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We The Living

We The Living (WTL) by Ayn Rand is a very good book. One always hears about Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. I think those are better, but only by a small margin rather than a large one. WTL deserves attention. (By the way, Anthem is nice too, and only takes about 90 minutes to read.) The rest of this post contains spoilers.

In the introduction it says that Kira is better than Leo or Andrei, and asks which of Andrei or Leo is better. It says Ayn Rand prefers Leo, and that she thinks Leo would be like Francisco D'Anconia if he lived in the USA instead of in Russia.

I disagree. I prefer Andrei. Let's start with Leo: Leo has already largely given up when the book starts, and he gets worse as the book continues. I don't see that Leo did anything impressive in the entire book. I'd note that Kira is attracted to him due to his appearance. Admittedly, in Rand's worlds appearance is a direct indicator of character including heroism, so perhaps when she described his appearance she intended to be telling the reader that he was just like Francisco. But I prefer to judge people by their thoughts and actions, and while Leo is a decent guy sometimes, he never does anything heroic. The closest he comes is buying passage on the boat to try to escape from Russia.

Andrei improves as the book progresses. He learns things. I would say he is the only character in the book who learns much of anything good (some characters learn how to talk like a loyal communist, or other mundane skills). Kira was evidently born heroic. As good as she is, she already had all her merit when the book starts; I think Rand sees having to change as a bit of a weakness, rather than seeing learning as a strength.

My favorite part of WTL is when Kira confesses to Andrei that she slept with him to get money for Leo's medical treatment and that she didn't love him. In particular I like Andrei's reaction. He does not get angry. He does not whine about how his lover betrayed him, and his heart is broken, and all the stuff nearly everyone would say. That alone is wonderful. But Andrei does considerably better than that. He reacts by stopping to think. He doesn't say anything except "I didn't know" until he's thought about it. He's calm and collected even as Kira continues her mean rant. That's great too. But then the really amazing thing is that within minutes of finding all this out, and with Kira fully unapologetic, he has not only forgiven her, but praised her for doing it, said he would have done the same thing, and said it vastly raised his opinion of her. When he found out she was living and sleeping with Leo, what bothered him was not the betrayal but that the best explanation he could think of involved her being a bad person.

Sidenote: Why would that indicate to Andrei that Kira is a bad person? Andrei considers Leo a bad person, so why would Kira want to be involved with him? And also, why would Kira want Andrei's money? Why would she want to take advantage of him? Is she just a whore and a sort of thief? That is incompatible with being heroic.

So when Andrei finds out the truth, that Kira had good reasons, he realizes she was in fact a better person than he'd ever known. She did something very hard, but also important. She epitomizes the heroic values he liked about her even more for doing it. And Andrei recognizes all this right away and is glad about it. That is in many ways even harder than what Kira did. Think about it. A lot of people could lead a double life if they were motivated enough. Nothing about it is really too complicated. But what Andrei did, staying calm and reacting to emotional news in a rational way, most people couldn't even begin to do that. They have no idea how to do it, or even how to start learning to do it.

To sum up: Andrei has this very exceptional moment, and he is the character who learns and improves over the course of the book. That's why I prefer him to Leo. By contrast, Leo lets his life get worse and worse until he gives up and no longer wants to try or think.

The worst thing about Andrei was his suicide. He could have remained friends with Kira, and looked for ways to turn his life around, such as going abroad (even without Kira), or helping anti-communist resistance. Note that if he'd been alive longer, he would have been around when Leo left and Kira decided to escape, and she would have accepted his offer to escape together at that point.

Leo has a lot of serious flaws. He despairs, he doesn't want to think, he wastes money, he turns to crime knowing he's putting his life at serious risk, he doesn't value his life, he befriends bad people, and he mistreats Kira. Leo has a different reaction than Andrei when he finds out about Kira's double life. Andrei reacts heroically. Leo reacts despicably. Leo thinks worse of Kira, and then says he's glad for her to be worse. The worse a person Kira is, the better, is Leo's view. He doesn't want there to be any good in the world, so when he turns his back on good he's less guilty. That's just terrible.

On to Kira. She fails to improve things, but she never gives up, so it's alright. Actually Kira does improve her life in one major way. She forms a relationship with Andrei, and then helps him improve. The more he improves, the better a friend she has in her life. Unfortunately she doesn't recognize this. By the way, I think she should accepted Andrei's offer to go abroad. It would have improved her life! She only stayed for Leo. Self-sacrifice is bad. I know she wanted Leo in her life for her own sake, but he wasn't making her life wonderful, and she should have noticed that and taken the superior opportunity. Note that it would have quite possibly saved both her own life and Andrei's life.

One of the great parts about Kira is the stuff she doesn't notice. Near the beginning of the book her family complains about their poor clothes and poor food. Kira comments that she hadn't noticed. Kira does not think of hardships just like when Roark comments that he doesn't think about Toohey. Kira instead focusses on pursuing her goals and living her life, which is great.

I like Kira's escape attempt because it was her pursuing her values. I like her interest in engineering. I like how she insists on living life her own way. For example, she enrolls in engineering classes against her family's wishes, and she goes to live with Leo even though her family will disown her for it (they forgive her when they are hungry and she has more money than them). By the way, I also like Vasili Ivanovitch, the relative who sells all his possessions but refuses to get a Soviet job.

Kira demonstrates her strength and perseverance by her escape attempt, by maintaining her double life, by never giving up, and by making a great effort to get and keep a job, to wait in all the lines, and so on. Those are the things she has to do to continue her life, so she does them, and she doesn't complain incessantly or turn her mind off or let it destroy her spirit, she just does it and keeps living like a full person, almost like a free person. She also demonstrates it strikingly when Leo leaves. She chooses not to tell him why she slept with Andrei, or where the money for his medicine really came from. A lot of people would be angry with Leo and tell him out of spite. A lot of people would tell him and say it was the truth as an excuse. A lot of people would tell him without even thinking about it first. But Kira is better than that. She judges that Leo is lost to her, so there is no point in telling him. She further judges that Leo does not want to know. Not telling people things they don't want to be told is a good policy. It's respectful of their life; it's living by consent.

Kira stands up to the communists at times. Not in a sacrificial or suicidal way like Sasha (Irina's boyfriend; they are sent to separate camps in Siberia), but only by way of expressing her values and living in the way she wants to. That is nice. Sasha gives up his life for a cause. Kira values her life more than he does. She doesn't want to be a martyr. In one scene Kira considers sacrificing herself to do a good deed. She's in a communist march/parade, and some foreigners are visiting to see Soviet propaganda, and she could run up to them and tell them the truth about Russia. But she thinks of her life with Leo, and doesn't want to give that up, and she puts that ahead of communicating this important truth which has the potential to save every oppressed Russian. Good for her.

Elliot Temple on July 8, 2009

Comments (8)

I haven't read this one yet, so I'm commenting on what you say about the characters. My guess is I'm missing context.

It made me angry that you are you more concerned with how calmly Andrei reacted than how moral Kira's action was. Emotions are automatic reactions to values. It's not moral to cheat other people, to use them as things for your own purposes, without their knowledge and explicit consent. If Andrei would do the same to Kira, it just shows he was as bad.

Not worrying with hardships and following goals is good, but one needs to know that the goals are possible in spite of the hardships. In fiction this is easy, the author sorts it all out for the characters.

Anonymous at 1:27 AM on July 9, 2009 | #1809
Andrei was worried about whether Kira did the right thing or not. But he didn't jump to conclusions on that matter. Being calm is the best initial reaction. One has to think about things calmly before taking a strong stance.

Elliot at 9:05 AM on July 9, 2009 | #1812

http://newyorkmonamour.blogspot.com/

I agree with Elliot that one has to think very calmly before taking a strong stand. I really enjoyed reading your analysis. Andrew was my favorite character too.

gigi at 4:50 PM on July 9, 2009 | #1815
How people react says nothing about their moral character. Doing that sort of evaluation just sets you up to believe cruel liars that are good at looking kind.

Anonymous at 11:29 PM on July 9, 2009 | #1818

Spoilers

I just finished the book.

I agree Leo is bad from the start. I don't even see a glimpse of potential in him. Ayn Rand fails to portray him as a broken hero. I interpreted him as something beautiful for Kira, so she remains optimistic about life and has a goal to pursuit when no other goals are possible anymore.

But I think you over-interpret the revelation scene with ideas that are your own. Simply, Andrei loved Kira so much he can't conceive of hurting her. He carries on doing what he always did, betraying the party to please her.

Leo bursts in anger because he is happy to have the evidence he wanted that being good wasn't worth it, because not even Kira was good.

I also don't agree that Kira didn't tell Leo why he slept with Andrei out of respect for him. If there was hope he could again see some good in her and in life, it would be worth telling him.
I think she finally understood that he was lost.

Ayn Rand makes Andrei good to Kira because she wants the reader to like him, otherwise the funeral scene would have no meaning. Before I read the afterword, I interpreted his suicide as a surrender to the party, not as him understanding anything. He seems to be contaminated by Kira and be moved to say and do things he doesn't want.

"I think Rand sees having to change as a bit of a weakness, rather than seeing learning as a strength."

Ayn Rand thought people are born unequal, that some are born geniuses like her and some are born daft and no education can ever change that.

Anonymous at 3:28 AM on July 26, 2009 | #1858

Women are stupid

My favorite part is how Kira decided to love Leo, a man who doesn't love her, who treats her like shit, who is actually the living opposite of everything that's important to her. She refuses to love Andrei, the man who loved and understood her, who would have been perfect for her and who could have given her everything she was promised in life, only she never understood. Even in a book written by a woman, women are fucking stupid. Perhaps she wanted Leo because she couldn't have him, and Andrei wanted Kira because he couldn't have her, but either way, Kira is stupid.

If Rand truly preferred Leo to Andrei, that just shows how pathetic women really are.

warren peace at 3:15 AM on January 3, 2011 | #2098
Dominique is weird too but Dagny is awesome.

Kira is the best character in the book so whatever you think of her it seems hard to reach sexist conclusions.

Elliot at 9:42 AM on January 3, 2011 | #2099

To the person who things Women are stupid

That in fact is not true. Yes Kira makes some big mistakes but its for the man she has said she loves. Love is a strong thing and wont be torn down by a few mistakes. As for Rand preferring Leo over Aundrei, I say who cares? ITS A FICTION BOOK!!! Not real. Yes it is a Historical Fiction but still a fiction. So to you who says women are stupid you deserve to be slapped over the side of the head because women are not stupid because just like men they can make mistakes.

Anonymous at 8:55 AM on November 6, 2013 | #2253

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)