Fountainhead Essay - Howard Roark and Integrity
Who is Howard Roark?
Howard is the protagonist of Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead. He is an uncompromising architect whose rhetoric and artistic behavior is clearly inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. In the book, he serves as a champion for Ayn Rand's life philosophy based on selfishness which she dubbed Objectivism.
But Howard Roark has always been far more to me than a shallow spokesperson for an ideologue like Ayn Rand. Often, an artist tells a story and each audience member takes something different and special away. I imagine Rand would have had a hissy fit hearing a young man talk about the subjective importance of experiencing a piece of art, but to be truly objective we should recognize that people do have important subjective experiences.
Why I dislike Roark
Howard is a caricature. It's very hard to imagine somebody walking around embodying Rand's philosophy in real life.
Rand's writing clearly supports gender notions that I do not want to get behind. The heroine of The Fountainhead who is an object of attraction for all three male protagonists is literally treated like an object. Rand, without much beating around the bush, has Roark force himself on Dominique sexually, and she enjoys it. I am very cool with people realizing all the physical fun there can be in a relationship, but I think the novel clearly falls on the not-cool side of the line. Even though Dominique "wanted it" she thinks of it as "rape" later. Rape is never cool.
So there's a problem with the guy who never sacrifices his goals or takes no for an answer. Sometimes, no means no.
Furthermore,everything might be too clear cut in the Universe of The Fountainhead. For example, there is a point where Howard Roark designs a public housing unit and Peter Keating has it built but with a ton of terrible changes and alterations. When Roark finds out, he literally blows it up. Okay. So if Peter and Howard were the only people in the world that mattered, I can see that as being okay. But the building was already built and a lot more people than Peter and Howard were involved.
I suppose Rand thinks it's okay for Howard to blow up the building because it was his idea in the first place and it wouldn't exist without him. But he entered a foolish secret agreement with Peter. There are hundreds of people involved in construction of a building (and literally every citizen is involved when tax dollars are spent), but Roark thought his secret agreement with one man (Peter Keating) to leave the plans unchanged trumped all the work of those people. The fact is that a lot of people were invested in the building and it wasn't really his right to destroy it anymore.
Also, on a less important note, I felt like Roark was humorless. There are a few moments where he laughs in the novel, he plays a practical joke on the heroine at one point, and he has a friend who he gets along with, but these moments don't make him seem more human. I don't mean that you have to be funny or flawed to seem human. I just think he has a very dry view of the world and fails to appreciate a lot of the ridiculous things that happen to him.
Why I love Roark
Howard Roark has integrity. He does what he wants as he moves through a world full of obstacles. He never sells out or settles on a lesser goal. When he makes a mistake, he quickly finds a way to do penitence, not for some higher authority, but for his own peace of mind. The character illustrated something that I'd always felt might be true. Roark shows that integrity is a precious and fragile thing and it's an all-or-nothing game. You either have integrity or you don't have integrity. You can't be mostly integral and just compromise here and there or you slip and fall and you won't recognize yourself one day.
An orphan, he gets into a reputable architecture school on his own merits. He designs really cool buildings the likes of which nobody has ever seen and refuses to do his assignments so the school kicks him out. People in the book largely see this as a failure on Roark's part, but he doesn't care. He was learning all the important things at home and school was just a series of fluff classes about how to mix and match ancient styles of architecture. He goes out to try to make it in the Big Apple.
When he works for somebody else in New York, he makes his own buildings and they are great and pure and they have integrity. His boss has a few other architects, each with a distinct style, and he blends all their ideas on every project. This is a successful technique, but a client doesn't like the finished project one day. Well Roark bursts out and draws his original building all over the plans and the client is like "Wow!" so he gets to steal the client and start his own firm.
This works for a little bit but critics all pan the building and only people who are brave enough to have their own opinions end up liking him. Most everybody never hears about him because the media is mostly concerned with editorial and never really shows the world his work. Most people aren't interested in seeing his work anyway.
Howard has a hard life in which he regularly has the option to sell out and make unoriginal buildings for a lot of money like Peter Keating has done. At one point, rather than sell out his art, he goes to work in rock quarry to make ends meet. He'd rather be a foot soldier because he knows on that level of menial labor, nobody will force him to do something stupid. Everybody in the quarry knows how to cut rock and that is what he will do. He'd rather take a huge demotion to a stage where he can do things right than take a promotion to an echelon where people will force him to do things he doesn't believe in artistically.
Eventually, Howard succeeds, and that's another thing I love about him. The Fountainhead is like a very long parable about three men, the compromises they make, and the ends they achieve.
See for yourself
Three Men and Compromise
Howard never compromises. Peter always compromises. Gail compromises sometimes.
These three men end up acting as examples of Rand's views on integrity. Howard keeps his integrity the whole time and ends up living happily ever after. Peter realizes very late in life that the reason he is unhappy is that he has always lived to please others and never himself. There is a point where he is sitting all disheveled and old trying to paint something original for the first time in his life just because he feels like painting. But it is ugly and childish because he has no experience trying to do something original and decades of selling out have reduced him to a quivering excuse for an artist. It's really tragic.
Gail is a good guy who knows all the things Howard knows but chooses to manipulate the world sort of like Peter. He runs a newspaper conglomerate and he gives people what they want to read even if he knows that it's rubbish. One of his hobbies is finding men like Howard Roark who seem uncompromising and heroic. He'll offer them enormous salaries to write for his paper as long as they express a view he knows they find abhorrent. Like a snake in Eden, he convinces people to sell out for financial success. After meeting Howard, he tries to be good and print a paper that he can believe in. But he is too dependent on his empire which cannot exist unless he panders to the unthinking masses that he helped create.
The only one who is happy at the end of the book is Howard who seemed to have the hardest life. But the truth is that backing down is hard because it goes against our grain as individuals and artists. Sometimes, quashing your creativity is much harder than living in poverty. Sometimes, you'd rather be lonely than in a relationship with somebody who you don't love. Sometimes, you'd rather be working in a rock quarry for minimum wage than getting paid six figures to design a building you hate.
It's not JUST integrity
Maintaining integrity is sort of a question of the means by which you choose to handle life's problems. A person with integrity never backs down from their goals, but you never know whether those goals are admirable or not.
Ellsworth Toohey actively seeks out the destruction and harm of people who are brazen enough to fight for what they believe in instead of doing things for the benefit of their neighbors. In this way, he's actually sort of selfish too. He acts with passion and rage, but his intentions are to harm others and so he seems villainous as he spins a web of self-sacrificing rhetoric about his criminal actions.
He lives to promote people who have sold themselves out a thousand times over like Peter Keating. He elevates them like heroes and, in turn, glorifies his own actions through a thin veil of soft spoken rhetoric about self-sacrifice. He will do anything to destroy Howard Roark. Now, this kind of shallow comic book villain is driven and will stop at nothing, but that is not heroic.
So it's important to never back down from your goals, but you have to make sure your goals are worth fighting for. Roark seems like his goals are good because they're only about his own life (FOR MOST OF THE BOOK). He never tries to coerce people into acting like him. He instead leads by example. Gail Wynand tries to follow Roark's lead, and although he fails, it shows that Roark doesn't need to bully people into being heroes. Heroism has its own attractive qualities.