Discovering ‘The Fountainhead’, by L

Mention Ayn Rand and there are three sorts of reaction:

  • Oh, Lord help us.
  • Oh I love her work!
  • Huh?

As a writer I can only hope to have such a literary and cultural impact that even if people haven’t read a single page of my work, they still have an opinion on me. Not to say that would be my preferred mode of critical acclaim – like politics, I’d prefer people read up on something before they form an opinion – but people talking is people talking.

Personally I fall into the second category, but not in the rabid-fan way. My father gave me The Fountainhead to read in late 2010; twenty-two, about to be twenty-three, by this time fairly tenured into my corporate-hosted job and trying to figure out how to squeeze in my creativity and entrepreneurial leanings, it had a rousing effect on my jaded outlook on my life. And that’s the key phrase, there: my life. Not society, not that ambiguous Life with a capital ‘L’ – my life and my attitudes towards it.

For this reason, I would argue The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand to be a candidate for college-level required reading (though I have heard of 9th-graders being exposed to it). Or, for those of us either out of college for good or on hiatus between educations, a good motivator to not lose sight of what we want and love.

On first glance, even if you have no preconceived notions of Rand’s work, The Fountainhead looks like a pretty hefty volume to tackle. At nearly seven hundred Bible-thin pages even in a small paperback edition, you may think of it as a door-wedge or coaster for your coffee mug. Take heart in that the next tome in the Rand oeuvre, Atlas Shrugged, could probably kill someone if dropped from two floors up, and I’m not going to recommend you launch into that just yet. Also take heart in that if you have aspirations of reading Atlas Shrugged for whatever reason, genuine or mock-intellectual, The Fountainhead is a good way to ease you in to Rand’s ideas, length and narrative style.

The back-cover blurb of the 1971 edition I was given to read, quoted from The New York Times, goes like this:

‘Twenty-nine years ago, The Fountainhead created a public furor and a world-wide interest in its brilliant author. It is the story of a gifted young architect, his violent battle against conventional standards, and his explosive love affair with a beautiful woman who struggled to defeat him.’

My synopsis would follow a similar format, adding that it is also the story of those witnessing the protagonist’s progress and how they form his other facets. The Fountainhead is a very character-driven piece in my opinion. One has only to look at how the novel’s parts are divided – each four parts given the name of a character – to suspect this. But unlike most novels of this nature that are then classed as ‘literary fiction’, ‘novels of ideas’, or with little plot, the characters are placed in a very simple situation and due to their very natures, create a plot seemingly of their own accord. The result is a book that I found I could live in; I was surprised by how unable I was to put it down, how much sleep I lost over it.

The best part? Even though this situation – architecture, finding yourself in a prominent firm, involvement with an heiress of said firm – may seem far removed from our own, the moral and personal dilemmas of its players are recognizable and applicable to any of us.

SPOILERS HEREAFTER……………………….

We should of course start with the protagonist, Howard Roark. The novel opens with Roark on the verge of expulsion from The Stanton Institute of Technology, where he is enrolled in Architecture (alongside Keating, with whom he also lives). Given the opportunity  to be saved, Roark chooses instead to leave, citing he has been taught all he needs to know and that it is not useful for what he wants to achieve. What follows at first appears to be the Fall due to arrogance, and we’re watching out of morbid curiosity as Roark takes hit after hit – most of the time due to his own refusal to go with convention. In the end, of course, Roark’s eccentricity and stubborn refusal to cooperate win out, but not before he nearly – or totally – destroys those around him. He is however, redeemed from the ruthless, indifferent man we feel he is, into something more human than we are.

I had a better time sympathizing with Roark earlier on than perhaps most people will. I recognized elements of myself in him, to be sure, but mostly because he reminded me of someone I know. By looking at Roark as something more of an element, a force, an embodiment of an idea, it was much easier to forgive some of his actions and understand his single-minded approach to his own success. Perhaps this was Rand’s intention. This was of course a risk on her part – by making your protagonist more of a walking philosophy rather than a relate-able human being, you risk alienating some readers – and as a result there is a hefty amount of time devoted to narratively defending him (in itself a risk by modern writing standards – too much of an author’s outside input runs the risk of disrupting/distracting the reader). But somehow it works. And why it works, I will discuss in due course.

Meanwhile, we also have Peter Keating, whose imminent rise to fame and fortune is the first we witness in the book. In this way, he at first appears to be Roark’s antithesis. While Roark has chosen expulsion, Keating has experienced the opposite and graduates as a star pupil with an entry-level job lined up after some schmoozing with Guy Francon, of Francon and Heyer. Although sacrificing his integrity and personal convictions for fame and fortune is failing enough in Rand’s eyes, Keating’s first and greatest misstep was that he used Roark as a means to cheat, quite literally, when his own talent was not up to par.

Keating was at first amiable, even lovable, and recognizably human in his wish to achieve success and shy away from misfortune. But after being presented with several opportunities to redeem himself – even if it was in something as simple as choosing the woman he loves over the woman with money – and refusing them, we can only see himself as the cause of his downfall, though we are inspired to pity at the end. What made this interesting rather than unpalatable was Keating’s involvement with Toohey, and the psychological manipulation that occurred. Perhaps it was the psychologist in me, but I believe this is also important to watch because of what this represents – with Keating as a normal, fallible  human being, and Toohey as social intelligence used by key members of society for ill. In short, witnessing how Toohey destroys Keating is a lesson in sociological self-defense.

Ellsworth Toohey I found fascinating and frightening. At first we think we’re looking at a well-respected gentleman, humble yet with a significant degree of social influence and sense of moral responsibility. But as the novel progresses, particularly with the strengthening visibility of Roark in Toohey’s circles and the latter’s involvement with Keating, we realize that we are actually looking at the equivalent of an evil hypnotist. It becomes clear that his apparent warmth and wit is a cover for a cold, calculated and – most dangerously – subtle hunt for influence and domination. This may sound melodramatic but in presentation, suddenly it becomes obvious how modern world domination could be achieved and its effects on ‘the mob’ of the public, something with its own particular variety of power that Toohey aims to harness.

Of course, it’s only until the later stages of the novel that Toohey’s true nature is confirmed to us. Though I had my suspicions I was happy to have this be an additional twist to deepen the intrigue. What struck a chord with me was that I could recognize the strategies and manipulations Toohey used, and his patient deployment of them over the years – I guess you could say it made me wary of not using those skills myself.

Gail Wynand is often noted as ‘the man who could have been’, with the same moral aspirations as Roark but without the strength to carry them out. This is ironic considering Wynand’s ruthless but fair rags-to-riches story, from street urchin to media mogul. The jewel in his crown are the Wynand Papers, who also employ Toohey and Dominique, and are unashamedly tabloid in parts, and aimed towards the masses at best. However, Wynand the man is introduced to us rather late in the novel, allowing a reputation of ruthlessness and cold to preceed him. As his past is revealed to us we gather more sympathy, verging on cheering for the underdog who made it, and perhaps can recognize in our own successes the emptiness he feels. This is the man who has everything, and if there’s something he doesn’t have, there is little to stop him getting it, and I found myself unable to resent him for this – considering his hard work over the course of his life, I believe him deserving, even if his day-today dealings with employees left a little to be desired. In my mind, Rand explained the nature of CEOs to me through Wynand.

Dominique’s effect on his life is the catalyst to his decline, beginning subtly, then gradually splitting him apart like ice in the crack of a rock. This is both before and during her time as his wife. Wynand is a man already thinking of his mortality and the true legacy he will leave behind, and Dominique unintentionally spells the beginning of the end. However, it is through this decline that he becomes more human to us and we recognize that even if we don’t achieve a moral or even personal pinnacle, that does not belittle what has gone before – there is validity in being a fallible human being. In this sense, Wynand’s character arc mirrors that of Keating’s, though is perhaps the more tragic because his status was legitimately earnt compared to Keating’s.

Dominique Francon is our heroine. It would be easy to view her as simply the love interest of Roark, Keating and Wynand, but that would belittle her. Unlike the four men mentioned above she has no chapter of her own, though she is just as important – her story is between the lines of the others, as catalysts fall between the boundaries of objects and forces. On first glance she appears to be your typical feminist ice queen, even down to her appearance. As she developed we warmed to each other, though I could not help but suspect this to be a Rand self-insertion / Mary-Sue. Whether that’s true or not is beside the point. Her convictions are those of Roark though in a more roughly-hewn form, which are only polished through her involvment with him – in other words, he gives her the eventual courage to follow her convictions. She has already been doing this, in a sense, by virtue of protection of her rich and powerful father, even as she fires rounds against his architecture empire in her lackadaisical employment as a columnist at the Wynand Papers. However, she has reached a point in life where she needs to either commit fully to these convictions, or back off.

The crux of this is perhaps the controversial rape scene between her and Roark. Blasted by many critics and schoolteachers having to explain it to high-schoolers, I for one can understand the sentiment behind it not as indulgment of a rape fantasy or even as a strike against feminism, but rather an attack/submission (if you will) of ideals. In other words, taking the rape at symbolic rather than literal value. I could not tell you if Rand succeeded in this, considering the controversy. Previously Dominique had been involved with Keating in a rather whimsical relationship, more to her amusement than her romance. Then, even when Roark is typified as her only true match, she consents to herself to love Wynand as the final doubt of whether she can follow Roark and his conviction. Only at the end is this resolved. Dominique is very far removed from most women, with the privilege of marrying for amusement, trying men on for size as she would a dress. However, she is like most women in the search for a ‘soulmate’, whether or not we all find ours. Thus, The Fountainhead can still stake a claim on a subplot of a dramatic romance.

Even just by sampling the above character synopses one can pick out certain themes. I’m a big fan of themes, even in real life. I know many people aren’t due to how overstuffed we can be from high school and college literature classes telling us to deconstruct every possible thing in a work of literature. I know I was very good at picking apart The Lord of the Flies but it certainly hindered my enjoyment of the book, and I was very burnt-out afterward. Nowadays, though, given the opportunity to deconstruct a work is something I enjoy doing though now I understand the importance of simply enjoying the book. I think both happened when I read The Fountainhead. I revelled in the ideas of integrity, artistic conviction, psychological prowess, but I equally enjoyed the plot.

However, I know many have disliked The Fountainhead because they feel as though this introduction to Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, has been shoved down their throat at every possible moment. I can understand why. The Fountainhead is not a modern novel – it would probably not do so well today if published at all, similar to The Lord of the Rings – and we must understand that most of its success is due to cult-status and having had time to ramp up. Even some modern novels that are claimed to be literary or ‘novels of ideas’, such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being are written slightly differently according to modern literary tastes and linguistic techniques. And, crucially, their main aim is to be a work of fiction with philosophical leanings, not a philosophical discourse with fictitious leanings. Whether Rand set out writing The Fountainhead to be a thin veil covering the overture to Objectivism is debateable – she herself claims that she wrote the story for the story and to follow Roark as ‘an end in himself’.

Nevertheless, Objectivism is the railtrack on which The Fountainhead runs, be it because Roark is its coincidental figurehead or not. The ‘objective’ part of Objectivism comes from how man reportedly obtains objective knowledge or reality through sensory perception. Simple, right? Hang on. It proposes: reality is independent of consciousness. Now, how does this become a proposed moral code? Objectivism maintains that the only purpose in one’s life should be the pursuit of one’s happiness – but this is not hedonism (it’s actually more similar to existentialism, which Rand concedes). If you are living your life according to Objectivism, you are pursuing your happiness through recognizing your rational self-interests, which are logically formed through gathering your objective view of reality, whether or not these go along with common consensus. Subsequently, art’s purpose is to embody these highest ideals in a way that can be easily comprehended. Though it may appear to be a very cerebral philosophy, its grounding is very much in rational comprehension of reality and what one must realisitically do in order to survive and succeed in it. It can be considered very un-romantic and selfish, but the thinking is that if everyone followed this, it would not necessarily mean we would all be against one another. It is about being noble, about choosing to truly live, and being held accountable to your own integrity.

Does this mean I’m an Objectivism convert? Nope. Do certain aspects of it appeal to me? Certainly, as do some in karmic theory and existentialism. Due to my upbringing and artistic nature, of course I like the idea of integrity and ploughing ahead alone. But I did not pick up the book for the philosophy and neither did I put it down for the philsophy, and to me this seems to be where many people have their problem. If you choose to continue reading the book, great, just don’t think that its sole purpose – or any book’s, for that matter – is to indoctrinate you. Of course there are some books out there that are exceptions, but by and large a work of fiction is not out to get you. If you really have a problem with it, stop reading. You are entitled to your opinion but don’t then form a judgement on something you cannot fully understand (because you have not fully read!).

This leads me to my final discussion. Reading as a writer, I cannot forget the work of writing itself. It is a slow-burner, taking its time, stretching its muscles, uninhibited and proud of its own rules. Personally, if I were writing The Fountainhead, I would not have written it the way it was written. But then, I was not born into the same life and times as Rand was.

As I’ve touched on previously, its nature is at odds with what most writers – and readers – are taught is ‘good’ literature. It even defies the ironically somewhat more forgiving concepts of ‘great’ literature, though as time goes on the grumbles weaken. When we think of ‘great’ literature we are instructed to think of Dickens, Austen, Finnigan’s Wake, Moby Dick, War and Peace, Orwell, Kafka, The Art of War, Tolkien, Ulysses, Meditations, Shakespeare. But as anyone who has tucked into these, it’s hard going. Sometimes we enjoy them, sometimes we abhor them but never admit it and finish the darn thing because it looks intelligent to say we’ve read them. Of course, I’m not bashing these in the slightest. But notice the difference if you change the term to ”good’ literature. We feel we are allowed to include Harry Potter, Stephen King, The Shadow of the Wind, Pratchett, Armitage, Ian Fleming, even Dan Brown depending on your definition of ‘good literature’. Those in the ‘great’ category tend to have their own linguistic rules outside of being archaic. Those in the ‘good’ category rarely deviate and the only grumbles are from those whose judgement is in favor of literary quality rather than profit.

It is of course too early to see whether any literature produced in the last thirty years will stand the test of time, and to me that is a crucial part of the move between ‘good’ and ‘great’. The Fountainhead has done this, Atlas Shrugged has done this. Ultimately, though, I live by the rule that life is too short to read a book you do not enjoy, or only want to read it because you feel you ‘should’. When you’re in high school, or studying for whatever reason, sure, you should. But guess what? Once you’re an adult, you can read whatever the hell you want to.

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2 Responses to “Discovering ‘The Fountainhead’, by L”

  1. actaggart Says:

    Wow. Great Review! This is one of my favorite books and I always like to see people writing about it. I guess I lean towards that rabid-fan category you mentioned. Oh well.

    • Why thank you! It’s definitely up there with my favs. And being a rabid fan is just fine, ha. I was worried this would be too long and I even had to stop myself short because there’s still so much to be said, even if a lot has probably been said already.

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