The Fountainhead tells the story of architect Howard Roark, the quintessential “ideal man” according to Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. Roark is ideal because he never settles for mediocrity, never compromises his artistic vision and never fears to break from tradition to forge his own path. These qualities bring difficulties to his career in architecture; his untraditional ideas and stoic nature are found unacceptable by architects and the general public alike. Roark’s work is mostly panned, although a handful of people recognize his genius. Most of the novel deals with how the man and his work are perceived by others, with the main focus on his refusal to concede to the ideas or desires of other people or groups.
Rand aids the reader in understanding Roark by giving him several foils, each of which is a reflection and/or corruption of the “ideal man,” and most of the novel’s action revolves around each foil’s connection to the protagonist. Roark’s architecture classmate, Peter Keating, is the polar opposite of Roark: he has no passion, he adheres to tradition and he seeks the respect and acknowledgement of others. The art critic and journalist Ellsworth M. Toohey, cognizant of Roark’s greatness (and perhaps his own lack of it), subtly manipulates the public through his articles and news connections to attempt to destroy Roark. Gail Wynand is the owner of the largest news organizations in the country. Like Roark, he is passionate and highly competent, but instead of creating great works, Wynand only strives to amass power and influence by pandering to the whims of a vile and fickle public. A quality that unites Roark’s foils is their connection to public opinion: Keating relies on the whims and judgments of others (having no opinions of his own), Toohey tells people what their opinions should be and Wynand gives the public the sleazy tabloid pulp they want instead of the real news that they need.
The novel opens with Roark being expelled from architecture school as Keating is being offered a coveted job at a prestigious architecture firm. Keating thrives in his new position at first, even winning awards for his designs (designs which he could not have completed without Roark’s secret aid). Meanwhile, Roark works at a lowly firm and is ridiculed by the public for his strange designs (though beloved by those living in and using his structures). As Roark’s fortunes begin to rise and Keating’s fortunes fall, Toohey becomes aware of Roark and, recognizing the architect’s individualistic spirit, plans his downfall. He convinces a businessman to hire Roark to design a temple, knowing the businessman will be appalled by Roark’s design. Toohey nudges the businessman further, creating a public outcry and a well-publicized civic trial.
Despite being forced to pay a settlement that bankrupts his business, Roark works on occasional commissions and eventually comes to the attention of Gail Wynand (who had been a great fan of Roark’s designs for many years without knowing the identity of the architect). They strike up a friendship and Wynand feels, for the first time, that he has found a kindred spirit. Roark helps Keating with yet another design, this time for a housing project, on the condition of anonymity and strict adherence to his blueprints. After a committee of architects alters his designs, Rourke blows up the housing project before it can be finished. Wynand is glad for the opportunity to use his power to help his friend and attempts to wield his influence as a newspaper mogul to sway public opinion in Roark’s favor. At this point, though, Toohey has managed to insinuate himself into many different levels of society, including Wynand’s main newspaper, various journals and several artistic circles and worker’s unions, revealing a level of influence no one suspected him of having. With public opinion heavily against him, Roark is brought to trial. He defends himself, making an impassioned speech about the necessity of ego and the glory of the individual, the creator–and the evil of second-handers, who create nothing except altruism, as a method to control the collective and impede the individual. The jury finds him not guilty.
In addition to presenting the realized ideal man, the novel is also an examination of those who fall short and those who are diametrically opposite. Dominique Francon appears to be presented as an example of female greatness; being Roark’s lover, there is an implication that she is an ideal woman. And yet, before meeting Roark, she lived the vapid lifestyle of a socialite: attending social functions, dressing up and generally being bored and critical of the world around her. But at least early in the story, she seems to be the cleverest person in the room; encountering Roark changes everything for Dominique. After being raped by Roark, and seemingly enjoying the experience, her independence and power are lost and she succumbs to typical female stereotypes: she falls hopelessly in love with Roark and subsumes her own desires into his. Then, the character takes a strange turn: Dominique, in perhaps her last insightful moment in the story, recognizes that the world will try to destroy Roark’s greatness–and aids those forces by doing everything in her power to sabotage his commissions! In her confounding sexual deviance, Dominique desires Roark to physically/sexually overpower her, but only allows herself this pleasure after she has thwarted one of his commissions. And Roark seems perfectly content to allow her to do this! With the damage she does to Roark’s works, she resembles the antagonistic Toohey much more than the ideal Roark.
Although Dominique is personally responsible for withholding some of Roark’s work from the world, she soon grows disenchanted with the world for not recognizing his greatness. She decides she wants no pleasure in a world like this and ends her trysts with Roark. Dominique’s perplexing, self-destructive behavior doesn’t end there; she seeks to make herself miserable by marrying someone who is the opposite of Roark, someone she despises: Peter Keating. When the opportunity arises to make herself more miserable by marrying someone even worse, she divorces Keating and marries the powerful and ruthless Gail Wynand. The mogul ends up being more similar to Roark than anyone could have guessed but it’s her intention to punish herself that makes Dominique’s actions so difficult to comprehend. She doesn’t seem very much like an ideal person, let alone Roark’s ideal mate.
Ellsworth M. Toohey, in a quite obvious and heavy-handed way, is Rand’s explanation for why altruism is evil. Toohey is a critic and lover of the arts, hero to and supporter of the common man, selfless, generous, religious and intelligent. He is a man known, respected and loved by the public. He preaches the suppression of the self in service to others and almost always presents himself in this way to others: he lives and dresses modestly, organizes meetings of artists and unions (never accepting pay for this work) and writes articles appealing to the traditional values of the public. But he is the villain of the story! As his aunt describes him, he is a maggot. He thrives on the despair of others and takes particular delight in crushing the spirits of those who have greatness in them. In his heart, Toohey is really a cynic. He doesn’t believe in anything he preaches, only that his machinations will give him power. He sees the edifices of mankind: government, religion, civilization–as structures of control. And he wants to be the one to pull the lever that makes the gears of the world turn. In essence, Toohey aims to be a secret ruler of men and has realized that the easiest men to control are those who have no individuality; those who have suppressed the self and have submitted to a form of societal control.
Though Rand’s method of denouncing altruism is unsubtle and perhaps even sophomoric, it is certainly entertaining and provocative, especially in the example of Toohey’s extended rant to Peter Keating about his vision of a subservient society. In one of the most memorable passages of the novel, Toohey describes the way to destroy greatness:
Don’t set out to raze all shrines–you’ll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity–and the shrines are razed.
In other words, men can’t be convinced that there aren’t great things in the world, but if they can be fooled into believing that the banal is the ideal, they will lose the ability to create or even recognize greatness. One can’t help but find an eerie analogue of this in today’s media-saturated society: reality stars trump truly talented actors in popularity and recognition, consumer goods are sold based on endorsements instead of quality manufacturing and books and movies are judged more on sales figures than critical reception. A similar observation can be made about the apathy and indifference of the general population concerning politics, poverty, hunger, war, etc. Being inundated with these concerns from so many sources, it’s no surprise that images of needless death and destruction don’t horrify people as much as they should. Perhaps Rand had it right, from a certain perspective…
On the whole, The Fountainhead isn’t particularly well-written (it reads like a romance novel in some places) and the characters and situations aren’t very realistic. However, this is a book of examples, of ideas in motion; each character is a representative for one of two ideas: a variant of the ideal spirit or a collectivist/second-hander. Rand’s Objectivist ideas about the greatness of the individual are, admittedly, seductive; everyone believes on some level that their integrity and vision should never be compromised. Roark is an attractive exemplar because his work is described as being genuinely better than the work of the architects who cling to outdated tradition. One flaw that materializes, however, is that the “ideal man,” even in the world of the novel, appears to be an infrequent occurrence. Henry Cameron, for example, is crushed, physically and spiritually, for clinging to his own ideas on architecture, as is Stephen Mallory (until Roark comes along and gives the young sculptor purpose). Gail Wynand misuses his ego to acquire power. Dominique Francon has masochistic tendencies. Only the seemingly inhuman Roark is able to make his ego work for him.
This brings up a larger question: if, in the context of a fictional novel, individuals cannot successfully maintain their integrity and do great things, what hope do people in the real world have? What about untalented people? How does a janitor or a cab driver or a waiter act with integrity? Taking Wynand as an example from the novel, it is not clear how he could have used his ideal nature to run his newspaper differently. Perhaps he could have published real news instead of tabloid fodder, but this most likely would have caused his newspaper to go bankrupt (in one passage, he describes an early experiment in trying to publish both kinds of news, with sales and profits favoring sleazy tabloid news). Sticking to his guns would have resulted in falling into obscurity like Cameron. Similarly, what could Dominique have done differently? She already spoke her mind in her art criticism and social interactions, yet she was miserable, inflicting new kinds of pain on herself to forget the troubles of the world. Cameron is perhaps the most interesting character to consider: he is just as stubbornly insistent on maintaining his integrity as Roark. His personality is similarly abrasive. In all the ways that count for Rand, Cameron is virtually identical to Roark, from talent to attitude to intelligence. However, Roark gains some semblance of public acceptance and personal fulfillment by the end of the novel while Cameron does not, and the novel does not explain why Roark succeeded and Cameron died dejected and bitter. If characters so similar to Roark cannot succeed in the same world he did, how much harder would it be for real people in our non-fictional world? These questions are not adequately addressed by Rand in The Fountainhead.
Perhaps it is asking too much to have a book work well as a piece of literature and a philosophical treatise that applies to the real world. It’s sometimes difficult to separate the Objectivist Philosophy from the content of the book, but Rand’s case for the individual as being the prime mover of progress and the collective being the destroyer of progress is too simplistic. Wasn’t it men coming together to form tribes in ancient times that allowed everyone to survive against savage beasts and hunt large game? Rand’s attacks on altruism fall apart when applied to any place that isn’t democratic: could Roark have achieved his greatness if he was born into a low caste in India? In a poor village in Uganda? In medieval England? Ancient Egypt? Living in a democracy provides initial conditions and opportunities to those living there and democracy is the product of a form of collectivism.
Despite its inconsistencies and simplicity, The Fountainhead makes for a thought-provoking read; I spent a few months thinking about it before putting my thoughts down in this review. It’s easy to see why so many young, impressionable teens latch onto this book, falling in love with the notions of breaking from tradition and walking your own path, as these ideas are so much a part of the teenage experience in the West. But it’s also pretty clear why most (but not all) twenty-somethings discard and dismiss this book; it takes a certain level of maturity and distance from puberty to understand that ego is not always great and altruism does not always entail a loss of self to the collective.
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