Book Review: The Fountainhead

I read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead after hearing references of altruism, capitalism, and objectivism from friends and former colleagues.


Plot Commentary

I thought Fountainhead would be more so about capitalism than anything else but it really isn’t. It’s more about individualism vs. collectivism. The setting is such that even though this book was written 50 years ago, the theme still translates well in 2009 and I can definitely relate to the storyline in the book. Ayn Rand does an excellent job of introducing the characters and the twists in the storyline, which seemingly always come in the form of a decrepit old man walking into the room.As a matter of plot lines, Fountainhead tells us the story of a struggle between one man’s individual conviction and the forces of collective public opinion. He creates and lives to create yet is impeded at every step of the way. He is impeded because of love, hate, fear, contempt, and because he is different from everyone else. And in the end, the struggle between his egotistic nature and public opinion does not come to resolute finality, but rather a foreshadowing of a continued struggle of all men and also of each man.

The character development in this book is impressive. The major characters are outlined below:

The protagonist, Howard Roark, is an architect and egotist who lives for one sole purpose, his work. He does not design for his clients, the money, or any other altruistic need. Roark also does not collaborate, cooperate, or compromise in regards to his work. At first, I did not know what to think of the character of Roark. The first few chapters show him to be rather dry and a man of few words. He seems hopefully stubborn and does not listen to reason. Now I see that he has no have a desire to placate to people or their reasoning. In fact, he has no outward desires at all. In the end, it becomes clear that his character does not allow him to bend his truth. True integrity personified. Yet if you or I saw him in our offices or on our streets, we’d probably despise him as well. The book is right even 50 years later. It would never be easy to be Howard Roark. But he does give us a wake up call on how to manage our own self image. It shouldn’t how others objectify you. What you create is the statement in and of itself.

Another character, Peter Keating, is an architect that starts out at the same time as Roark but is his anthisesis. Peter Keating is at the top of his class as a schoolmate of Roark. Yet he does not have the same idealistic passion about his craft as he does for the recognition that comes from his successes. The different in path between the two characters is that while Roark makes no attempt to appease the public or gain from it, Keating is immediately shown to be a man who lives and dies by the opinions and distinctions of others. Peter Keating takes what he can to benefit as much as can, so others will honor him with prestige. In this, Keating is the character that I and most others could identify with most in the beginning. Always wanting to prove himself, a little unsure, but motivated to achieve as much as possible whatever the means. Despite all this, Keating ends up the most broken of them all, a man without a sense of self.

Gail Wynand, captain of industry, a man who entered the world with nothing only to rise out of the streets of Hell’s Kitchen to become a media tycoon – easily the most interesting character in the book for me. He is the one whom I could never tell what was going to happen next. He enters the story as the arch nemesis of Roark and everything that is good. He controls public opinion and does so by providing the masses with scandal and superfluous BS designed to move them along in their collective insignificant lives. Everywhere he goes, he controls everything. His the epitome of capitalism and opulence, never second-guessed and feared by all… until he meets Roark’s idealism and saw the face of what he should have become. From then on, Wynand truly lives. It is interesting that before Roark and Dominique, and despite having the world at his fingertips, Wynand contemplates the thought of suicide no less than 3 times, views the end of life as fairly insignificant, yet cannot pull the trigger. It is only after he has truly lived in a soulful sense that he seems ready to go, in the last pages of the book.

Dominique Francon, the woman of the storyline is a unique study. After hearing all the comments from my former roommate on the author being a sexual deviant, I see now that Dominique is the embodiment of the sexual frustrations of Ayn Rand. This character, depicted as the most beautiful woman on earth, awes everyone around her. And even though she does, you can see that she is not affected by it. In fact, she may even hate society. She has no sexual urges until she gets raped by the man she wants most and feels more alive than ever. She lives for suffering. She lives to make those she cares about most suffer. Very crazy power/domination issues here.Dominique lives through her suffering. Did Ayn Rand live through her suffering as well?

The spinster of the storyline, Ellsworth Toohey, plays the role of master manipulator. Loved by the public and seemingly harmless, Toohey preaches the virtues of altruism and sacrifice. The public responds with adoration and view him as a man of virtue. He is the anthisesis of Howard Roark. He asks for nothing for himself and wins the approval of the masses with his subtle rhetoric. I almost thought Toohey to be a saint, much like the masses in the book. But Toohey turns out to be the most devious character of them all. A man who praises mediocrity simply to take away from true achievement in man. Why? Because individual achievers cannot be controlled. The average en mas can. His speech to a broken Keating tells all. The devil does not attack head on. “Never let them see you coming.” – Pacino in Devil’s Advocate

Other noteworthy characters: Alvah Scarlett, Guy Francon, Steven Mallory, Austin Heller, Peter’s mom, and all of the mediocrity which make up the voice of the masses.

Final commentary / review:

I like this book. It made me think of the dangers of agreeing with everyone else instead of making up my own mind. I can now think of the origins of housing projects and the dawn of the skyscrapers in NY (fiction or not). And I now know why Reinig said Ayn Rand was a sexual deviant. After reading this, she must be even worse than I imagine, like an “I take pleasure out of getting beat up and used sado-masochistic” type of way.

Spoilers – My personal favorite moments of Fountainhead:

  1. Dominique’s first interaction with Roark in the quarry. She notices him and he notices her. She is the first one to give in, half disgusted and driven absolutely wild.
  2. Roark taking Dominique for the first time and walks out without a word said. The beginning of a silence that delivers complete understanding between the two.
  3. Landry explaining Roark’s integrity to him as the reason to why he likes his work.
  4. Toohey’s use of the words antipodes, hypotenuse, opprobrium, – for no other reason than I don’t here those words commonly nowadays.
  5. Dominique tells Peter she had been with Roark and he basically says, “yeah right.” Keating runs from conflict often.
  6. Toohey explains his motives to a soulless Peter Keating and yells at his mom to get out.
  7. Gail’s reaction not being seen except for the ridges on his forehead. I do the same thing.
  8. Roark explaining the meaning of life – your work. That’s it.
  9. Gail & Roark’s conversation on the yacht on the nameless monster attacking the world.
  10. Wyland giving Roark the contract for the Wynand Building.

Did you know:

In the 1949 movie adaptation of Fountainhead, Ayn Rand would not allow a single word of her screenplay changed. Maybe she’s got some in common with Roark after all.


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One Comment on “Book Review: The Fountainhead”

  1. Reinig aka DNC Dubai/Abu Dhabi/Paris Says:

    Not to sound Elitist, but those of you who haven’t read this book are simply ignorant of the basis of the modern capitalist world. All of the communists who wish to disagree may do so elsewhere. To those who feel capitalism has failed us, feel free to sell all your earthly belongings and move into the woods. But, to those who believe that the American capitalist-democratic society represents the pinnacle of humanity (and I assure you its damn close!), pick the book up and learn the ideals and fundamentals of such a society. If you’re up for it, you can even pick up Atlas Shrugged and complete the philosophical journey started in Fountainhead.

    It’s your life, do what you will with it. But don’t ask me to live yours for you!

    Mike, if you come away with anything from the book it should be that your understanding of the world is yours alone. You must develop your own philosophy to deal with it. No other system will work, as no one else can see through your eyes. Build that philosophy in your daily life and sacrifice it for nobody.

    DNC Paris

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