A Book Review: The Fountainhead (1943)


“To sell your soul is the easiest thing in the world. That’s what everybody does every hour of his life. If I asked you to keep your soul – would you understand why that’s much harder?”

Mention Ayn Rand in a group of people and the emotions will be wildly mixed.  There will be curiosity, appreciation and outrage. One could spend hours and thousands of words arguing for and against her philosophy on a grand scale.  Rand’s philosophy is by nature political, and her writing after The Fountainhead thoroughly expounded on her political philosophy culminating in the mammoth Atlas Shrugged.  If you are interested in that, watch this conversation.  If you are interested in economic theory derived from her philosophy, review the lectures of Milton Friedman.  For our purposes here, we will keep our frame of reference restricted to The Fountainhead.

The Fountainhead is about the individual, rationality and truth.   The stage is New York in the 1920’s, and the main actors are architects.  Rand creates characters that are in essence caricatures of the different types of people that she believes exist in the world. Rand introduces these characters with depth and without bias initially.  She then peels back the layers throughout the novel until you reach each characters truth.  One character’s quest is truth and integrity, another’s is society’s approval, and another is domination through power. 

Howard Roark is the protagonist, a young architect who has just been expelled from school.  He refused to adhere to the administrations preference for classical architecture.  The school, and later many of Roark’s employers and opponents believe that architecture has peaked, that no new style could possibly be introduced that would be greater than the arches and stylings of classic buildings.  Roark believes differently.  Thus is the central conflict of the novel.

Roark’s rival/friend is Peter Keating.  Keating is weak, but unlike most of Rand’s architypes of weakness, Keating is sympathetic in his weakness.  He sacrifices his integrity and happiness for popularity.  Keating graduates at the top of his class, waltzes into a job at a prestigious architecture firm, and easily removes rivals.  Yet he is riddled with emptiness and unhappiness. He resents and at the same time admires Roark for his indifference to the power of others. 

Rand’s vision of New York in the novel is negative, but hopeful. Ellsworth Toohey and Gail Wynand are the two pertinent power brokers.  Toohey and Wynand are an intellectual socialist and a newspaper owner respectively.  They might be my two favorite characters in the novel, not for their morality, but for their lively and descriptive nature.  Toohey seeks to achieve power through the homogenization of culture. Wynand has gained power by destroying any who stand in his way and holds the threat of destruction over the heads of anyone he meets.  The masses ebb and flow to the wills of these men for much of the novel.

The Fountainhead is a powerful statement about the individual.  The world is now, as it was then, a collection of people seeking control over others.  Individuality, especially exceptionalism, is not embraced, it is found to be threatening.  The first time I read it, I gave up. I was in college and the ideas were so counterintuitive to everything I was learning that it made me viscerally uncomfortable.  I put the book down for a decade.  When I decided to read it again, I aimed to understand the philosophy, regardless of what my reaction was to it.  The Fountainhead is a challenge to the mind and the self, and in a society that is growingly avoidant of such challenges, it is a book that has grown more important than ever.