The Fountainhead
by Ayn Rand

Review by
William H. Stoddard

[an Aristotelian view]

Bobbs-Merrill: Indianapolis, 1943

754 pages October 2010


We assume here that you have read
The Fountainhead,
the powerful and challenging 1943 novel
by Ayn Rand.
There are major plot spoilers herein.



Reading a bestseller without presumptions

Ayn Rand became a well-known intellectual and political figure in the 1950s, and has remained so ever since. It's very difficult for a present-day reader to respond to her fiction without being influenced by knowledge of her ideas ... or, regrettably often, by widespread oversimplifications and distortions of her ideas. And, in particular, it's a temptation to read all of her novels as if they were rehearsals for Atlas Shrugged, in which the full system of her thought was first unveiled and was a key element in her plot. The theme of Atlas Shrugged could be summed up as "the ontological status of the law of identity" or, in the simpler phrasing offered by one of its characters, Francisco d'Anconia, "everything is something."

But when The Fountainhead was published, its readers had no prophetic vision of Atlas Shrugged, or of the philosophical ideas that it would express. They responded to it as a novel ... and it became a best-seller as a novel. A few readers might be aware of her previous novel, We the Living, though it had not been a major success, or of her poetic dystopia, Anthem; even fewer might have heard of her political speeches and pamphlets. For most, it stood on its own. And if, as Isabel Paterson wrote in her famous review, this was a "novel of ideas by an American woman," the ideas were mainly about ethics, rather than about reason and the nature of reality, as in Atlas Shrugged. Rand's focus was individual choices, and not the portrayal of a changing society.

The architect of one's self

Rand repeatedly stated that the goal of her writing was the portrayal of an ideal man ... by which she definitely meant vir [male human being] and not homo [human being]. The ideal man at the center of this novel is Howard Roark, an architect, and the driving force of its plot is his career. But there's more to it than that. Medieval alchemists are said to have taught that the quest for the Philosopher's Stone was not simply for a physical substance, the catalyst that could turn base metal into gold, but for spiritual transformation of the alchemist that could do the same in a human soul. In a fairly obvious symbolism, Roark is not simply the architect of buildings, but the architect of his own life. In his first substantial speech, Roark asks the Dean of the architectural school from which he is being expelled, "Every form has its own meaning. Every man creates his meaning and form and goal. Why is it so important — what others have done?"

Roark's first client, Austen Heller, comes on stage voicing the wish to live in a house whose design has integrity. From Roark, he gets not only a house, but a friend, with integrity. And throughout the novel, the question of integrity recurs. It could fairly be said that if rationality is the central question of Atlas Shrugged, integrity is the central question of The Fountainhead.

Rand described her theme as "individualism vs. collectivism, not in politics but in men's souls," and her characters as divided between "first-handers" and "second-handers." In a preface for the novel, written in 1968, she quoted Friedrich Nietzsche's lines from Beyond Good and Evil:

It is not the works, but the belief which is here decisive and determines the order of rank — to employ once more an old religious formula with a new and deeper meaning — it is some fundamental certainty which a noble soul has about itself, something which is not to be sought, is not to be found, and perhaps, also, is not to be lost. — The noble soul has reverence for itself.

The classical ideal of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

But a fuller understanding of Rand's theme can be found in her other great philosophical influence: Aristotle. In his Nicomachean Ethics, he writes about his concept of the "great-souled man":

Great honors accorded by persons of worth will afford him pleasure in a moderate degree: he will feel he is receiving only what belongs to him, or even less, for no honor can be adequate to the merits of perfect virtue, yet all the same he will deign to accept their honors, because they have no greater tribute to offer him. Honor rendered by common people and on trivial grounds he will utterly despise, for this is not what he merits. He will also despise dishonor, for no dishonor can justly attach to him. ... Hence great-souled men are thought to be haughty.

That is, the great-souled man has an inner certainty of his own worth, based on living by his own standards. And because of this, praise from other people ultimately isn't important to him. He'll accept it, gladly, if it's given by people he respects, and if it's founded on recognition and appreciation of his actual virtues, but not otherwise. This characterization, including the appearance of haughtiness, almost perfectly fits Rand's portrayal of Howard Roark; despite his contempt for the Parthenon, he almost perfectly embodies the pagan Greek attitude of pride that Aristotle celebrates. He is, as another character says of one of his buildings, "as independent as an insult."

But this implies a converse type: the man who lacks greatness of soul. What would such a man be like? Lacking inner certainty of his own worth, he would be far more dependent on praise from other people. Indeed, he would be willing to take whatever actions the people around him were willing to praise. And lacking inner confidence in his own judgment of other people, he would be willing to accept praise from any people and on any grounds, making it impossible for him to have integrity; he would be, to put it architecturally, all façade. In the final analysis, he would be perfectly willing to accept praise acquired by manipulating other people — by flattering them with pretended admiration, or if that didn't work, by threatening to withhold his own approval from them — and ultimately, he would have no choice but to resent the great-souled man, who could not be manipulated with either flattery or contempt, and would regard either as reason to despise him. This type is exactly what Rand describes in The Fountainhead as "the second-hander."

Ayn Rand's "great-souled man": comparisons & contrasts

In fact, Rand gives the reader three variations on this theme, contrasted in different ways with Roark, as is marked by the titles of the book's four parts:

  • Peter Keating
  • Ellsworth M. Toohey
  • Gail Wynand
  • Howard Roark

Peter Keating is the most straightforward of these. A fellow student of Roark's, he graduates with honors when Roark is expelled, and goes on to a successful career at a top firm, Francon and Heyer; in fact, he eventually marries Francon's daughter Dominique. In other words, he's outwardly doing the same thing Roark is doing: designing and building. But he has no inner core of certainty or strength. His buildings are imitations of classic designs, or of current trends; in fact, we eventually learn that, unlike Roark, he never wanted to be an architect in the first place — he aspired to be a painter, but was talked out of it by his ambitious mother. And his character, likewise, is a collection of false fronts. This appears, for example, in his conversation with Roark at a dinner party: Roark's new client asks if Roark plays badminton and is disappointed that he doesn't, and not much mollified by Roark's saying he would be too busy supervising the construction of the building, and Keating subsequently tells Roark that in Roark's place he would have assured the client that he loved badminton ... and learned to play superbly. Roark, Keating says confidently, would never think of this.

Gail Wynand is virtually the inverse of Keating, whom he holds in contempt. Wynand, a newspaper publisher, has the same inner certainty of his own merit that Roark has; but he has decided that inner confidence and self-sufficiency aren't enough for him. The only way to be independent of others, he thinks, is to rule them, and he consciously and deliberately sets out to do so, through a national chain of newspapers and through the wealth they bring him. Roark feels a sense of spiritual kinship with him, but reflects at the same time that the pursuit of power is one more way of being a second-hander. And conversely, Wynand cannot resist trying to master Roark, to break Roark to his will ... but is relieved when Roark defeats his attempt to do so.

The third major male character, Ellsworth Toohey, is Roark's complete antithesis. On one hand, like Wynand, he's out for power, not simply for work and a career. Both Wynand and Toohey are newspapermen, though of very different sorts, working not to build physical things but to communicate to other people, and this itself seems to be another symbol of the second-hander in Rand's writing. But unlike Wynand, and like Keating, Toohey has no inner core of self-sufficiency. Rather, he lives entirely for power, seeking out people who need him and will become dependent on him; if possible, he makes people dependent on him, as when, as a vocational counselor, he steers students away from work they love to work they have no spontaneous interest in, so that they end up "like machines without a self-starter, that had to be cranked up by an outside hand." His long-term goal is the creation of a society where no one can even think of being self-sufficient — and here Rand is pointing at something very like Nietzsche's idea of "the last man." In a strange way, Toohey has a kind of integrity: his inner selflessness and his outer pursuit of power are totally congruent with each other.

In one key scene, Roark and Toohey meet face to face. Toohey asks, "Mr. Roark, we're alone here. Why don't you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us." And Roark answers, "But I don't think of you." There Rand offers the perfect contrast between the man with greatness of soul and the man incapable of it.

An earlier passage contrasts Roark and Keating:

Keating felt naked. Davis, Stengel, Francon meant nothing here. People were his protection against people. Roark had no sense of people. Others gave Keating a sense of his own value. Roark gave him nothing.

Howard Roark himself fits Aristotle's description strikingly well, not only the basic concept (in Rand's terms, he's a "first-hander") but even the minor details. Rand emphasizes his look of arrogance, for example. And what Aristotle says of his great-souled man, that "he will not rejoice overmuch in prosperity, nor grieve overmuch at adversity," is borne out by Roark's calm through all the ups and downs of his career, from great new building projects to hard physical labor in a quarry. Aristotle's statement that "In troubles that cannot be avoided or trifling mishaps he will never cry out or ask for help, since to do so would imply that he took them to heart" is very close in sprit to Roark's statement that pain for him only goes down to a certain point and then stops. All of Aristotle's discussion of greatness of soul in Book 4 of the Nicomachean Ethics is worth reading in connection with Roark. It would be fair to say that part of the reason that Rand's portrayal of Roark had such an impact on many readers was that the Greek conception of human worth has largely been forgotten.

On the other hand, Aristotle's scheme of greatness of soul as the mean between undesirable extremes does not seem to have any place in Rand's characterization or ethics. This may not be a loss; the doctrine of the mean wasn't always a good fit to human character traits, and it seems especially awkward when applied to greatness of soul.

Aristotelian friendship in The Fountainhead

Another Aristotelian idea finds resonances throughout The Fountainhead: his theory of friendship. Aristotle distinguishes different grades of friendship, based on practical interests, on shared pleasures, and on ethical respect, the last of which is closely akin to what he describes as the regard of one great-souled man for another. This kind of friendship is one of Rand's themes, though one not often remarked by her critics.

The theme is first stated not long after Roark's meeting Austen Heller, his first client:

Within a week, Heller knew that he had found the best friend he would ever have; and he knew that the friendship came from Roark's fundamental indifference. In the deeper reality of Roark's existence there was no consciousness of Heller, no need for Heller, no appeal, no demand. Heller felt a line drawn, which he could not touch; beyond that line, Roark asked nothing of him and granted him nothing. But when Roark looked at him with approval, when Roark smiled, when Roark praised one of his articles, Heller felt the strangely clean joy of a sanction that was neither a bribe nor alms.

Rand later portrays Roark spending time with Stephen Mallory, a sculptor working on one of his buildings; Dominique Francon, the novel's love interest, acting as Mallory's model; and Mike Donnigan, a construction worker Roark first met while inspecting a building site:

They did not speak about their work. Mallory told outrageous stories and Dominique laughed like a child. They talked about nothing in particular, sentences that had meaning only in the sound of the voices, in the warm gaiety, in the ease of complete relaxation. They were simply four people who liked being there together.

But the most important friendship in the novel is that between Roark and Wynand, two men with the same inner certainty of their own worth, but different means of acting on it. The encounter between the two is the novel's central tragedy — and its central irony. Wynand, Rand shows the reader, has developed a habit of using his political power to force brilliant and conscientious men to work for him, doing jobs they hate and doing them badly. He tries to do the same to Roark, not long after they meet, and fails; Roark is indestructible. But Wynand is not, and his friendship with Roark ultimately destroys him, without any intent to do so on Roark's part. Rand's scenes involving the two men are often strikingly insightful in their portrayal of a man who does not know how to have friends acquiring the first actual friendship of his life — and losing it.

One of the scenes involving the two men, by the way, suggests an incident from the ancient world that exemplifies the spirit of independence Aristotle attribute to noble men:

"When you design a building, Howard, do you know exactly what the sun will do to it at any moment of the day from any angle? Do you control the sun?"

"Sure," said Roark without raising his head. "Unfortunately, I can't control it here. Move over, Gail. You're in my way.I like the sun on my back."

One of Plutarch's anecdotes about Alexander the Great describes how, after conquering Greece, he came to visit the philosopher Diogenes in Athens and asked what he could do for him. Diogenes answered, "Don't stand between me and the sun." If Rand was intentionally casting Roark as the indifferent philosopher unimpressed by the ruler of men, it's a neat humorous touch.

Plotting Dominique's sexuality

The other key plot element in The Fountainhead involves Dominique. Though Rand describes her as part of a group of friends in the scene cited above, that's only a minor aspect of her role. Primarily she's Roark's love interest — and Rand doesn't portray sexual love as a kind of friendship, but as something radically different.

In fact, Dominique is successively married to with three of the four primary male characters: Keating, then Wynand, then Roark. But all through the story, the reader is given to understand that Roark is her true love; what keeps them apart is that she isn't willing to let herself love anything, because she feels that whatever she loved would be her hostage to the world. Instead she tries to destroy Roark. The reader is given a striking image for her motivation in one of her first appearances:

[Dominique] "You know, I love statues of naked men. Don't look so silly. I said statues. I had one in particular. It was supposed to be Helios. I got it out of a museum in Europe. I had a terrible time getting it — it wasn't for sale, of course. ..."

[Alvah Scarret, newspaper editor for Wynand] "Where is it? I'd like to see something you like, for a change."

"It's broken."

"Broken? A museum piece? How did that happen?" ...

"I threw it down the air shaft. There's a concrete floor below."

"Are you totally crazy? Why?

"So that no one else would ever see it."

This passage sums up Dominique's motives toward Roark — but despite years of trying, she's unable to break Roark.

Dominique's sexuality is the key to her different attitudes toward her three husbands. With Keating, the man with no inner core of self, she's completely unresponsive sexually. She is not in fact the woman Keating really wants; he's in love with a different woman, Ellsworth Toohey's unassuming but innocent niece Catherine Halsey ... but pursuing and winning Dominique will bring him more prestige, and cement his bond with his employer and later partner, Guy Francon, her father, so when she offers to marry him, for reasons of his own, he accepts, but without real desire for her as a person or even real knowledge of her. And her lack of response mirrors his true feelings. On the other hand, with both Wynand and Roark, the inner core of self and of desire is present, and compels her response. She uses Wynand's outward desire for power, and the role that he plays as a public figure, to torment him; and in the end, she leaves him because that desire is more important to him than his inward integrity. Roark has no role to play, and she can only attack his real self — and fail to destroy it.

A complicated subtext of this series of relationships is that the transitions between them each involve a violation of her fidelity. She offers to sleep with Wynand in exchange for his hiring her husband Keating to design a building, though she holds Keating's work in contempt and doesn't care if he gets the job, purely as a form of self-torture. She sleeps with Roark to make a decisive break with Wynand after he saves his publishing empire at the price of denouncing Roark to the press. In each case, the act is technically a violation of chastity ... but is presented as not counting as one, ethically, because she's going to a man who has a better right to her.

Chastity is an issue in another way: Dominique's first sexual experience is with Roark, before she marries any of them, and it's a violent rape. This has attracted considerable debate; many readers find it disturbing that Rand appears to be romanticizing rape — though Rand herself described it as "rape with an engraved invitation." Dominique in fact does find it exciting that Roark's treatment of her is harsh and contemptuous, without a sign of tenderness. And this is a common theme in Rand's sex scenes, though nowhere else as explicit as in this encounter.

The shifting ground of chastity

Part of the difficulty lies in changes in cultural assumptions since the novel was written. The ethic of chastity was much stronger then than it is now. And that ethic, as embodied in the older laws of sexual conduct (largely repealed or revised in the 1970s and 1980s, and now nearly forgotten), does not treat men and women equally in sexual matters. On one hand, it distinguished between chaste and unchaste women; evidence of a woman's unchastity, of her having been sexually active with a partner she was not married to, could be introduced in court as evidence against her if she charged a man with rape, which was not the case for a virgin or a faithful wife. On the other hand, a wife could not charge her husband with rape; she was understood to have given her consent when she married him, and could not revoke it while the marriage lasted. In effect, a woman's sexual and reproductive capacities were understood as if they were a form of property, and not one that belonged to the woman herself. They might belong to one man, her husband, who had an absolute right to use them at his own discretion (as was dramatized, for example, in Gone with the Wind, a novel Rand admired). Or they might be common property, and then any man who wanted to could make use of her, if not without getting a bad reputation, with legal impunity. It's a lot like the distinction in Roman law between private land and public roads.

Given the penalties for unchastity, women were not eager to express sexual desire to men, even men they genuinely wanted; to do so made them "unchaste." The cultural logic of the time called for women to display themselves to men, especially men they were interested in ... but not to ask for sex. Ideally, the man was supposed to ask the woman to marry him, and the woman to want to be the man's possession, as his wife. In practice, these boundaries were often trespassed, and there was a whole series of fallback positions: if the woman became pregnant, her pregnancy was considered evidence of shameful unchastity, so the man was expected to "do the right thing" by marrying her and retroactively making her chaste. Failure to do so would damage his reputation, and might expose him to violence retribution.

Rand's own attitude toward this is complex. On one hand, she seems to find the tensions the ethic of chastity creates dramatically exciting. On the other, her heroines are not chaste women, and don't judge themselves for unchastity; they feel that they have a right to gratification and are proud of attaining it. But the form they desire for that gratification is characteristically for the man to "possess" them.

In effect, when Roark rapes Dominique, he is treating her as a possession: "The act of a master taking shameful, contemptuous possession of her was the kind of rapture she had wanted." But the status of a possession is that of a wife. In effect, Roark and Dominique are married from that night on — as is reflected at the novel's climax, the dynamiting of Cortlandt Homes, when Dominique thinks about the car she's driving to the site, "it was proper that it should look its best for its last ride. Like a woman on her first night. I never dressed for my first night — I had no first night — only something ripped off me and the taste of quarry dust in my teeth." She spends most of the rest of the novel fighting against her sense of belonging to Roark. But, at the same time, she freely chooses repeatedly to come to him; she can act as if her sexuality is his property, because in his eyes and hers, it is, and no one else's judgment matters to her. That is, Rand is using the outward and visible form of chastity to express sexual conduct that knows no law except the mutual desire of the people involved. The paradox is comparable to that of the final line of John Donne's "Holy Sonnet 14" — "Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me." In her time, this was a dramatic paradox; in ours, when the ethic of informed consent has largely replaced that of chastity, it's a code that is being forgotten. (In just the same way, in Atlas Shrugged when Rand had Dagny Taggart go on the radio and boast of having been Hank Rearden's mistress, it was an act of defiance; now, such revelations are made casually and shock no one. The moral climate has changed.)

Self, possession, and love

But this, too, fits into Ayn Rand's portrayal of Roark as a great-souled man, and of Wynand as a failed great-souled man. Roark tells Wynand that "everything to which you grant your love is yours" and that this is a corollary of "your ownership of your own ego." Roark's constant love for Dominique illustrates this: Rand portrays it as growing out of his selfhood. And, conversely, Wynand ultimately has to give up his love for Dominique, and for Roark, as a corollary of giving up his ownership of his own ego for the sake of preserving his power. This is Rand's final repudiation of what she understood to be the Nietzschean will to power; she thought that ruling others ultimately would cost the ruler his own self-sufficiency, and his own greatness of soul.

I referred to the meeting of Alexander and Diogenes. Wynand is a would-be Alexander, a conqueror. I suggested that Roark was a Diogenes. But, at a deeper level, Alexander and Diogenes represent the same error, in terms of Rand's ideas: Alexander wants to possess the world, and ultimately is possessed by it; Diogenes refuses to be possessed by the world, and thus cannot possess it. Neither grasps the option of possessing the world while remaining unpossessed. In Rand's story, Wynand exemplifies the first choice, and is ultimately lost; Dominique exemplifies the second, and is ultimately redeemed. In Wynand's case, this goes with betraying his own love for Roark; in Dominique's, with her returning to it. But in each case, the real betrayal, or the real loyalty, is of the self.


© 2010 William H. Stoddard

W. McElroy's essay
Looking Through a Paradigm Darkly
Was Dominque's rape in The Fountainhead
Why ... or why not?

W. H. Stoddard's essay
Consent versus Chastity in Sexual Ethics

Ayn Rand at Troynovant

More by William H. Stoddard

R. W. Franson's
Disclaimers and Dedications
enter as a small Prologue, disarmingly

L. H. Hunt's essay
Thus Spoke Howard Roark
The Transformation of Nietzschean Ideas
in The Fountainhead


Troynovant, or Renewing Troy:    New | Contents
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