Libertarian Heroes in Fiction, Part 1
By Sam Staley • Sunday April 8, 2012 4:28 PM PST •
My previous posts on The Hunger Games prompted a reader to question whether Katniss Everdeen, the 16 year-old protagonist in the trilogy and movie, should really be celebrated if she is, as I describe her, “Randian.” It’s an interesting question, and it prompted me to think about the different ways that libertarian or libertarian-leaning protoganists are treated in fiction more generally. As a writer of young-adult fiction and a self-identified libertarian, this is more than a rhetorical question. But the answer has interesting implications for how we conceive of the relationship between the individual and the State in popular culture.
So, this is the first of two posts discussing protoganists in liberty-oriented literature. Today’s post discusses “Randian” libertarian characters. The next post will focus on non-Randian libertarian protoganists.
Let’s start with Howard Roark, a hero from the Ayn Rand novel The Fountainhead. Roark, as many readers may recall, is an architect. (Full disclosure: I really like The Fountainhead and, as a work of fiction, prefer it over Atlas Shrugged.) Roark is an archetype Randian character: He is heroic, impervious to outside influences, and relentless in his pursuit of his ideal vision of architecture and the built environment. He is so committed to his vision and ideals that he’s willing to allow himself to descend into financial ruin.
What’s not to like?
He’s an underdog, refusing to cave into the pressures from weaker and lesser minds with lower ideals, and is willing to sacrifice his personal well being for the pursuit of those ideals. Any conception of the State ultimately implies an infringement on his entrepreneurial zeal, passion for his art and craft, and personal initiative. Less charitably, Roark is a quintessential narcissist.
But, in a contractual world where the pursuit of narrowly defined self-interest based solely on an individual’s personal conceptualization of what is morally right and wrong, this character works. Without having to worry about or depend on other people—no children or immediate family–Roark’s world is pretty sharply defined; drawing lines on where the State plays any role is pretty clear and transparent. Notably, Roark’s character doesn’t have much of an “arc,” or personal evolution, since he is written as an ideal type. (That’s one reason why critics dismiss Rand’s characters as cardboard or two dimensional. Layered characters grapple with self-doubt, the consequences of ignorance or personal discovery.)
Now, let’s think about the Katniss Everdeen. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Everdeen starts out in the books, as a somewhat Randian character. She really doesn’t have much empathy for other people with the critical and notable exceptions of her best friend Gale Hawthorne and her little sister Prim. Outside these two individuals, Everdeen’s relationships are transactional or contractural. She resents her mother for emotional abandonment in the wake of her father’s death in the coal mines. She provides for her family out of a sense of duty and necessity, not affection or sense of higher moral purpose. She is passionate about one thing: Using her bow & arrow to kill prey (illegally) to provide food for her family. She enters in the Hunger Games not because of a commitment to higher social values or even commitment to greater ideals. Rather, she “volunteers” to save her sister. The motives for her action, of course, are distinctly non-Randian. Moreover, much of the first book is transactional in its overall context—if she wins the Hunger Games she is free to go back to her district and not worry about starving to death. End of story. (An important part of the plot hinges on how that contract is managed by the administrators of the games.)
Over the course of the first book and the two sequels, however, we see Everdeen evolve from a largely (but not exclusively) narcissist teenager to a more mature and layered character who begins to identify and commit herself to ideals of moral and social behavior that are, quite frankly, “objective” in the sense they are outside her own experience and personal understanding. I can’t go into too much detail without spoiling some of the essentials of the plot, but the crucial sequence of events that transforms Everdeen (from the point of view of story and character arc) are in the closing chapters of the third book, Mockingjay.
Everdeen starts out narcissistic and near-Randian in her outlook in life, but develops empathy for others outside her immediate family. This transformation is essential for her to make the life choices at the end of the series, including whether she should kill the president of Panem, who she marries or whether she has children. Her world is not contractual at the end of Mockingjay, but is driven by a sense of higher moral values and purpose. It also defines her relationship with the State: She moves from a small-time poacher simply trying to survive a very existential existence to embracing a much larger role in shaping the larger community as a strong individualist free of the State.
Both characters are individualist in their outlook. They are both heroic in that they don’t bend to convention or succumb to challenges or danger. They differ in the source of their inspiration and drive. Both define themselves by their accomplishments and ability to manage their lives independently and in opposition to the State. Thus, they are both fundamentally libertarian.
But this still leaves another type of libertarian hero out of the mix—someone whose source of inspiration is not existential at all, but driven by a deep sense of self-worth and identity that is endowed independently of the day-to-day grind of life. I’ll save this discussion for my next post on libertarian characters in fiction, so stay tuned!