We the Living
|We the Living|
The first edition cover
|Genre||Historical fiction, Semi-autobiographic|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
We the Living is the first novel published by the Russian-American novelist Ayn Rand. It was also Rand's first statement against communism. First published in 1936, it is a story of life in post-revolutionary Russia. Rand observes in the foreword to this book that We the Living was the closest she would ever come to writing an autobiography. Her working title for the novel had been Airtight. We the Living was first completed in 1934, but, despite support from H. L. Mencken, who deemed it "a really excellent piece of work," it was rejected by several publishers until 1936, when George Platt Brett of Macmillan Publishing agreed to publish her book. Rand later said that Brett was unsure whether the novel would turn a profit, but he thought it was a book that ought to be published. It has since sold more than 3 million copies.
The story takes place from 1922 to 1925, in post-revolutionary Russia. Kira Argounova, the protagonist of the story, is the younger daughter of a bourgeois family. An independent spirit with a will to match, she rejects any attempt by her family or the nascent Soviet State to cast her into a mold. At the beginning of the story, Kira returns to Petrograd along with her family, after a prolonged exile due to the assault of the revolutionaries. Kira's father had been the owner of a textile factory, which had been seized and nationalized. The family, having given up all hopes of regaining their past possessions after the emphatic victories of the Red Army in the last four years, is resigned to their fate, as they return to the city in search of livelihood. They find, to their dismay, that their home has likewise been seized, and converted to living quarters for several families. Left with nowhere to go, the family moves into Kira's aunt Marussia's apartment.
The severity of life in the newly Socialist Russia is biting and cruel, especially for the people belonging to the now-stigmatized middle class. Kira's uncle Vasili has also lost his family business to the state, and has been forced to sell off his possessions, one at a time, for money (which has lost much of its value owing to steep inflation). Private enterprises have been strictly controlled, and licenses to run them allotted only to those "enjoying the trust" of the proletariat. Food is rationed. Only laborers of nationalized businesses and students in state-run educational institutions have access to ration cards. The family of five survives on the ration cards allotted to the two younger members of the family, who are students.
After a brief stay at Vasili's home, Kira's family manages to find living quarters. Kira's father also manages to get a license to open a textile shop, an establishment that is but a shadow of his old firm. Life is excruciatingly difficult in these times. Rand portrays the bleak scenarios by vivid descriptions of long queues, weary citizens and low standards of living. (Everyone regularly cooks on a kerosene camp stove, usually a Swedish Primus stove, and the typical main course is millet, or whatever can be blended together.)
With some effort, Kira manages to register with the State and obtain her Labor Book (which permits her to study and work). Kira also manages to enroll in the Technological Institute, where she aspires to fulfill her dream of becoming an engineer. She plans to storm the male bastion of engineers, and show her prowess by building structures like a lightweight aluminum bridge. Kira's strength of resolve to fulfill her dream is asserted at various points in the storyline. Becoming a highly competent engineer would be Kira's carving for herself a niche in a society that has become characterless and anonymous, and whose primary purpose in life has been reduced to subsistence rather than excellence. At the Institute, Kira meets Andrei Taganov, a co-student, an idealistic Communist, and an officer in the G.P.U., the secret police of the Soviet Union. The two share a mutual respect and admiration for each other in spite of their differing political beliefs. Andrei and Kira develop a friendship that endures until the end of the story.
In a chance encounter, Kira meets Leo Kovalensky on a dark night in a seedy neighborhood. Leo is an extremely attractive man with a free spirit matched only by Kira's. It's love at first sight for Kira, and she unflinchingly throws herself at Leo. Leo, who initially takes her to be a prostitute, is also strongly attracted to her and promises to meet her again. Kira and Leo are shown to be united by their desperate lives, and their lofty beliefs that ran counter to what were being thrust on them by the State. After a couple of meetings, when they share their deep contempt for the state of their lives, the two plan to escape together from the land, on a clandestine mission operated by secret ships.
The novel, from this point on, slowly cascades into a series of catastrophes for Kira and Leo. They are caught while attempting to flee the country, but escape imprisonment due to the generosity of a G.P.U. official, Stepan Timoshenko, who had fought under the command of Leo's father before the revolution. Kira leaves her parents' apartment and moves into Leo's. The relationship between Kira and Leo, intense and passionate in the beginning, begins to deteriorate under the weight of their hardships, and because of their different reactions to these hardships. Kira, who is an idealistic realist, keeps her ideas and aspirations alive, but decides to go with the system anyway, until she feels powerful enough to challenge it. Soon the state decides to expel anyone of a bourgeois background. On the verge of starvation, Kira finds work with the help of Andrei, enough to retain her ration card. Leo, however, burdened by his class background, and without any communist friend to help him, fails to find work, and sinks slowly into indifference and depression. He contracts tuberculosis and is prescribed treatment and recuperation in a sanatorium in Crimea in the South. Kira's efforts to finance his treatment fail, and her passionate appeals to the authorities to get State help for his stay at the sanatorium fall on deaf ears.
Andrei, an equally important person in Kira's life, is portrayed by Rand as a man of character, resolve, and an unassailable loyalty to his party and ideology. Despite his political beliefs, Kira finds him to be the one person she could trust, and with whom she could discuss her most intimate thoughts and views. Not even Leo could fulfill that role for her. Andrei's affection and respect for Kira knows no bounds, and it slowly turns into love. Worried what this might do to their "beautiful and rare" friendship, he starts avoiding Kira. Kira misses him, and needs his help. Eventually when she confronts him in his house, Andrei explains his avoidance of her and confesses his love for her. Kira is dismayed at first, but recovers to find in it a way to finance Leo's treatment. Reluctant, but in desperation, she feigns love for Andrei, and agrees to become his mistress in return for the promise of complete secrecy about their relationship. Kira is never comfortable with what she was doing with her body, but is even more frightened by "what she was doing to another man's soul".
The narrative reaches a climactic pace when Leo returns from Crimea, cured of tuberculosis and healthy, but a changed man. Ignoring Kira's protests, he opens a food store with the help of his morally bankrupt and rich friends, and a corrupt member of the Communist Party. The store is but a facade for illegal speculation and trade. Andrei is tipped off about this venture by Stepan Timoshenko, who commits suicide in despair at what is happening to his Soviet Union, but only after depositing a key piece of evidence with Andrei. Ignoring Kira's pleas, and unaware of her love for Leo, Andrei starts investigating Leo's store. After a search at his house, he arrests Leo for crimes against the State, which could carry a death sentence. In the process, he finds out about Kira's relationship with Leo. The ensuing confrontation between Andrei and Kira is perhaps the most poignant scene in the story. In the end, both realize what they had done to each other and how their passion and pretension had led them to the destruction of what each had held in "the highest reverence". Andrei decides to redress the situation, at least for Kira, and moves to restore Leo to her, risking his own standing in the Party.
After Leo's release from the prison at Andrei's behest, the story ends in tragedy for all the three. Andrei loses his position in the Party, and shortly thereafter commits suicide. Kira, perhaps the only genuine mourner at his State funeral, wonders if she had killed him. Having lost any moral sense that he may have left, Leo leaves Kira to begin a new life as a gigolo, fulfilling the earlier portrayal of him as such by Kira's perceptive cousin Irina (who has been sentenced to a long prison term for associating with counter-revolutionaries). After Leo's departure, Kira makes a final attempt to cross the border. When she is almost in sight of freedom and liberation from her hellish life, she is shot by a border guard and soon dies. Kira remains loyal to her love for Leo until the end, and says at one point, "When a person dies, one does not stop loving him, does one?"
We the Living was not a commercial success when it was published in 1936. Macmillan did not expect the novel to sell and set it in movable type instead of making plates. Once the first printing of 3000 copies was exhausted, the novel was out of print. Rand's royalties from the first American edition amounted to $100. There was also a British publication, by Cassell in 1937.
When Rand's final novel, Atlas Shrugged, became a best-seller, Random House decided to republish We the Living. In preparation for the new edition, Rand made some changes to the text. In her Foreword to the 1959 edition, Rand declared that "In brief, all the changes are merely editorial line changes." Some of them have been taken to have philosophical significance. In the first edition, Kira said to Andrei, "I loathe your ideals. I admire your methods." In the second edition, this became simply "I loathe your ideals." A few pages later, Kira said to Andrei, "What are your masses but mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?" Rand's revision deleted this sentence. Some scholars regard this as a bitter description of communist treatment of the masses, not Rand's own evaluation.
The significance of these and other revisions has been debated. According to Ronald Merrill, Kira in the first edition "adopts in the most explicit terms possible the ethical position of Friedrich Nietzsche." Rand had made her break with Nietzsche by the time she published The Fountainhead. Barbara Branden says, "Some of her readers were disturbed when they discovered this and similar changes" but insists that "unlike Nietzsche, she rejected as unforgivably immoral any suggestion that the superior man had the right to use physical force as a means to his end." Mimi Reisel Gladstein merely commented, "She claims that the revision was minimal. Some readers of both editions have questioned her definition of 'minimal'." Robert Mayhew cautioned that “We should not conclude too quickly that these passages are strong evidence of an earlier Nietzschean phase in Ayn Rand’s development, because such language can be strictly metaphorical (even if the result of an early interest in Nietzsche)”. Despite Rand's own description of the changes, Susan Love Brown countered that "Mayhew becomes an apologist for Rand’s denials of change and smooths over the fact that Rand herself saw the error of her ways and corrected them."
Nearly everyone who reads We the Living today reads the second edition. The first is a rare book; the second has sold over 3 million copies.
Shortly after the novel was published, Rand began negotiations with Broadway producer Jerome Mayer to do a theatrical adaptation. Rand wrote the script, but Mayer's financing fell through. Several years later, she was able to interest George Abbott in producing the play. Helen Craig took the lead role as Kira, alongside John Emery as Leo and Dean Jagger as Andrei. It opened at the Biltmore Theatre on February 13, 1940, but closed just five days later after scathing reviews.
Without Rand's permission, We the Living, which had been published in an Italian translation in 1937, was made into a two-part film, Noi Vivi and Addio, Kira in 1942. The films were directed by Goffredo Alessandrini for Scalera Films of Rome, and starred Alida Valli as Kira, Fosco Giachetti as Andrei, and Rossano Brazzi as Leo. Prior to their release, the films were nearly censored by Mussolini's government, but they were permitted because the story itself was set in Soviet Russia and was directly critical of that regime. The films were successful, and the public easily realized that they were as much against fascism as communism. After several weeks, German authorities, who were allied with the Italian government, insisted that the film be pulled from distribution because of its anti-Fascist themes.
Rediscovered in the 1960s through the efforts of Rand's lawyers, Erika Holzer and Henry Mark Holzer, these films were re-edited into a new version with English subtitles composed by Erika Holzer and Revision co-Producer Duncan Scott. This version was approved by Rand and her estate and re-released as We the Living in 1986. A two-disc DVD of the film is currently being sold by Duncan Scott Productions.
- 1936, Macmillan, hardback
- 1937, Cassell, hardback
- 1942, Scalera Films, theatrical film versions, Italy (titled Noi Vivi and Addio Kira)
- 1959, revised edition, Random House, hardback
- 1960, revised edition, Signet, paperback
- 1988, Duncan Scott Productions, US re-edited theatrical film version (titled We the Living)
- 1996, 60th Anniversary edition, New American Library ISBN 0-451-18784-9, paperback
- 2009, DVD Special Edition of US theatrical film version
The American alternative rock group We The Living have explicitly stated that their name is derived from the novel and have often listed Rand and her Objectivist views as a major influence to their music.
- Rand 1995, pp. 10, 13–14
- Ralston, Richard E. "Publishing We the Living". In Mayhew 2004, p. 139
- Ralston, Richard E. "Publishing We the Living". In Mayhew 2004, p. 141
- Branden 1986, p. 127
- Rand, Ayn (1959). We the Living, p. xvii. New York: Random House.
- Rand, Ayn (1936). We the Living. New York: Macmillan, p. 92.
- Rand 1936, p. 95.
- Merrill 1991, p. 38
- Mayhew, Robert. "We the Living '36 and '59". Mayhew 2004, p. 205
- Merrill 1991, p. 39
- Branden 1986, p. 114
- Branden 1986, p. 115
- Gladstein 1999, p. 35
- Brown, Susan Love (2006). "Essays on Ayn Rand's Fiction". The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 8 (1): 79.
- Ralston, Richard E. (2004). Publishing We the Living. In Robert Mayhew, Essays on Ayn Rand's We the Living. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
- Heller 2009, p. 95
- Heller 2009, pp. 101–102
- Heller 2009, pp. 126–129; Branden 1986, pp. 150–155
- Paxton, Michael (1998). Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life. Layton, UT: Gibbs-Smith, p. 104.
- Branden, Barbara (1986). The Passion of Ayn Rand. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company. ISBN 0-385-19171-5. OCLC 12614728.
- Gladstein, Mimi Reisel (1999). The New Ayn Rand Companion. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-30321-5. OCLC 40359365.
- Heller, Anne C. (2009). Ayn Rand and the World She Made. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-51399-9. OCLC 229027437.
- Mayhew, Robert, ed. (2004). Essays on Ayn Rand's We the Living. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books. ISBN 0-7391-0697-X. OCLC 52979186.
- Merrill, Ronald E. (1991). The Ideas of Ayn Rand. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing. ISBN 0-8126-9157-1. OCLC 23254190.
- Rand, Ayn (1995). Berliner, Michael S, ed. Letters of Ayn Rand. New York: Dutton. ISBN 0-525-93946-6. OCLC 31412028.
- IMDB page for Noi vivi (1942)
- Love, Politics And Ayn Rand by Cathy Young, Forbes magazine, May 25, 2010