In her two major works of fiction, Ayn Rand explicated her philosophy of objectivism in dramatic form. Thus, in The Fountainhead and especially in Atlas Shrugged, Rand argues that reality exists independent of human thought (objectively), that reason is the only viable method for understanding reality, that individuals should seek personal happiness and exist for their own sake and that of no other, and that individuals should not sacrifice themselves or be sacrificed by others. Furthermore, unrestricted laissez-faire capitalism is the political economic system in which these principles can best flourish. Underlying this essence is the philosophy of unadulterated individualism, personal responsibility, the power of unsullied reason, and the importance of Rand’s special kind of morality.
In her long fiction, the philosopher-novelist spells out her concept of the exceptional individual as a heroic being and an “ideal man,” with “his” happiness as the highest moral purpose in life, with productive achievement the noblest activity, and reason the only absolute. Rand advocates minimal government intrusion and no initiation of physical force in human interactions. She represents such a system as enshrining the highest degree of morality and justice.
Because Rand also focuses on the denial of self-sacrifice and altruism, a staple of conventional morality and welfarism, she opposes both Christianity and communism. She finds it irrational to place the good of others ahead of one’s own rational self-interest. Likewise, she denies mysticism and promotes the Aristotelian view that the world that individuals perceive is reality, and there is no other. Both her major novels can be considered elitist and antidemocratic in that they extol the virtues of a few innovative, far-thinking individuals over the mediocre majority, which is either ignorant and uncaring or, even worse, actively striving to destroy the brilliant individuals of great ability. Besides disparaging mediocrity, Rand also decried the power of connections, conformity with what has been done before, a trend she found far too evident in the American welfare state, and the intellectual bankruptcy she deemed it to have fostered.
Rand considered herself a practitioner of Romanticism, who was concerned with representing individuals “in whom certain human attributes are focused more sharply and consistently than in average human beings.” Accordingly, in both these novels the characters of the heroes, sharply drawn, are idealized creations—not depictions of real individuals—who are in control of their own destinies despite major odds.
The Fountainhead is the story of Howard Roark, Rand’s ideal man, an architect who has a vision of how buildings should really be designed. He is innovative and efficient; he also has a strong aesthetic sense and has integrity—in short, he is a man of principle and artistic individuality. Roark is contrasted with Peter Keating, a former classmate and fellow architect but a “secondhander,” constantly replicating conventional styles because he has no originality of his own. He achieves a seeming success by manipulating others. Unlike Roark, whom he envies, Keating does not know who he really is.
Another of Roark’s adversaries is Ellsworth Toohey. He writes a column for the Banner, arguing that architecture should reflect the art of the people. Gail Wynand is the Banner’s owner and newspaper magnate; he appreciates Roark’s creativity but buckles under societal pressures, disregards his vision, and thereby engineers his own downfall as a worthy human being.
The love interest is embodied in Dominique Francon, the daughter of Guy Francon, the principal owner of the architectural firm that employs Peter Keating. She is a typical Rand heroine, a self-reliant idealist alienated by the shallowconventions of her day in interwar America and convinced that a life of principle is...
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impossible in a world ruled by mediocrity. Her affair with Roark is motivated not by physical or emotional passion but by the recognition that he is a man of great worth. Along the way, in between and sometimes during other affairs, she marries Keating and then Wynand before finally marrying Roark. Dominique seems inconsistent in her ideals, attitudes, and critiques of architectural designs, but the inconsistencies are all part of her effort to spare Roark from ultimate destruction.
Roark, long professionally unsuccessful because he is unwilling to compromise the integrity of his creations, preferring not to work at all or to do menial tasks, eventually overcomes not only financial difficulties but also numerous intrigues by the likes of Keating. For instance, through the mean-spirited Toohey, Roark is assigned to build an interdenominational temple for a patron, Hopton Stoddard, a traditionalist who is abroad at the time. Toohey knows that Stoddard will hate Roark’s radically innovative design. Roark makes the building’s centerpiece Dominique’s nude figure. Toohey incites public condemnation and persuades the patron to sue Roark for breach of contract. Stoddard wins the case, as Roark fails to defend himself in court.
Paradoxically, a friendship develops between Roark and Wynand, attracted to each other for different reasons. Wynand helps Roark in his defense at a second trial, which follows Roark’s dynamiting a low-income housing project that Keating had commissioned. The latter had agreed not to alter Roark’s design in any way in exchange for Roark’s allowing Keating to claim credit for the former’s innovative and cost-effective blueprint. When Keating fails to keep his promise and adulterates the design, Roark, with Dominique Francon’s assistance, destroys the structure. The trial gives Roark the opportunity to spell out his—that is, Rand’s—defense of ethical egoism and opposition to a world perishing from an “orgy of self-sacrifice” and conventional morality. After Roark’s exoneration, Wynand commissions him to build the tallest skyscraper in New York City despite Wynand’s losing Dominique to Roark.
Ultimately, The Fountainhead is a novel of ideas, of heroic characters who are the fountainhead of human progress and of their opposites, who live secondhand, second-rate lives and constantly seek social approval for their beliefs. The philosophy in the novel alternates with the action, and neither can be understood without the other.
Rand’s philosophy extolling the myth of absolute, rugged individualism and its relationship to society is most fully explicated in what proved to be her last work of fiction, several years in the making: the twelve-hundred-page Atlas Shrugged. In this novel, Rand tries to answer the question raised by one of her earlier heroes: “What would happen to the world without those who do, think, work, produce?” In this apocalyptic parable, it is John Galt of Twentieth Century Motors, a physicist, engineer, inventor, and philosopher, who is Rand’s ideal man and leads the other “men of the mind” on a strike against the exploitation of the genuine creators of wealth by all the leeches and parasites—the nonproducers—whom they had been sustaining.
Rand’s philosophy is played out through the stories of the four heroes, the authentic moneymakers. They are the Argentine Francisco d’Anconia, heir to the world’s leading copper enterprise; the Scandinavian Ragnar Danneskjold, a onetime philosopher who turns pirate in order to steal wealth back from the looters and return it to the producers of legitimate values; Henry (Hank) Rearden, an American steel magnate and inventor of a metal better than steel; and finally, the other American, John Galt, who, with the others, stops the ideological motor of the world in a strike before rebuilding society. The heroine, rail heir Dagny Taggart, wonders where the individuals of ability have gone.
Confronting them is an array of villains, manipulative appropriators, enemies of individualism and free enterprise, scabs, and moochers profiting from the achievements of the producers and united by their greed for unearned gains. Especially, there is Dr. Robert Stadler, the counterpart of Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead. Stadler, once the greatest physicist of his time, fully cognizant of the value of the human mind, fails to stand up for his principles. The progressive decay of James Taggart, Dagny’s brother and the titular president of Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, parallels that of the society in which he lives.
In the novel, set some time in the vaguely defined future, the United States is following Europe down the long, hopeless path of socialism, government regulation, and a predatory state into a new Dark Age. The heroes join forces with other intelligent, freedom-loving leaders of commerce, industry, science, and philosophy to reverse the slide. They do this as Atlas may have done had he grown tired of holding the world on his shoulders without reward.
Eventually, the heroes repair to a secret Colorado mountain citadel, where they wait for their time to rebuild the decaying collectivist society whose end their “strike of the mind” against productive work is hastening. Galt, arrested and tortured by the looters but finally freed by the other heroes, delivers a thirty-five-thousand-word oration via a commandeered radio, epitomizing Rand’s objectivism and views of the ideal man. Galt’s (Rand’s) philosophy then becomes that of the new society: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” By the end of the novel, socialism has produced a bankrupt world pleading for the return of the men of the mind, who, after a confrontation with the parasites, start to rebuild society. Atlas Shrugged is Rand’s most thorough exploration of the social ramifications of politics, economics, psychology, metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, religion, and ethics.