The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand did not write novels to entertain the masses. Much like Sartre’s Nausea, and Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov which illustrated the philosophical concept of Existentialism, Rand used fiction to exemplify the philosophical concepts of Objectivism and Individualism.
The Fountainhead takes place in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. The theme: one man’s refusal to sell even a tiny piece of his soul to achieve money and recognition. Howard Roark is a gifted and visionary architect… a man determined to find success on his own terms. His refusal to conform to outdated architectural standards gets him expelled from college even though he has the highest grades. His refusal to design mediocre buildings and cooperate in group-project drawings gets him fired from the most prestigious architectural firm in New York City even though he is capable of satisfying the most demanding clients. In spite of that, his self respect, integrity, unwavering ambition, and perseverance propel him to notoriety and fame. Much like Hank Reardon of Rand’s opus Atlas Shrugged, Howard’s heroic characteristics are magnified, as are the negative characteristics of the evil men trying to use him, hold him back, and destroy him.
Ayn Rand juxtaposes Howard Roark with several unsavory characters.
Gail Wynand is just as competent as Howard Roark, but he’s on the wrong side of justice. He owns New York’s infamous vulgar news rag “The Banner”, which thrives on presenting murder, arson, rape, and corruption” and specializes in stories of “fallen women, society divorces, foundling asylums, red-light districts, and charity hospitals.” Wynand’s theory is “sex first” and “tears second.” He’s proud that his paper uses enormous headlines, glaring pictures, and over simplified text… leaving the scorned readers to receive the news without using the process of reason “like food shot through the rectum, requiring no digestion.” (page 424)
Peter Keating is a phony with just enough talent to get by. He’s ready and willing to sell his soul to the devil to achieve success… and does.
The most evil character is Ellsworth Toohey, a patron of the arts and famous for his critical editorials in “The Banner”. He preaches equality, charity, humility, and altruism but he suffers from megalomania and his only goal is to have dominance over people so he can destroy greatness and watch the human race sink to it’s lowest level. He advises his many followers (page 312):
- I’d rather be kind than right.
- Mercy is superior to justice.
- It’s good to suffer.
- Unselfishness, brotherhood, and equality.
- Let us aspire to no virtue which cannot be shared.
- Man’s highest act is to realize his own worthlessness and to beg forgiveness. (page 366)
And it wouldn’t be an Ayn Rand novel without a strong, independent, beautiful woman for all the men to fight over. That would be Dominique Francon. Dominique plays the devils advocate with her twisted logic of destroying things of virtue and beauty, even though she has a clear vision of where truth and righteousness lie.
As the drama of this glorious plot unfolds, Ayn Rand imparts her virtuous philosophy. Unlike Atlas Shrugged, which tells a clear cut story of good battling evil and injects several lengthy monologues to clarify Objectivism and Individualism, The Fountainhead has concise philosophical quotes peppered throughout the novel. My two favorite quotes:
“The person who loves everybody and feels at home everywhere is the true hater of mankind. He expects nothing of men, so no form of depravity can outrage him.” (page 461)
“Men have been taught that the highest virtue is not to achieve, but to give. Yet one cannot give that which has not been created. The need of the creator comes before the need of any possible beneficiary. Yet we are taught to admire the second-hander who dispenses gifts he has not produced above the man who made the gifts possible. We praise an act of charity. We shrug at an act of achievement.” (page 712)
People rarely tell you to be selfish, cherish your ego, pursue your own happiness, be productive, competitive and strive for greatness, maintain your self-respect, seek justice, think for yourself, question sacrifice, don’t turn the other cheek, and don’t accept mediocrity – set high standards for yourself and others, be a unique individual and treasure your privacy. The Fountainhead not only promotes this message, but shows the reader how in many cases being compassionate, kind, altruistic, and seeking a collective equality for all can degrade the individual and drag humanity to the lowest level of human existence.
Ayn Rand’s books clearly tend to deal in absolutes and extremes. In the introduction of the 1968 Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition of The Fountainhead, she explains there are essentially two types of people: “those that seek man’s highest potential and strive to actualize it, and those who regard man as helpless, depraved, and contemptible and are satisfied to exploit this notion. The majority of mankind spend their lives and psychological energy in the middle, swinging between the two, struggling not to allow the issue to be named”. (page xii) But Ayn Rand makes a serious attempt to give name to these issues, and through her novels describes a world where evil is no longer possible to ignore.
Rated 4.5 Stars.
All contents © 2012 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved.