READERS GUIDEThe introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Anne C. Heller’s brilliant biography, Ayn Rand and the World She Made.
IntroductionAyn Rand and the World She Made maps the intricate connections between Ayn Rand’s complicated personal life and remarkable literary achievements.
Anne C. Heller begins with the events that would shape Rand’s worldview for the rest of her life: the suffering she and her family endured during and after the Russian Revolution. Rand watched in horror as the Communists seized power, redistributed the wealth of the nation, took over her father’s pharmacy, and began a campaign to destroy the middle class, largely made up of Jews. Rand saw firsthand the destruction of the autonomous, free, creative individual under Soviet collectivism. She devoted the rest of her life—in her novels, essays, and speeches—to reasserting the primacy of the individual, disabusing those in the West who had adopted a romanticized view of communism, and singing the praises of laissez-faire capitalism, loudly and unequivocally.
Heller recounts Rand’s early struggles in the United States, working as a mostly unsuccessful screenwriter in Hollywood, the enormous time and effort she put into writing her novels, and her unquenchable thirst for fame and critical adulation. She explores in intimate detail Rand’s often stormy friendships, her rather passionless marriage to the actor Frank O’Connor, her long-running affair with a much younger Nathaniel Branden, the enormous popularity of her novels, and the critical disdain they generated.
But most arresting in Heller’s account are the stunning contradictions between Rand’s strident ideals and the messy realities of her personal life. Rand championed individual freedom, and yet as her fame grew and a cult formed around her, she demanded absolute conformity from her followers and instituted humiliating, Stalinist mock trials in which members were summarily cast out. Her ideal man was arrogant, sexually dominant, and a tower of intellectual and creative power, and yet she married a middling actor who was sexually passive, emotionally detached, and not particularly gifted intellectually or creatively. She prized honesty and yet kept her sixteen-year affair secret from her many followers in the Objectivist movement she and Branden had started.
This biography examines the widespread influence of Rand’s ideas, and their role in shaping libertarian ideology and providing intellectual underpinning for modern conservatism. (One of her inner circle, Alan Greenspan, would go on to become chairman of the Federal Reserve.) Heller also shows just what makes Rand’s novels so compelling for so many readers—the narrative drive, the sweeping intellectual scope, the moral seriousness and sexual intensity that would prove an irresistible combination for millions of readers.
A sympathetic portrait that nevertheless casts a sharp light on Rand’s narcissism, explosive temper, and rigid ideology, Heller’s biography brings a new depth and complexity to our understanding of one of the twentieth century’s most popular and controversial writers.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. What are the most important insights and surprising revelations in Ayn Rand and the World She Made?
2. In what ways does Heller’s biography deepen our understanding of Rand’s major works? What are the most important connections between Rand’s personal life and her writing that emerge from the biography?
3. What are Ayn Rand’s most admirable qualities? What aspects of her temperament and behavior are most difficult?
4. In the “About the Author” section of Atlas Shrugged, which Heller uses as an epigraph to chapter thirteen, Rand writes, “My personal life is a postscript to my novels. It consists of the sentence: ‘And I mean it.’ I have always lived by the philosophy I present in my books—it has worked for me, as it has worked for my characters. The concretes differ, the abstractions are the same” (p. 291). In what ways did Rand live by—or fail to live by—the philosophy she presents in her books? To what extent did it work for her?
5. Why were Rand’s novels so beloved by millions of readers and so often reviled by reviewers? How did Rand react to both the adulation of her readers and the scorn of her critics?
6. In what ways do Rand’s ideas show up in today’s political and ideological debates? What prominent contemporary figures are still guided by Rand’s philosophy?
7. In Atlas Shrugged, Francisco says to Dagny, “Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of [your premises] is wrong” (p. 193). Was Rand herself free from contradictions? In what instances does her behavior seem to contradict her philosophical premises?
8. Heller quotes an old friend of Rand’s who said, “She could be immensely empathetic if she saw things in you that were like her. But if she didn’t see herself in some aspect of you, she didn’t empathize at all. You weren’t real to her” (p. 337). This is almost a clinical definition of narcissism. Was Rand a narcissist? On what occasions does she exhibit a striking lack of empathy?
9. On what grounds did Rand argue that altruism and empathy were misguided and actually harmful rather than helpful? Are her arguments convincing? What aspects of her personal history contributed to her belief that selfishness was a virtue?
10. Rand preached the absolute value of individual freedom and yet she demanded total intellectual conformity from her followers. How can this discrepancy best be explained?
11. How might Rand view the current political situation in America? What would she think of the Obama presidency?
12. What are the most troubling aspects of Rand’s relationship with Nathaniel Branden? Why did so many of Rand’s friendships end so explosively?
13. Rand’s ideal man was Howard Roark, the protagonist of The Fountainhead—morally and creatively uncompromising, sexually dominant, and intellectually superior. Why would she have married Frank O’Connor, who seemed to possess none of these qualities?
14. What effect is Ayn Rand and the World She Made likely to have on Rand’s legacy and on how her work is regarded?
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