Review: Ayn Rand’s ‘Ideal’ Presents a Protagonist Familiar in Her Superiority

AUG. 10, 2015

original article on

book cover

Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

The movie-star heroine of Ayn Rand’s “Ideal” is a legendary, enigmatic beauty named Kay Gonda, paid a fortune by Hollywood for her work and worshiped by the faceless multitudes. Her press agent writes: “Kay Gonda does not cook her own meals or knit her own underwear. She does not play golf, adopt babies, or endow hospitals for homeless horses. She is not kind to her dear old mother — she has no dear old mother. She is not just like you and me. She never was like you and me. She’s like nothing you rotters ever dreamt of.”

In short, Kay Gonda is one of Rand’s Nietzschean protagonists — an ├╝ber-frau who has fans, not friends, and who thinks that she towers above all the losers and “second-handers” who populate the world. She is also, it turns out, a close relative of Dominique Francon in the early portions of “The Fountainhead” (a character Rand once described as “myself in a bad mood”)— a pessimist radically alienated from a world she regards with disdain.

The premise of “Ideal” is that Gonda is on the run, suspected of murder and seeking refuge with a succession of fans who have written her mash notes; most turn out to be hypocrites and weaklings who pledge undying loyalty and love but betray her in her supposed hour of need.

Ayn Rand, 1957

The writer and philosopher Ayn
Rand in New York in 1957.
Credit Allyn Baum/
The New York Times

Like most Rand characters, Gonda (inspired by Greta Garbo, according to Leonard Peikoff, the executor of Rand’s estate, in an introduction he wrote to this book) is less a person than a speechifying symbol, and her story never rises even a smidgen above the preposterous. The reader instantly understands why this novel, written in 1934, was set aside by Rand and not published until now, and why the play version (also in this volume) was not produced during her lifetime.

The story is an ugly, diagrammatic illustration of Rand’s embrace of selfishness and elitism and her contempt for ordinary people — the unfortunate, the undistinguished, those too nice or too modest to stomp and roar like the hard man Howard Roark in “The Fountainhead.” It underscores the reasons that her work — with its celebration of defiance and narcissism, its promotion of selfishness as a philosophical stance — so often appeals to adolescents and radical free marketers. And it is also a reminder of just how much her didactic, ideological work actually has in common with the message-minded socialist realism produced in the Soviet Union, which she left in the mid-1920s and vociferously denounced.

The only redeeming feature of “Ideal” is that both the novel and play are slender works, giving Rand less space to bloviate than in “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.” As it is, her characters here make comically portentous statements and engage in breathless, grandiose exchanges.

Gonda says to one fan: “I kill the things men live for. But they come to see me, because I make them see that they want those things killed.” And she has this conversation with another:

“Ah, Johnnie, Johnnie, of what account is life?”

“None. But who made it so?”

“Those who cannot dream.”

“No. Those who can only dream.”

The point throughout much of this novel and play — as it is in much of Rand’s work — is that most people are sniveling fools or sheepish sheep, afraid to pursue their dreams or claw their way to the top: They are hypocrites unable to live up to their professed ideals, cowards who live vicariously through others. There’s a henpecked businessman who throws Gonda over in favor of toadying to his nagging wife and his harridan of a mother-in-law. There’s an artist who specializes in portraits of Gonda but doesn’t recognize her in person. And there’s an evangelist who urges Gonda to confess when she comes to him, seeking refuge.

For readers, Gonda is not an exceptional Nietzschean creature, but an entitled, nihilistic princess suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder. When one character asks her if she really thinks she is superior to everyone else, she replies: “I do. I wish I didn’t have to.” And when told that she was complicit in a young man’s suicide, she coolly says it was “the kindest thing I have ever done.”

The Novel and the Play
By Ayn Rand
246 pages. New American Library. $16.