Image and Integration in Ayn Rand's Descriptive Style

by Peter Saint-Andre (2006)

First published in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Volume 7, Number 2 (Spring 2006).


Most explorations of Ayn Rand's fiction have focused on the ideological issues that figure so prominently in her novels (one notable exception is Minsaas 2005). Unfortunately, this gives short shrift to the fact that Rand possessed "the capacity of writing brilliantly, beautifully, bitterly" -- as Lorine Pruette noted in her New York Times review of The Fountainhead (Pruette 1943). Entire articles could be written about Rand's use of symbolism and imagery, her dialogues, her plots, her approach to characterization, her rhetorical strategies, and her re-use of existing forms such as epic, tragedy, mystery, and utopia. In this brief essay, I would like to draw attention to an even more purely literary aspect of her writing -- namely, her descriptive style, especially as captured in certain passages of pure description scattered throughout her novels.

We The Living

What do I mean by "passages of pure description"? Here is typical example from We the Living (1936, 102):

The fog was gone and the sky blazed like a huge furnace where gold was not melted into liquid, but into burning air. Against the gold, they saw the piled black boxes of a village far away. A long pole among the boxes pointed straight at a sky green and fresh, as if washed clean with someone's huge mop in the night. There was a flag on the pole and it beat in the morning wind like a little black wing against the sunrise.

We see here some of the characteristic qualities of Rand's descriptive style: vivid color-words applied like the brush-strokes of some unorthodox painter (Rand colors the horizon gold and the sky green); striking similes ("the sky blazed like a huge furnace where gold was melted ... into burning air," but it was also "fresh, as if washed clean with someone's huge mop in the night"); metaphors used in a fully literal sense ("a long pole among the boxes"); images that are impossible in reality but that evoke the desired effect in the reader ("burning air").

Here is another example (150):

They walked hand in hand in the stripes of sun and pine shadows. Like columns of dark brick, like sinewy bodies sunburnt to bronze and peeling in strips of light bark, the pines guarded the road and dropped, jealously, through a heavy tangle of malachite, a few rays, a few strips of soft blue. On the green slopes of ditches, little purple dots of violets bent to a patch of yellow sand; and only the crystal luster of the sand showed water over it. Kira took off her shoes and stockings. Soft dust and pine needles between her toes, she kicked the little black balls of fallen pine cones. Leo swung his slippers at the end of a dry branch, his white shirt unbuttoned, his sleeves rolled above his elbows. Her bare feet pattered over the boards of an old bridge. Through the wide cracks, she saw sparks swimming like fish scales down the stream and polliwogs wiggling in swarms of little black commas.

They sat alone in a meadow. Tall grass rose like a wall around them, over their heads; a hot blue sky descended to the sharp, green tips; the sky seemed to smell of clover. A cricket droned like an electric engine. She sat on the ground; Leo lay stretched, his head on her lap. He chewed the end of a long grass stem; the movement of his hand, holding it, had the perfection of a foreign cigarette ad. Once in a while, she bent down to kiss him.

They sat on a huge tree root over a river. The spreading stars of ferns on the slope below looked like a jungle of dwarf palms. The white trunk of a birch tree sparkled in the sun, its leaves like a waterfall that streamed down, green drops remaining suspended in the air, trembling, turning silver and white and green again, dropping once in a while to be swept away by the current....

In the world of We The Living, pine trees are "tall red candles" (206) or "like columns of dark brick" or "like sinewy bodies sunburnt to bronze and peeling in strips of light bark"; they "guard the road" and only "jealously" allow light to fall to the ground in "a few strips of soft blue." A cricket drones "like an electric engine." The sky seems to smell of clover. Kira sees "sparks swimming like fish scales down the stream and polliwogs wiggling in swarms of little black commas." Later, she walks along with her head thrown back "as if she were resting, swimming on her back, close under a clear black sky, with stars at the tip of her nose" (195). On a rainy night, "little shadows of raindrops rolled slowly down the wall" (297). Frigid air feels "like a scalding jet of steam" (405). Snow twinkles "like splinters of powdered fire" (409).

This is the fictive world -- almost an alternate reality -- that Rand creates through her descriptive style.

The Fountainhead

In The Fountainhead (1943), the imagery becomes at times even more fantastical. Consider the opening scene (15-6). Howard Roark stands at the edge of a cliff at a quarry, with a lake "far below him." The cliffs are portrayed as "a frozen explosion of granite" that has "burst in flight to the sky over motionless water." The stone glows, "wet with sun rays." The lake is "a thin steel ring that cut the rocks in half." The rocks go on into the depth, and begin and end in the sky. The world seems "suspended in space, an island floating on nothing, anchored to the feet of the man on the cliff." At the end of the scene, Roark steps to the edge of the cliff and dives "down into the sky below." These sound like the lyrics of a psychedelic rock song (say, "Roundabout" by Yes, in which "mountains come out of the sky and they stand there"; see Saint-Andre 2003), not the crystalline conceptualizations of a supposedly rationalistic philosophical novelist.

In another early scene (32), Howard Roark and Peter Keating are presented as having conversed on the steps of Keating's house one evening; "an electric globe in the air of a spring night" left "nothing to be seen but a few branches heavy with leaves," hinting somehow that "darkness held nothing but a flood of leaves"; the light bulb "took away one's sight and left a new sense instead, neither smell nor touch, yet both, a sense of spring and space." Here Ayn Rand the epistemological realist is positing new modes of perception!

When Roark walks down an empty Manhattan street late at night, Rand delineates the scene in intensely visual terms (102):

A long street stretched before him, its high banks coming close together ahead, so narrow that he felt as if he could spread his arms, seize the spires and push them apart. He walked swiftly, the pavements as a springboard throwing his steps forward.

He saw a lighted triangle of concrete suspended somewhere hundreds of feet above the ground. He could not see what stood below, supporting it; he was free to think of what he'd want to see there, and what he would have made to be seen....

He turned into side streets leading to the East River. A lonely traffic light hung far ahead, a spot of red in a bleak darkness. The old houses crouched low to the ground, hunched under the weight of the sky. The street was empty and hollow, echoing to his footsteps. He went on, his collar raised, his hands in his pockets. His shadow rose from under his heels, when he passed a light, and brushed a wall in a long black arc, like the sweep of a windshield wiper.

In the first scene of Part Four, the "boy on the bicycle" makes his way down a forgotten path, where the forest looks as if it were "a spread of light boiling slowly to produce this color, this green rising in small bubbles, the condensed essence of spring." He sees "a blue hole ahead" where the path ends at a ridge; the blue looks "cool and clean like a film of water stretched in the frame of green branches." The boy thinks to himself that it would be funny "if I came to the edge and found nothing but that blue beyond; nothing but the sky ahead, above and below." In an echo of Roark diving down into the sky, the boy grants himself "a few instants of believing that he would reach the crest, open his eyes and see the blue radiance of sky below" (504-5).

Such passages continue until the very end of the novel. In the last scene, Dominique is presented as having gone to visit the construction site of the world's tallest building (designed by Roark); Rand details Dominique's trip up a small outside elevator to the top (694-5):

She rose above the broad panes of shop windows. The channels of streets grew deeper, sinking. She rose above the marquees of movie theaters, black mats held by spirals of color. Office windows streamed past her, long belts of glass running down. The squat hulks of warehouses vanished, sinking with the treasures they guarded. Hotel towers slanted, like the spokes of an opening fan, and folded over. The fuming matchsticks were factory stacks and the moving gray squares were cars. The sun made lighthouses of peaked summits, they reeled, flashing long white rays over the city. The city spread out, marching in angular rows to the rivers. It stood held between two thin black arms of water. It leaped across and rolled away to a haze of plains and sky.

Flat roofs descended like pedals pressing the buildings down, out of the way of her flight. She went past the cubes of glass that held dining rooms, bedrooms and nurseries. She saw roof gardens float down like handkerchiefs spread on the wind. Skyscrapers raced her and were left behind....

Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged (1957) is often thought of as a more rhetorical or explicitly philosophical novel than Rand's earlier works (presaging her turn to nonfiction writing in the early 1960s). Although I have not found any passages of pure description in the last third of the novel, the first two parts continue Rand's custom of intricate narrative passages. One of the best examples is Rand's relating of the first run of the John Galt Line (228-229):

The green-blue rails ran to meet them, like two jets shot out of a single point beyond the curve of the earth. The crossties melted, as they approached, into a smooth stream rolling down under the wheels. A blurred streak clung to the side of the engine, low over the ground. Trees and telegraph poles spang into sight abruptly and went by as if jerked back. The green plains stretched past, in a leisurely flow. At the end of the sky, a long wave of mountains reversed the movement and seemed to follow the train....

Things streaked past -- a water tank, a tree, a shanty, a grain silo. They had a windshield-wiper motion: they were rising, describing a curve, and dropping back. The telegraph wires ran a race with the train, rising and falling from pole to pole, in an even rhythm, like the cardiograph record of a steady heartbeat written across the sky....

The glass sheets of the cab's windows made the spread of the fields seem vaster: the earth looked as open to movement as it was to sight. Yet nothing was distant and nothing was out of reach. She had barely grasped the sparkle of a lake ahead -- and in the next instant she was beside it, then past.

Two narrative passages from Atlas Shrugged were discussed by Rand in an informal course on writing that she offered in 1958 and that was eventually published in book form as The Art of Fiction (Rand 2000). The first of these is a depiction of New York City (discussed in Rand 2000, 129-132):

Clouds had wrapped the sky and had descended as fog to wrap the streets below, as if the sky were engulfing the city. She could see the whole of Manhattan Island, a long, triangular shape cutting into an invisible ocean. It looked like the prow of a sinking ship; a few tall buildings still rose above it, like funnels, but the rest was disappearing under gray-blue coils, going down slowly into vapor and space. This was how they had gone -- she thought -- Atlantis, the city that sank into the ocean, and all the other kingdoms that vanished, leaving the same legend in all the languages of men, and the same longing. [Rand 1957, 591-592]

The second is a description of a train ride at dusk (discussed in Rand 2000, 123-125):

The telegraph poles went racing past the window, but the train seemed lost in a void, between a brown stretch of prairie and a solid spread of rusty, graying clouds. The twilight was draining the sky without the wound of a sunset; it looked more like the fading of an anemic body in the process of exhausting its last drops of blood and light. The train was going west, as if it, too, were pulled to follow the sinking rays and quietly to vanish from the earth. She sat still, feeling no desire to resist it. [610]

The last two passages of pure description come at the very end of Part II of Atlas Shrugged -- several pages relating Dagny's flight over the Rocky Mountains to find Quentin Daniels before he too disappears like so many other productive characters in the novel. The following paragraphs (644-645) are especially interesting:

She saw the telegraph wires of the trackside slipping past at the tip of her toes. The earth was falling downward, and she felt as if its weight were dropping off her ankles, as if the globe would go shrinking to the size of a ball, a convict's ball she had dragged and lost....

The stars were like foam and the sky seemed full of flowing motion, the motion of bubbles settling and forming, the floating of circular waves without progression. A spark of light flared up on the earth once in a while, and it seemed brighter than all the static blue above. But it hung alone, between the black of ashes and the blue of a crypt, it seemed to fight for its fragile foothold, it greeted her and went....

The earth was now a crumpled sculpture that swayed from side to side, the shape of an explosion still shooting sudden spurts to reach the plane. She saw them as dented black cuts ripping through the milky spread of stars, straight in her path and tearing wider. Her mind one with her body and her body one with the plane, she fought the invisible suction drawing her downward, she fought the sudden gusts that tipped the earth as if she were about to roll off into the sky, with half of the mountains rolling after. It was like fighting a frozen ocean where the touch of a single spray would be fatal....

Rand's Stylistic Techniques

At times, Rand used traditional literary tricks such as assonance and alliteration (as in "a crumpled sculpture that swayed from side to side, the shape of an explosion still shooting sudden spurts"). However, as befits the work of someone who was strongly influenced by motion pictures (Merrill 1991, 18, 37; Gladstein 2007), many of Rand's passages of pure description are more visual than literary. This is consistent with her repeated exhortation to "concretize your abstractions" (Rand 2000, 52-56, 84-85, 124, 154; Rand 2001, 111-119, 121). Yet these passages may seem to be inconsistent with Rand's advice that it is best to "never pause on descriptions ... unless you have given the reader reason to be interested" (Rand 2000, 157). Such passages are entirely absent from her plays, her short stories, and her dystopian novella Anthem (Rand 1937), which she considered to be a prose poem; the fact that they can be found exclusively in Rand's longer novels gives one the sense that they were something of an indulgence for the author -- a shock of luxuriant growth amid the concise economy of her usual style.

Literary and rhetorical analysis of stylistic matters goes back at least as far as Aristotle, who in his Rhetoric and Poetics identified principles such as making sure a metaphor corresponds to the thing signified (Rhetoric 1405b10), the power of describing rather than naming (1407b26), and the value of antithesis (1410b29), especially of portraying static entities in a state of activity (1411b27). He also defined three main kinds of metaphor and simile: comparisons of an abstraction to a concrete, of a concrete to an abstraction, and of one concrete to another (Poetics 1457b7).

Many of these insights are echoed in Rand's usage as well as in her own thinking on style as captured in The Art of Fiction (Rand 2000), The Art of Nonfiction (Rand 2001), and the essays on literature within The Romantic Manifesto (Rand 1975). Consider:

  1. Rand makes frequent use of antithesis by attributing to entities features that are the opposite of those we normally associate with them (stars are not far away but at the tip of one's nose, frigid air is like scalding steam, snow sparkles like powdered fire, cliff walls are a frozen explosion that has burst in flight toward the sky while the water of the lake is motionless).

  2. Rand employs a special kind of antithesis when she describes inanimate matter in living terms (a flag beats like a little black wing, houses crouch and hunch beneath the weight of the sky, the buildings of the city march in rows to the rivers, skyscrapers race elevators and telegraph wires race trains, mountains follow trains and roll after airplanes).

  3. Rand almost never compares an abstraction to a concrete or vice-versa, preferring to compare one concrete to another (the sky is like a huge furnace, smokestacks are fuming matchsticks, pine trees are tall red candles or like columns of dark brick, hotel towers are like the spokes of a fan, flat roofs are like pedals, roof gardens float down like handkerchiefs, stars are like foam).

  4. Not only does Rand describe things rather than name them, but her descriptions are designed to be striking and memorable (gold is melted into burning air, sparks swim like fish scales, polliwogs are little black commas, stone is wet with sun rays, a lake is a thin steel ring, a forest in spring is a boiling spread of light that rises up in bubbles of green, a sunset is a wound, the earth is a crumpled sculpture).

  5. Some of Rand's descriptions border on the fantastical (the world seems to be suspended in space and to be an island floating on nothing, a man dives down into the sky below, the dark of night seems to hold nothing but a flood of leaves, the earth falls downward, gusts of wind tip the earth and threaten to roll an airplane off into the sky).

Philosophers and critics of a literal-minded bent may object to these wild metaphors and seemingly contradictory descriptions, but those who value the endless possibilities of language and the wondrous spectacle of a creative mind at play may treasure such passages as equal to any sixty-page speech. However, as we shall see, there is no necessary tension here between content and style, for in Rand's highest literary achievements they are of a piece.

Image and Integration

Earlier I noted that Ayn Rand's fictive world is almost an alternate reality. In his Mellon lectures on "Art as a Mode of Knowledge," Jacob Bronowski (1978, 102) said: "Every poet has a set of images, a kind of metaphorical world which he inhabits, which is not shared by the rest of the human race." What do Rand's images and words reveal about her metaphorical world?

If we consider each passage of pure description to be a kind of miniature prose poem, we can see the force of Bronowski's further statement that "style is expressed not only by the rhythm of the words, not only by the choice of the words, but much more by the fact that a poet has a theme, and that his imagery draws out of that theme and passes that theme on to us" (106). Rand herself brings out these connections in her own analysis of several passages: the clouds engulfing New York City match Dagny Taggart's melancholy at witnessing the submerging of the city's achievements (Rand 2000, 129-132) and the sky at dusk mirrors Dagny's exhaustion (123-125). Similarly, Rand's description of the first run of the John Galt Line captures Dagny's sense of joyous, triumphant motion over the surface of the earth, nearly too fast to be perceived, yet connected to the earth and complementing it so completely that the earth is utterly open to the preternatural movement of the train -- so much so that the mountains seem to wave to and follow the train like children racing after an automobile.

By contrast, Dagny's later flight through the mountains perfectly reflects her frustration at the course of the strike and the abduction of Quentin Daniels: she is trying to escape the earth but in vain, for a kind of invisible suction draws her down, the wind buffets her off into the sky while the mountains roll after her like waves, as if she were fighting a frozen ocean over which the stars form like foam and up from which the mountains jet like fatal spray. Thus we see that each of these passages, while seemingly autonomous, is in fact strikingly connected to the course of the story, and particularly to the state of mind of Dagny Taggart, thus reinforcing her centrality to the story.

This level of integration represents a virtuoso performance by the author. The passages of pure description in We The Living by no means rise to that level of cohesion; their striking imagery, although arising from an acute perceptiveness and vivid imagination, is less connected to the story and to the mental and emotional state of the characters. The passages in The Fountainhead hold a mediate position: while at times they seem to fly off on their own, further reflection reveals that usually they are connected, often in subtle ways, to the novel's central focus on the character of Howard Roark.

The Fountainhead begins and ends with narrative passages that frame the novel: Howard Roark alone at the abandoned quarry, and Dominique's visit to the building being constructed by Howard Roark. The two words of his name are the first words of the opening passage and the last words of the closing passage. The opening passage focuses on nature: the frozen explosion of the granite cliffs glistening with sun rays, the thin steel ring of the lake cutting the rocks in half; but it is a nature pregnant with possibilities, open to the efforts and achievements of the protagonist in molding and shaping granite and steel to his vision: for although the world seems to be "suspended in space, an island floating on nothing," in fact it is "anchored to the feet of the man on the cliff" (16), who can dive down into the sky only because he is the center of the world. This man-centered -- indeed Roark-centered -- universe is echoed later when he walks down a Manhattan street and feels "as if he could spread his arms, seize the spires and push them apart" (102); we find an echo of it as well when the boy on the bicycle is about to come upon Roark's Monadnock Valley project and feels as though he will come to the edge of the ridge and see "nothing but sky ahead, above and below" (505). And the final scene is the culmination of this imagery: as Dominique rises to the top of the building, the city falls away beneath her, leaving "only the ocean and the sky and figure of Howard Roark" (695) -- an experience made possible exclusively because Roark has realized his vision in granite and steel and has built higher than any man before him.

Thus we see that, as its best, Rand's metaphorical world fully complements her fictive world; that her images are intimately integrated to her themes; that her content and her style cohere.

Truly, Ayn Rand could write beautifully.


Aristotle. Rhetoric. Translation by W.R. Roberts, published in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. J. Barnes. Princeton: Bollingen Press, 1984.
____. Poetics. Translation by I. Bywater, published in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. J. Barnes. Princeton: Bollingen Press, 1984.

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Minsaas, K. 205. The Visual Power of Ayn Rand's Fiction. In Thomas 2005, 145-181.

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Rand, A. [1936] 1959. We the Living. New York: New American Library.
____. [1937] 1946. Anthem. New York: New American Library.
____. 1943. The Fountainhead. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.
____. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House.
____. 2000. The Art of Fiction. New York: Plume.
____. 2001. The Art of Nonfiction. New York: Plume.

Saint-Andre, P. 2003. Saying Yes to Rand and Rock. The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 5, no. 1 (Fall): 219-223.

Thomas, W., ed. 2005. The Literary Art of Ayn Rand. Poughkeepsie, New York: The Objectivist Center.

Younkins, E., ed. 2007. Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged: A Philosophical and Literary Companion. Hampshire, England: Ashgate.

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