The Cartoon World of Ayn Rand

I do not enjoy cartoons. I did when I was a child, but that was long ago. If I am surfing the channels and Bugs Bunny pops up, I keep going. Nonetheless, strange as it may seem, when there is a child on my lap, I happily revisit my nearly forgotten days of yore.

My heart returned to and rejoiced in cartoon-land when I watched them through the eyes of my children. I found myself smiling when they smiled, laughing when they laughed.  But when they outgrew their affection for cartoon characters, I once again lost mine. Then, one-by-one, the grandchildren arrived and I regained my twice lost enthusiasm for Looney Tunes, Disney, Peanuts, and sundry other animated drawings.

My children and grandchildren led me back to a world of innocence and simplicity. It is a magical kingdom, like Brigadoon and Shangri-la, where no one ages, no one dies, and everyone stays in character. The fact that it does not represent life on earth does not matter. It is a foretaste of paradise and enthralls a child’s mind and heart.  It is also a world where stereotypes are permissible, as in coloring books where the policeman is always cheerful, the nurse always caring, and the schoolteacher always dedicated. The complexity of life is yet to be learned. Robert Louis Stevenson hit the mark when he said, “Character to the boy is a sealed book; for him, a pirate is a beard, a pair of wide trousers and a liberal complement of pistols.”

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And then, the child grows a little and enters a world where everything is changing and problems come in bunches and frustration becomes a daily exercise. He now knows that no ones is, “faster than a speeding bullet” and no one can “leap tall buildings in a single bound”. Superman has flown away, never to return.

Or has he? Adolescents, too old for animated cartoons and perhaps too young for adult responsibilities, can place Ayn Rand on their laps and, seeing things through her eyes, once again believe in cartoons. Superman, Batman, and Captain Marvel are restored to believability, though they remain utterly inimitable. Concerning her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, a reviewer for Time asked: “Is it a novel? Is it a nightmare? Is it Superman – in the comic strip or the Nietzschean version?”  Economist Paul Krugman did not pull any punches when he appraised Atlas Shrugged as “a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world.”

Despite her egregious shortcomings as an author, Ayn Rand’s immense popularity cannot be ignored. Atlas Shrugged has sold more than 7 million copies and may be the best-selling novel ever written. 520,000 copies were sold in 2009, 52 years after its 1957 publication. The Ayn Rand Institute donates 400,000 of Miss Rand’s books annually to high school students. And if one has not seen the cinematic versions of her life and her works, or read her newsletters, he may see her face emblazoned on a 1999 U.S. postage stamp.

The scathing reviews that followed the publication of Atlas Shrugged may be without peer in terms of their vitriolic intensity.  Perhaps Whittiker Chambers led the field when he confessed:  “Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained.  Its shrillness is without reprieve.  Its dogmatism is without appeal.”

The striking disparity between her immense popularity and the dubious quality of her work provides an important insight into American society. The logical explanation appears to be that Ayn Rand appeals to people who are hesitant to grow up, preferring to cling to a cartoon version of life where the fictional heroes are people of uncompromised rectitude, and utopia is within everyone’s grasp. Listen to a few excerpts from the hero of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, who goes on and on for no less than fifty-eight pages, delivering a monotonous and tedious paean to individualism:

The world you desire can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it is yours.

In the hopeless swamps of the not quite, the not yet, and the not at all, do not let the hero in your soul perish and leave only frustration for the life you deserved but never have been able to reach.

Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark.

Ayn Rand may have been better positioned as a Madison Avenue advertizing executive. She offers hope for the hopeless, but one that is a pure fabrication, cleverly packaged and delivered in purple prose. She has a genius for marketing, but not for logical persuasion.

Reality cuts our aspirations down to size. It re-sizes them from the unreasonable spaciousness of what we would want to the reasonable attainability of what we need. It teaches us that love is infinitely more important than power. It points the way to our true destiny, one that is achieved through virtue and concern for others. Reviewer John Chamberlain was merely being sensible when he advised that Ayn Rand should not have tried “to rewrite the Sermon on the Mount.”

Walt Disney commonly employed a sequence he referred to as the “plausible impossible”.  For example, someone is sitting on a tree limb and is sawing away between himself and the tree.  After he severs the limb, he remains suspended in midair for a brief moment until he realizes what he has done and then plunges to the ground.  In Atlas Shrugged, there is a chapter called “Utopia of Greed”.  The concept of utopia may be appealing, but it is an abstraction and therefore “up in the air”.  The collectivity of avaricious individuals that inhabit it would soon bring it crashing to earth.  Disney and Rand utilize the “plausible impossible,” but the creator of Mickey Mouse does it with no illusions.

I do not enjoy the wooden heroes who appear on the pages of Ayn Rand’s novels. More than that, however, I would be gravely irresponsible if I were to introduce her fictional characters that pretend to be models for living human beings to any of my youthful descendents.


  • Donald DeMarco

    Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of Saint Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the Saint Austin Review and the author, most recently, of Reflections on the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Search for Understanding.

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