The Philosophy Of Romantic Fiction
Andrew Bernstien


Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo; The Brothers Karamozov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. What do these three novels have in common? They are all superb examples of Romantic fiction. What is “Romantic” fiction? Let us identify and analyze the themes—and underlying philosophical premises—of these great works to find answers to this all-important question that is too seldom asked in today’s literary arena. The characters and events of a fictional story constitute the particulars, the specific facts, of an author’s universe; they provide the novelist’s world view at an observational level. A writer is God-like in that he creates his own world—reality as he sees it—and the key to understanding that world lies with the concretes discernable on a perceptual level. Consequently, we shall examine the essentials of each story’s characters and action as an indispensable means of extracting its thematic content.

Les Misérables tells the story of Jean Valjean, a hardened ex-convict in nineteenth century France, who is converted to religious Humanism by Bishop Myriel, the saintly prelate of Digne. Before his conversion is completed, he robs a young boy and is a fugitive hunted by the relentless detective, Inspector Javert. In disguise as Monsieur Madeleine, Valjean rises from his job as a factory laborer by virtue of discovering a manufacturing process that revolutionizes the local industry of Montreuil-sur-mer. He brings prosperity to the area, makes a fortune and is appointed mayor. But in saving an innocent man, he reveals himself as Jean Valjean and is captured by Javert. He escapes prison, rescues the young, cruelly-mistreated Cosette, daughter of the dead (and equally-cruelly-mistreated) prostitute, Fantine, is pursued by Javert and finds refuge in a convent. Years later, Cosette falls in love with Marius Pontmercy, who, distraught at the impossibility of their relationship, intends to die on the barricades with his revolutionary friends, Enjolras and the Society of ABC. Jean Valjean rescues both him and Javert, then escapes the police by fleeing through the sewers. Javert, upon realization of the saintly nature of the criminal he has persecuted, commits suicide. Jean Valjean unites Marius and Cosette, who are wed, then withdraws from their life. Without his adopted daughter, he dies.

It should be clear from this highly-condensed summation of fourteen-hundred pages of Hugo’s universe, that there are two central players in this drama. There is the hero, Jean Valjean—seeking safety from the terrible injustices perpetrated on him by the criminal justice system—and the man who stands in his way, who opposes him at every turn, who prosecutes him remorselessly, the inexorable inspector: Javert.

Les Misérables, at the level of action, is the story of a man seeking liberty from an oppressive system of criminal justice. Jean Valjean is, first and foremost, a fugitive. Javert, as the individual most ruthlessly devoted to the enforcement of the strict letter of the law, is and must be the hero’s primordial antagonist. From this understanding, it is possible to extract a statement of the essentialized conflict of Les Misérables: Jean Valjean seeks freedom but is relentlessly pursued by the police officer, Javert.

In her book The Romantic Manifesto, novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand identifies a literary principle she terms a novel’s “plot-theme,” which she defines as “the central conflict or ‘situation’ of a story...the core of its events.”

The plot-theme of Les Misérables is: the life-long flight of an ex-convict from the pursuit of a ruthless representative of the law.

It is only at this point, having digested the essence of the book’s action, that we can logically raise the questions: What does it all mean? What is significant about all this? What is the meaning of the injustices heaped on Jean Valjean? Is there some connection between them and the abuses suffered by Fantine? Between his misfortunes and the cruel mistreatment received by the youthful Cosette? Is there some connection between the injustices borne by Jean Valjean and those that Enjolras and his band of revolutionaries seek to redress?

Is there some principle that ties these concretes together and explains their abstract meaning? Clearly, there is, and in two parts: 1) the terrible suffering borne by the poor and 2) the cruel indifference of society and its legal system to these sufferings. The book’s action, reduced to essentials, adds up to an overwhelming picture: the terrible injustices of society toward the poor, which leads directly to the novel’s theme: The injustice of society toward its lower classes.

Hugo provides a wealth of concretes to illustrate his theme: there’s the abused, pushed-around, nowhere-to-turn desperation of the unwed mother, Fantine; the callous indifference of men to the Thenardiers’ horrific mistreatment of the orphaned Cosette; the wistful, tragically-heroic lives and deaths of the Thenardier children, the street urchins, Eponine and Gavroche; above all, there is the crushing persecution of the saintly Jean Valjean by the criminal justice system. Essential to Hugo’s theme is this grim portrait of a man who serves nineteen years at hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. These characters and their tragic lives constitute repeated variations on Hugo’s theme, which he weaves inextricably throughout the fabric of his story. Everywhere the reader looks in Les Misérables he is confronted by one scene from endless perspectives: lower class members are innocent victims crushed by society.

Hugo’s theme is principally from the field of political/social philosophy, the branch of cognition that studies the principles governing the formation of a proper political system. The essence of the field is the application of moral precepts to the study of man’s social relations. Its fundamental question is: What is the basis of a civilized society? The wealth of negative examples Hugo provides highlights his view that nineteenth century French society is permeated by an inhumane lack of civilization. The novel’s theme necessitates that the story be filled with painful, agonizing, heart-breaking events. The action of the book must constitute an impassioned, from-the-heart outcry against the ills of contemporary society.

Hugo’s title captures perfectly the novel’s thematic essence.

But there is a deeper level of meaning in Les Misérables. The theme is indubitably social, but there are more fundamental philosophical beliefs that are dramatized in the story.

Clearly religion, in some form, is crucial to Hugo’s world view and to the meaning of this book. Its ethic of social service and its emphasis on the importance of relieving poverty does not proceed from a modernist, i.e. Marxist basis. The premises at work here are not dialectical materialism, economic determinism or philosophical atheism.

There is a profound spirituality to this book in a religious—though not necessarily a Christian—sense. For example: it is Bishop Myriel who morally regenerates the hardened ex-convict, Jean Valjean. The bishop is with him, helping him make difficult moral decisions for the rest of his life. Jean Valjean keeps the candlesticks (symbolic of the bishop’s continuing influence) by his side in a case Cosette terms, “the inseparable.” Bishop Myriel imbues Valjean with an understanding of, and reverence for, Christ’s teachings: love the meek, the weak, the helpless; cherish the downtrodden; above all, take action—perform good deeds, engage in heartfelt charity, succor society’s victims. Dedicate one’s life to an active service of humanity. The regenerated Jean Valjean feels the presence of God in his life in the form of a burning moral exhortation: love and serve mankind.

Even Javert is not immune to the religious teachings that animate the novel. In the end he realizes that his remorseless persecution of the saintly Jean Valjean, although in strict accord with society’s legality, is abominable to God’s morality. There is, he sees, a higher law above the one he serves—and it must be obeyed. But he cannot change, so Javert loses the one element of life without which a man cannot survive: his world view. He has no choices left: he must die.

Religion permeates this book. The bishop’s life, Jean Valjean’s life, Javert’s death—all dominated by the moral presence of God. But the book’s religiosity is not in strict accordance with orthodox Christianity. For one thing, there is no belief in Original Sin. On the contrary, man is depicted as clean, pure, even noble (this in sharp contrast to Dostoyevsky’s view, as will be seen). Further, there is no adherence to organized religion: the hero neither belongs to nor attends any church, he takes no sacraments, seeks no blessing from priests nor absolution from confession, and takes refuge in a convent only to escape the law; then, when safe, he pulls his daughter out so she can experience life. The hero clearly is not a Catholic. Neither does he read the Bible (it is not clear he even owns one), attend revivals or prayer meetings, or cherish a personal faith relationship with Jesus Christ. He is clearly not a Protestant.

Additionally, Hugo is contemptuous throughout the story of the devout Christians who scorn the poor. He paints a picture of convent life so dismal it would drive even one as ascetic as St. Francis of Assisi to the nearest brothel, seeking relief. His attitude toward clerics, in general, holds a generous dose of contempt and is reminiscent of H.G. Wells’s remark that he could never drive a car in France because the temptation to run over a priest would be too great.

Even Bishop Myriel, who puts into practice Jesus’s exhortation to actively aid the poor, holds beliefs that are non-Christian, even anti-Christian. As one critic points out, Myriel expresses many of Hugo’s own ideas: belief in general education, in progress, in happiness on earth; he believes in the transmigration of souls, and, in one of the novel’s most powerful scenes, he kneels for a blessing from an atheistic, regicidal revolutionary of 1793. (On this same theme are Enjolras and the revolutionaries who love man, reject Christianity, and who are “for religion against religions.” These firebrands out to overthrow the existing social order are as representative of the author’s religious views as is Bishop Myriel.) It must be remembered that although active aid to the downtrodden is stressed by Jesus it is not a belief unique to Christianity, not in the way that the incarnation, the virgin birth or the trinity are. Many religions and moral codes emphasize help to the needy, several of the more prominent being Judaism, Islam and Marxism. It is therefore important not to equate Jean Valjean’s benevolence and ceaseless charity with Christianity.

One critic goes so far as to label Hugo’s religion in Les Misérables “deistic.” But this is a mistake. It is true that God performs no miracles in the universe of the book: He parts no oceans, causes neither bushes to speak nor corpses to revitalize, and enables no men to live inside whales. He Himself takes no action in the world; He is not active in a Judaic-Christian sense. But He is active in the world. God is the source of the burning moral exhortation to succor the needy. He is the dominating moral force in the universe of this story. Because of this, it is not the case that Hugo’s God created the world but now holds Himself aloof from it. For the same reason it is also not the case that Les Misérables expresses a Religion of Humanity. It is not a secular, atheistic world view presented in the novel. The moral commandment to aid the poor does not come from social institutions; on the contrary, the institutions are corrupt, they are the enemy, they must be purified or even overthrown.

The moral principle comes from God.

This leads to the heart of Les Misérables. To quote from Paul Bénichou:

Against society and social strength, against the law itself, stands a spiritual premise which can alter the course of injustice... This Conscience above the Law was for Victor Hugo, God himself... Thus, the quartet of the Policeman, the Bishop, the Convict and the Prostitute strikingly act out the fundamental idea of Les Misérables: the appeal to a spiritual force in order to regenerate the social order.

This insight—the appeal to a spiritual force in order to regenerate the social order—is the essence of fourteen-hundred pages of text reduced to a clause.

Nevertheless, it is possible to analyze Les Misérables at a still deeper level of philosophy.

With what view does the novel leave us? Man is great but Society is corrupt. Human beings as individuals are noble but social institutions are base. How can it be that individuals are pure but the group is debased? Because to attain such nobility of character one must be inflamed by a love of humanity which comes exclusively from God. There are only rare individuals who dedicate themselves to God’s teachings and who attain this degree of spiritual grandeur. In Les Misérables there are three: the bishop, Myriel; the convict, Jean Valjean; the revolutionary, Enjolras. These are the crusaders and the saints, imbued with the moral fire of a higher authority, fighting for justice in the here and now. In devotion to the metaphysical order, they seek sweeping reform of the social order. Despite their love of man, the saints of Les Misérables are alienated from men; their stature places them apart and higher; their devotion to God elevates them above their peers. Hence the bittersweet irony that the fighters for mankind, though they live in God’s graces, die as lonely outcasts from man. Enjolras, fighting for the people, dies alone on the barricades because the people fail to rise. Jean Valjean, whose life was dedicated to Cosette, dies of a broken heart because neither she nor Marius—nor anyone—recognizes him for the moral giant he is.

This is the deepest level of conflict in Hugo: the great man, by virtue of his devotion to a higher order, makes himself a rebel and an outcast in this one. In fighting for the world, he fights against the world. In fighting for man, he is rejected by men. The social order resists the moral crusader; it stands opposed to or does not recognize the reforms that he fights for.

But there are other foes besides human cruelty, insensitivity and greed that oppose the hero: natural forces like starvation, illness, freezing winters, and brutal physical labor. There is a wealth of examples of this struggle in Les Misérables: Fantine’s sickness and death, Cosette’s shivering in the cold, and the harsh labor performed by various members of the poor to escape starvation are examples. There is a refractory element to the physical world itself that resists the reforming efforts of the moral giant. The saint’s struggle with physical nature is not the focus of Les Misérables—his struggle with society is—but harsh physical nature underlies that struggle: the one-step-ahead-of-starvation-and-freezing lifestyle of the poor gives to that struggle a life-and-death urgency.

So what is Hugo showing us? The great man dedicated to a higher law that emanates from a spiritual realm seeks to put that law into practice in this realm—a world where society and nature combine to resist him. Service to a higher, spiritual world versus resistance from a lower, material world. God and Heaven versus the Earth. The soul versus the body. There is a mind-body conflict in Les Misérables. It is not merely a cruel, greedy society that rejects the saint’s message of love; deeper than that is a recalcitrant physical world that is not malleable to the demands of the spirit. There is a Platonic dualism at the base of Hugo’s metaphysics—a universe divided into a spiritual and bodily realm in which the two are separate, unequal and opposed, in which the soul is noble and pure but the body is debased, resistant to the higher moral principles of the spirit. This is why there is an element of the heroes’ being “too fine for this world,” why they don’t merely live in poverty or die alone but, more fundamentally, perish with their moral vision unrealized.

At the end of Les Misérables, Bishop Myriel, Jean Valjean, and Enjolras are all dead. Perhaps their spirits will live on in a newly-awakened love of humanity in the souls of Marius and Cosette. Maybe they will be a kinder, gentler Marius and Cosette. Beyond that, nothing has changed. The same injustices exist as before.

This is not Atlas Shrugged, which we will examine later. The world has not been transfigured in accordance with the moral vision of the heroes. It couldn’t be. On a Platonic metaphysics, an imperfect world could never absorb the perfection of a spiritual giant.

This is the bottom line and final lesson of Les Misérables: man can achieve spiritual grandeur, but the very requirements of his moral greatness preclude worldly success.

Dostoyevsky’s universe in The Brothers Karamazov, albeit as teeming and as robust and as religious as the one dramatized in Les Misérables, differs sharply from Hugo’s in its essential thematic meaning.

The Brothers Karamazov, as its title indicates, tells the story of (four) brothers and their antagonistic—ultimately murderous—relationship with their despicable father.

The essence of the story is as follows: Alyosha Karamazov, a young disciple of the saintly Christian monk, Father Zossima, is instructed by the elder to attempt to resolve the dispute between his father and his older brother, Dmitri. Alyosha is unsuccessful at reconciling the two, regarding either Dmitri’s inheritance or the jealous rivalry over the young coquette, Grushenka. Dmitri threatens to kill the old man rather than allow him to possess Grushenka. Karamozov’s other legitimate son, Ivan, is an atheistic intellectual, and the bastard Smerdyakov is his philosophical protégé. When Dmitri can’t find Grushenka, he rushes to his father’s house, sees she isn’t there, but badly beats a servant who tries to stop him. Shortly after, Dmitri and Grushenka are united, but Dmitri is arrested for the murder of his father. Ivan discovers that Smerdyakov is the killer, but, overcome by his own guilt, goes mad. Smerdyakov commits suicide. Dmitri is convicted. Alyosha, having had no success at sharing Father Zossima’s message of love with adults, is able to bring it successfully to the children.

Such a distilled summary reduces the conflict to seven key figures—the four brothers, the father, Zossima and Grushenka—and a limited range of highly-essentialized actions.

Now the questions can be raised: What is the main conflict? Who are the crucial antagonists? Whose goals dominate the story? Who is struggling against whom, and for what?

What does the story show us? A murder.

By whom? Smerdyakov.

But is he the only one responsible? No.

Examine the central situation Dostoyevsky presents to us: Dmitri and the old man locked in a death struggle over Grushenka; she, a tease, actively encourages it; Alyosha, seeing disaster coming, tries to avert it, but not trying hard enough, fails utterly; Ivan, refusing to be his brother’s keeper—or his father’s—claims that without immortality all actions are permissible; and Smerdyakov, the cynical lackey, taking these words to heart, puts them into practice.

The conflict is, in part, Dmitri versus Karamazov over Grushenka; it is also, in part, Alyosha’s earnest but unsuccessful attempt to bring Father Zossima’s message of kindness to his warring family members; it is also, in part, Ivan’s inciting a senseless murder, then his struggle to come to terms with his own culpability; it is also Smerdyakov’s pulling the trigger for no reason other than to show that in a world without God there are no constraints on his whims.

This is an enormously complex conflict, intimately involving all five members of the Karamazov clan. (Grushenka is a secondary figure, because though a flirtatious coquette, she is not fundamental to the seething familial conflict.) The responsibility for the murder lies exclusively within the brothers Karamazov. Their joint responsibility for murder is the essence of the novel’s action and the reason for the title.

Examine the combination of players Dostoyevsky brings together: the two crude sensualists, Karamazov and Dmitri, bent on a collision course; the intellectual, Ivan, who indifferently observes that “the one beast will devour the other”; the whim-driven flunky, Smerdyakov, a third beast who murders the first before the second can do it; and the ineffectual monk, Alyosha, who sees the murder coming but is too weak to take the actions to prevent it.

What, in essential terms, has Dostoyevsky shown us? The story of four brothers each, in his own way, responsible for the murder of their vicious father: One brother commits the murder—Smerdyakov; a second brother desires it—Dmitri; a third provides the moral justification for it—Ivan; and the fourth recognizes its imminence but is unwilling to stop it—Alyosha.

This understanding gives us Dostoyevsky’s plot-theme: The actions of four brothers, in varying ways, lead to the murder of their loathsome father.

This condensation enables us to understand the entire conflict by uniting it around a thread that runs all through it: the four brothers, distinct and separate in so many ways, are united in their responsibility for the murder. There is the sensualist, the intellectual, the nihilist and the monk—men as varied as can be found—brought together by their mutual complicity.

Their shared guilt exists at three levels: the moral/practical, the psychological/existential and the metaphysical/theological. To take them one at a time, starting with the level of personal moral responsibility:

Dmitri, despite being neither the trigger-man nor the intellectual instigator, is the prime mover of the crime. It is his out-of-control, volatile use of force that not only gives Smerdyakov a convenient fall guy but, more fundamentally, establishes a context of violence against the old man, creating a situation ripe for murder.

Ivan, with his belief that the absence of immortality makes all things permissible, not only gives a moral sanction to the murderer but, more: his own secret desire to be rid of his father motivates him to leave town, thereby providing the murderer with an opportunity.

Alyosha, though kind-hearted and loving, is far too passive in his attempt to prevent the crime. He is certain disaster is coming—but when he fails to convince Ivan to stay, he does not leave the monastery to live at his father’s house himself, thereby giving the murderer a clear shot at his intended victim. His lack of protective action at the decisive moment may show that he, like Ivan, at the subconscious level, wants to be rid of the despicable old man. He is certainly not prepared to go the distance in preventing the crime; this despite Father Zossima’s insistent exhortation that he devote himself to his family’s problems.

Smerdyakov, the cynical lackey, murders his own father for no better reason than a capricious whim, the desire to corroborate the nihilistic belief that “all actions are morally permissible.” His motive is not even a Peter Keating (a character in Atlas Shrugged, later to be addressed) style of fawning—a desire to win points from his philosophical mentor—but one that is infinitely worse: all-out destructiveness, based not on hatred of the good but on indifference to everything; the man who holds nothing as sacred (or even valuable) brings about the ruin of his mentor, as well as that of himself and his older brother, plus the death of their father.

Dmitri, Ivan and Smerdyakov are guilty by the actions they take; Alyosha by virtue of the actions he doesn’t. The responsibility of the first three is active; Alyosha’s is passive. Theirs is a guilt of commission; his is one of omission.

The results of this guilt have devastating consequences either psychologically, existentially, or in both ways. Ivan lives out a deeply-held Dostoyevskian belief: the correlation of crime with sickness: he has visions of devils, he has a raging fever, and there is fear he is going mad. Smerdyakov commits suicide, as befitting a man with no values and nothing to live for. Dmitri is arrested, imprisoned and doomed to an escape that will exile him from the land and from the people whom he loves. He is overwhelmed with remorse at the realization that although he is not guilty of the crime, he is guilty. Alyosha must live with the realization that his failure to take decisive action violated not only his duty to his father but also, more significantly, his duty to his elder. For all four the consequences of guilt are dire: one dies, one goes mad, one is imprisoned, one must do better.

But it is the third, theological level of guilt that is critical to understanding the book’s action and its theme. Karamazov and Dmitri are hardly the only self-indulgent hedonists who populate this story. There are hordes of background drinkers, gamblers, revelers, lechers and prostitutes, a thief (Dmitri), a killer (Smerdyakov), a coquette (Grushenka), a deeply-neurotic woman (Katerina), and there are endless acts of passion-driven violence. And over it all lies Father Zossima’s sainthood, Alyosha’s struggle to live by the elder’s teachings, relentless protestations by the hedonists of their deep love for God, and the author’s reverence for the ascetic holiness of the Russian monks.

What does it all mean? What does it add up to?

This is Christianity: the sinfulness of man; the lustful, bestial, violent desires that form the core of his nature and his motives; the purity of God; the on-the-brink, life-and-death desperation of the human condition in the absence of God; the need of suffering, of a soul howling from the abyss to gain redemption.

This is a picture of life and of man, not generically religious but specifically Christian. In contrast to Hugo this is not Religious Humanism, but pietistic, evil-stressing, Bible-thumping Christianity. We are all sinners, the story proclaims—not just the murderers, but all men, even Alyosha, who fails to consistently carry out Father Zossima’s code; even Zossima himself, who insists that “each is responsible for the sins of all.” We are all responsible; we are all sinners; we are all Karamazovs, as Alyosha discovers. Life for such a creature as man is endless, bloody conflict over who can scratch, snort, gorge, drink, belch, brawl and fornicate the most. It is violent, it is cynical, it is self-indulgent, it is criminal, it is desperate; ultimately, it is murderous.

This is the loathsome life and death of Fyodor Karamazov; of Smerdyakov and Dmitri; this is, as Dmitri puts it, the insect-like existence of reprobate man. This is, vividly dramatized, the theme of the novel.

To state the theme succinctly: the desperate condition of human existence in a world without God. In this novel, Dostoyevsky thunders against nineteenth-century positivism, determinism, materialism, atheism, against the dominant philosophical and scientific theories of his era.

This is Ivan’s philosophy—thinking, questioning, doubting, seeking logical answers, finding none, rejecting God, living alone, despairing over evil, instigating a murder, brooding over his guilt, seeing devils, going mad. In the character of Ivan Karamazov, Dostoyevsky depicts and rejects Western rationalism. Ivan’s fate shows the necessity of re-affirming Russian faith, Russian mysticism, Russian Christianity.

Modern Western man, Dostoyevsky proclaims, has rejected God; he scorns the commandments, embraces liberal permissiveness, believes “anything goes.” “All actions are permissible,” say the enlightened modern thinkers, thereby liberating violent emotionalists like Dmitri and cynical nihilists like Smerdyakov from all ethical constraints.

The result is violence and murder. The world becomes, in Dostoyevsky’s words, “a vaudeville of devils.”

Ivan’s prose poem, “The Grand Inquisitor,” is an eloquent example of Dostoyevsky’s theme. In it, Jesus returns and is imprisoned by the Inquisition. You are guilty of condemning man to freedom, says the Grand Inquisitor to Christ. You rejected the temptation of Satan and set an example for man. You expect men to emulate you. But you are divine and can make that choice. They are sinful, insect-like men and cannot. The temptation is too much for them, and they fall. Few are capable of choosing the moral law and salvation. Most choose hedonic indulgence and Hell. Therefore, for man’s good, the Church has been forced to enslave him, to end his freedom, to provide metaphysical law and order.

The Grand Inquisitor’s enslavement of man (and his imprisonment of Christ) is justified only because man’s sinful nature makes it impossible for all but a select few to choose God. Those few, like Father Zossima, can venture into the wilderness, face Satan and return stronger. The rest, according to the author, fall.

Man’s sick soul was such that he had to reject God. The nineteenth-century intellectuals have declared, “God is dead!” Now, Dostoyevsky says, we are left with the question of the modern world: How do we live in a world without God?

The Brothers Karamazov provides a succinct answer: we don’t.

In providing a Christian view of existence, Dostoyevsky’s focus is on what you would expect a great novelist’s to be: the nature of man. His primary characters dramatize a key principle of human nature.

Again, to take them one at a time: Alyosha struggles to live by Father Zossima’s teachings, has doubts when God causes his mentor’s corpse to decompose rapidly, yields to temptation (he too is a Karamazov), rushes to Grushenka’s house, rights himself, but still does not carry though Zossima’s teachings consistently. Ivan agonizes over the choice between fundamental alternatives: God or rationalism. He is ambivalent on the theism/atheism duality, but clearly rejects God’s world, a realm where the innocent are unjustly condemned to suffer. He rejects the Christian belief that man is his brother’s keeper and, by leaving town at the climactic moment, involves himself in the murder. Dmitri’s agony is over a somewhat different issue, the choice of: honor versus base living, morality versus self-indulgent hedonism, God’s laws versus the temptations of Satan. He falls repeatedly but, finally, his role in the murder of his father fills him with remorse and he is ready to choose another kind of life.

Dostoyevsky shows a fundamental alternative faced by man. He presents two polar opposites between which man must choose. They are: faith or disbelief. A man can choose God, like Father Zossima; or he can choose Satan, like Fyodor Karamazov; or he can choose God, then struggle with his wavering faith, like Alyosha; or he can choose to love God but follow the devil, condemning himself to the agonizing attempt to live a contradiction, like Dmitri; or he can abandon God not for pleasure but for logic, then find himself alienated from the good, driven inexorably to evil, then to madness, like Ivan.

In brief, man can choose God, Satan or some tortured attempt at combining the two. God or Satan are the fundamental alternatives, and man must choose between them. Volition is his nature; man is condemned to freedom, and his salvation depends on the right choice.

The inescapable necessity to choose and awareness of the momentous consequences explain the frenzied torment in which Dostoyevskian man exists: he knows God is good but is unable to resist lustful passion; then, he is tortured by alienation from God. The power to choose between God and temptation is the essence of human nature as depicted in The Brothers Karamazov.

God and Satan struggle, Dmitri observes, and their battlefield is the soul of man. Dmitri’s assessment is literarily accurate. The battle lines between good and evil in The Brothers Karamazov are defined strictly on theological grounds, and Dostoyevsky’s artistic genius weaves the theology into a literary fabric that provides a vivid, chilling depiction of a Christian view of man.

For Hugo, God is necessary to imbue the social order with kindness, with a gracious good-will of man to man. But for Dostoyevsky, God is necessary at a more fundamental personal level: to cleanse man’s sick soul of sin. In Hugo’s world, the problem is merely the social system’s lack of benevolence; the great man, with God’s aid, can fight this. But in Dostoyevsky’s world, there are not—nor could there be—great men, only misshapen creatures screaming from the edge of the Pit. Hugo’s man in Les Misérables needs God to make society more humane. Dostoyevskian man in The Brothers Karamazov needs God to cleanse his soul and spare his life. But whatever they disagree on, they concur on a fundamental belief: man needs God.

As we shall see, next, Ayn Rand’s man in Atlas Shrugged needs no God.

It is left to each of us as readers and thinkers to agree or disagree with any of the positions taken in these novels, but it is because all three consider some of the same themes—and because all three are consummate examples of Romantic fiction at its best—that we may compare them to our ultimate benefit. For Hugo, man without God can achieve nobility of character but is trapped in a cruel society. For Dostoyevsky, man without God is a loathsome creature doomed in every conceivable form. But for Ayn Rand, only man without God can achieve nobility or flourishing life. For Hugo, society is malevolent. For Dostoyevsky, human nature is malevolent. For Ayn Rand, religion itself, including the secularization of its tenets in modern philosophy, is malevolent, and she dramatizes this point consistently in Atlas Shrugged.

Atlas tells the story of a man who says he will stop the motor of the world—and does. He operates behind the scenes in the book, giving the story an air of mystery on a global scale. To those, like Dagny Taggart, who suspect his existence, he is a destroyer responsible for the collapse of industrial civilization.

Dagny is the operating vice-president of the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad in America. Industrial production is falling sharply due to two causes: the socialist policies of the political leaders and the retirement/disappearance of the country’s best minds. To signify the general despair and hopeless resignation pervading the country, people have come to ask the seemingly-rhetorical question: “Who is John Galt?” Dagny works to rebuild the crucial Rio Norte Line as a means of saving the railroad and stemming the decline. She suspects the existence of an active agent working for destruction and, in defiance of the pervasive expectation of doom, re-christens her line the “John Galt Line.” In the teeth of unanimous social opposition, she builds the rails not of steel but of Rearden Metal, a new alloy developed by industrialist Hank Rearden. She and Rearden successfully construct the line, then become lovers. On vacation, they find the abandoned wreck of a new motor that would transform the world. Dagny searches unsuccessfully for the inventor, then hires a scientist to attempt the motor’s reconstruction. The government issues a decree, binding men to their present jobs. The scientist quits. Dagny flies a small plane to Utah, finds him leaving with the destroyer, flies after them and crashes in the Colorado mountains. She finds herself in a hidden valley—Atlantis—the home of John Galt, the man who is both the motor’s inventor and the “destroyer.” Here she finds the great producers who have disappeared; they are on strike against the creed of self-sacrifice that enslaves the mind. Although Dagny returns to the railroad, she and John Galt are in love and become lovers. The looting politicians try to take over Rearden’s mills; he finally sees the nature of their code and joins the strike. John Galt gives a radio address to the nation, explaining both the existence and nature of the strike, and the conditions for ending it. The looters take Galt prisoner and torture him, attempting to force him to become economic dictator of the country. Galt’s allies, now including Dagny, rescue him and return to the valley. With the great minds on strike, the looters’ regime collapses. The strikers are free to return to the world.

This is the essence of one-thousand pages of amazingly-complex story line. At this point there is enough information to raise the question: Is there a main character, a hero, whose specific value quest drives the action?

Clearly there is: John Galt. His goal is to successfully complete the strike, to withdraw from the world the men of the mind, to precipitate the collapse of the looters’ regime and the creed on which it rests, then to return to the world and rebuild it on the principles of a philosophy recognizing the role of the mind, i.e., a philosophy of reason, individualism and capitalism.

Is there an antagonist(s) who stands in his way? Yes—Dagny and Rearden. The looters are Galt’s philosophical enemies, but they survive by force and parasitism, as leeches on the productive effort of the scientists, engineers, and industrialists, among others. When the rational, productive men withdraw, the looters starve; the parasites need individuals like Dagny and Rearden to support them.

One of many bold and original aspects of this book is the good versus good nature of its essential conflict. Although Galt and the strikers are determined to bring down the parasites’ regime, the parasites themselves offer no opposition to them; only the non-striking producers, scabs like Dagny and Rearden, can defeat them.

Since this is a novel about a strike, it is possible to understand all of its characters in terms of strike-related categories, which reduce to four: the strikers (Galt and his allies), the scabs (primarily Rearden and Dagny), management (the collectivist politicians and their intellectual supporters), and shareholders (the American people, to whom Galt addresses his radio broadcast). This understanding holds the essence of Ayn Rand’s story: the thinkers go on strike against the philosophical/moral code that enslaves them. This is the plot-theme of Atlas Shrugged: the men of the mind go on strike against an altruist-collectivist society. The conflict presents a stark alternative: the men of the mind versus the looters. Just as Hugo shows a fundamental division and conflict between the kind-hearted and the cruel, and Dostoyevsky between the godly and the sinful, so Ayn Rand presents a similar struggle between the men of reason and the men of force, i.e., the rational and the irrational.

Ayn Rand shows vividly what the two sides stand for in action. In the world of the thinkers, John Galt invents a revolutionary new motor; Ellis Wyatt, creates an innovative process for producing oil from shale rock, enabling industrial development in Colorado to skyrocket; Francisco d’Anconia invents a new copper smelter and prodigiously increases the output of d’Anconia Copper; Hank Rearden develops a metal alloy far superior to steel; Dagny Taggart builds new rail lines and runs her railroad expertly. The author’s principle is clear: where the mind is free to function, there is creativity, inventiveness, productivity, abundance, prosperity and flourishing life. In contrast is the world of the looters, the force-initiators, in which government bureaucrats like Wesley Mouch, Floyd Ferris, and others pass directives that enable less productive states to suck the life-blood from Colorado, that make it impossible for Hank Rearden to profit from the product of his brains, that establish Railroad and Steel Unification Plans, demanding the producers work at a loss. They chain men to their jobs, shackle their minds by brute force, and ultimately drive the best and the brightest to join the strike. Ultimately, their policies bring collapse.

Again, Rand’s principle is clear: where the mind is shackled by force, there is decreasing productivity, shortage, scarcity, decline, demise, destruction and death. She contrasts the results of commitment to the mind’s free use with commitment to the mind’s enslavement as the plot mechanism to drive home her point: the mind is the source of all values on which human life depends; in its absence there is and can be nothing but poverty, misery and collapse. This leads directly to the novel’s theme: the role of the mind in human existence.

The source of wealth, Atlas Shrugged dramatizes, is not manual labor but the mind. In the absence of genius, no amount of muscular effort could create new products like Galt’s motor or Rearden Metal. It was the mind that created the electric light, the automobile, the telephone, the airplane. It was the mind that wiped out disease. It was the mind that landed men on the moon, invented weather satellites and supersonic transports, created the computer revolution. Every value on which human life depends is a product of the reasoning mind—from food, which must be grown, requiring knowledge of agricultural technology; to houses, which must be built, requiring knowledge of geometry; to clothing, which must be manufactured, requiring knowledge of chemistry; to medicine, which must be researched and developed, requiring knowledge of biology; to much more. This is the vision of human nature that drives the action in Atlas Shrugged.

In a word, this novel is about survival. Reason is more than the essential distinguishing characteristic that differentiates man from other animals; it is his instrument of survival. It is not merely the case that man cannot prosper without the full, unencumbered exercise of his mind; more fundamentally, he cannot even survive.

If it is asked, “What is Atlas Shrugged really about?” the clearest answer can be provided by contrast with Les Misérables and The Brothers Karamazov. Hugo seeks to re-generate social institutions. Dostoyevsky looks to purify man’s nature. What does Ayn Rand attempt to accomplish? She does not hope to transform human nature, like Dostoyevsky; this, she holds, is neither necessary (man’s rational capacity is life-giving) nor possible (it is fixed by nature, by reality, and is not open to choice). Certainly Rand, like Hugo, seeks to promote political/social change, but even this goal is neither fundamental nor (in a sense) sweeping. For at the end of Atlas Shrugged, Judge Naragansett revises portions of the United States Constitution, adding the clause that Congress shall make no laws restricting the freedom of production or trade. In so doing, he merely applies the document’s fundamental principle of individual rights more consistently in the economic realm. Ayn Rand’s point is clear: the original founding principles of the United States are superb, but there have been and remain inconsistencies of application that have enabled the statists to push the country toward dictatorship. These inner contradictions must be deleted and the principle of individual rights affirmed across the board.

But Atlas Shrugged is not about politics. Ayn Rand is after much bigger game. It is an impassioned plea for man to discover and embrace his rational nature. Changes in human nature are neither possible nor necessary, and social/political changes are secondary consequences. Atlas Shrugged is about man’s discovery of himself. Ayn Rand, the atheist, has written a religious hymn, an ode to the sacredness of man’s life on earth. It glorifies the great and notable deeds already performed by men; more importantly, it sings of the potential lying yet untapped within the human spirit. The book is a sonnet in praise of the discoveries, the inventions, the explorations, the innovations that man can yet achieve, and it exalts the abundance that man could create. Atlas Shrugged is a love poem written to man’s mind. This is the core of its meaning.

Having analyzed these three great novels, the question can now be raised: what is the philosophy of Romantic fiction? It has been seen that great Romanticists may be religious, like Hugo or Dostoyevsky, or secular, like Rand. Epistemologically, they may trumpet faith or reason. They may believe man is sinful, like Dostoyevsky, or noble, like Hugo and Rand.

What, therefore, is the distinguishing essence of Romanticism as a school of fiction? By virtue of what principle(s) do we unite such diverse authors into a single category? The unifying thread can be extracted from the three books under study. In Les Misérables, Jean Valjean is confronted through the actions of Bishop Myriel with a simple but gut-wrenching alternative: change your life or wither and die. Throughout his subsequent life he continues to choose among agonizing alternatives in accordance with the man he wants himself to be, e.g., his decision to reveal his identity and save Champmathieu, his decision to rescue Marius and risk losing Cosette. In The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha wrestles with his faith which wavers when Father Zossima’s body decomposes quickly; momentarily he chooses hedonistic indulgence, then corrects himself, but still struggles to enact his mentor’s principles. Ivan believes that without God there is no morality but balks at the prospect of accepting the injustices in God’s world; he agonizes over the choice between God and atheism. Dmitri desires to live an honorable life but persistently chooses ignoble action; he loves God but follows Satan, and lives in subsequent torment. Men make their moral beds, according to Dostoyevsky, then lie in them. They must choose between faith and disbelief. In Atlas Shrugged, man’s rational nature is abundantly established, but its acceptance and use is shown to be volitional. Man’s survival depends on it, but its functioning is not automatic. James Taggart shares the same rational nature as Dagny—they even share the same gene pool—but Jim is a vicious whim-worshipper and Dagny is scrupulously rational. “Man is a being of self-made soul,” says Ayn Rand. And the fundamental choice every human being must make is between rationality and irrationality.

In Les Misérables, man is confronted with a fundamental choice: selfishness or service to humanity. In The Brothers Karamazov, man is confronted with a fundamental choice: God or the devil. In Atlas Shrugged, man is confronted with a fundamental choice: reason or unreason. It becomes clear that the underlying principle forming the essence of Romantic literature is that of free will. Ayn Rand herself states the principle succinctly in The Romantic Manifesto: “Romanticism is a category of art based on the recognition of the principle that man possesses the faculty of volition.”

Contrast this school of literature with that of Naturalism (and others), whose characters are often anti-heroes and depicted as dominated (if not crushed) by external agencies, be they social conditions (as in Theodore Dreiser), God (as in Sophocles) or repressed neuroses and Oedipal urges (as in Eugene O’Neill). The essence of this (in the broadest philosophical sense) Naturalistic school of literature is the principle of determinism, the belief that an individual has no control over the outcome of his life, that he is the plaything of outside forces.

The principle of free will—the belief that human beings control their destiny by virtue of their own choices—is the defining essence of the Romantic school. This has important consequences for the role of morality in the universe of a Romantic novel. Again, to take the three examples one at a time: Hugo wants to transform society in accordance with the principles of Religious Humanism. Dostoyevsky wants to purify man’s sinful nature in accordance with the principles of Christianity. Ayn Rand wants to trumpet the full meaning of man’s rational nature and transfigure his life on earth in accordance with the principles of her Objectivist philosophy.

For all three authors, since men and women have free will, they choose their values, by commission or omission. If they choose properly, the can transform their life and, in principle, the world. Romantics see the world not merely as it is but as it might be and ought to be. They see past empirical truths all the way down to the deeper metaphysical level of what is proper and possible to humankind. If Romantics don’t like the state of the world, they fight to alter it. If they perceive wrong values dominating, they fight for the right ones, whatever they construe those to be.

Such great literary moralists may be especially contrasted with Shakespeare, the great literary amoralist, who, it is said, “holds up a mirror to life,” who depicts man as he finds him (for better or worse), who is consumed by no moral vision, who makes no effort to transfigure the world, who takes no moral sides in any conflict. It is no accident that Shakespeare was a determinist, who saw man dominated by inner psychological traits, ultimately crushed by inherent character flaws. It is this determinism that led to his vividly-tragic view of human life and leaves his work bereft of moral fire with which to fight for change.

But for the Romantics, as for all moralists, there is an underlying premise at work regarding cognition: reality is knowable. Right and wrong, truth and falsity are accessible to human understanding. Man’s mind (soul, spirit or consciousness) is capable of identifying answers to even the most difficult of life’s questions. Romantics are burning moralists, to be sure, but they are never skeptics. Free will reigns.

Andrew Bernstein holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Graduate School of the City of New York and is a Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Marist College; he also teaches at SUNY Purchase (which selected him Outstanding Teacher for 2004)—and taught formerly at Pace University and Marymount College (which selected him Outstanding Teacher for 1995). Dr. Bernstein writes and lectures widely on literary and philosophical issues. He is the author of The Capitalist Manifesto.

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