Ayn Rand's Promethean Heroes


Ayn Rand has written four novels of consummate craft and vision: WE THE LIVING (1936), ANTHEM (British edition, 1938; American edition, 1946), THE FOUNTAINHEAD (1943), and ATLAS SHRUGGED (1957).[1] Yet today despite the publication of these four novels, noteworthy for their brilliant plotting, thematic grandeur and unity, penetrating analysis of character and motivation, stylistic virtuosity, complex structure, imagery, and content—all of which excellences have won their authoress a mass audience in the millions—Ayn Rand's reputation as a literary artist and serious novelist is in low critical esteem. Today some 37 years after her first novel (WE THE LIVING) and some 16 years after her latest and best (ATLAS SHRUGGED) Ayn Rand is virtually a literary outcast ignored or scorned in scholarly journals, books, and dissertations.[2]

Those few critics or intellectuals who deign to consider Rand's novels pay scanty attention to the works' literary values, which they judge nugatory, and prefer to criticize and condemn the ideational content of the works for its heresy.[3] The liberal journalist Nora Ephron brands THE FOUNTAINHEAD "a very silly book" because of its opposition to altruism and the welfare state and opines that "it is better read when one is young enough to miss the point." She dismisses ATLAS SHRUGGED as "a ridiculous book."[4] The late Whittaker Chambers, a Christian conservative, in a review celebrated for its hysteria and inaccuracies, pontificates: "ATLAS SHRUGGED can be called a novel only by devaluing the term."[5] Chambers devotes most of his review of ATLAS SHRUGGED to a denunciation both of the novel's "philosophic materialism" which ignores God and man's "tragic fate" and of its alleged advocacy of a dictatorship by "a technocratic elite." Chambers discerns in Rand's ideas a kinship to Hitler, Stalin, and even Carrie Nation, and delivers the following exegesis of the novel's tone: "From almost any page of ATLAS SHRUGGED, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber-go!'"[6]

Even within the more congenial precincts of the libertarian community, Rand the literary artist is likewise neglected in favor of Rand the philosopher, ethician, or political theorist. The vacuum of literary criticism is nearly total with the conspicuous exceptions of Rand's THE ROMANTIC MANIFESTO together with other scattered writings and two literary essays in Nathaniel and Barbara Branden's WHO IS AYN RAND?[7]

It is my conviction that Ayn Rand's deserved literary repute will be recognized in the eyes of academic and professional critics only through patient and careful literary scholarship and publication. Today, 16 years after ATLAS SHRUGGED, a beginning is long overdue for studies into the literary craft of Ayn Rand. Posterity's estimate of Rand's historical stature will not focus primarily on her nonfiction and theoretical exposition of philosophical, ethical, and political ideas, but rather on the genius of her narrative fiction. As valuable as Rand's philosophical ideas are (especially in epistemology), these will serve as suggestive and fertile hints for more elaborated writings by others and not as the final word. Rand's novels, though, stand forth as a complete, self-contained, impressive literary monument without need of alteration. But posterity will estimate Rand's narrative achievement as more than mere cult books or mass entertainment only if objective and persuasive literary analysis can demonstrate that her novels are brilliant masterpieces qua literary art rather than artless propaganda.

Literary studies of Rand's narrative techniques are valuable, beyond salvaging Rand's maligned literary repute, in augmenting each reader's understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of the novels which are not merely as "clear" but also as "complex" as Richard Halley's music (A.S. p. 21). Certainly Rand as a self-proclaimed rational, calculating craftsman deserves more careful reading and analysis to replace the subjective, emotive praise or scorn that dominates discussion of her fictional works. Psychologically, greater precision in our conceptual understanding of Rand's art will awaken increasingly complex and precise emotional responses to the novels.


My purpose in this article is twofold: to define and trace how Ayn Rand's characteristic rational, benevolent, and heroic "sense of life" or "Promethean vision" pervades her novels; and to examine the literary craft and selected techniques which communicate the individual themes flowing from Rand's Promethean vision of heroic humanism, using ANTHEM as a case in point. Rand's Promethean vision of man and his position in the world governs her selection of particular themes; the specific theme of each novel, in turn, governs every detail of her craft: plot, character, setting, structure, and imagery. The literary method employed in this discussion is that of rational contextualism: the logical analysis of the novel as an artistic, integrated, and organic whole, all of whose constituent elements (words, syntax, images, ideas, character, plot action, structure, and setting) function, and should therefore be coherently interpreted within, the context of theme and vision.

I have styled Rand's vision "Promethean" because she has self-consciously exploited and repeated the Greek legend of Prometheus in three of her novels (ANTHEM, p. 114; THE FOUNTAINHEAD, p. 679; and ATLAS SHRUGGED, p. 486) as a mythic paradigm of her sense of life. By "sense of life" or vision Rand designates "a preconceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence."[8]

Rand's literary vision or sense of life is that of "man worship": rational heroic humanism, the luminous and joyous affirmation of the grandeur and possibilities of human life when lived according to reason and self-interest. To convey the pulsating, intense experience of her worship of rational, purposeful, egoistic man, Rand, although an atheist, frequently exploits the "emotional connotations of height, uplift, nobility, reverence, grandeur"[9] that have traditionally been the monopoly of religion but which legitimately pertain to the moral ideal of rational humanism. Negatively expressed, her benevolent vision views man's metaphysical nature as not condemned to tragic, joyless futility in a meaningless "life" but rather as capable of and promising a life "without pain or fear or guilt." If one searches for a positive emotional counterpart in arts other than literature for a glimpse of her vision of "man worship", it may be found most impressively in the religious exaltation of such musical or artistic works as the self-assured and triumphant "Credo" from Gounod's Saint Cecilia Mass[10], much of Beethoven's assertive, rebellious music, Michelangelo's David, or the exuberant gravity of such sculptured Greek gods as the serenely majestic Apollo on the west pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.

As a mythic symbol to communicate this vision of heroic god-like man, Rand employs Prometheus in three of her novels. The Greek myth of Prometheus is especially suited to accommodate Rand's image of rational and rebellious heroism.[11] Greek mythographers and dramatists, such as Aeschylus in his PROMETHEUS BOUND, relate two chief tales (generally combined) of Prometheus, who was a demigod or Titan. The first concerns Prometheus as the benefactor of mankind and its culture-hero who brought fire and the civilizing crafts of mathematics and language down from the heavens in defiance of the tyrant god Zeus. Zeus' vengeance against Prometheus occupies the second tale. Prometheus was chained to a wind-swept crag in the Caucasus where daily an eagle (or vulture) tore out and devoured the Titan's liver which miraculously regrew at night for the next day's torment. For Rand as an advocate of reason, the significant Greek name of Prometheus ("The Forethinker"), his identification with mind as opposed to brute force, his martyrdom for his values, and his creative and civilizing role as the light-bearer to humankind, make Prometheus the fitting heroic image to embody her vision of man.

"My dearest one, it is not proper for men to be without names. There was a time when each man had a name of his own to distinguish him from all other men. So let us choose our names. I have read of a man who lived many thousands of years ago, and of all the names in these books, his is the only one I wish to bear. He took the light of the gods and he brought it to men, and he taught men to be gods. And he suffered for his deed as all bearers of light must suffer. His name was Prometheus." (ANTHEM, 115)

ANTHEM, although unique among Rand's novels in its novelette size, its first-person point of view, and its quasi-Biblical, quasi-Zarathusthran style, shares the common Promethean vision, motifs, and patterns that recur with thematic variation in the other novels. ANTHEM, Rand's second novel, serves as a paradigm of her Promethean vision with its narrative pattern of Promethean deliverance: the hero progresses from his status as Prometheus Bound to that of Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire-Bearer.

The novel's theme is the discovery, through the moral-educational and psychological progress by one rebellious hero, of the significance of the individual ego. The story's setting is a completely collectivized and altruistic society of the future. Built around the concept "We", in a manner resembling Eugene Zamiatin's antiutopian satire WE, ANTHEM projects a technologically retarded dystopia which has suppressed all vestiges of individuality including the taboo-word "I". The plot dramatizes the hero's self-discovery and the self-deliverance from both, both bodily and psychological bondage to such a society. So consistently antiindividualistic is this totalitarian state that the hero, like all other men, lacks an individualizing name and, being designated by the number "Equality 7-2521", is but an interchangeable and expendable cell in the organism "Society." The hero's education leads to the discovery of the ego-concept through the means of his chosen creative work (as an inventor of the light bulb, his Promethean gift of light to his "brothers"), romantic love with the "Golden One", and the appreciation of his own joy and "alone-ness" which enables him to distinguish his ego from the collective of his "brothers."

The novel's climax in Chapter 11, culminating in the hero's formulation of the ego-concept "I" is linked to the following denouement Chapter 12, where the hero rejects his numerical cipher and names himself "Prometheus."[12] In retrospect we perceive the apt identification between the hero and Prometheus, god of light. Both creative rebels offered the gift of light to man, were enchained, and escaped from bondage.

The interplay of light and religious imagery reinforces this Promethean theme of the divine light-bearer's self-liberation. Light images demarcate the steps by which the hero delivers both his body and soul from his bondage to the "We." His spiritual illumination begins in Chapter 1 with the feeble but "precious" light of the stolen candle in his tunnel-cave (p. 12); the conclusion of the same chapter conveys the hero's awakened peace of spirit through a light image: "[O]ur spirit is clear as a lake troubled by no eyes save those of the sun." (pp. 35-36). In Chapter 2, the hero associates his nascent romantic values with light by naming his love the "Golden One" (p. 41) whose hair "was golden as the sun" (p. 38) and who drinks water that resembles "sparks of fire in the sun" (p. 42). In Chapter 3 the hero discovers the luminous "power of the sky" (p. 57), the principle of electricity, by which he later invents a crude light bulb, his "box of glass" (p. 63) in Chapter 5. Other light images culminate in the discovery of the radiant house of the Unmentionable Times:

Then today, at sunrise, we saw a white flame among the trees, high on a sheer peak before us. We thought that it was a fire and we stopped. But the flame was unmoving, yet blinding as liquid metal. So we climbed toward it through the rocks and there, before us, on a broad summit, with the mountains rising before it, stood a house such as we had never seen, and the white fire came from the sun on the glass of its windows. (p. 101)

Later in the same Chapter 10, the excited and expectant hero cannot sleep contemplating the possible treasures contained in the wonderful house and its books. Gazing out from the window of the house onto a night landscape, he exploits Promethean light imagery to foreshadow the climactic discovery of the ego in the next two chapters:

And now we look upon the earth and sky. This spread of naked rock and peaks and moonlight is like a world ready to be born, a world that waits. It seems to us it asks a sign from us, a spark, a first commandment. We cannot know what word we are to give, nor what great deed this earth expects us to witness, (p. 106).

In the two concluding chapters the newly discovered ego concept becomes the "guiding star" (p. 109) whose "beacon" (p. 122) will dispell the "night" and "darkness" of the selfless past (p. 121).[13]

Light imagery unites with the strand of religious imagery in the hero's precursor, the "Saint of the pyre" (p. 53). The "Saint", as a veritable martyred Prometheus-Bound figure, bestows on the young hero his first illuminating glimpse of true sanctity, despite the Saint's fiery punishment as a "Transgressor of the Unspeakable Word" (pp. 51-53).

The parallels between light and religious imagery underline Prometheus' conversion from "the worship of the word 'We' " (p. 119) to the worship of the "god…I" (p. 113), the "Sacred word: EGO" (p. 123). Through thematic transvaluation of religious values the "sin" and "transgression" of Prometheus' developing egoism become identified with "the blessed thing which I had called my curse" (p. 114). The novel which opens with the hero's confused guilt (p. 11: "It is a sin to write this.") concludes with "deliverance" (p. 114) in the guiltless acknowledgment of the truly sacred and godlike meaning of the individual self: "The sacred word: EGO" (p. 123).

This Promethean vision of self-liberation and self-exaltation through moral progress from the concept of "We" to that of "I", supported by the light and religious imagery, is revealed in the novel's structural organization and symmetry.

In its form, ANTHEM exhibits bipartite "ring composition"[14] (Figure 1) As a bipartite structure, the novel divides, on the basis of symbolic setting, into two equal groups of six chapters each. The first half, Chapters 1-6, is set in the world of the "We", "the City of the Damned" (p. 121), with its stiffling of the ego in productive and romantic values. The second half, Chapters 7-12, opens in the world of ego, solitude, and the "Uncharted Forest" where the hero's altruist "brothers" dare not venture. This bipartite structure corresponds to the thematic movement of psychological liberation from "We" to the acceptance of the ego and "I".

In addition, by "ring composition"[15] each chapter of Part I is thematically balanced and answered by a parallel chapter in Part II in the relation of states of ignorance, darkness, guilt, or bondage (in Part I) to states of knowledge, spiritual light, pride, or deliverance (in Part II).

ANTHEM, in both its imagery and structure which project the Promethean vision of man's self-liberation from the bodily and spiritual bondage of altruism and collectivism, demonstrates the equally Promethean craft and creativity of its authoress. Its clear, complex structure, moving poetic language, economy of artistic means to achieve its intellectual-emotive ends, and its contents (containing several themes that will recur elsewhere in Rand's writings: e.g. rational egoism, importance of productive work and romantic values, and the ethics of non-aggression) anticipate Rand's later novels and reveal her creative imagination in dramatizing her Promethean vision of man.[16]

John V. Cody is a professor of classics at Northwestern University. He received his doctorate in literature from Princeton University. His current teaching activities include an introductory studies course entitled "Heroic Humanism: A Study of the Major Novels of Ayn Rand. He is currently working on a comprehensive monograph analyzing Rand's literary art.


[1] References and citations from Rand's four novels follow the pagination of recent paperback editions (all published in The New American Library Signet editions) with the following abbreviations of titles: W.T.L. = WE THE LIVING (New York 1959); ANTH. = ANTHEM (New York 1961), T.F. = THE FOUNTAINHEAD, "The 25th Anniversary Edition" (New York 1970), p. 48. ("THE FOUNTAINHEAD Revisited, A 27th printing).

[2] The author would appreciate references to any literary studies of Ayn Rand as a novelist. A diligent search through such bibliographical guides as DISSERTATION ABSTRACTS, the MLA BIBLIOGRAPHY, AMERICAN LITERARY SCHOLARSHIP (ed. J. Albert Robbins), and Blake Nevius', THE AMERICAN NOVEL: SINCLAIR LEWIS TO THE PRESENT (New York 1970), has turned up nothing substantial on Rand's literary art. Some nonliterary items may be found in Essay and General Literature Index, Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature, and Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature. Two short considerations of Rand as a SF writer appear in Chad Walsh, FROM UTOPIA TO NIGHTMARE (London 1962), pp. 81-82, and Mark R. Hillegas, THE FUTURE AS NIGHTMARE: H.G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians (New York 1967), pp. 146-47. Rand's literary existence is briefly acknowledged in James D. Hart, THE OXFORD COMPANION TO AMERICAN LITERATURE, 4th ed. (New York 1965), p. 694; and more informatively in Barbara Harte & Carolyn Riley, 200 CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS (Detroit 1969), pp. 225-27.

[3] Jerry H. Bryant, THE OPEN DECISION: THE CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN NOVEL AND ITS INTELLECTUAL BACKGROUND (New York 1970), pp. 169-72, gives ATLAS SHRUGGED a sociological analysis with elements of psychologizing. Bryant is guilty of the genetic fallacy when he psychoanalytically conjectures that Dagny Taggart's multiple loves betray Rand's wish-fulfillment (cf. p. 172). More soberly, Hazel E. Barnes, AN EXISTENTIALIST ETHICS (New York 1967), pp. 121-49, presents a thoughtful analysis of the distinctions between orthodox existentialism and Rand's "Egoistic Humanism." Barnes also judges Rand's nontragic literature as "wish-fulfillment" (p. 149).

[4] Nora Ephron, WALLFLOWER AT THE ORGY (New York 1970), p. 48. ("THE FOUNTAINHEAD Revisited, A Strange Kind of Simplicity," NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, May 5, 1968).

[5] Whittaker Chambers, "Big Sister is Watching You," NATIONAL REVIEW 4 (1957), p. 595.

[6] Ibid., p. 596. Granville Hicks, "A Parable of Buried Talents," NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, Oct. 13, 1957, p. 4, brands A.S. "a demonstrative act rather than…a literary work" and "Not in any literary sense a serious novel.…"

[7] Ayn Rand, THE ROMANTIC MANIFESTO: A PHILOSOPHY OF LITERATURE (New York 1969). Nathaniel & Barbara Branden, WHO IS AYN RAND? (Paperback Library: New York 1964), Chapter III, pp. 72-118 (Nathaniel Branden's "The Literary Method of Ayn Rand") and Chapter IV, pp. 119-91, Barbara Branden's "A Biographical Essay"). Nathaniel Branden has two recorded lectures dealing with Ayn Rand's literary art in his course "Lectures on the Basic Principles of Objectivism": Lectures 17 and 18 ("Romanticism, Naturalism, and the Novels of Ayn Rand, Parts I and II").

[8] Ayn Rand, THE ROMANTIC MANIFESTO, p. 25.

[9] T.F., "Introduction," p. viii; cf. p. ix for the phrase "man worship."

[10] Especially the Angel recording (#36214) with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra conducted by Jean-Claude Hartemann.

[11 ] For a scholarly account of the Prometheus myth with its variants among Greek mythographers, see H J. Rose, A HANDBOOK OF GREEK MYTHOLOGY (New York 1959), pp. 54-56. A more popular study of ancient and modern adaptations of the legend is found in Michael Grant, MYTHS OF THE GREEKS AND ROMANS (New York 1965), pp. 178-89. Gilbert Highet, THE CLASSICAL TRADITION, Ch. 23, pp. 520-40, shows how artists achieve "The Reinterpretation of the Myths."

[12] ANTH., p. 115.

[13] Cf. p. 109: "the judgment of my mind is the only searchlight that can find the truth."

[14] Ring composition is a formal principle for organizing literary matter or themes symmetrically around a central (and generally emphasized) core. It is an artistic structuring device employed since antiquity by the greatest authors including Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, Thucydides, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Dante, etc. See Cedrick Whitman, HOMER AND THE HEROIC TRADITION (Cambridge, Mass. 1958) for the symmetrical structure of the ILIAD. George E. Duckworth, STRUCTURAL PATTERNS AND PROPORTIONS IN VERGIL'S AENEID explores the use of ring composition or "recessed panel framework" in the composition of the Aeneid. Recently, the works of Leo Strauss and his followers have exploited for literary interpretation ring composition and "central significance" in such authors as Thucydides and Plato. See Leo Strauss, THE CITY AND MAN (Chicago 1964). That Rand is a very exacting artist in outlining her novels is attested to in Barbara Branden's biographical sketch, contained in WHO IS AYN RAND?, pp. 145, 157-58. Not only does Rand create traditional narrative structures of exposition, conflict, complication, crisis, climax, and resolution, but she also integrates with this plot structure complementary thematic balances whereby chapter balances chapter (or even scene balances scene within chapters, especially in T.F. and A.S., her two most artful novels).

[15] By ring composition, the balances between Ch. 6 and Ch. 7 of ANTHEM is that of the City of bondage, torture, and "We" to the Forest of freedom, growing joy, and "I". The hero passes from a state of ignorance concerning how his brother scholars will value his gift of light to a saddened knowledge of Ch. 7, where the flashback reveals the antilife altruism that rejected this Promethean gift. Chapters 2 and 11 balance in the relation of question (What is the Unspeakable Word?) to answer and knowledge (the use of "I" in the startling opening of Ch. 11). The other balances are self explanatory with the possible exception of the correspondence between Ch. 3 and Ch. 10. Chapter 3 centers on the excitement of the hero's discovery of the principle behind the "power in the sky"; however, he does not yet "understand" (p. 57) the relationship between the "power of the sky" to the light bulbs in his secret tunnel. He later discovers in Ch. 5 how to reproduce the luminous power of the sky by means of his invention of a "box of glass" (p. 63) or crude light bulb. Chapter 10 similarly revolves around the principle of intellectual power to spiritually illuminate and its later actualized discovery in Ch. 11 where the hero articulates the word "I" (the word which, in the opening of Ch. 12, he informs us he first read "in the books I found in my house", p. 114). In our earlier text quotation from Ch. 10, p. 101, we noted and underlined the luminous properties of the house which was discovered "at sunrise" and which radiated a "white flame" and fire from its windows. Just as Chapter 3's discovery of electric power anticipates the later physical illumination of the invention of the luminous "box of glass", so also Chapter 10's discovery of the fiery house with its "book power" anticipates the later intellectual illumination of Prometheus from his reading the word "I" in the house's books. This anticipation of spiritual illumination from the books is clearly signalled at the end of Ch. 10, when the hero within the house senses the need to speak a word that will produce a "spark" (p. 107) to beget a new egoistic world.

[16] ANTHEM, being a product of Romantic art, its concern for perennial human values applies to people of all ages and social systems which restrict and diminish the individual's sense of his own ego. Prometheus' struggle in the novel to discover his own meaning and ego may be used as a motivating symbol for each individual's quest to realize fully the sacredness of his own person and to rekindle the ofttimes feeble Promethean flame of one's ego.