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The Fountainhead | Study Guide

Ayn Rand

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The Fountainhead | Context



In her novels and other writings, Rand developed what she called "a philosophy for living on earth" or objectivism. She stated that objectivism concerned

  • the heroism of man
  • happiness as the moral purpose of life
  • productive achievement as the noblest activity
  • reason as the only absolute

One of the ideas of objectivism is that whatever exists is real. An object is real because it has specific characteristics that make it real. That which has no characteristics does not exist and is not real. According to Rand: "A leaf ... cannot be all red and all green at the same time, it cannot freeze and burn at the same time. A is A." She said that the mind discovers reality—it is conscious of things that exist and not conscious of things that do not exist. She rejected feeling as a way of understanding reality. Only reason based on information through the senses can lead to the comprehension of reality. She argued for "the recognition and acceptance of reason as one's only source of knowledge ... only judge of values ... only guide to action." In other words, objectivism means a person follows reason and not whim. Believers in objectivism pursue their own happiness and work hard to achieve productive lives.

Rand infuses objectivism into The Fountainhead, and the philosophy is expressed through the actions and words of her characters. In these characters, subjective perceptions (faith, desire, expectation, or emotions) have been stripped away. The aim is to reach a reasoned reality of their own being, physically and mentally. Reaching for this bare, stark reality is rarely comfortable. For example, the character of Cameron first sees Howard Roark "like a long, thin needle held fast at one end, describing a slow circle, its point piercing Roark's body." Roark's nemesis, Toohey, is equally frank about what he is doing and why. He leaves clues throughout the book as to his direct motives even though few recognize them for what they are. "Only the nice explanations are never the true ones," he says. The only true ethics for a person to follow, then, is to honestly acknowledge a rational self-interest as the basis for action.

Utopian Literature and Ayn Rand

According to the afterword in The Fountainhead by American Canadian philosopher Leonard Peikoff, a 1936 note in Rand's journals regarding why she wrote The Fountainhead states that "No one has really shown [today's] life, as it really is, with its real meaning and its reasons." The statement is a direct reference to the concepts of utopian literature, which is defined as "having impossibly ideal conditions especially of social organization." The first use of the word utopian appeared in 1551. However, the description of a fictional idealized society titled Utopia was published in 1516 by English philosopher Sir Thomas More. More emphasized the stark contrast between his own flawed and corrupt society and a vision of what it could be.

Rand puts forward her image of what "really is" by presenting extreme individual characters in stark contrast to one another throughout The Fountainhead. Toohey is described as "the non-creative 'second-hand' man par excellence." But the character of Howard Roark is the idealistic architect of The Fountainhead. He relentlessly and without compromise pursues his ideals in the face of formidable opposition supporting the status quo. The narrator says, "He will be himself at any cost—the only thing he really wants of life." Roark's recognition of the sculptor Steven Mallory is one of many expressions of a utopian attitude in the book. Roark says, "Your figures are not what men are, but what men could be—and should be."

Rand specifically pins the genre of The Fountainhead as Romanticism in her Introduction. This attitude is borne out in several direct references in The Fountainhead to previous books marking the early German movement of Romanticism in literature. These references include German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust (1808–32) and the later modern Romanticism of German composer Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde (1865). Romanticism was a literary movement of the early to late 1800s. It constituted a rebellion against the physical materialism of a growing European middle class. Romanticism extolled the sublime forces of nature. It emphasized the visionary individual artist as the supreme creator. The main hero of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark, states his own rules by comparing a building to a person. He says, "A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth." Roark is also often compared to a force of nature. Rand's characters are larger than life. They are shaped by obsessive motivations on a par with such Romantic characters as Goethe's restless scholar Faust or Wagner's tragic and naive hero Siegfried. However, other elements of Romanticism (intuition, spiritualism, or the force of emotions) do not fit with Rand's objectivism that relies on reason alone.

There are indirect references in The Fountainhead to other works of literature in the Gothic or nightmarish phase of Romanticism. These include multiple and fractured images of reflecting glass, water, or ice found in English writer Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein (1818). Rand picks up on this in several instances: "Guy Francon's office was ... liquid with mirrors melted and poured over every object." The assembled monster haunting the dark corners of the psyche from Frankenstein is echoed with the description of a building in The Fountainhead. The building is depicted as "a corpse hacked to pieces and reassembled."

Architecture as Modernism

The architectural style of modernism developed in the first half of the 20th century. It was characterized by lean, clean lines and utilitarian purpose without any distracting ornamentation. The modernist architectural movement was distinguished by the use of reinforced concrete and steel, rectangular and cubic shapes, large windows on a horizontal plane, open floor plans, and building sections positioned at 90 degrees to each other.

This approach is in direct opposition to architectural designs of the past, a point made in abundance throughout The Fountainhead. For example, Rand describes the Stanton Institute building as "The cathedral rose over it in lace splendor, a fragile defense against two great enemies: light and air." The dean of the School of Architecture further outlines to Roark his estimation of modernism as "a passing fancy." He predicts that once people get tired of the fad they will return to the tried and true designs of buildings like the Greek Parthenon.

It is this stubborn tension between tradition and innovation in architecture that sets Roark alone against other architects. Those architects have built successful careers on pasting together comforting architectural features from the past. Toohey says that "A great building is not the private invention of some genius or other. It is merely a condensation of the spirit of a people."

The real-life model for the character of Howard Roark in The Fountainhead was the largely self-taught American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959). His distinctive Prairie School style for private residences was denounced by critics. This style discarded elaborate compartmentalization and detailing for bold, plain walls. Wright became famous as the creator and expounder of "organic architecture." This was his phrase to describe buildings that fit into the environment where they are built. While Wright's Prairie Houses built in the Midwest characterized his early work, his most well-known public building is the New York Guggenheim Museum. Wright's approach to architecture and struggle for public acceptance is similar to Roark's. For example, Roark tells Heller that "A house can have integrity just like a person ... and just as seldom."

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