The Fountainhead

Use a teaching guide that includes character analysis, an overview of the novel, and study questions.
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Updated on: November 2, 2000
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Principal Characters

Howard Roark is the main character in The Fountainhead. He is a struggling young architect in the United States of the 1920s and 1930s. Roark is an early designer in the modern style. He is a brilliant, innovative genius, but his designs are often rejected by clients who want them to conform to traditional standards. Roark’s refusal to compromise causes him to lose many commissions. While Roark struggles, Peter Keating, his rival, rises to the top of the architectural profession. He is a mediocre architect, but gives the public exactly what it is used to. Borrowing from other architects, including Roark, Keating sells out any standards he has ever held in order to reach his goal of winning the approval of other people by any means. Roark’s main antagonist in the novel is Ellsworth Toohey, who is the architectural critic of influence in New York. Toohey, the arch villain in the novel, denounces Roark for his genius and his integrity, but Toohey’campaign to discredit Roark is not seen through by most people. Gail Wynand is Toohey’s employer. He is the talented publisher of the New York Banner, who uses his newspaper to pander to the lowest public taste and thereby gain popularity and power. Meeting Roark, whom he admires, he is forced into the most agonizing decision of his life: to continue to curry favor with the masses or live instead according to his own standards. Dominique Francon is the brilliant, passionate woman who loves Roark, but who is convinced that Roark’s genius has no chance in a corrupt world. In the novel, Roark is the catalyst for the resolution of her conflict.

Understanding Howard Roark

Howard Roark pursues his architectural goals with an unswerving dedication and morality that has made him an inspiration to readers. The action of the novel centers around the opposition to him from many people, all of whom are variations on the basic theme of the novel. There are three major sources of opposition to Roark: (1) the tradition-dominated elements of society (Peter Keating); (2) powerlusters who reject his ideas about life and hate the independence for which he stands (Ellsworth Toohey); and (3) the two figures who love him but have unresolved conflicts which cause them in different ways to oppose Roark (Wynand and Dominique).

At the opening of the novel, Roark is expelled from the prestigious Stanton Institute of Architecture. The scene between Roark and the Dean of the school establishes the conflict of tradition versus innovation. The Dean views Roark as a rebel who opposes all the rules of architecture. He claims that the rules of design come only from the great minds of the past. Roark disagrees, stating that “what can be done with one substance must never be done with another. No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike. No two buildings have the same purpose.... Every form has its own meaning. Every man creates his meaning and form and goal. Why is it so important—what others have done? Why does it become sacred by the mere fact of not being your own? Why is anyone and everyone right—so long as it’s not yourself?” (p. 24) This disagreement is crucial to an understanding of The Fountainhead, for the book's central conflict is between those individuals who are reality-centered and those who are centered instead on other people.

An illustration of this theme is the case of the Manhattan Bank Building. The board hires Roark to design the building and then ruins his plan by adding a Classic motif. As the chairman of the board explains: "In this way, though it's not traditional architecture of course, it will give the public the impression of what they're accustomed to." (p. 196) Roark tries to explain "why an honest building, like an honest man, had to be of one piece and one faith; what constituted the life source, the idea in any existing thing or creature, and why--if one smallest part committed treason to that idea--the thing or the creature was dead; and why the good, the high and the noble on earth was only that which kept its integrity." (p. 197) The chairman replies, "There's no answer to what you're saying. But unfortunately, in practical life, one can't always be so flawlessly consistent." (p. 197) Morality to Roark is practical. To the chairman, practicality requires one to compromise one's standards to be popular with others. Roark refuses to change his design, on moral grounds, and loses the job. It is this point that eloquently explains the personality of Peter Keating.

Understanding Peter Keating

Keating rises in his profession by two means: deception and manipulation. Keating is quite willing to be "practical" in order to get commissions. He aspires to be successful as an architect--but the crucial point is that he does not aspire to do good work in architecture. Keating is a mediocrity, but that doesn't matter to him, because he is able to convince his public that he is great. How he is perceived by others is Keating's fundamental concern. For instance, he becomes an architect not because he loves to build, but because it will gain him "social respectability." He works for Guy Francon, who teaches him how to impress clients by matching ties with socks and wines with foods. He gives up Catherine Halsey (whom he loves) for Dominique Francon (whom he fears) because Dominique's beauty and connections will impress people.

He is an example of a man who never develops values. He is what Ayn Rand calls a "second-hander": he surrenders his capacity for judgment to other people, and therefore, he focuses not on what he thinks, but on what others think. He designs by copying the masters of the past. Further, he gets Roark to help him whenever he needs it, takes all credit for the designs himself, and then repays Roark by publicly denouncing him. Keating is dependent, as a parasite is, on Roark, on the masters of the past, on the gullibility of the public. Keating rises because certain people support him; and as with all parasites, he falls when the host organisms withdraw their support. Toohey supports Keating for two reasons: (1) so that the leading architect in the country will be under his spiritual control; and (2) to help destroy Roark.

Understanding Ellsworth Toohey

Toohey is the antithesis of Howard Roark. He is the selfless altruist whose entire life revolves around other people; specifically, he wants to rule others by getting them to accept that the individual must sacrifice himself to the group. For example, as a vocational advisor at a New York college, he gains control of his young charges by making them renounce their guiding passions, subsequently filling their now-emptied souls with his own advice and guidance. He postures to the public as a saint of "humanitarian love"--while using this creed to help establish a Big Brother dictatorship, in which everyone selflessly obeys the State, with Toohey as the intellectual ruler behind the throne. With this end in mind, he schemes to gain control of the Wynand papers, worming his handpicked followers into key positions, preparing for the big showdown with Wynand.

Toohey is consistently evil. He is a parasite like Keating, but he is worse because he is not after success in some career, but after power and the destruction of others. He has a vested interest in the dependency of followers. An independent person neither needs him nor will listen to him. Therefore, Roark represents his greatest enemy. Roark cannot be ruled. This is the reason why Toohey cannot stand Roark or stop him, cannot even touch him at a fundamental level. For Toohey is master only of dependent personalities. All of Toohey's scheming is powerless against the independent judgment of the rational individual.

Understanding Gail Wynand

Wynand rises out of the New York slums to a position of wealth and power through hard work, determination and brilliance. A man of tremendous creative drive, he is frustrated and angered by the incompetence he encounters in his rise. Since every good idea of his receives the response "you don't run things around here," Wynand sets out to make certain that he does indeed run things. Believing that dominance over others is the only way that real values can be achieved in a world he regards as corrupt, he sets out to dominate public opinion through his newspaper chain--which is aimed at the lowest common denominator among men. He accepts the idea that to be successful he must sacrifice his ideas and play to the prejudices of his readers. All of his innovative talents are then devoted to making his scandal sheet, the Banner, the most influential newspaper in New York. Wynand, the man of potential independence, becomes Wynand the demagogue, pandering to the mob in return for their support.

All of Wynand's actual values and judgments are excluded from the content of his newspaper, finding expression only in his private art collection and in the selection of his wife, Dominique, and closest friend, Roark. Wynand's nature is such that he must admire and love Roark; but the Banner's nature is such that it must oppose and denounce Roark. Wynand mistakenly thinks he can use his power to support Roark, but he finds out otherwise. Wynand believes he must sacrifice his integrity to gain power. One chooses to be either a corrupt success or an honest failure; to Wynand there is no other alternative. This same assumption is shared by Dominique Francon in a different form. It brings her into desperate conflict with everything she loves, especially Roark.

Understanding Dominique Francon

Dominique is an impassioned idealist. She is capable of positive emotion only for the noble, the pure, the exalted. Unfortunately, Dominique regards the world, not as an exalted place where greatness will flourish, not even as an indifferent place where greatness will occasionally rise only to be ignored, but as a malignant place where the rare instances of greatness will be ruthlessly crushed. Hence, she throws down an air shaft a statue of a Greek god which she cherishes, and she joins with Toohey in an attempt to destroy the career of the man she loves. Both are acts of mercy killing--the attempt to kill quickly and painlessly that which has no place in a malignant world. Dominique is idealism combined with pessimism--love of the noble conjoined with the conviction that the noble has no chance in the world. She lives her life in fear that the things she loves are in danger of imminent destruction.

Like Wynand, she believes that one must choose between corrupt success and noble failure. Unlike Wynand, she repudiates such a success, opting instead to take no value from a corrupt world. In effect she withdraws from the world, her first-rate mind unused in any serious attempt at a successful career. After the agony of the Stoddard Temple trial, she removes herself from active participation in the ongoing struggle. Only with the Cortlandt dynamiting, years later, does Dominique once again take an active role in the conflict of the drama. Then she learns that Roark can make a success of himself on his terms, and that Keating, Toohey and Wynand must ultimately fail.

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