Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Fountainhead

By Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead is not so much a novel as it is a treatise on the innate power of the undiluted Self; a trial of society that strips the majority bare and finds them wanting; an anthem to the individual, stoic in the preservation and perseverance of their Self. It’s no stretch to see why Ayn Rand and her work have surpassed mere literature to become a movement. Though it might be more accurate, perhaps, to say that Howard Roark is the source (one could even call him… the fountainhead) of the movement, the infallible and unfaltering integrity of his Self being the movement’s inspiration, aspiration, and very core.

To say that Howard Roark is an architect is to say that J.K Rowling is a writer or that Mozart was a composer – technically accurate, but they are all so much more than their profession that to identify them by it alone seems a gross understatement. Nonetheless, Howard Roark is an architect. An architect who designs wholly original, somewhat austere and unnerving buildings that refuse to conform to popular style. An architect who would – and does – endure menial labor, scapegoating, unemployment, ostracism, forfeit of love and happiness, and criminal trial rather than commit even the most minor betrayal of his principles. He is uncompromising, indefatigable, and utterly without self-doubt – and for that, society seeks to destroy him. The Fountainhead is, essentially, Howard Roark vs. the World. (Of course, you have to remember that this is a 694 page book we're talking about, so it's possible I might be over-simplifying a bit. But you get the gist.)

Roark’s actions, or in some cases, lack of action, in response to this lifelong conflict showcase him to as the embodiment of Rand’s ideal person – wholeheartedly selfish. The word carries strikingly different connotations as used in The Fountainhead than we’re used to, however. Or rather, its definition is the same – self-centered, un-altruistic, close-minded, unsympathetic – but the implications differ. Where by standard usage ‘selfish’ is an insult, denoting a negative or derogatory personality trait, to Ayn Rand it implies full realization and devotion to the Self, a concept integral to the philosophy she was developing whilst writing The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Selfishness in The Fountainhead is not a vice, but the greatest virtue. It’s putting the undisguised Self forward as one’s character in society, while simultaneously shielding it from any influence of that society. It’s the refusal to lend any components of one’s Self (thoughts, talents, opinions) to others, thereby protecting their integrity from the corruption of collaboration, which compromises each individual’s contribution. It’s the derivation of self-worth, ambition, and satisfaction from the Self, not entrusted to the fickle favor of the outside world – a world which too often converts admiration into condemnation after the passing of some ambiguous, fluctuating expiration date. Above all, it’s the doctrine that an individual is at their best when living in and of and for themselves.

Just as The Fountainhead does not settle for being just a novel, its characters do not settle for being just characters. They become archetypes, vessels of ideas larger than any one characterization or plot function. The ideological intercourse that occurs when the characters interact in various permutations weaves the subtle but sturdy fabric of motives, actions, and pretensions that so thoroughly establishes Ayn Rand’s philosophy. The ideologies behind the archetypes are not so clear, however, that is possible to read The Fountainhead passively. Many of the characters’ personal philosophies become muddled or convoluted at some point or another, requiring the reader to be actively engaged in unraveling them as they read, constantly connecting the dots between actions and the motives they manifest – sometimes contradictory, when characters cannot or will not risk the effort of living up to their beliefs or their Self. The only character, in fact, whose actions and motives are never muddled or counteracted, but remain pure and focused, is Howard Roark – apt, as he is the paradigm of Ayn Rand’s idyllic selfish man, intransigent and unambiguous in the upholding of his principles.

I have a feeling that this is one of those versatile books that ought to be read at intervals throughout one’s life, because it's a novel of ideas, and we react differently to ideas depending on myriad variables to do with our personalities, knowledge, and experiences. We'll extrapolate different meanings and understandings from the text with each reading based on what we bring to it. As a college student, my reading instructed me to “go confidently in the direction of my dreams and live the life I’ve imagined*,” but I expect that if I were to read the book again in as few as four years from now I may well take something entirely different away from it. For those of you who’ve read it, I’d love to know when, what you gleaned from it, and what you thought/think of Ayn Rand’s philosophy!

*Quote adapted from Henry David Thoreau.


  1. Great review! You are right about re-reading Ayn Rand's books at different points in your life. Life experience refines one's understanding and application of what she espouses though doesn't change the basic essence of it.

  2. I have never read anything my Ayn Rand, but realize, given her new found importance among many of our leaders, that it is my duty to do so. Would you suggest The Fountainhead, or should I start with Atlas Shrugged? I am also curious to see how I feel about her philosophy, because my relatively uninformed understanding is somewhat dubious.