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The Fountainhead | Study Guide

Ayn Rand

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The Fountainhead | Themes


Themes expressed by Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead are common throughout her books and demonstrate a consistency of thought regarding how those few awake to their own creative potential should conduct their lives and relationships. Her philosophy of morality above legal definitions, capitalism, and freedom endows the characters of both heroes and villains in her stories.

Self-Sufficiency versus Indebtedness

The two main characters of Roark and Keating provide a number of different facets of the theme of self-sufficiency and indebtedness as the two young men start out with the same training and potential for opportunities. However, they take vastly divergent directions in achieving their professional goals, for while Roark consistently makes choices to increase his singular self-sufficiency, Keating chooses his path with an eye to encouraging his peers to depend on him to finish their work for them. Roark finds his first job with a brilliant but unfashionable architect and is willing to accept low pay with uncomfortable living and working conditions because he values his boss Henry Cameron's creativity and daring designs. He and his boss have a straightforward relationship that does not entail any ulterior obligations, and in fact, theirs is a friendship that grows over time. Roark's trajectory is straightforward and simple. When asked who will let him design buildings the way he wants, he answers in Part 1, Chapter 1, "The point is, who will stop me?" He can't be stopped because he is indebted to no one and is willing to accept any condition—even that of working in a granite quarry as a laborer—so long as he needs to in order to gain complete autonomy over his own architectural designs. Roark himself sums up this attitude saying, "The choice is independence or dependence" in Part 4, Chapter 18.

Keating, on the other hand, joins a firm with prestige and many wealthy clients on the basis of his instructors' recommendations of him. Keating makes friends and indebts them to him by completing their work for them in a way that obligates them to him. But pretty early on in his career Keating finds himself entangled in the same obligations of indebtedness such that he has neither the will nor the ability to break free. At every juncture, Keating is either dependent upon, or has created a dependency on someone else. He takes the easy, most comfortable path with consistent regularity. It is observed of Keating, "He did not have to wonder, to fear or to take chances: it had been done for him" in Part 1, Chapter 5. The consequence is that he is never sure of his own work and constantly runs to Roark for approval. Even worse, Keating becomes an unwilling tool for Toohey's goal of making everyone comfortable, happy and equal without exception. As one of his cohorts Mitchell Layton states in Part 4, Chapter 6, "What makes people unhappy is not too little choice, but too much." While Roark works toward developing an indifference to discomfort and unhappiness, Keating is constantly indebted to others, among whom Toohey is the most destructive of creativity. By the time Keating wants to change that by painting, Roark gently tells him, "It's too late."

Self-Expression in Work

Of all the characters in The Fountainhead, Roark is the one who most emphatically aligns himself mind and body to his work such that it becomes an extension of his very being. In this he shares a passion for excellence in architecture with his mentor Cameron of whom it was said, "he loved his work ... that was why he lost" in Part 1, Chapter 3. It is said of Roark as he worked in Francon's granite quarry in Part 2, Chapter 1 that he came "to feel the drill and his body gathered into the single will of pressure, that a shaft of steel might sink slowly into granite."

It doesn't matter what work he's doing. Roark throws himself into it to accomplish the task such that when it is done, his very being is evident in the resulting building. It is because of his uncanny attention to detail that Dominique knows at once who designed Wynand's country home without even seeing the signature of the architect in Part 4, Chapter 4. And because Roark practices this kind of brutal honesty with himself, he is equally able to recognize the trait when he finds it in someone else. He tells the sculptor Mallory, "Your figures are not what men are, but what men could be—and should be" in Part 2, Chapter 11. Although Mallory has a difficult time believing Roark's words, he acknowledges the tremendous compliment Roark has paid to him. It is, in addition, all the more precious because it is very rare for anyone in the story to have the courage to express himself in his work.


The theme of brotherhood is used in several different ways, depending on whose perspective is being expressed. The character who uses this word the most often is Toohey, depending upon his audience of the moment. For the most part, "brotherhood" in Toohey's speeches means an assumption of collective unity and equality by which the most inferior are elevated to the same level as the common mean, while superior or outstanding men are leveled down to the same position as everyone else. As Toohey eloquently writes in praise of the horizontal lines of the Francon design for one of their buildings in Part 1, Chapter 4, "all is held and shall be checked, even as this proud edifice by the string courses of men's brotherhood." In other instances, Toohey appeals to a pride in the brotherhood of laborers to unite for their rights in a union strike.

By contrast, Roark makes a distinction of "brotherhood" to include the few exceptional individuals who do not compromise in the war between creative individualism and the tastes of the masses dictated by the likes of Ellsworth Toohey. Roark attempts to comfort the battered and embittered sculptor Mallory, who had taken a shot at Toohey because Mallory had recognized Toohey as an agent of the beast killing the best in humanity in Part 2, Chapter 11 wherein "this boy was a comrade-in-arms, hurt in battle." Later in Part 4, Chapter 18, Roark makes an impassioned speech at his trial in saying of the individual, "He does not exist for any other man—and he asks no other man to exist for him. This is the only form of brotherhood and mutual respect possible between men."

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