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Concept Formation and the Fiction of Ayn Rand

Concept Formation and the Fiction of Ayn Rand

7 Mins
November 1, 1995

In this excerpt from a talk, literary scholar Kirsti Minsaas shows how Ayn Rand uses literary techniques of contrast and analogy in complex ways to highlight characters, themes, and ideas.

...Ayn Rand's characters are complex projections of human psychology that require of the reader great depth of understand­ing. Unfortunately, she made a confusing statement that she, like Mickey Spillane, projects a black-and-white view of char­acter; but this statement needs qualification. What is true is that her characters are moral projections, that they are conceived in terms of good and evil. But this does not mean that they are all totally black or totally white, with no room for distinctions. In most cases, they are complex mixtures of black and white, to be sensitively judged and evaluated in a way that challenges the reader's powers of moral perception, his ability to perceive different shades and degrees of moral worth, which in turn places great demands upon his skills in reading character in fiction.

Following an Aristotelian tradition, Ayn Rand presents characters as abstract projections. In The Romantic Mani­festo, she argues that in Romantic literature, characters are "created conceptually, not copied statistically." This means that, when we interpret her characters, we have to perceive them conceptually, as concretized archetypes representing some fundamental ideal or theme. That is, we have to grasp their essence or abstract core. Since, however, essences have to be grasped through their concrete referents, such concep­tual interpretation means careful attention to particulars, to the concrete cues offered by the texts....

Our main cues must be the speech and action of the characters; but that's not everything. Also important for our perception of the characters' fundamental traits are the inside views Ayn Rand gives of their minds, particularly of their methods of thinking: not just what they think, but how they think—their psycho-epistemological habits. If you want to know what Ayn Rand means by "evasion," take a look at the inside glimpses she gives us of a man like Peter Keating, James Taggart, Robert Stadler, and you come to realize fully and concretely what it means to shut down one's mind to the facts of reality, and to see what are the consequences in terms of mental self-destruction.

Characterization by Contrast

What I particularly wish to draw attention to is Ayn Rand's extensive use of analogy, of the device of presenting characters as parallels and contrasts. The purpose of this device is to make the reader see a character's distinctive nature by way of comparison with other characters.... To make us see what is special about Roark's egoism—his independence and integrity—she does not simply present him in isolated action situations that demonstrate these virtues. She also presents him contextually, using other characters as foils that bring out and emphasize his moral uniqueness, his special brand of egoism.

But Roark is not the only case. Such analogical juxtapositions crisscross in Ayn Rand's novels, making up a whole network of parallels and contrasts that provide comparison on a large scale. There can be no doubt that a sharpened awareness of this network enhances our understanding of the characters, helping us to make distinctions that would otherwise elude us. As the above examples suggest, this is particularly important for our perception of the hero—to understand the moral ideal he represents—but it is equally important for our perception of other central characters....

Four Variations on the "Malevolent Universe" Premise

A slightly different type of analogical juxtaposition, one that emphasizes similarities rather than differences, can be observed in Ayn Rand's use of different characters for the purpose of thematic variation. In The Fountainhead, for example, we find several characters who all represent the malevolent universe premise, but in different ways: Gail Wynand, Dominique Francon, Henry Cameron, and Steven Mallory.

Part of the function of these four is simply to provide foils to Roark, to highlight Roark as the hero, who, through his unyielding integrity and ultimate triumph, confirms the benevolence of the universe, showing that the heroic in man is not doomed to failure and defeat—and so that the malevolent universe premise is false. If we didn't have these four to oppose Roark, we wouldn't understand what it is that he refutes. But, in addition to being foils to Roark, these four are also foils to one another, demonstrating the different forms that the malevolent universe premise may take.

Of particular interest here is the distinction between Wynand and Dominique. In Wynand, we see the man who goes for power, who seeks to control people and to destroy them in order to confirm his sense of the malevolent universe. In Dominique, we see a woman who renounces her ambitions and desires as a result of her acceptance of the same premise. Both are proved wrong through confrontation with Roark, but while Wynand is destroyed by it, Dominique is saved, finally being able to overcome her error.

It should be noted that Ayn Rand is in no way unique in her use of such parallels and contrasts. The technique is quite common in authors who present characters as abstract concretizations or as embodiments of ideas. We find it, for example, in Shakespeare, Ibsen, Fielding, and Dostoyevsky—to name but a few.... What makes Rand's use of the technique special is that it also borrows from her own epistemology. What she manages to do is, in fact, to follow her theory of concept formation in interpreting her characters: to observe similarities and differences between them in order to grasp their conceptual cause.

How important this epistemological approach to character interpretation really is is indicated by the fact that many of the characters themselves apply Ayn Rand's epistemology in order to understand others—and themselves. Roark, for example, as part of his quest to find "the principle behind the dean," is shown on several occasions groping for some essential quality that he feels distinguishes others from himself. One such occasion is when, walking through the finished Heller house and experiencing profound happiness, he observes some young people passing by in a car and senses that there is some important difference between his state of consciousness and their state of consciousness. Although he is not quite able to formulate this difference, we as readers are made to understand that what he vaguely perceives is the difference between the joy of creative achievement and the joy of release from work.

I hope these examples suffice to show the complexity of response required by Ayn Rand's characters, how her presentation—contrary to her own claim of holding a black-and-white view of character—involves fine and careful distinctions that challenge our powers of moral judgment and discrimination....

The Themes: Integration on A Grand Scale

And now, I wish to turn from the complexity of response required in character interpretation to the complexity of response required in thematic interpretation. In a popular work of fiction, the story is usually designed mainly to provide entertainment, the pleasure of observing the characters and events for their own sake, with no deeper significance or thematic interest. This is why popular fiction so often seems to satisfy what Ayn Rand describes as "the psycho-epistemological role of art" much better than many serious works that may give us great insights but little entertainment.

And this is why Ayn Rand's own fiction is so frequently classified as popular, since her works, like popular works, offer exciting stories that involve the reader emotionally and imaginatively in the story world. But this does not entail that they should be dismissed as "merely" popular, nor that they should be read just for pleasure and inspiration....

The theme of a novel can be defined as a summation of its abstract meaning. (That's Ayn Rand's definition.) And it involves the work as an artistic whole. It should here be noted that, for Rand, theme is not simply a novel's message, but rather an integrating principle, a means of organizing all the parts of a story into a logical and coherent whole. A message is simply an idea tagged onto a story as a simple moral lesson (as in a...fable, for example), but a theme is the summing up of a much more complex pattern or meaning.

In Atlas Shrugged, for example, the theme is the role of reason in man's life; but it would be silly to say that the purpose of Atlas is to teach us a lesson about what happens to the world when men abandon reason. Instead, the novel explores its theme in a deeper philosophical sense, showing us the importance of reason in a wide range of human activities. In fact, thematic projection in Atlas involves nothing less than the presentation of a whole system of philosophy, a philosophy that must be grasped primarily by inferring from the evidence provided by the story. As in character interpretation, this means close attention to special clues offered by the text.

Juxtaposing Scenes

In interpreting her themes, therefore, we have to pay careful attention to the thematic interweaving of ideas through the causal patterning and organization of the events. But such causal demonstration is only one aspect of Ayn Rand's manner of projecting a theme. To further explore themes...she also uses a number of other structural devices that we must pay attention to. Notable here is, once again, the use of analogical juxtaposition: the method of holding up parallels and contrasts for comparison not only of characters, as we already have seen, but also of other components, like events, symbols, metaphors, and descriptions.

In Atlas, in the chapter entitled, "Account Overdrawn," we find a very good illustration of these methods. What happens in this chapter is that the exploiters are beginning to run out of victims by overstretching their endurance, by overdrawing their accounts, as the title suggests metaphorically. The thematic implication of this is summed up by Francisco's proverbial statement that "you can't have your cake and eat it too"—that's the theme of this chapter.

And, to illustrate this theme, Ayn Rand shows us, in close juxtaposition, two apparently unrelated scenes. One is a meeting of the board of directors of Taggart Transcontinental, where James Taggart is faced with a number of financial demands: wage raises from the unions, cuts in rates from the shippers, and payment of bonds from the government—demands that are internally contradictory and that the company cannot possibly meet, that jointly involve a demand that he run his railroad at a loss. (And even James Taggart sees that that is impossible.) The other scene is the episode where Lillian Rearden demands of Rearden, after she has discovered that his mistress is not some worthless slut but Dagny Taggart, that he stop seeing her—something he is totally unwilling to do.

As you can see, there's no causal connection between these two scenes, only a thematic link, both being variations of the same idea. This thematic link is further emphasized by the fact that Taggart, faced with a demand from government to pay the bonds, appeals to the governmental contracts that have given the company a moratorium for five years. Similarly, Lillian, when she faces her husband's unyielding attitude, appeals to the sanctity of their marriage contract. In both cases, the contracts have become worthless as legal obligations between people, showing the nature of a society where exploitation is the ruling principle.

This is just one example of how Ayn Rand integrates everything in the novel to express her ideas.... It is not a sort of linear story that you follow; you have to observe all of these interrelations between events and characters....

I hope this one example gives an indication of how Ayn Rand elaborates and explores her themes by means of analogy. I find it a bit curious that she does not refer to this technique in her theoretical writings: not only because she uses it so extensively, but also because, as we saw in the discussion of character, it is so obviously linked to her epistemology. It is, in effect, a narrated application of her theory of concept formation. Just as we grasp concepts by observing similarities and differences between objects, we have to grasp themes by observing similarities and differences between story components....

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