The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

By Alan Kessler

She passed the pinnacles of bank buildings. She passed the crowns of courthouses. She rose above the spires of churches. Then there was only the ocean and the sky and the figure of Howard Roark.
- Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

Written in 1943, the novel describes the present day dystopia in which a society infused with the ideals of collectivism and altruism attempts to destroy a brilliant creator, Howard Roark.
external image TheFountainhead.jpg
1 Author Background and Historical Context for the Novel
2 Plot
3 Philosophy
4 Themes and Symbols
5 Criticism and Literary Conversation Regarding the Novel
6 Film Adaptation
7 Personal Analysis
8 References
9 External Links

Author Background and Historical Context for the Novel

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1905, Alice Rosenbaum realized her talent for writing at a young age. As a byproduct of the communist revolution in Russia, her family suffered from starvation and confiscation of private property. Rosenbaum's anti-collectivist views were further developed during her studies at the University of Petrograd as the communist ideology took control. These events shaped the subject of her writing and eventually, her philosophy. Always enthralled with Western culture and the United States of America, she came to New York in 1926 with permission from the Soviet government with the intention to stay (11). She changed her name to Ayn Rand and traveled to Hollywood to become a scriptwriter. Over the next thirty years, Rand would write her four most famous works of fiction, We the Living (1936), Anthem (1938), The Fountainhead (1943), and Atlas Shrugged (1957) as reactions against collectivism, totalitarianism and promoting individualism. Her fiction was also a reaction against the collectivist regimes such as Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union gaining power in Europe. These works formed her philosophy known as Objectivism. She promoted Objectivism through lectures and essays until her death in 1982 (1).


The hero, Howard Roark, is expelled from the Stanton Institute of Technology's architectural school because of his unwillingness to compromise his unique style for the classical styles being taught. He struggles to succeed as an architect while refusing to compromise while his colleague, Peter Keating, quickly becomes one of the top architects in New York by following tradition and flattering his clients and superiors. Roark's talent is slowly recognized despite manipulation by Ellsworth Toohey, a columnist whose only purpose is destroying real greatness like Roark, and Roark's love interest, Dominique Francon, an individualist disillusioned by the prevalence of altruism in the world. Keating eventually realizes his failure after being divorced by Dominique for newspaper giant, Gail Wynand, who becomes close friends with Roark. When a public housing project with connections to Ellsworth Toohey is opened for bidding, Keating pleads Roark to draw up the plans in his name. Roark agrees under the stipulation that no part of the plan is changed. From this point, the plot comes to its climax...


The Fountainhead is best characterized as a novel of ideas. Rand attempts, through this novel, to present her philosophical views which she entitled "Objectivism." As Rand explains, "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." Objectivism holds that reality exists and man must rationally perceive this reality. It is atheistic in nature and that man must rely solely on reason. Rand reasons that an Objectivist exists for his or her own sake, an ethical egoism without sacrifice (11). Objectivism is often in conflict with the morality of the Western world, especially with regards to altruism and collectivism. Rand believes that, "A man who places others first, above his own creative work, is an emotional parasite..." (10). She maintains that love is a selfish emotion. Laissez-faire capitalism is the only political philosophy that guarantees complete freedom (11). Second-handers as Rand calls them, are people who must seek self-esteem through others as a product of a society that promotes altruism. Objectivism is a complex philosophy which is better explained through Rand's own works.

Themes and Symbols

The primary theme of The Fountainhead is that the individual is essential to a civilization's progress and it is altruism that attempts to destroy the self, destroying creativity and halting progress. The novel promotes Objectivism through the actions and the thoughts of the characters.

Howard Roark is the hero of the book and embodies a true Objectivist. His life centers on his work as an architect. Although he is the most brilliant mind in architecture, he talent is not realized initially because his source of design ideas are completely original and do not rely on classical styles. He never compromises his morals or standards and is everything the Ayn Rand thinks a man should be according to Objectivism.

In contrast, the newspaper critic, Ellsworth Toohey is the antagonist and seeks to destroy human greatness which is embodied by Roark. His character is greatly influence by Stalin. Toohey, while having no real talent, has the ability to manipulate others into guilt and promotes mediocrity as a way to "raze all shrines." As a socialist and believer in second-hand ideals such as prestige, he is everything that Objectivism sees as detrimental to the individual.

Gail Wynand is a newspaper mogul who loves his work and is good at it but falls to the second-handers. His newspaper, The Banner, is a symbol of the masses that is vulgar and characterized by yellow-journalism. He becomes friends with Roark because of what attributes they have in common but Roark acknowledges that Wynand is himself a second-hander because he sacrifices his own standards for success and is dependent on the whims of the masses. He names his yacht I Do as the answer to the statement he heard all his life: "You don't run things around here" (11, 460). This is in itself an example of second-handed thinking. By the end of the novel, he realizes the errors or his ways but it is too late to make a change.

Dominique Francon symbolizes the individual that understands the destructive nature of the masses and sees the battle for individuality as lost. This prompts her to hurt Roark's career in order to assure her of his greatness when he succeeds in spite of her actions to give contracts to other architects. By the end of the novel, she is inspired by Roark to exhibit his same qualities of Objectivism.

Peter Keating is the typical second-hander who is a mediocre architect but gains self-esteem through the praise of others generated by Toohey's press. He does not choose to be an architect but is told to become one by his mother. When he finally thinks for himself, he decides to quit being an architect. Finally realizing his failure, Keating offers to let Roark design Cortlandt Homes. His true calling is painting but Roark's reaction to his canvases tells the reader that Keating is ruined (11, 609).

Criticism and Literary Conversation Regarding the Novel

Due to the controversial nature of Ayn Rand's philosophy, The Fountainhead has seen both scorn and praise from readers (1). Early critical reception was negative and the book's sales were affected accordingly. However, over time, the popularity of the novel grew due to "...that old friend of the book business, word-of-mouth advertising" (6). The growing antagonism towards Communism during the years following World War II also contributed to sales of The Fountainhead. The war was also responsible for distracting potential readers from the novel.

In a review for the New York Times, Orville Prescott criticizes Rand's novel for its intimidating length, melodrama, and its lack of relatable characters. In another review for the same paper, Lorine Pruette congratulates Rand on her use of irony and mockery in her writing as well as her use of debate. She describes the characters as larger than life and agrees with Prescott in that Rand uses architectural description well. The fact, as Kenneth Horan puts it that the novel, "...constantly belabors a cause," is also a common criticism of the novel (7).

Feminist reception of the Ayn Rand's work has been mixed. Female characters like Dominique Francon are successful and intelligent with their own careers. In an interview with Playboy, Rand says, "What is proper for a man is proper for a woman" (10). On the other hand, her views of sexual objectivity conflict with the ideals of modern feminists as shown by the Objectivist view on the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1991.Objectivism conflicts with the collectivist aspects of feminism not only with respect to her emphasis on individualism but also on her belief in hero-worshiptowards men. Intertwined with the concept of hero-worship is the "rape" scene in the Fountainhead, in which Roark "...physically overpowers her, and she loves it" (2). Overall, although Rand's views of femininity agree with some aspects of feminism but disagree significantly with a majority of the movement's tenets.

Daniel Aaron, writing for the Partisan Review in 1947, suggests that the subject of the book as well as the philosophy that it describes is immature and idealistic. He writes, "It has simply enjoyed the success shared by other bad novels which are 754 pages long and boast of heroines with long legs and high breasts." As one of many critics that disagree with Rand's philosophy, Aaron sees Objectivism as simplistic for its distaste for democracy on a large scale and use of absolutes in advocating selfishness, describing the philosophy as merely "...symptomatic of certain postwar attitudes..." (1)

As a book of ideas, Rand's works have been criticized as "tracts" and have no value as art. Max Fletcher, writing in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, suggests that Rand's primary purpose is promoting her ideology (4). However, John Ridpath, writing in the same journal counters that Ayn Rand's definition of art maintains that it is a way to communicate ideals and her philosophy originates from an attempt to create a fictional world from which to express her view of the ideal man (12). Ayn Rand believed that art should follow romanticism. This is why she creates larger than life characters in her novels. In an interview with Phil Donahue, Rand states that she is a fan of Charlie's Angels for exactly this reason.

While these criticisms of Ayn Rand's philosophy and works are legitimate, a small group of Holocaust deniers see Objectivism as a Jewish conspiracy to destroy their way of life. This argument is distasteful and ignorant. The websites that contain such material are so despicable as not to warrant a link on this wiki page.

Film Adaptation

The film adaptation of The Fountainhead was directed by King Vidor and the screenplay was written by Rand herself. It starred Gary Cooper as Howard Roark and Patricia Neal as Dominique Francon (5).

The length of the book (694 pages) and the complex motives of its characters did not translate well into a two hour movie. The film is not able to get across all the support for Rand's ideas to the same extent that the book does. Bosley Crowther, in a review published in the New York Times, criticizes the morality of the Roark's actions which are better justified in the novel. The book is characterized by its lengthy dialogue which is criticized as boring in the film. Crowther also criticizes the acting of the main characters in the film, noting that Gary Cooper is "...out of his element and considerably unsure of himself" and Patricia Neal is "...almost funny..." (3).

It is widely believed that the Pixar film, The Incredibles, contains neo-Objectivist themes. Articles in the Christian Science Monitor, which presents a more critical view perspective of these themes, and The Free Liberal back this claim. Steve Damerell, writing in the The Free Liberal, sees Objectivist thought in the imagery, the film's villain, and society's worship of mediocrity but notes that the acts of heroism displayed by the heroes and their family bond does not coincide with all of Rand's beliefs, adding warmth to a sometimes cold philosophy.

Personal Analysis

Although the validity of the philosophy behind The Fountainhead is debatable, Rand offers an interesting viewpoint into the dynamics of modern day society. While novels about dystopias may offer a warning for the future, they may also critique the society in which it was written. I believe that in this aspect, Ayn Rand has by writing The Fountainhead and her other works, offered a new morality opposite to the societal norm. The novel's characters, though in exaggerated form, illustrate and educate readers on the how and why for what goes on in the world.

Because the novel deals primarily with architecture, Rand is able to express her views on creativity. In the same way that Roark's buildings are the embodiment of his ideals, The Fountainhead is that of Rand's. Therefore, the book is, as many reviewers noted, "a novel of ideas" with archetypal characters and plot that is not only meant for entertainment but to be seen as a parable.

In the same way that Marxism accounts for historical events as a series of class struggles, Objectivism explains the reasons for totalitarianism, genocide, and a general lack of self-esteem for which collectivism and altruism are responsible. Rand relates this to the novel, where she describes three types of second-handers: Peter Keating, Gail Wynand and Ellsworth Toohey. Toohey, who lives off of others through his rank in intellectual circles and high society, fully understands the concepts the Rand is against and twists earned pride into guilt to create a society that is "An average drawn upon zeroes..." (11, 668). Thus, he fills the roles of Hitler or Stalin, someone who has no sense of self and must draw it from the power he has over others (10). He understands the talent possessed by Howard Roark and seeks to destroy it. In order to accomplish this task, Toohey gives Peter Keating, who is a mediocre architect, a successful career. Toohey repeats this process in the areas of literature and drama. His goal is to make people interchangeable, equal in the eyes of the world. He champions charity and self-sacrifice as a pathway to happiness and a way to absolve guilt. If Keating were not a second-hander, he would not be able to except this unearned praise. Finally, Gail Wynand, sees himself as independent and on page 636, Roark admits that, " weren't born to be a second-hander" (11). However, Roark understands that Wynand is a second-hander because he goes after power and Wynand realizes this when he becomes a slave to his own path to success, The Banner. In this sense, it is the person who seems least likely to live off of the approval of others who relies on them the most. Wynand does not believe that he can be a second-hander because he does not actually believe in the stories that The Banner publishess and that he is hated by intellectuals, but in reality, he relies on the masses that read his paper who destroy him when he publishes his sincere position on Roark's trial.

Howard Roark fills the role of a Galileo Galilei, a creator and brilliant mind. According to Rand, "Man's ego is the fountainhead of human progress." Without creators such as Roark, Rand believes that originality and personal achievement would halt.

The book is also a harsh criticism of of religion and labor in promoting altruism. It is revealed in Toohey's back story that he wanted to become a priest before finding socialism. Rand argues that both are typically used as a way to promote altruism which is then used as a method of control. Both advocate for self-sacrifice for an ideal. It is a framework to maintain political power. Autocratic leaders do not want the individual to live for themselves but to live for them. Altruism comes in a variety of forms such as tribalism, religion, socialism all of which lower the status of the individual in favor of the good of the tribe, God, or the masses.

Personally, I think that there is a great deal to learn from Rand's philosophy. The concept of "self" and deriving self-esteem from ones own excellence and not others are important ideas the readers should think about. Rand also sees the flaws in both parties in America and they should be noted. She sees both of them as based on contradictions. The Fountainhead is an important book as far as explaining the concepts of selflessness and self esteem. I think it must also be taken with a grain of salt for its coldness towards compassion and family.


1. "Ayn Rand (1905-1982)." Contemporary Literary Criticism 79 (1994): 356-97. Literature Criticism Online. Gale. 16 Mar. 2009

2. Cohen, Andrew. Rev. of Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, ed. Mimi Reisel Gladstein and Chris Matthew Sciabarra. Hypatia 18.3 (2003): 226-9. JSTOR. 6 Mar. 2009 <>.

3. Crowther, Bosley. "The Screen in Review." Rev. of The Fountainhead, dir. King Vidor. New York Times 9 July 1949: 8. ProQuest. 6 Mar. 2009

4. Fletcher, Max E. "Harriet Martineau and Ayn Rand: Economics in the Guise of Fiction." American Journal of Economics and Sociology 33.4 (1974): 367-79. JSTOR. 16 Mar. 2009 <>.

5. "The Fountainhead (1949)." The Internet Movie Database. 5 Mar. 2009

6. Hansen, Harry. "'The Fountainhead' Enjoys Fresh Wave of Popularity." Chicago Daily Tribune 24 Dec. 1944: C9. ProQuest. 5 Mar. 2009

7. Horan, Kenneth. "Three Unusual Novels with Widely Different Settings." Rev. of The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand. Chicago Daily Tribune 30 May 1943: E10.

8. Presscott, Orville. "Books of the Times." Rev. of The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand. New York Times 12 May 1943: 23. ProQuest. 5 Mar. 2009

9. Pruette, Lorine. "Battle Against Evil." Rev. of The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand. New York Times 16 May 1943: 7. ProQuest. 5 Mar. 2009

10. Rand, Ayn. "Ayn Rand: The Playboy Interview." Interview with Alvin Toffler. Playboy Mar. 1964. 5 Mar. 2009 <>.

11. Rand, Ayn. The Fountainhead. 1943. New York: Plume, 1994.

12. Ridpath, John B, and James G Lennox. "Ayn Rand's Novels: Art or Tracts? Two Additional Views." American Journal of Economics and Sociology 35.2 (1976): 213-24. JSTOR. 16 Mar. 2009 <>.

External Links

Ayn Rand Lexicon
The Ayn Rand Institute
Biographical FAQ