The Fountainhead

by Ayn Rand

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636

Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged (1957) as a more complete exposition of the principles and ideas espoused in The Fountainhead. Both novels illustrate her philosophy of positive rational egoism, morality based on self-interest rather than on compassion for others. The Fountainhead’s heroes, including Howard Roark, Dominique Francon, and, eventually, Gail Wynand, stand for their principles and refuse to conform. Wynand at first tries to offer what people want in his newspaper but later refuses to submit to Toohey and others, who want to promote the ideas of selfless service to others and lack of personal responsibility. Toohey and Keating are the primary antagonists. Toohey appears noble in his deflection of attention from himself; however, he seeks absolute power through manipulation of public opinion. He tells Halsey that people should not think; they should merely believe and serve others. Keating represents conformity for its own sake and pandering to popular opinion, values Rand clearly opposes.

As in Atlas Shrugged, the heroes are attractive: tall, physically fit, with strong faces. Roark and Dominique Francon receive glowing descriptions of their physical beauty. Roark’s ideals are clear; Francon’s are somewhat more puzzling. Her short speeches describing her goals are unclear, perhaps as Rand intended. Francon claims to admire perfection, but at the same time she hates it because it is not appreciated by others; she buys artwork and destroys it.

The Fountainhead is a sweeping drama, drawing in a large number of characters with large roles and covering an array of events. Rand shifts her attention between characters, allowing various individuals to come forth at appropriate moments. Dominique, perhaps the most perplexing character, draws the others together. Her actions play off those of other characters and offer contrasts. She brings out the best in Peter Keating, making him doubt the value of conformity and also making him realize what Roark has to offer. She also aids Wynand in his journey toward fulfilling his personal ideas, rather than simply producing newspapers that cater to the lowest common denominator. In some ways she destroys the people with whom she comes in contact, but it is a creative destruction, allowing them to emerge stronger than before. She deliberately tries to ruin Roark because he is too good for an imperfect world, but her efforts against him, as she intends, make him stronger. Inevitably they end up together.

Rand uses various plot lines to make her points in a novel clearly intended more as a social message than as literature. Toohey is her primary villain. He appears benevolent and caring but promotes selflessness, which Rand sees as ultimately harmful because it teaches reliance on others. The result can only be mediocrity; in fact, Toohey deliberately promotes the work of mediocre artists, architects, and others. Catherine Halsey is a relatively minor character, but she is important for her frank admission that, in her job as a social worker, she has come to resent people who can improve themselves without her help. She also provides a foil for Keating and his personal ambition. Keating wants to be considered a great architect more than he actually wants to be one; Halsey appears selfless. Each time Keating gets close to Halsey, Dominique draws him away, thus helping him in his personal development by removing Halsey’s influence on him.

The Fountainhead has been praised as a novel of ideas. In the 1940’s, publication of such a novel by an American woman was relatively uncommon. Rand later abandoned the novelistic form, choosing instead to write directly on what she called the morality of reason. Rand had grown up in Russia and lived through the Bolshevik Revolution; this background led to her becoming a champion of capitalism in its purest forms. Her heroes are self-interested individuals who oppose the social reformers claiming to work for the public good.

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Critical Overview