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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The Climax of the Novel

The climax of The Fountainhead is Roark's dynamiting of the government-sponsored Cortlandt Homes housing project, which Roark designed secretly at Keating's request--on condition that his design be faithfully followed. But Keating allows government bureaucrats to deface and altered the design. The climax resolves all the major conflicts. For Roark, the dynamiting is his assertion of the creator's right to that which he creates versus the second-handers who wish to control his work--and ultimately his life. (Note that Roark had no recourse to the courts because he is not permitted to sue the government, and he dynamites Cortlandt to set up a test case, not as an act of anarchy.) For Keating, the Cortlandt affair means the final exposure and collapse of his second-hand method of living. For Dominique, her choice to help Roark with the dynamiting means she has finally understood that evil is impotent and cannot fundamentally hurt the good. For Wynand, his failed attempt to use the Banner to promote, for once, his own values, to defend Roark, brings him face to face with the inescapable contradiction that one cannot achieve noble ends by corrupt means. For Toohey, the trial is a test of whether he has succeeded in his lifelong quest to inculcate collectivism. Roark's acquittal and Wynand's closing of the Banner leave Toohey helpless. Toohey cannot shackle the creators such as Roark, if they are willing to fight openly and proudly for their rights.

Philosophical Themes in Roark's Speech

Ayn Rand wrote in her letter "To the Readers of The Fountainhead":
"The Fountainhead started in my mind as a definition of a new code of ethics--the morality of individualism. The idea of individualism is not new, but nobody had defined a consistent and specific way to live by it in practice. It is in their statements on morality that the individualist thinkers have floundered and lost their case. They had nothing better to offer than vulgar selfishness which consisted of sacrificing others to self. When I realized that that was only another form of collectivism--of living through others by ruling them--I had the key to The Fountainhead and to the character of Howard Roark."

In analyzing The Fountainhead it is important to see the ways in which this conflict between independent and dependent methods of cognition are manifested, both in the novel and in real life. There are many.

The first involves the false alternative between conformity and non-conformity. The conformist is the person who lives life in accordance with the judgment and standards of others. This person's attitude is "if you believe it, then I believe it," and his life is lived in order to satisfy the expectations of others. At root, this is a cognitive issue, for the essence of conformity is the subordination of reason to faith; of surrendering one's own thinking, and living via unquestioning obedience to the beliefs of others. The Dean is one example of conformity, but Peter Keating is the best example. Real life provides a plethora of conformists: the religious believer who embraces whatever religion in which his parents raised him, the child who allows his family to pressure him into or out of his own career choice or romantic involvement, the teenager who sacrifices his own beliefs to win acceptance from his peers, the businessman or politician who compromises his ideals and panders to the public; all of these, and countless others, are variations on the theme of conformity.

The conventional view is that the opposite of the conformist is the non-conformist, when, in reality, the non-conformist also is ruled by the judgment of other people. The non-conformist lives in reaction against the judgment and standards of others. His attitude is: "if you believe it, then I'm against it." At root, the non-conformist surrenders his mind to others, for by living in blind rebellion against their values, his life also is dominated by them. The drug-addicted hippies of the 1960s, who lived their lives in rebellion against the values of their middle-class parents, are a good example. The conformist is eager to discover the conclusions of others so he might follow them; the non-conformist is similarly eager to discover the conclusions of others so as to rebel. But both are primarily focused on the beliefs of others; neither is concerned with formulating his own conclusions, with thinking independently.

The independent thinker is a third category, separate from the others. The Howard Roark type is neither a conformist nor a non-conformist but an individualist, one who lives on his own terms. The source of the difference is cognitive: the individualist forms his own standards and his own values by means of relying on his own judgment. He is a thinker, neither a follower nor a rebel. American history abounds with innovators who are perfect examples: Fulton, Edison, the Wright Brothers, etc.

The conformist and non-conformist are both psychological dependents, dominated by others, unwilling to stand alone. Only the individualist is psychologically independent, cognitively free of others, standing alone, forming his own conclusions by logical assessment of the facts. Truth, the individualist recognizes, is not a matter of the relationship between an idea and the number of its adherents, but of the relationship between an idea and the facts of reality. Truth is objective, not collective or inter-subjective. An individualist's commitment to the facts, not to the beliefs of others, is the source of his ability to stand alone.

It is this ability to stand alone that lies at the heart of a second manifestation of the novel's theme. Rich in layers of philosophical insight, at one level The Fountainhead shows the struggle of a great innovator against the entrenched beliefs of a conservative society. Roark and his mentor, Henry Cameron, are early designers of the modernist style, fighting against an uncritical adherence to traditional dogmas in the field of architecture. Historically, many who had never seen buildings greater than two stories in height rejected the new skyscraper in fear; just as many rejected the steamboat, the airplane, the electric light; just as many today reject nuclear power. The implicit thinking of this traditionalist mentality is: "Other people have never done it this way; therefore it's no good." Observe the slavish obedience to the beliefs of others that this way of "thinking" contains.

But the innovator is an independent person. He sees with his own eyes and thinks with his own brain. Because of this, he discovers new facts, invents new methods, explores new lands. If Columbus had adhered to society's beliefs, he would have stayed home. Similarly Edison, Fulton, Marie Curie, Frank Lloyd Wright, would never have formulated new truths nor persevered in the decades-long struggle to demonstrate them had they been followers of public taste. The innovator is a person of fiercely independent judgment; because of this, he fights a terrible struggle against those who cling to established standards; because of this, he carries mankind out of the caves into modern civilization.

At this level, The Fountainhead is an impassioned defense of the free thinker against the stifling restrictions of conventional norms. It is this struggle of the innovator, and his many successes, that explains the meaning of the book's title: independent judgment as The Fountainhead or original source of all human progress and prosperity. "The great creators--the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors--stood alone against the men of their time," says Roark in his climactic courtroom speech. "Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid. But they won."

The key statement to the whole conception of The Fountainhead is in Roark's speech: "I wished to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others. It had to be said. The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing." All the rest of the book is a demonstration of how the principles of egoism and altruism work out in people and in the events of their lives.

Howard Roark is an egoist--an exponent of rational self-interest. He thinks for himself, using his reasoning mind. Reason is that attribute that distinguishes man from the animals and the proper egoist from the altruist. Ellsworth Toohey is an advocate of altruism, "the doctrine which demands that man live for others and place others above self." (p. 680)

The egoist creates in order to survive and to flourish. "The creator's concern is the conquest of nature. The parasite's concern is the conquest of men." (p. 679) Ayn Rand chose architecture as the career of her hero because, she says, "a builder is one of the most eloquent representatives of man's creative faculty." The antithesis of a builder is a destroyer, a dependent, a second-hander. Altruism demands unthinking dependency and obedience to the norms established by others or by the ruler. Men who live by it must become parasites. Thus the historical struggle between the individual and the collective. Whether the collective is the church, the state, the race or the proletariat, the clash is always between the "common good" which holds that it has a right to each man's life and productive achievement versus the individual who holds that he has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Howard Roark states at the trial that "the only good which men can do to one another and the only statement of their proper relationship is--Hands off! Now observe the results of a society built on the principle of individualism. This, our country.... It was based on a man's right to the pursuit of happiness. His own happiness. Not anyone else's. A private, personal, selfish motive." (p. 683) The antithesis of our free society is one based on collectivism, such as Communist Russia or Nazi Germany. Roark says, "Now, in our age, collectivism, the rule of the second-hander and second-rater, the ancient monster, has broken loose and is running amuck.... It has reached a scale of horror without precedent. It has poisoned every mind. It has swallowed most of Europe. It is engulfing our country." (p. 683)

The tampering of Roark's design of Cortlandt Homes is an example of altruism. Some faceless men on an architectural committee decide to change his plans for no reason except that the individual, the creator who has done the thinking and the work, has no right to the product of his labor. This is sacrifice in practice. Once he has done his job, his work is considered public property, his rights are sacrificed to the collective. Roark fights these men by destroying his own creation on the principle that since he built it, then he must have the right to its use and disposal. To shackle creators, to count on them to innovate, design, produce, but then to expropriate their creations for others who did nothing to earn it, is a great injustice. The independent minds, the Galileos, the Edisons, the Aristotles, carry the rest of mankind on their backs. This is the message of Roark's speech and the significance of the title The Fountainhead. The meaning is: the ego is The Fountainhead of human achievement and progress. The ego is: the individual man's reasoning mind.

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