Rand’s fiction embodies the philosophy of Objectivism. She wants to provoke a philosophical response from her readers, to make each one choose a side. Objectivism asserts an uncompromising individualism, in which human beings’ rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are paramount, and their primary social obligation is to respect the rights of others. Rand believed that in modern times, the greatest threat to freedom is collectivism, the belief that the state, whether Communist, Fascist, or democratic, can control humans, especially by infringing on the right to hold property and to buy and trade freely. She supported capitalism as an expression of the highest freedom and loved the United States for its commitment to individual rights.
In keeping with this philosophy, all of Rand’s heroes and sympathetic characters are self-reliant and self-starting. They are frequently tall, lean and hard with strong, craggy names like Howard Roark, Dagny Taggart, and John Galt. They are makers and builders: architects, inventors, and industrialists. They love their work and respect competence above all. Rand’s villains, often referred to as second-handers or looters, tend to be pudgy, formless, and weak with names such as Wesley Mouch or Ellsworth Toohey. They live parasitically off the labor or ideas of others, to which they feel entitled. Frequently they support government programs to redistribute wealth from the producers to weak people like themselves. Their moral standards lie in what others think. As one villain says, “Give your soul. To a lie? Yes, if others believe it. To deceit? Yes, if others need it.” The conflicts in Rand’s stories, therefore, are between different sets of values.
Rand uses several techniques to develop her themes. One of the best-known is having her characters make long speeches expounding their philosophies. Rand often excerpts these passages into her nonfiction, further reinforcing the connection between fiction and philosophy in her writing. More compelling are the brief, one-line passages which sum up an entire philosophy, like the venomous Ellsworth Toohey’s remark, “Genius is an exaggeration of dimension. So is elephantiasis. Both may be only a disease.” Rand also allows physical details to advertise her characters’ inner natures, as when a minor villain is said to carry a gun in one pocket and a rabbit’s foot in the other, demonstrating his brutality and irrationality.
Rand adheres to a romantic theory of art which holds that art should make moral ideals concrete. She rejects naturalism, preferring to portray people as she thinks they should be. Her characters do not sound, look, or act like people in the real world, even when they are taken from real-life models. This belief violates some tenets of modern literature. If modern literature stresses ambiguity in characterization, Rand has clear-cut heroes and villains. If modern tastes favor the downbeat and question happy endings, Rand never loses faith in her heroes’ ability to triumph. Rand took her cue from the great Romantic nineteenth century novelists like Victor Hugo, who wrote about highly charged historical events and larger-than-life characters.
Rand also uses the techniques of popular fiction. Her long novels have the strong drive and pace of the best thrillers. Some have the futuristic settings of science fiction. Like a mystery writer, she often teases her readers with questions and puzzles, such as the riddling catchphrase of Atlas Shrugged, “Who is John Galt?” Rand’s literary works also all have love-story plots or subplots. Her heroes and heroines love each other passionately because they see value in each other. Her novels, though tame by today’s standards, were considered very sexy in their day.
Although sex in Rand’s work sometimes resembles conquest or even rape, she asserted that sex is a joyous act between consenting adults. Certainly, her strong female protagonists expect and even demand the best from their men. Rand’s popularity continues long after her death, though critics and scholars have often ignored or dismissed her work. Recent academic studies, such as Mimi Reisel Gladstein’s books, suggest that Rand is getting serious attention and respect. Perhaps Rand will belatedly receive the literary recognition she often sought.
First published: 1943
Type of work: Novel
Architect Howard Roark fights against nearly overwhelming odds to build according to his own vision.
The Fountainhead’s major theme is the need for integrity and independence as exemplified in the career of Howard Roark. Roark is the fountainhead, or productive force, in the novel. To develop this theme, Rand places Roark in contrast with three other men, Peter Keating, Ellsworth Toohey, and Gail Wynand.
The novel begins with a jarring contrast. Howard Roark is expelled from the Stanton Academy on the same day that Peter Keating graduates with honors. Roark is the true architect, making a building’s design fit its purpose, while Keating’s practice of architecture seeks to please other people. In New York, Roark works for Henry Cameron, a brilliant, unconventional architect whose career and body are in decline. Cameron becomes Roark’s mentor, but he is also a foreboding image of how the world may destroy...
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