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Ayn Rand and The Fountainhead
Ayn Rand’s work and philosophy have helped to create a generation of freethinkers and revolutionizing capitalism in the 1940s and ‘50s.
Published in 1943, at the height of the World War II, the social and economic changes in the United States and the growing popularity of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, The Fountainhead was an immediate success, selling millions of copies. The novel is Rand’s vision of the world, a microcosm of society, only with sharp, definitive traits that classified the types of people made her thoughts regarding objectivism easy to understand.
Though not without her critics, Rand asserts that objectivism and ‘rational self-interest’ is promotion of the magnitude of what man is capable of once he separates himself from the desire to please society (such as pursuing a goal only to achieve other ends than self-satisfaction, such as approval, glory or money, which results in the eventual annihilation of the self. Though written in the early 1940s, her book continues to be relevant (if not more so) in today’s society of mindless excess and instant ever-increasing desire for notoriety, money and status, where the means to an end (and an ambiguous ‘goals’) drive peoples ambitions, rather than the burning desire to create and “grasp and achieve the full reality of man’s stature” (Rand 5).
Summary of The Fountainhead
Howard Roark, a young independent architecture student is expelled from the prestigious Stanton Institute of Technology for refusing to adhere to his teacher’s demands. Meanwhile, Peter Keating, who is Roark’s antithesis, graduates as valedictorian; specifically for his ability to please the administrations classic methods.
The two men start two very different paths. Roark, maintaining a commitment to integrity and sovereign thought, finds a job with Henry Cameron who is a fellow free thinker disappointed by the world’s resistance to change. Keating on the other hand, continues with a life driven by the need to please others and gain the admiration of society. He goes to work for Guy Francon who owns one of the most prestigious architectural firms in New York. Francon exemplifies all that Rand is against: a man who built his success through manipulation, influence and the regurgitation of used up ideas. He teaches his protégé that climbing the social ladder, rather than originality and perseverance, is the key to success. However, his daughter, Dominique Francon, a woman disgusted by society’s tendency to follow only what is popular or comfortable, is nothing like her father. Beautiful and fiercely independent, she has catches the eye of Peter Keating who later proposes marriage to her. Since Keating is the equivalent, if not an extreme version of her father, Dominique refuses his offer and stating that she would only marry him if she wanted to punish herself.
Keating’s thirst for success and admiration is at a crucial climax: he must become Francon’s partner and win the contest for the Cosmo-Slotnick building. He achieves his goals by sacrificing the last vestiges of his honor. He gets rid of Francon’s current partner, a sickly Lucius Heyer, by giving him a stroke. The elder partner eventually dies, leaving Keating all his financial assets. He achieves the latter task by using Roark. Knowing his former schoolmate’s passion for buildings, he asks Roark to help him win the contest. The talented yet socially discounted architect agrees and Keating wins the contest, the partnership and becomes extremely wealthy.
Roark on the other hand, is struggles to find a place for himself after Cameron’s departure. He works for a series of firms, including Guy Francon’s, but finds that he cannot accept the changes to his work. He attempts to open his own office, but after letting go of a possibly financially rewarding project for the Manhattan Bank, he has no choice but to shut down. The dejected architect supports himself by doing labor work for a quarry, which is ironically, owned by Francon.
Dominique, on vacation, sees him working. Inexplicably drawn to him, they begin a passionate affair. However, Roger Einright finds Roark and recruits him to work on a project. Howard agrees, especially because Einright will allow him the freedom to create an original building. The Enright House opens as a huge success, earning Roark many commissions. However, Roark’s work also catches the eye of Ellsworth Toohey, who strives to control the architectural scene in Manhattan and abolish all those who threaten his reign—especially freethinkers like Roark. He hatches a plot to ruin the budding designer by convincing Stoddard to hire Howard to build a temple that he plans to lambaste as a symbol of anti-religion. The temple, assisted by Mallory’s sculpture of Dominique, captivates the public enough for Toohey to deem it as a “heretic” structure. Toohey’s plot is a success. The temple is destroyed and Roark once again begins his descent. Dominique is so devastated by the turn of events that she marries Keating in act of self-flagellation. They are only married for two years until she is introduced to Gail Wynand, a powerful publisher whose newspaper Toohey schemes to take over. She divorces Keating and marries Wynand because she believes that his ethics are even more questionable than that of her former husband’s. Their partnership is all part of Toohey’s plot, who views them both as a threat to his higher goals and believes that their union will distract them from noticing his underhanded dealings.
Keating’s career is at a standstill. He is unable to compete with the fresh group of recent architects. Desperate for a comeback, he asks Roark to sketch his latest project of low-income shelter called Cortland Houses. Roark is eager to take it on, but knows that no firm will approve his designs. He agrees to help his colleague on the condition that nothing in his work will be altered. Keating accepts and the development is underway. However, unbeknownst to Keating and Roark, Francon has some changes made to the edifice. Roark returns from a trip aghast and bombs the building with Dominique. Her cooperation indicated that she no longer cared about the public’s perception and he realized that they could finally be together. Roark is arrested and a trial date is set. Wynand begins a campaign in Roark’s defense through his newspaper. However, the public protests by refusing to read the publication, which forces Dominique’s husband to retract his statements. Toohey acts quickly and attempts his takeover of the journal. When Roark takes the stand during the trial, he asserts that he was the true creator of the Cortland Houses, exposing Keating as a fraud. Roark addresses the public regarding the rights of the first creator and their role in shaping culture and society. He states that its only price was to that it they build it exactly as he designed it, but since they reneged on the deal, he was left unpaid. The jury agrees and Roark is free. Roger Enright buys the Cortland Houses and hires Roark as the architect. Wynand realizes that he does not have to sacrifice his integrity to succeed and shuts down operation of his newspaper rather than let Toohey take over. He also hires Roark to build the Wynand Building, conceived as the tallest structure in the world. Finally, Roark and Dominique marry. After years of professional and personal struggles, Roark achieves success but on his own terms.