The Fountainhead

I’m always fascinated by books that radically divide people. I’d heard so much about The Fountainhead, mostly from other novels that use it as part of an iconic scene, in which a teenage protagonist reads it and is either a) utterly seduced or b) wholly repulsed. And when I looked online, I found either devoted fan clubs or vitriolic bloggers. What I couldn’t find anywhere was an account of what this book is about or why it should arouse such fierce emotions.

So let me give you one. The Fountainhead is a blockbuster with philosophical intent, a huge, plot-filled narrative focusing on the lives of two young architects in the inter-war period in America. It’s got all the usual ingredients of a society saga – deadly rivalry, crazy love affairs, overwhelming ambitions, lust, greed, despair – but the package comes wrapped up in a very particular existential theory. At its basis, the novel wants to reach into the reader’s mindset and give it a good yank in a different direction; what it asks us to reconsider is the emotionally fraught distinction between the concepts of selfishness and selflessness, and it dares to suggest that we have willfully misunderstood them.

The story pits its two main protagonists against one another from the start. Peter Keating is the prize-winning architecture student from Stanton College, a man whose eagerness to please is coupled with a wholescale acceptance of current, orthodox taste and a ferocious ambition to succeed. Howard Roark, however, has just been expelled; a brilliant draughtsman and mathematician who refuses to bend to the dictate that he worship the Renaissance with every building he creates. Roark detests fussy ornamentation; he’s a man with a vision of clean lines, an economy of space, simplicity of design. Of course, the architectural profession, stuck in a 400-year old rut, doesn’t want to know. But Roark is unusually designed himself. He has no need of other’s acceptance, or their praise, and so he is deaf to their censure. It’s not exactly determination that keeps him going, more a precocious recognition that what he does is what he is; it’s an inability to do anything other than honour the artistic vision he possesses, that he knows is right. This might make him sound attractive, but the early parts of the novel work to make him as unsympathetic as possible. Peter Keating may have a sickly dimension, a whiff of falsity about him that indicates slow, internal rot, but he’s recognizably human in a way that Roark is not.

So we have Peter, the classic hero now dangerously subject to internal collapse, and Howard, the anti-hero with a long trajectory towards acceptance ahead of him, and we have equally two villains. One is the architectural critic, Ellsworth Toohey, a man who recognizes that human beings aren’t comfortable unless an authority has told them what to think. Toohey is, I think, the real embodiment of the devil in this novel, and an intriguing commentary on the use and abuse of intelligence. Toohey wages a persistent smear campaign against Roark, who stands for everything he doesn’t want to see in the world. Toohey favours the ordinary, the almost-man, the talentless hacks, the quiet plagiarists. As this long novel unfolds, we watch him gradually drawing in and training a number of truly awful artists whom he launches to great success. Toohey uses his talents, not to individual greatness (although he has all the power he wants) but to prevent true greatness from ever emerging, in an astute recognition that admiring genius is something few people can do, the majority preferring art to be flawed and mediocre in a way that saves them from disquieting awe or awkward resentment. Rand wants to suggest that there’s a weakness in humanity, a profound desire to see others as imperfect because that’s what makes us feel better and keeps us weak and underachieving. The other quasi-villain of the novel is newspaper tycoon, Gail Wynand, who embraces a variation on this theme. Wynand has risen from the gutter to become the richest and the most powerful of all the characters in the novel, but he’s a deeply unhappy man. His background has shown him that there is no integrity in humanity, and that money rules. He gets his pleasure from breaking the always fragile carapace of nobility in the men he encounters, by offering them more money than they can refuse to go against their principles. His newspaper (for which Toohey writes) is called The Banner, and it’s a rather chilling representation of the tabloid press. ‘The public asked for crime, scandal and sentiment. Gail Wynand provided it. He gave people what they wanted, plus a justification for indulging the tastes of which they had been ashamed.’ If men are different in their virtues, Wynand argues, they are all alike in their vices, and catering to the vices of the majority is what has brought him unimaginable wealth.

Unlike Toohey, who is demonic through and through, Wynand has the possibility of redemption when he meets Roark, a man whose cast-iron integrity in this shameful world makes him a kind of saint. But there’s another character whose life is intertwined with them all and who represents the role of the martyr – and that’s Dominique Francon, the daughter of a once-great architect and a journalist on The Banner. Dominique is cold, hard and indifferent, enlivened only, it seems, by special forms of hatred. Dominique is the hardest to describe, because her portrait is the most confused and potentially misleading of all those Rand creates. Much like Wynand, Dominique has given up on the human race. People disgust her, with their neediness, their corruption, their slavish herd instinct, and so having given up, her only mode of self-defence is to abandon herself in any way she can to suffering. She’s the spirit of negativity, torturing herself as the only way to stay pure and clean. And like Wynand, Howard Roark represents her only shot at salvation and, simultaneously, a very special form of torture. If the Fountainhead is a particularly difficult book to read, it’s because the romance between Dominique and Howard is probably its fundamental driving force, and equally, the most twisted, unsympathetic element of its composition. The two recognize each other instantly, seem able to read each other’s minds, and start their relationship with an act of desired rape. Not so very long afterwards, Dominique marries Peter Keating in a gesture of self-destructive sacrifice made for Howard, whose work she cannot bear to see despised by a brainless public. Are you following so far? I wouldn’t blame you if you weren’t. Over the course of this long, long, book, the characters of both Dominique and Howard mellow, become more understandable, more sympathetic. But there’s a lot that doesn’t entirely make sense or indeed plausible narrative in their relationship, and, in a generally eloquent and stylish novel, it often sounds like Mills and Boon written in the throes of a bad trip.

I’m not surprised people give up on The Fountainhead because certainly in its first 400 pages or so, the characters are all so unpleasant, even if the machinations they embroil themselves in, and the battle between orthodox and modernist architecture, are really quite fascinating. But to keep the integrity Rand is advocating so strongly, she can’t logically do so in the form of charming, easily recognisable individuals.  The thrust of Rand’s philosophy is that we should abandon the concept of man as fundamentally in need of forgiveness for his inevitable imperfection; that compassion and pity keep us groveling in the mud where it’s warm and safe, when what we really need is the shock of cold and pain to push us on to find our better selves. She invites us to idolize instead a concept of mankind as formidable, brave, fearless and wise. Rather than the wishy-washy blindness of unconditional acceptance, we might make love of the human race conditional on talent, achievement and integrity. It’s a form of existentialism that says our call to heroism on this earth is to do and to be the very best we can, and not to be dishonest with ourselves and others in the accomplishment of this task. The central theme of the philosophy is exemplified in this exchange between Wynand and Roark:

‘ “There’s a particular kind of people I despise. Those who seek some sort of a higher purpose or ‘universal goal,’ who don’t know what to live for, who moan that they must ‘find themselves.’ You hear it all around us. That seems to be the official bromide of our century. Every book you open. Every drooling self-confession. It seems to be the noble thing to confess. I’d think it would be the most shameful one.”

“Look, Gail,” Roark got up, reached out, tore a thick branch off a tree, held it in both hands, one flat closed at each end; then, his wrists and knuckles tensed against the resistance, he bent the branch slowly into an arc. “Now I can make what I want of it: a bow, a spear, a cane, a railing. That’s the meaning of life.”

“Your strength?”

“Your work.”’

The idea of living for others is particularly torn apart in this novel, and rather compellingly portrayed as a disaster in the person of Peter Keating. Living for others, Rand argues, is a way of emptying out one’s precious sense of self, of giving up the responsibility to think independently. To live by a consistent principle of selflessness means abdicating one’s own moral compass and becoming a slave to nebulous, fickle, public opinion. I found this argument convincing in relation to creativity, certainly to the extent that the work itself has to be all that matters, not the promise of adulation or fame. The book seems chillingly prescient in the way it foresees the rise of the tabloids and reality television. But as ever with philosophical novels, their very attempts at purity end up by promoting an implausible vision of reality. It’s not really possible or desirable to imagine an entire society composed of people like Dominique Francon or Howard Roark. And in the end Roark’s perfect insight, his supernatural ability to read Dominique’s mind, his genius, remain distantly inhuman. Who says, after all, that Roark is indeed always right? And what kind of book would this have been if he had kept all his emotional and philosophical character but was only an averagely talented architect? There’s also a question mark in my mind over the way that Rand conflates intellectual choices with emotional ones. This is particularly marked in the character of Dominique, whose death wish seems excessive and often bizarre. I’ll willingly place to one side my own desires for how a woman ‘should’ behave in a novel, but I’m not quite sure that I’m ready to replace that with masochism as a philosophical stance. Would people who think about creativity differently necessarily love differently? I’m not convinced that it is a causal inevitability.

So, at the end of this long book and an equally long review, I would end up by cautiously saluting this novel. As an investigation into the unhealthy relationship between art and society, I think it succeeds quite brilliantly. As a portrait of a better concept of humanity, I find it intriguing but internally confused. It is the sort of book that I feel everyone ought to try, but given the amount of length pontificating the characters indulge in, I’ll forgive anyone who couldn’t quite stomach it. In the full knowledge that Rand would be very disappointed in my stance.

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19 thoughts on “The Fountainhead

  1. Would you say that the writing style is more similar to Anthem or Atlas Shrugged? I’m currently reading Atlas Shrugged and rather enjoying it, though I know several people who find the descriptions unnecessary and the monologues unending. Anthem, on the other hand, I simply could not get into due to what I can only describe as ugly writing. The text practically forced me away from the page. Then again, it has been some time since I last looked at Anthem, so perhaps my view would change if I picked it up again.

  2. lucidlunatic, I can’t be super helpful, not having read Anthem, but I would say that The Fountainhead is not quite on Atlas Shrugged level for length of monologue and description. It is getting there, but not quite there.

  3. I was fascinated to read your response to The Fountainhead. Your post is (and I knew it would be) insightful, but I especially enjoyed the view coming from a mature standpoint. I read it when I was 17 or 18. At the time I loved it because I was a writer in a family that didn’t support that or support individuality at all. So a book that idolized individuality was thrilling. I missed aspects of it that you draw out, and I can’t remember anything else of my own reaction at the time other than what most remains (vaguely) is a scene where Toohey (I think maybe it was the other villain) manipulates one of the male characters into feeling icky about holding hands with the girl. I went on to read a bunch of her other books and by the time I got to “We” I had an icky feeling. In that (much shorter) book she writes about a society in which there is no individuality. But 2 perfect people, a perfect man and woman, break through to find their “i”. And it ends as I recall it (probably wrongly) with them standing together in the sunset, stereotypically male and female, blonde, etc, and it just smacked so much of a bunch of things I didn’t care for (like racial superiority, strong man, passive female), that I gave up on Rand forever.

  4. I’ve never had any interest in reading Rand, mostly because people are so passionately for or against her point of view, and the fierceness of the emotion on both sides is just off-putting. But your review makes me slightly, but only slightly interested in the Fountainhead. It certainly sounds like there are interesting ideas in it.

  5. Hmmm…well, I shall try to read the book as a book and not consider the author’s rather ironclad will in that she’s right and others are…wrong, somehow, living falsely. It’s hard to choose a dictum and stick to it, live by it but so she did. I have read halfway through her book THE ART OF NON FICTION and find all kinds of ideas, bright spots and things to learn, in terms of writing. I thought of putting it in my garage sale, then kept it after all. It’s important to glean what one can from other writers. But Rand and I would like not have attended the same “salons.” Yet I respect her work and the amount of it.
    So, it was with some surprise and certainly interest that as I just read Tobias Wolfe’s OLD SCHOOL, there’s a good bit in there about Rand’s effect on the book’s main character. Just as you say, he fell in love with it. Then completely spurned it. But there is an entire chapter on Ayn Rand visiting our “hero’s” school and her conversation with the students, which, while entirely of fiction, was interesting. And I think often about Wolfe’s choice in having her included in the story. You might read that one, OLD SCHOOL. It’s not horribly long and it’s about stuff we like: writing, books, school writing turning some into actual writers. In fact, Wolfe is quite a writer and this one, quite interalized, I think.
    And thanks for this review on Fountainhead. There it sits, a fat part of my TBR and if I get up the nerve, I’ll tell you what I’m reading now, rather than Rand’s classic!

  6. Wow, you just brought this book ROARING back for me…I read it when I was nineteen – I think I had to write a paper about it. Someday if I ever come across that paper I’ll have to share part of it since I am sure it’s hilarious. Your review, though, is compassionate, thoughtful and challenging and it makes me want to reread Rand with the benefit of twelve years lived…

  7. Oh, I was hoping someone would mention Tobias Wolfe’s Old School! because I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never read Ayn Rand. I really enjoy Wolfe and that book in particular (passionate, competitive schoolboy writers? I’m there. It’s as though Wolfe decided that Holden Caulfield needed a leetle more literacy and a lot less swagger). But his depiction of Rand didn’t exactly shove me in her direction. Rand, and in particular Roark, sounded like a brief stage of adolescence that I should have had – sort of a hyper-extension of Heathcliff – and missed out on, never to reclaim.
    In other words, I’ve been put off a writer by a fictional portrayal of them in someone else’s work. This is not my first offence. Perhaps I’m too easily swayed…

  8. Litlove, I read this a long time ago – or tried to. This is one of those books that make my eyes glaze over when I even think about reading it (Ulysses is another). You are correct that this is one of those novels that “radically divides” people – it’s either love it or hate it. I have to vote for hate it – in fact I never wanted to read anything by Ayn Rand ever again – and never did.

  9. nicole – thank you! And thank you also for answering lucidlunatic’s question, which I couldn’t have done!

    lucidlunatic – I will confess that this is the first Rand book that I’ve read, and so couldn’t make any comparisons. But I can certainly discern elements of Rand’s style that are unlovely, beyond the lengthiness of her monologues. I think I would read her again, so I will have to try the novels you mention.

    Lilian – it was so interesting to read about your changing reactions. You are so right about that icky feeling. I read one blog post that charged Rand with being a neo-Nazi, which is a little over the top, but there are undeniably parts of her ubermensch type theory that are hard to swallow and that involve really unpleasant power play. Motherhood, for instance, never gets a look in, as the ability to care joyfully and illuminatingly for others is viewed as an impossibility.

    Teresa – I will admit to a liking for the controversial ones! :) I’m glad I read this; it had some wonderful passages and was almost continually interesting, even if occasionally repulsive.

    Kimbofo – oh thank you! I would love to know what you think if you do get around to it. I’ve seen so many books on your site lately that I’d like to read, I can’t begin to mention them all here!

    oh – I loved Old School and thought it was a wonderful book. I think the other novel that mentioned Rand was Curtis Sittenfield’s Prep (but I could be wrong). I know what you mean about the issue of ‘rightness’ in her work and it is worrying that she can celebrate an absolute. Although I guess she’s not the first or last to do so, and I do wonder myself whether my own unease about her stance is partially because she’s a woman. Would I think it okay for a man (and there are countless male philosophers who have done this) to endorse an existential stance, and be less disquieted by it than if a woman presumes to do so? Hmm, well. I still need to think more about that. In any case, it’s perfectly fine to take from her work what seems interesting and discard the rest.

    Courtney – I would love to know what you thought of it at 19! That’s the right age to read this book, it strikes me. At 19 I think I might have found it intense and romantic and inspiring. At 40, I could sit there thinking, nah, it would never happen. :)

    Fugitive – you’re perfectly correct about the hyper-extension of Heathcliff, which is a brilliant way of putting it. Old School is the better book of the two, arguably, which is to say better as in: more concise, more plausible, more moving. But it does have a lot less philosophy. So you pay your money and take your choice, as it were! I’m glad I read this (and it’s the only Rand I’ve read), but I might have baulked at it, had I fully assimilated the fact that it’s 725 pages…..

    Grad – lol! No, she’s not your cup of tea, I can quite see that!

  10. I’ve never really been drawn to read this book–the period is right(just what I like to read), but somehow all the philosophy just seemed insurmountable to me. I don’t always deal well in the abstract and Rand seems like an author with such strongly held beliefs I just didn’t think I would get on with it. And the length and tiny font size of the print might also have had something to do with it as well….I did get a kick out of Wolff’s portrayal of her, though maybe he did exaggerate a bit? Of course now that I’ve read your post I sort of feel like I don’t need to read the book.

  11. I’m interested in the strong reactions to Rand and her work. And I’m guessing that she had a strong personality, which is what both draws people to her and puts people off. I think I would probably also have a mixed reaction here. Admiration for her energy and individuality and irritation at the stubborn insistence on being right and the long philosophising.

  12. What a great review. Whenever someone mentions The Fountainhead I wonder if I should try another Ayn Rand book. I read Atlas shrugged a few years ago and it really was a slog. I thought the monologues tiring, the people unlikeable and the romantic relationships weird, but I found her ideas really interesting. The real difficulty is finding the time…

  13. Thanks for reading the book and for such a thorough review. You have spared me from having to read it myself now :) I read Anthem for a book group a number of years ago and found the story, the writing and the philosophy in it terrible. I was told I should suspend judgment and read The Fountainhead but I wasn’t too keen on that idea. So thanks for spaing me!

  14. I read the Fountainhead earlier this year and had a similar reaction. I found the book a compelling read, in the sense that I was surpised to find I couldn’t really put it down. However, I think that when you push Rand’s philosophical stance to certain extremes it begins to make me a little uncomfortable. The idea that an individual should decide on their function and then adhere without any compromise to that function can also provide quite disastrous/dangerous results. What if Howard Roark’s genius was a destructive one, not a constructive one – I’ve often wondered how Rand would reconcile that reality.

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  16. Thanks for sharing this, litlove; it was good to hear thoughts about The Fountainhead from a blogger, especially someone as well read as you. I read the book many years ago in the mad throes of objectivist fervor, in rapid succession with Atlas Shrugged, We The Living, Anthem, and many other essays by Rand.

    Over the years, my enthusiasm with Rand’s philosophy has tempered considerably, but I am always astonished by the power of her writing. More than We the Living, The Fountainhead was the book in which Rand began to expound her philosophy of life and you were very astute to notice the conflation of intellectual choices with emotional choices and the rationalization of said choices (I had missed this aspect completely until many years later). The part that I was most dissatisfied with, initially, was the Randian ideal of womanhood: In reading about Dagny in Atlas and (to a lesser extent) Dominique in The Fountainhead, I realized that Ayn Rand “worshipped” the ideal man (Roark/Galt/Rearden/d’Anconia) in a way that she could never worship an ideal woman. Later on, of course, this dissatisfaction was exacerbated to the extreme – for I felt compelled to ask whether the notion of an “ideal” human being ought to be an “existence” question (What is an ideal man and does he exist? If there are many kinds of ideal men, why is one better than the other, and is the question relevant at all?) or a “uniqueness” claim (An ideal man exists and he has “x” properties.). Rand is almost surely in the latter camp, while my experiences have put me in the former.

    Nevertheless, I would heartily recommend Atlas Shrugged both as a compelling story, and as a study of all that is right and wrong about Rand’s objectivism. That, and the fact that her many of her heroes are engineers means that I shall always have a soft corner for her :-) .

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