What is the Ideal Man? Objectivism in Ayn Rand's Fountainhead
Objectivism has much to do with the basic premise that a man who seeks happiness by productive achievement becomes the most noble of all men. The man who demands more than the average man, a man who seeks more than the average man—because he can. This man, this elusive creature known conclusively as the ideal man, can be seen and illustrated in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.
In this, her first successful literary venture, Rand’s expansive philosophy comes to life, taking on the faces of tenacious characters like Howard Roark and Peter Keating while illuminating the unique despair behind the Machiavellian mastermind, Ellsworth Toohey.
With Rand, especially in a book as philosophic and revolutionary (even though it was rejected 12 times by publishers, but ironically, so was the work of many an esteemed author: hello, Stephen King) as The Fountainhead, everything needs to, and can, be explained as to having a wider significance. With that said, there are three quotes that stand above the rest as to their deeper, insightfully significant meanings within, not only the novel as a whole, but also resonating deeply within the philosophy of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy.
Now, to gain a more effective understanding of the three key quotes, it is better to first have an inkling of what Rand herself meant them to say. In the Introduction, she states that the motive behind her writing is to portray and define her ideal man. And, she stresses that her purpose was not to push Objectivism on her reader, because her “purpose, [her] first cause and prime mover is the portrayal of Howard Roark, or the heroes in Atlas Shrugged, as an end in himself” (Rand ix). Basically, her characters all serve a purpose and have a deeper meaning, themselves, within the work because they become the path (or the distraction to be overcome) of the ideal man on his journey to becoming the ideal man.
In this case, Roark is presented with certain, somewhat impossible conditions and various personalities to define him not only as a character, but as a man who has character. Rand states that “neither politics nor ethics nor philosophy is an end in itself, neither in life nor in literature. Only Man is an end in himself” (x). Roark, then, must find a way to function beyond the extreme conditions of his world and exceed as the ideal man, which, like John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, he achieves, knowing at the same time that he was meant to do so because of the man that he is.
Rand’s philosophy suggests that the ideal man not only becomes the ideal man, but he knows that he is meant to become that ideal man without doubt—which is what earns him the mantle without recounts.
Moreover, Rand herself defines the purpose of her work as “a confirmation of the spirit of youth, proclaiming man’s glory, showing how much is possible” (xiii) through the vehicle of characters like Roark. And that it is “those few that move the world and give life its meaning—[that she] always sought to address. The rest [are of no concern because] it is not [Rand] or The Fountainhead that they will betray: it is their own souls” (xiii). It is through this deep understanding and her highly symbolic characters and their interactions with one another that Rand’s Objectivist philosophy ultimately comes to life.
With that bit of exposition out of the way, the first quote in Rand’s work that can be seen as having a wider significance comes in Part IV Chapter 5 when Gail Wynand asks Roark if he has ever been in love. Roark responds that he still is, to which Wynand replies: “there’s a particular kind of people that I despise. Those who seek some sort of higher purpose or ‘universal goal,’ who don’t know what to live for, who moan that they must ‘find themselves’” (576-577). As this quote comes from the Part based on Howard Roark, it can be assumed that it has something to do with his character, which it ultimately does.
Wynand, having been in the world of Ellsworth Toohey for too long, is stunned by Roark’s ability to truly love his work and seeks to destroy him because Wynand cannot believe that a man like Roark can exist.
Wynand is confused that Roark can be the man that he is, in love with his work, and yet manage to remain unmolested by the drudgery of their society, so much that Wynand almost finds such a man shameful, if not entirely implausible. And, perhaps in an attempt to find out how Roark can literally be such a man, Wynand claims that he hates the man who tries to find joy in his life.
Moreover, Wynand’s quote provokes Roark to calmly tear a huge branch off a tree and explain that the meaning of life comes from what a person makes of what they are dealt in life. With a tree branch, for example, Roark can now make anything his mind can come up with, there are no limits to the meaning of life. It is this philosophy that Roark understands so well, that man’s purpose is to make what he can of life, and not worry about what he cannot, that makes him, in all conditions, the ideal man.
The second quote of importance within The Fountainhead comes in Part III Chapter 2 when Peter Keating screams at Dominique Francon: “I’d rather you’d express an opinion, God damn it, just once!” (440). After which, Dominique’s modest reply is to ask whose opinion he’d like to have her express.
This quotation actually serves as the turning point for Keating. He responds by comparing Dominique to “death” (441), saying that she literally has “no meaning” (441). As Rand’s philosophy deals heavily in, not religion—she was atheist, but the fate of a person’s soul based on what they make of it, Dominique becomes a very sad character indeed.
But she cannot be sympathized for, because, as Rand believes, a person is responsible for their own soul, and if it becomes meaningless, it is a result of their own actions, or inactions.
Now, this quote and ultimate realization of Keating comes in the Part about Gail Wynand, who Dominique actually left Keating for. Wynand is something of a soul stealer, keeping Dominique from living life on her own, and it is through this conversation that Keating realizes that he has also had a great deal to do with Dominique’s inner deadness as well. As the conversation progresses, Dominique calls him outright on this, declaring that Keating never wanted her to be real, but also forced her to never act like that was true.
Finally, the third quote that has a wider significance within the novel comes in Part II, Chapter 15 when Ellsworth Toohey asks that Roark tell him what he thinks of him and Roark responds, “but I don’t think of you” (401). In an interesting anecdote, Rand herself discusses this very quote in the Introduction (1982 version), citing that it came from a very real conversation with her muse, Frank O’Connor.
Now, Rand felt that O’Connor was being hard on her, writing for nothing more than table scraps as she was, but her use of the quote in regards to Roark’s feelings toward Toohey sparks an interesting understanding of what Roark could really be saying.
Here, Roark is actually hitting on the ideal that a man cannot be a man without real achievement, because, without achievement (meaning more than just a well-paid day job), either on a personal or professional level, a man is merely wasting his life until his days are over. Roark, while content to transform himself without flare and show, understood, deeply, the glory in personal achievement for the sake of happiness (and without real compensation) in his work as an architect.
And, to Rand, this was the most important, and ultimate sounding point, for her flourishing philosophy on Objectivism.
Overall, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead works on more than just an academic level in the promotion of her Objectivist philosophy. In all actuality, though the three quotes can all be related to Rand’s philosophy and show a deeper meaning besides simply being used by characters in a novel, this is a story about man understanding his deeper purpose in life.
For Rand, a man’s greatest duty is to himself, to understand and build himself on a higher level than simply hammering away on a daily basis. For Rand, a man can never be a real, ideal man, unless he understands the difference between a man who makes money because he can and the man who makes money because he loves his work.
And, for Rand, when a man understands his greater duty, and becomes the ideal man, he becomes the most noble being on the planet, as seen through the portrayal of Roark when contrasted with Machiavellian characters like Toohey.
Rand, Ayn. The Fountainhead. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1982.