Book Review: The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a book review here, but I’ve been re-reading Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead for a unit I’m teaching at school. The students had a choice between the two books, but I re-read all 1,700 + pages.

The Fountainhead is an accessible way to introduce yourself to Ayn Rand. Short of Anthem, which is the length of a short story, The Fountainhead uses understandable characters and events to introduce readers to the ideas and ideals of Ayn Rand.

Though politics have been trying to polarize people’s thoughts about Ayn Rand in recent years, the premise is simple: humankind has the potential to be great, and nothing should be allowed to stop an individual from becoming as great as he or she is able. This is applied, in The Fountainhead, to an individual named Howard Roark. Other characters misinterpret Roark’s self-confidence as arrogance, and whether they admit it to themselves or not, most are resentful of Roark’s greatness. What they do not realize (or care about) is the fact that allowing someone like Roark to be great actually ends up helping all of society, as we all benefit from the mind of a great thinker and producer.

In the beginning of the book, Roark learns he has been expelled from his university (where he was pursuing a degree in architecture) because he refused to conform his designs to the socially-accepted standards. In a discussion with the dean after his expulsion, he explains how classical Greek architecture, which is currently held as the highest standard to strive for, is flawed. Roark uses logic to justify his ideas, considering technology and materials available today that were not available in the past, and explaining how some of the more decorative items in classical architecture at one time served a purpose but today are a mindless copy that serve no function when using metal and other modern materials.

The dean does not like Roark’s justification; it makes him feel uncomfortable, and he decides Roark will either be a criminal or a great man—both ideas make him uncomfortable.

Roark’s life is an uphill battle, but he doesn’t let anything bother him. He works for a once-great-but-washed-up architect for a time, he tries working for various firms, he opens his own, and he deals with “second-handers” who try to ruin his success. Through all these struggles, Roark remains true to his vision: he has his idea of what architecture should be. He studies the site of each proposed building carefully, and he considers also the client’s purpose in requesting the building—what will it be used for? Considering these two elements, he creates a unique building each time, noting that no two buildings should ever be the same because of differences in the site and the intended purpose. A Roark building is always described in such a way that the reader will wish Roark could build a custom design for her, too!

Roark refuses to compromise his “morals,” or his vision of what he should be building. When he is unable to use his mind in the way it should be used, he turns to manual labor, where he meets Dominique Francon. The daughter of a sociable architect (who relies on social charm and connections more than his own talent), she is apathetic about life, taking a menial job and “living” with the goal of not caring about anything. She decides life is easier that way. She subconsciously recognizes the inherent flaws in the world, and the world’s desire to destroy greatness, and she hopes that nothing in her life “wakes her up” or makes her care about anything in that world. In a short but important scene, she pushes a statue out the window. Why the defenestration*? The statue was so great that she couldn’t bear the thought of someone looking at it who simply couldn’t appreciate its greatness. This scene is important in that it explains the way she treats Roark later on.

Dominique meets Roark while he is in his “manual labor” phase. She is immediately attracted to him, and that bothers her considerably. They go through a sometimes-disturbing relationship that is finally consummated in a sort-of-kind-of rape scene. Afterwards, when Dominique realizes Roark isn’t a manual laborer, but a talented architect, she continues her relationship with him. It’s an on-again-off-again relationship, but she is never able to fully commit. While she spends her nights with Roark, she spends her days trying to destroy his career in any way possible. It’s difficult to understand why, unless you remember what she did to the statue. Through most of the book, Dominique believes the world is not deserving of a Howard Roark, and she believes he is wasting his talent on those who cannot appreciate it.

Dominique is a dynamic character, and she undergoes many marriages, affairs, and divorces, in typical Rand style—writing during the 1930s, Rand disliked the double standard of requiring chaste women but praising men who knew how to get around. I won’t go into details because they will spoil too much of the plot, but Dominique has much to learn on her journey.

The “second-handers,” the “bad guys” in the book, are represented by two character: Peter Keating and Ellsworth Toohey. Keating, from the start, is established as a foil character for Roark. When Roark is expelled, Keating is graduating with the highest honor and is offered a scholarship to school in France and a position with a prestigious architectural firm. The important element here is that Peter has no actual talent. He’s very good at copying the designs of others, but he has gotten through college with the help of others, especially Roark, and can’t seem to come up with an original thought to save his life. His mother decides he will decline the scholarship in France; others decide he should not marry the woman he loves (Katie) in favor of a political marriage. He learns to climb his career ladder not with talent but with brown-nosing, manipulation, and even–murder. At the end of the book, this all catches up to him, and he realizes he has lived his life “selflessly,” allowing his entire self to be defined and taken over by others.

Toohey is pure evil. He manipulates others, including his own niece, Katie. While she had plans for college and marriage to Peter, Toohey convinces her that she should devote her life to selflessly helping others. When she tells him she has other plans, he calls her egotistical and blames our language for forcing us to think of silly things like our own happiness and aspirations. In the end, Katie ends up an empty shell with no love for Peter, herself (or anyone), or life at all. Toohey uses his connections to the media to manipulate the way people think. His goal is to praise mediocre work so that the public loses the ability to recognize greatness. Why? When mediocrity is worshipped, everyone becomes replaceable. There is no greatness, and man stops aspiring to achieve it. Toohey convinces men to grovel in front of him, to apologize for simply being human, and to let him decide the course of their lives. In such a way, he gains power and what passes for fulfillment in his life. But this kind of “fulfillment” cannot last.

Roark, needless to say, is Toohey’s biggest challenge. But because Roark embodies the qualities of Ayn Rand’s ideal hero, he thinks only of his own desires (to become a great architect) and uses reason to find a way to get there (create the best buildings possible so that clients will come to appreciate and desire his work). He does not care about public opinion, so all of Toohey’s efforts are put to waste on Roark.

THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn RandThere is much more to the plot than this, but at 700 pages, the book contains its own twists and turns that I do not wish to ruin here. The book is a great inspiration to me. Rand admits that her style of writing is Romantic Realism, meaning it’s a slightly exaggerated view of the world, but Roark (and eventually Dominique) model what we should strive for. In Rand’s eyes, the definition of living—actually living life as a human being and not a mindless brute—is to realize a personal goal and use reason to strive to achieve it. This way of life will create happiness, and that—in her mind—is the ultimate purpose of existence.

Growing up under Communists in Russia, Rand saw people that sought to destroy happiness and personal choice. When she came to American in the 1920s, she imagined ways that communist-minded people might try to ruin greatness and cause misery all in the name of control (disguised as that dangerous and miserable term, “the greater good”). Her musings are scarily accurate at times, portraying a media with no integrity, doing anything they are directed to sway public opinion without concern for the truth. She accurately envisioned how cronyism would lead to mediocrity and how the population in general would be too disinterested, ignorant, or passive to use brains to think that anything might be wrong. Whenever I re-read this book, I am reminded that the most helpful thing I can do to make the world a better place is to pursue my personal goal, achieve happiness, and spread a little greatness whenever I can.

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*defenestration–I couldn’t help but use this word. It might be the only justifiable time I can use a word that means to throw something out of a window. I just couldn’t help myself!