A book like The Fountainhead must be judged on two levels – first of course as a work of fiction but second on the philosophy it propounds, since in Rand’s case I think we can reasonably assume that the character traits she ascribes to her hero are indeed traits we are meant to find admirable.
The publishers blurb describes this book as “one of the greatest books of its time.” It goes on to describe the plot in terms that sound more like a clash of civilisations than a love story.
“You will reel, stunned, …at the meeting, and mating of these two most powerful creatures in modern America”
The reality is rather different. As a work of fiction ‘The Fountainhead’ is probably one of the worst books I have read in my life – and that includes the glorious excesses of Lionel Fanthorpe for Badger Books. It is so flatly written it needs a micrometer to find any variation; the characters are cardboard cut-outs who never change, remaining the same arrogant adolescents throughout. The plot scenario could have been interesting but in Rand’s hands is thrown away. The final pages, (an interminable closing statement in a preposterous trial) are almost unreadable and entirely pretentious. The true awfulness of the book is made even more obvious by comparing it to John Dos Passos’ trilogy ‘USA’, which covers much the same period and addresses many similar themes. The end product is not a fictional representation of Rand’s philosophy, but a badly written Mills and Boon.
Rand appears to have held her fiction in high regard. Bizarrely others appear to agree with her – look at some of the reviews on Amazon.
…it explores the intellectual frontiers of personal freedom and responsibility in many magnificent, powerful passages that are second to none. And it exposes in searing detail as few modern novels do the deepest flaws and dishonesties in collectivist/Leftist politics.
This book was recommended to me by a friend who described it as a life-altering work and the best book he had ever read. I greeted this with the cynicism that such emotive comments often deserve. Nevertheless, I bought the book and have bought it for many more friends since. No book (or other art form, for that matter) has influenced me, encouraged me, excited me and criticised me as much as Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead".
Thank you Ayn Rand. This book has inspired me beyond wordss.
However, high levels of self regard do not guarantee either quality or capability. If that were so, then Florence Foster Jenkins would be a great soprano.
The book concentrates on five characters, all of them pretty much two-dimensional.
The hero, Howard Roark is a modernist architect. He is also a rapist who from the opening of the book is incapable of relating to the people around him and who in his arrogance transforms that incapacity into a life principle.
Set against him is Peter Keating, another architect. Like Roark, Keating is totally self absorbed, but lacks Roark's arrogance. He is a dishonest man who on several occasions presents Roark’s work as his own, albeit with Roark’s consent, for financial advantage. Why Roark should agree to do this is never made clear. Keating is slightly less of a cardboard cut out than Roark although no more likable.
The love interest is Dominque Francon, a journalist working for Gail Wynand and daughter of another architect for whom Keating works. It is she whom Roark rapes although for some unexplained reason she returns to him time and again, seeking degradation at his hands. It must be said that despite the description of her in the blurb as one of America’s most powerful creatures she is also pretty wet.
Two other characters are important to the plot (such as it is).
Gail Wynard is a newspaper owner – in the Hearst mode. He is a crook, buying and selling politicians and destroying competitors by corrupt methods, but he is presented by Rand as another heroic figure.
Finally there is Ellsworth Toohey, another journalist working for Wynand. In ways not elaborated or explained, Toohey wields considerable power, which he chooses to use to undermine Wynand, finally engineering a destructive strike.
It is around this sorry bunch that the book revolves.
Rand wants us to regard Roark as the hero, because of his
refusal to compromise for his ‘art’. He is described as a modernist, although
Rand’s grasp of the reality of the modern movement in architecture is pretty
nebulous. Nevertheless, his modernist pretensions are supposedly sufficient in
themselves to make him one of the good guys. Any links to the past, any sense
of history, any recognition even that others have solved problems already, are
presented by Rand, through Roark, as weakness, even moral degradation.
The book is dishonest in its use of plot devices and manipulation to argue the case for Roark's/Rand's philospohy, rather than relying on the philosophy per se. Two examples will suffice:
- The activities of Toohey and his cohorts are presented not as those of corrupt people acting in self-interest. This would be impossible for then there would be no way to distinguish the arrogance and self-interest of Roark from that of Toohey. Instead Toohey is presented as the front man for collectivism, even though his political philosophy is clearly one with the likes of Hearst (or for that matter Wynand).
- Roark agrees to design a public housing project for Keating, on condition that his name is not attached to it. Clearly he cannot allow this since the whole idea of public housing is anathema to him, yet he does it nevertheless. He then destroys it, claiming that he was forced to contribute his work as a gift!
Rand does not concede that the impact of individual choice on others is in any way relevant. Any action is acceptable so long as it does not depend primarily on other men.
This is the voice of totalitarianism. Since only the individual making a choice can judge it, no man can argue that the choices of Hitler and Stalin are wrong so long as they get away with it. It doesn’t matter that they get away with it because so many people are ‘second-handers’, since it is the victim’s fault.
“A man thinks and works alone. A man cannot rob, exploit or rule – alone. Robbery, exploitation and ruling presuppose victims. They imply dependence. They are the province of the second-hander.”
Fundamentally this is a repellent book about a repellent philosophy. It has no redeeming merit as fiction. If you want to see individualist ideas presented in that format read Heinlein.