards the individual as expendable. No matter where she turns, she faces closed doors and refusals. The State tells her: “One hundred thousand workers died in the civil war. Why—in the face of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics—can’t one aristocrat die?”
Kira’s love for Leo is such that the price of saving his life is no object. To pay for sending him to a sanitarium, she becomes the mistress of Andrei Taganov—who is not only an idealist, but also an officer of the Soviet secret police. The gripping and poignant resolution of the love triangle is an indictment not merely of Soviet-style Communism, but of the totalitarian state as such.
During World War II, an Italian film of We the Living was produced without Ayn Rand’s knowledge. Largely faithful to the book, the film was approved by Italy’s Fascist government on the grounds that it was anti-communist. But the Italian public understood that the movie was just as anti-fascist as it was anti-communist. People grasped Ayn Rand’s theme that dictatorship as such is evil, and embraced the movie. Five months after its release, Mussolini’s government figured out what everyone else knew, and banned the movie. This is eloquent proof of Ayn Rand’s claim that the book is not merely “about Soviet Russia.”
After the war, the movie was re-edited under Ayn Rand’s supervision. The movie is still played at art-house cinemas, and is now available on videotape.
Anthem (1946), a novelette in the form of a prose poem, depicts a grim world of the future that is totally collectivized. Technologically primitive, it is a world in which candles are the very latest advance. From birth to death, men’s lives are directed for them by the State. At Palaces of Mating, the State enacts its eugenics program; once born and schooled, people are assigned jobs they dare not refuse, toiling in the fields until they are consigned to the Home of the Useless.
This is a world in which men live and die for the sake of the State. The State is all, the individual is nothing. It is a world in which the word “I” has vanished from the language, replaced by “We.” For the sin of speaking the unspeakable “I,” men are put to death.
Equality 7-2521, however, rebels.
Though assigned to the life work of street sweeper by the rulers who resent his brilliant, inquisitive mind, he secretly becomes a scientist. Enduring the threat of torture and imprisonment, he continues in his quest for knowledge and ultimately rediscovers electric light. But when he shares it with the Council of Scholars, he is denounced for the sin of thinking what no other men think. He runs for his life, escaping to the uncharted forest beyond the city’s edge. There, with his beloved, he begins a more intense sequence of discoveries, both personal and intellectual, that help him break free from the collectivist State’s brutal morality of sacrifice. He learns that man’s greatest moral duty is the pursuit of his own happiness. He discovers and speaks the sacred word: I.
Anthem’s theme is the meaning and glory of man’s ego.
Ayn Rand held that philosophy was not a luxury for the few, but a life-and-death necessity of everyone’s survival. She described Objectivism, the intellectual framework of her novels, as a philosophy for living on earth. Rejecting all forms of supernaturalism and religion, Objectivism holds that Reality, the world of nature, exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes, or fears; in short, “wishing won’t make it so.” Further, Ayn Rand held that Reason—the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses—is man’s only source of knowledge, both of facts and of values. Reason is man’s only guide to action, and his basic means of survival. Hence her rejection of all forms of mysticism, such as intuition, instinct, revelation, etc.
On the question of good and evil, Objectivism advocates a scientific code of morality: the morality of rational self-interest, which holds Man’s Life as the standard of moral value. The good is that which sustains Man’s Life; the evil is that which destroys it. Rationality, therefore, is man’s primary virtue. Each man should live by his own mind and for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor others to himself. Man is an end in himself. His own happiness, achieved by his own work and trade, is each man’s highest moral purpose.
In politics, as a consequence, Objectivism upholds not the welfare state, but laissez-faire capitalism (the complete separation of state and economics) as the only social system consistent with the requirements of Man’s Life. The proper function of government is the original American system: to protect each individual’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.
Objectivism defines “art” as the re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments. The greatest school in art history, it holds, is Romanticism, whose art represents things not as they are, but as they might be and ought to be.
The fundamentals of Objectivism are set forth in many nonfiction books including: For the New Intellectual; The Virtue of Selfishness; Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal; Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution; Philosophy: Who Needs It; and The Romantic Manifesto. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, written by Ayn Rand’s intellectual heir Leonard Peikoff and published in 1991, is the definitive presentation of her entire system of philosophy.
ABOUT AYN RAND
Ayn Rand was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on February 2, 1905. At the age of nine, she decided to make fiction-writing her career. In late 1925 she obtained permission to leave the USSR for a visit to relatives in the United States. Arriving in New York in February 1926, she first spent six months with her relatives in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles.
On her second day in Hollywood, the famous director Cecil B. De Mille noticed her standing at the gate of his studio, offered her a ride to the set of his silent movie The King of Kings, and gave her a job, first as an extra and later as a script reader. During the next week at the studio, she met an actor, Frank O’Connor, whom she married in 1929; they were happily married until his death fifty years later.
After struggling for several years at various menial jobs, including one in the wardrobe department at RKO, she sold her first screenplay, “Red Pawn,” to Universal Studios in 1932 and then saw her first play, Night of January 16th, produced in Hollywood and (in 1935) on Broadway. In 1936, her first novel, We the Living, was published.
She began writing The Fountainhead in 1935. In the character of Howard Roark, she presented for the first time the Ayn Rand hero, whose depiction was the chief goal of her writing: the ideal man, man as “he could be and ought to be.” The Fountainhead was rejected by a dozen publishers but finally accepted by Bobbs-Merrill; it came out in 1943. The novel made publishing history by becoming a best-seller within two years purely through word of mouth; it gained lasting recognition for Ayn Rand as a champion of individualism.
Atlas Shrugged (1957) was her greatest achievement and last work of fiction. In this novel she dramatizes her unique philosophy of Objectivism in an intellectual mystery story that integrates ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, politics, economics, and sex. Although she considered herself primarily a fiction writer, she realized early that in order to create heroic characters, she had to identify the philosophic principles which make such people possible. She proceeded to develop a “philosophy for living on earth.” Objectivism has now gained a worldwide audience and is an ever growing presence in American culture. Her novels continue to sell in enormous numbers every year, proving themselves enduring classics of literature.
Ayn Rand died on March 6, 1982, at her home in New York City.
Recollections of Ayn Rand
A Conversation with Leonard Peikoff, Ph.D.,—Ayn Rand’s longtime associate and intellectual heir
Dr. Peikoff, you met Miss Rand when you were seventeen and were associated with her until her death, thirty-one years later. What were your first impressions of her? What was she like?
The strongest first impression I had of her was her passion for ideas. Ayn Rand was unlike anyone I had ever imagined. Her mind was utterly first-handed: she said what no one else had ever said or probably ever thought, but she said these things so logically—so simply, factually, persuasively—that they seemed to be self-evident. She radiated the kind of intensity that one could imagine changing the course of history. Her brilliantly perceptive eyes looked straight at you and missed nothing: neither did her methodical, painstaking, virtually scientific replies to my questions miss anything. She made me think for the first time that thinking is important. I said to myself after I left her home: “All of life will be different now. If she exists, everything is possible.”
In her fiction, Ayn Rand presented larger-than-life heroes—embodiments of her philosophy of rational egoism—that have inspired countless readers over the years. Was Ayn Rand’s own life like that of her characters? Did she practice her own ideals?
Yes, always. From the age of nine, when she decided on a career as a writer, everything she did was integrated toward her creative purpose. As with Howard Roark, dedication to thought and thus to her work was the root of Ayn Rand’s person.
In every aspect of life, she once told me, a man should have favorites. He should define what he likes or wants most and why, and then proceed to get it. She always did just that—fleeing the Soviet dictatorship for America, tripping her future husband on a movie set to get him to notice her, ransacking ancient record shops to unearth some lost treasure, even decorating her apartment with an abundance of her favorite color, blue-green.
Given her radical views in morality and politics, did she ever soften or compromise her message?
Never. She took on the whole world—liberals, conservatives, communists, religionists, Babbitts and avant-garde alike—but opposition had no power to sway her from her convictions.
I never saw her adapting her personality or viewpoint to please another individual. She was always the same and always herself, whether she was talking with me alone, or attending a cocktail party of celebrities, or being cheered or booed by a hall full of college students, or being interviewed on national television.
Couldn’t she have profited by toning things down a little?
She could never be tempted to betray her convictions. A Texas oil man once offered her up to a million dollars to use in spreading her philosophy, if she would only add a religious element to it to make it more popular. She threw his proposal into the wastebasket. “What would I do with his money,” she asked me indignantly, “if I have to give up my mind in order to get it?”
Her integrity was the result of her method of thinking and her conviction that ideas really matter. She knew too clearly how she had reached her ideas, why they were true, and what their opposites were doing to mankind.
Who are some writers that Ayn Rand respected and enjoyed reading?
She did not care for most contemporary writers. Her favorites were the nineteenth century Romantic novelists. Above all, she admired Victor Hugo, though she often disagreed with his explicit views. She liked Dostoevsky for his superb mastery of plot structure and characterization, although she had no patience for his religiosity. In popular literature, she read all of Agatha Christie twice, and also liked the early novels of Mickey Spillane.
In addition to writing best-sellers, Ayn Rand originated a distinctive philosophy of reason. If someone wants to get an insight into her intellectual and creative development, what would you suggest?
A reader ought first to read her novels and main nonfiction in order to understand her views and values. Then, to trace her early literary development, a reader could pick up The Early Ayn Rand, a volume I edited after her death. It features a selection of short stories and plays that she wrote while mastering English and the art of fiction-writing. For a glimpse of her lifelong intellectual development, I would recommend the recent book Journals of Ayn Rand, edited by David Harriman.
Ayn Rand’s life was punctuated by disappointments with people, frustration, and early poverty. Was she embittered? Did she achieve happiness in her own life?
She did achieve happiness. Whatever her disappointments or frustrations, they went down, as she said about Roark, only to a certain point. Beneath it was her self-esteem, her values, and her conviction that happiness, not pain, is what matters. I remember a spring day in 1957. She and I were walking up Madison Avenue in New York toward the office of Random House, which was in the process of bringing out Atlas Shrugged. She was looking at the city she had always loved most, and now, after decades of rejection, she had seen the top publishers in that city competing for what she knew, triumphantly, was her masterpiece. She turned to me suddenly and said: “Don’t ever give up what you want in life. The struggle is worth it.” I never forgot that. I can still see the look of quiet radiance on her face.
We the Living
a) “It is a sin to write this. It is a sin to think words no others think.“
b) “I wished to know the meaning of things. I am the meaning.“
c) “I owe nothing to my brothers, nor do I gather debts from them.“
Fiction in Paperback
Anthem (New York: Signet, 1961).
Atlas Shrugged (New York: Signet, 1959).
The Fountainhead (New York: Signet, 25th anniv. ed., 1968).
Night of January 16th (New York: Plume, 1987).
We the Living (New York: Signet, 1960).
Nonfiction in Paperback
Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1967).
The Early Ayn Rand: A Selection from Her Unpublished Fiction
(New York: Signet, 1986).
For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1963).
Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1964).
Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (New York:
The Romantic Manifesto (New York: Signet, 2nd rev. ed., 1971).
The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1984).
On Ayn Rand and Objectivism
The Ayn Rand Reader, edited by Gary Hull and Leonard Peikoff
(New York: Plume, 1999).
Journals of Ayn Rand, edited by David Harriman (New York:
Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, by Leonard Peikoff
(New York: Meridian, 1993).