Part 2—Esta Griffiths and Lydia Argounova
The story of Esta Griffiths, Clyde’s sister, and the Griffiths’ elder daughter, is Hobbesian. From the start, Dreiser makes clear that there isn’t much to say. We get details about her character, but not a fully formed individual. While she is musical and plays the organ and sings at the revival meetings her parents hold, she is not interested in music. She does not study it or plan for a career. Dreiser does not give her a mind or afford her a purpose at all. As he sees it, she merely reacts, like a trained seal, to “the attention and comment her presence and singing evoked” (American Tragedy 5). She is not so much a character, Dreiser assures us, as a mood: “[I]n spite of her guarded up-bringing, and the seeming religious and moral fervor which at times appeared to characterize her, she was just a sensuous, weak, girl who did not by any means yet know what she thought” (American Tragedy 14).
Esta is impressionable and romantic. She daydreams a lot, but the plot of her story is smugly conventional. Dreiser derides her interest in clothing and other finery, complaining that she drifted along with “a vague yearning toward pretty dresses, hats, shoes, ribbons and the like” and for “some bright, gay, wonderful love of some kind, with some one” (American Tragedy 15-16).
Instead of finding love, however, Esta is seduced, deceived, betrayed, and abandoned by a young man “who scarcely cared for her at all.” As Esta is negligible, so is her young man. Dreiser doesn’t even bother to give him a name. He is merely a type: “[O]ne of those vain, handsome, animal personalities, all clothes and airs, but no morals (no taste, no courtesy or real tenderness even) but of compelling magnetism” (American Tragedy 16).
Now pregnant and unmarried, the story of Esta is at an end. One-fifth into the novel, her life is effectively over. She returns to her parents, changes her name to Mrs. Nixon, and as a charity case raises her child in the shadow of her family of origin. Her life, according to Dreiser, is only a tawdry side show of some prurient interest, and best forgotten. The only time she is mentioned again is when Clyde, despairing of the pregnant and unloved Roberta, wishes she would go away like Esta did.
In We the Living, Lydia Argounova is also the elder daughter and a minor character. Lydia is defiantly aristocratic, religious, and anti-Bolshevik, and Rand convincingly develops Lydia as an individual in opposition to the unformed Esta.
Like Esta, Lydia has a penchant for beautiful clothing, but what Dreiser considers a sign of shallow empty-headedness, Rand elevates to a form of personal political protest. Lydia uses clothing to defend her upper-middle-class upbringing: “Lydia did not condescend to hide outward signs of social superiority, of which she proudly displayed three: a jabot of tarnished gold lace on her faded velvet suit, a pair of meticulously darned silk gloves and a bottle of eau-de-cologne” (WTL 7). Lydia is determined to uphold the family position, and she frequently admonishes Kira to dress more modestly, in keeping with their social class: “At your age, Kira,” she tells her, “it’s time to wear longer skirts” (WTL 26).
Unlike the weak and aimless Esta, Lydia is firmly grounded in her family and her class. She remains defiantly committed to class formalities, refusing for example to speak with Andrei Taganov because he is a Communist: “Kira, it’s outrageous! You have no pride in your social standing. Bringing a Communist into the house! I, for one, shan’t speak to him” (WTL 89).
While Esta is depicted as not knowing her own mind, Lydia does. Lydia takes a traditionally feminine position on education and work. The former is “unfeminine” and the latter risks coming into contact with “dirt, and iron, and rust, and blow torches, and filthy sweaty men” (WTL 27). Lydia champions the domestic arts instead. She is determined to embroider, knit, decorate, meal plan, and recite French poetry rather than develop the “social conscience” Bolshevism demands. She is particularly proud and devoted to caring for her hair and playing the piano: “Lydia had always boasted of two accomplishments: her magnificent hair, which she brushed for half an hour every morning, and her music, which she practiced three hours each day” (WTL 86). Such activities sound trivial at first hearing, but she performs them in spite of Communism’s ongoing systematic destruction of the private home. She takes care of her hair simply because it is beautiful and because it is of no use to anyone but her. And she is a real musician, not a trained seal. She plays Tchaikovsky, Chopin, and Bach because the music speaks to her and because beautiful music is part of a beautiful home.
Like Esta, Lydia is also religious, but unlike Esta, Lydia’s faith is personal and committed. Whereas Esta dropped her faith the first chance she could, Lydia never leaves the church. Her first thought on returning to Petrograd was to visit “the old church where she had knelt every Easter of her childhood.” She plans to go to church “on her first day in Petrograd” (WTL 9). During the evenings, she will be found praying, “kneeling before her ikons” and praying “feverishly, trembling in the cold, making the sign of the cross with a hurried hand, bowing low. . .” (WTL 45). Lydia’s prayers give her life structure and challenge. She prays competitively, even as the communists systematically purge public and private worship from Russian culture. While Dreiser considers Esta’s faith purely pragmatic and superficial, Rand portrays Lydia’s faith as having psychological depth and as something that has personal and political import.
Lydia, like Esta, is also susceptible to male beauty, and each in her way, gives in to it. Dreiser goes out of his way to cheapen male beauty, as if it were a recessive gene, and he cheapens the women who desire it. Esta, as we have seen, is taken in an animal way, the way a beta male takes a young female outside the interest of the alpha. For Rand, male beauty was the ideal, and the love and admiration of women was a beautiful man’s due.
Highbrow, formal, and romantic Lydia’s first crushes were an opera singer and a saint: “At the age of thirteen, Lydia fell in love with a grand opera tenor. She kept his picture on her dresser, with a single red rose in a thin crystal glass beside it. At the age of fifteen, she fell in love with St. Francis of Assisi, who talked to the birds and helped the poor, and she dreamed of entering a convent” (WTL 37).
Leo Kovalensky is the only other man Lydia will ever love. Lydia first sees Leo when he is at the door waiting for Kira. At the sight of him, Lydia coughs “discreetly,” just enough to get his attention. While it seems tame, by Lydia’s standards, it is a moment of weakness. Leo is beautiful, and masculine, and with a look, he arouses in her “a warm, wistful smile.” The moment is personal and erotic. Then Lydia falls hard, willfully ignoring all the rules of propriety in order to speak to him: “Lydia gathered courage to disregard the lack of an introduction; but she did not know how to start and she gazed helplessly at the handsomest male ever to appear in their anteroom.” When she finally musters the presence of mind to speak to him, she blurts out, as if she were seeing a man for the first time, “Where did you come from?” (WTL 126). That’s it. That is all that happens between the two of them. Rand allows Lydia to be a woman, if only for a few minutes, and in so doing, Rand allows us to experience all that has been lost. There will never be another man for Lydia.
Because the Bolsheviks killed or imprisoned or exiled any other men to whom a woman such as Lydia could have responded, she remains single and chaste. This again is to Lydia’s credit. She refuses to sacrifice either her religion, or her dignity, or her romanticism to the new Bolshevism.
By the end of the novel Lydia, like everyone else, is broken. She is forced to shill for a Worker’s Club, playing the “Internationale” and Communist work songs for “a pound of bread a week and carfare and sometimes, money, what’s left after the contributions each month.” She is reduced to interpreting her dreams and having apocalyptic visions: “Truly, a prophetic vision, and the voice told me that salvation shall not be long in coming. It is the end of the world and the reign of the Anti-Christ. But Judgment Day is approaching. I know. It has been revealed to me.” (WTL 472).
Dreiser would have mocked this religiosity, but Rand treats it with pathos. In Lydia, Rand created a proper upper-middle-class woman with self-esteem and sincere faith in God. Lydia is a woman who would have made an admirable wife for an aristocrat. She would have enjoyed married life and the marriage bed. She would have managed the household in keeping with the standards of her social class. She would have devoted herself to her husband, to her family, and to God. Lydia is not a Randian hero, but she is not a waste of space either, an evolutionary afterthought—as Dreiser would have her. If she had lived in a free society, in Rand’s benevolent universe, instead of communist Russia, Lydia would have enjoyed a proper, circumscribed domesticity. Her life would have been important to her. She would not have been sacrificed.