Book Reviews Fountainhead

Published on May 15th, 2013 | by Michaela Buckley

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Thoughts on Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’

Written by Ayn Rand in 1943, this novel was the precursor to her philosophy of Objectivism which was expanded upon in her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, for which she is most famous.

The novel starts in 1922 and centres predominantly on Howard Roark, a stubborn, yet free-spirited young man who is expelled from an Architecture degree at Stanton college. Fellow student Peter Keating is the best at the college and follows the Architectural style of Neoclassicism as opposed to Roark’s self taught Modernism. The book follows these two hopefuls as they both take on and progress through their careers, each with a different personal philosophy toward their art.

Being set mostly during the middle years of the 1930’s, it spans the age of the depression in New York and also some of the second World War. Despite the vast ideas, there is not much address to these two important events as the book is very character focused, as such I will focus mostly on characters for this review.

The personalities and goals of the individual characters form the premise and their relationships with one another drive the plot, starting with Keating, who has an admiring and resentful attitude to Roark, who he perceives to be superior to him but cannot understand why. Roark is indifferent to the people of the world and their ideas and all of the subsequent characters are inexplicably tied to him, through their ideas or Architecture.

Architecture and the theme of Individualism are entwined and almost analagous. The idea of a city and a building’s role within it are shown to be the same with people and individual.
A person can be identified with their fellow man, but each and every one is also separate, capable of acting and thinking on their own and should be treated as such. The novel explores this in contrast with collectivism, vanguarded by the arguable antagonist that is Ellsworth Toohey.

Ellsworth Toohey is an Architecture critic by profession and a humanist by extension and design. He uses his Machiavellian wits to acquire people to join his socialistic ideals. He is an antagonist by virtue of being a negative force to Roark, more akin to a political rival for the souls of the people.
Unlike most opposing characters, he is very complex and, until the end, is rather relatable, if not arguably good. Basically most baddies are always clearly baddies and not at all sane or normal or even highly intelligent, they usually use false logic, lies and deceit to meander their way through stories and often come off quite cheesy as a result. But Toohey is not, he could just as well have been a good guy, the main character even.

A scene in the book depicts a party which the attendants wore the buildings they had designed. But this picture is the real deal.

A scene in the book depicts a party which the attendants wore the buildings they had designed. But this picture is the real deal.

It’s known that the book was never meant to have political precepts, but it’s hard not to wonder if Toohey was created as a riposte to Communism and thus, if Roark is supposed to epitomise America, as its dream and virtue in the rights of its individuals. If not what does Roark represent? The author? What the author wants to be? What we should be?

Another important character is Dominique Francon, a beautiful and stately woman who is the daughter of a renowned name in Architecture, it’s her boredom and tiredness with the people around her that brings her to Keating and Roark. She is a character of contention in the novel as a particular scene in which she is depicted as being raped caused a scandal upon publication.
Dominique has a unique and complex relationship with Roark, that of a perpetual struggle between minds, the rape scene merely shows the extension of their relationship into the realm of sexuality.

However the perception of women and sexuality is still a major part of the book, to me at least.
This is a book written by a woman and the first to feel like it wasn’t, it’s very masculine in the manner that it treats women, is Dominique objectified throughout the novel even by Roark? She lives her life for him, she doesn’t nor has ever followed any dream of her own, so isn’t her existence a betrayal to Roark’s and her ideals?
Dominique is a strange character that wields power, but is often powerless against some of her male counterparts, it’s this dynamic that makes her an interesting character, possibly the result  of women being made useless or perhaps as an antithesis to the useless and the powerful, representing a human, in all of their ugly glory.

The final subcharacter is introduced late into the book, Gail Wynand, the owner of a large enterprise of industries and businesses, the most notable of which is the Banner, a yellow newspaper and the heart of New York City.
Wynand is a self-made millionaire whose every step was made to enable him to have the power he wishes to wield.  As the embodiment of a capitalist he is the last person we would expect to even get along with Roark, let alone be the mirror of him that he is.
He represents one of the many possibilities of a mind like Roark’s but fails to become what he wanted to be. He is the example that no matter who you are or what you do, you can always be an individualist.

The 1949 film of the Fountainhead.

The 1949 film of the Fountainhead.

Unfortunately all the persuasive techniques used to sell us individuality is soon turned to nought as there is no example of working class citizens here, what is a normal office employee meant to make of this exactly? Throughout the book we are constantly looking at the rich and the middle ground, there’s hardly any mention of the poor and when they are, it’s in relation to a rich person’s former state.
Not everybody can create a huge business, there has to be some lackeys!

There’s not much more to fault though, the characters are perfectly created with each feeling disturbingly real and the ideas in the book do not distract from the narrative to such an extent for disagreements with them to matter.

A complex and thought-provoking novel, it blends a modern moral philosophy perfectly with elegant prose to forge a solid and lasting story to last this century and the next.
I am very much looking forward to reading Atlas Shrugged.

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