The Fountainhead

by Ayn Rand

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The Fountainhead was a surprise popular success that catapulted Ayn (pronounced to rhyme with “mine”) Rand to fame. Rand had been born Alice Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia, on February 2, 1905, to an affluent and assimilated Jewish family. Early in her life, she rebelled against all religion, at age fourteen declaring herself an atheist. She was even more vehemently anti-Communist. In 1926, after her graduation from the University of Petrograd, she managed to leave the Soviet Union for the United States. She worked in Hollywood at a wide range of odd jobs before becoming a screenwriter. She wrote a play that under the title Night of January 16th opened on Broadway in 1935 for a successful half-year’s run. Her first novel, We the Living (1936), was a grim portrayal of the stultifying effects of the Soviet system upon the individual. Her second, Anthem, was a brief parable indicting a collectivist society dominated by a good-of-the-group ideology; it was published in Great Britain in 1938 but could not find an American publisher until 1953.

Rand appears to have begun work on The Fountainhead in 1934 in reaction against what she saw as the collectivist direction in which the New Deal was taking the United States. After she decided to make the hero, Howard Roark, an architect, she undertook intensive study of the field; she even worked, without pay, as a typist in the office of a prominent New York architect. One publisher after another turned down the manuscript before an editor at the Indianapolis-based firm of Bobbs-Merrill took a chance on it. Although the first reviews—including those in such influential periodicals as Saturday Review of Literature and The New York Times Book Review—were positive, sales picked up only gradually through word-of-mouth recommendations from admiring readers.

The Fountainhead opens with graduation day in 1922 at the School of Architecture at the Stanton Institute of Technology. The anxious-to-please Peter Keating is honored as valedictorian, while Howard Roark is expelled for insubordination. The same pattern continues in the years that follow. Keating rises in the architectural profession by going along with whatever is asked of him. Having gone broke because of his refusal of commissions that would require him to compromise his designs by adding classical-style gimcrackery, Roark is forced to work as a laborer in a quarry. Roark gradually acquires a following among maverick and independent-minded patrons. His success is seen as a threat, however, by architectural columnist Ellsworth Toohey, who launches a campaign to rally public hostility against Roark for his unorthodoxy. The climax occurs when Keating secretly asks Roark for aid in designing a public-housing project. Roark agrees to allow Keating to take the credit provided that no changes be made in his plans by any “second-hander.” After Keating fails to live up to this promise, Roark dynamites the project because it betrays the “integrity” of his design.

A second, intersecting theme is Roark’s relationship with Dominique Francon. Their first meeting results in his raping her, which forges what proves an unbreakable bond between the two. For a time, she resists her attraction for Roark because she is pessimistic about the possibility of the individual maintaining integrity in the face of pressures for conformity. She joins Toohey in seeking to destroy Roark. When that fails, she tries to seduce him into playing the conventional success game. She is so cynical about the power of evil that she is driven to debase herself by marrying two men whom she despises—Peter Keating and then, after he sells her for $250,000 and a coveted architectural commission, newspaper publisher Gail Wynand.


(This entire section contains 702 words.)

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all ends happily. When Roark continues to stand by his principles, Dominique recognizes that she has found her ideal man, and she leaves Wynand to marry Roark. At his trial for destroying the project, Roark wins over the jury with his impassioned defense of the creative individual and is acquitted.

Wynand has his own attraction-repulsion relationship with Roark. After first defending Roark in the wake of the project dynamiting, he abandons him to save his own position. Nevertheless, the book ends with his commissioning Roark to build the highest skyscraper in New York: “Build it as a monument to that spirit which is yours . . . and could have been mine.”


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One of the earliest reviews of The Fountainhead praised the work as “the only novel of ideas written by an American woman that I can recall.” Yet Rand had no interest in so-called women’s issues, whether defined in traditionally conventional or feminist terms. The “motive and purpose of my writing,” she declared in a 1963 address on “The Goal of My Writing,” was “the projection of an ideal man.” A self-declared antifeminist, she went so far as to say that the “essence of femininity is hero-worship—the desire to look up to a man.” The line that she drew between masculine and feminine, however, was defined by attitudes and values rather than biology. By all accounts, she was the dominant personality in her marriage, and there is no question that she regarded herself as the personification of the fictional ideal of the “self-sufficient ego.”

The Fountainhead was on the best-seller lists for twenty-six weeks in 1945. The release in 1949 of the Warner Bros. film version, starring Gary Cooper as Roark and Patricia Neal as Dominique, gave a renewed boost to sales. By 1962 the novel had sold a half million copies in hardcover and over a million in paperback. This popularity was attributable partly to Rand’s talents as a storyteller and partly to her success in making her readers feel as if they, too, were among the unappreciated elect. Much of the reason for its success, however, lay in the mood of the time. Rand preached that the United States had been founded upon the inalienable right of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. She made no secret that she identified the American way with the free-enterprise capitalist system. World War II, followed by the Cold War with the Soviet Union, created a receptive audience for such a message.

Rand wrote a follow-up novel, published in 1957 as Atlas Shrugged, that even more fully explicated her ideas. Atlas Shrugged would be her last work of fiction. To take advantage of the publicity surrounding its publication, Rand, with a small group of disciples, the most important of whom were Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, launched the Objectivist movement to promote her philosophy. The movement issued a periodical newsletter under varying titles—The Objectivist Newsletter, The Objectivist, and The Ayn Rand Letter—from 1962 to 1976. Rand’s writings for those newsletters were recycled to become the basis for her final seven books: For the New Intellectual (1961), The Virtue of Selfishness (1964), Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966), The Romantic Manifesto (1969), The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (1971), Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (1979), and Philosophy: Who Needs It? (1982).

Despite the hostility and even alarm felt by many liberals, the Objectivist movement failed to acquire a large following. At least part of the difficulty was Rand’s personality—her insistence on enforcing upon her followers a rigid orthodoxy that tolerated no deviation. Yet her writings did play a significant role in inspiring, and popularizing, the larger libertarian movement.

Places Discussed

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*New York City

*New York City. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, New York City was an exciting place for architecture. Skyscrapers were new to the city and the world at large; the first one had been built in Chicago in 1883. Soon, however, New York was the leader in skyscraper building. Ayn Rand was fascinated by skyscrapers, towering toward the sky, and felt they were among humankind’s greatest achievements. She endowed Roark with this fascination but coupled it with her ideas of Objectivism—an egoist view in which all human actions are self-serving. Throughout the book, Roark thinks only of the things that matter to him—his architecture being paramount—and the only place he can do this is in New York City.

Rand chose New York because real-life skyscrapers were being constructed there, and the chance for conflict would therefore be high. The conflict between Peter Keating and his old-fashioned style and Roark and his modern design methods drives the story. The buildings they design together reveal this conflict.

Cortlandt homes

Cortlandt homes. Low-income housing project that Roark designs with Keating’s support. Even though Keating claims credit for the project, Roark sees it as a way to design something of which he can be proud. Throughout the book Roark finds himself at odds with the established style of design. When Ellsworth Toohey alters Roark’s design while Roark is on vacation, Roark decides to dynamite the structure and is arrested. This event is the prelude to the final courtroom battle and Roark’s (and Rand’s) grand statement about Objectivism.

Aquitania Hotel

Aquitania Hotel. Establishment that Kent Lansing hires Roark to build. The Aquitania represents Roark and his attempt to develop a new type of architecture, while fighting Ellsworth Toohey and others who want nothing to do with it. Eventually building is halted for legal reasons, but Lansing promises to complete it. Roark finally finishes it himself.

Stoddard Temple

Stoddard Temple. Nonsectarian building that Roark agrees to build, not knowing that Toohey wanted Roark to build it. When Roark is finished, Toohey criticizes it in a New York Banner article. Instead of being a triumph, the temple becomes a disgrace, and Roark finds himself trying desperately to land new architecture projects. Even so, Roark continues to believe in his design and develop his style. Rand has given her protagonist a larger-than-life philosophy, but she had an even larger goal in mind—bringing Objectivist philosophy to the people.


*Connecticut. When Roark learns that the design for the Manhattan Bank Building project is his, with minor modifications, he quits architecture and moves to a quarry in Connecticut. The mansion where Dominique Francon lives is in sharp contrast to the busy life of New York City: fast-living versus slow-living.

Historical Context

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The Great Depression
The Great Depression held America in its grip during the 1930s. The depression was a severe economic crisis that occurred in the United States after the stock market crash of 1929. The impact on Americans was staggering. In 1933, the worst year, unemployment rose to sixteen million, about one third of the available labor force. During the early months, men and women searched eagerly and diligently for any type of work. However, after several months of no sustained employment, they became discouraged and often gave up. President Franklin Delanor Roosevelt's New Deal policies, which offered the country substantial economic relief, helped mitigate the effects of the depression, but the recovery was not complete until the government channeled money into the war effort in the early 1940s.

The Red Decade
During the Great Depression, impoverished Americans began to doubt whether they would ever attain the American dream of success. As a result, the traditional spirit of individualism began to be replaced by communal sentiment. This new zeitgeist (spirit of the age) had important political repercussions: the repeal of Prohibition, the rise of labor organizations, and the institution of social safety nets, most notable after the Social Security Act was passed. Social reformers such as Jane Addams and Florence Kelly, who had helped push through the Social Security Act, promoted a sense of society as a family rather than a group of individuals with self-serving goals. Many such reformers helped support Roosevelt's New Deal policy, with its implementation of social safety nets.

This new sense of community was in part inspired by the spread of socialism and communism in Europe and Russia. After prominent intellectuals lent support to these parties and engineered strikes and demonstrations throughout the country, historians labeled the 1930s "The Red Decade." The focus of many of these progressives was on class consciousness in America, especially on the plight of the working class as juxtaposed against the vast wealth and power of the industrialists.

World War II
The world experienced a decade of aggression in the 1930s that would culminate in World War II. This second world war resulted from the rise of totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan. These militaristic regimes gained control as a result of the depression experienced by most of the world in the early 1930s and from the conditions created by the peace settlements following World War I. The dictatorships established in each country encouraged expansion into neighboring countries. In Germany Adolf Hitler strengthened the army during the 1930s. In 1935, Benito Mussolini's Italian troops took Ethiopia. From 1936 through 1939, Spain was engaged in civil war involving Francisco Franco's fascist army, aided by Germany and Italy. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria, and in March 1939, occupied Czechoslovakia. Italy took Albania in April 1939. On September 1, 1939, one week after Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R. signed the Treaty of Nonaggression, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. On September 3, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany after a U-boat sank the British ship Athenia off the coast of Ireland. Another British ship, Courageous, was sunk on September 19th. All the members of the British Commonwealth, except Ireland, soon joined Britain and France in their declaration of war.

The Cold War
Soon after World War II, when Russian leader Joseph Stalin set up satellite communist states in Eastern Europe and Asia, the Cold War began, ushering in a new age of warfare and fear triggered by several circumstances: the United States' and the U.S.S.R.'s emergence as superpowers; each country's ability to use the atomic bomb; and communist expansion and U.S. determination to check it. Each side amassed stockpiles of nuclear weapons that could not only annihilate the other country, but also the world. Both sides declared the other the enemy and redoubled their commitment to fight for their own ideology and political and economic dominance. As China fell to the Communists in 1949, Russia crushed the Hungarian revolution in 1956, and the United States adopted the role of world policeman, the Cold War accelerated.

The Cold War induced anxiety among Americans, who feared both annihilation by Russians and the spread of communism at home. Americans were encouraged to stereotype all Russians as barbarians and atheists who were plotting to overthrow the U.S. government and brainwash its citizens. The fear that communism would spread to the United States led to suspicion and paranoia, and many suspected communists or communist sympathizers saw their lives ruined. This "red scare" was heightened by the indictment of ex-government official Alger Hiss (1950) and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1951) for passing defense secrets to the Russians. Soon, the country was engaged in a determined and often hysterical witch-hunt for communists, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House of Representatives' Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In 1954, McCarthy was censured by the Senate for his unethical behavior during the Committee sessions. By the time of McCarthy's death in 1957, almost six million Americans had been investigated by government agencies because of their suspected communist sympathies, yet only a few had been indicted.

Literary Style

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Rand was a great admirer of Aristotle especially his literary theories. She believed that a novel should exhibit an Aristotelian logic, that all of its parts (plot, characters, and setting) should unite to reveal theme, reflected through and controlled by the imagination of the author. In her The Romantic Manifesto, she insists that these parts, or "attributes" as she calls them "unite into so integrated a sum that no starting point can be discerned." In a letter to Gerald Loeb she declares, "A STORY IS AN END IN ITSELF.... It is written as a man is born—an organic whole, dictated only by its own laws and its own necessity." Stephen Cox writes in his book on The Fountainhead, as noted by scholar Chris Sciabarra, that Rand's fiction reveals this "startling intensity of integration." The Fountainhead exhibits this organic unity as the characters, who reflect Rand's philosophy, come into conflict with each other that results in an ultimate justification of her beliefs in a setting that symbolizes those beliefs.

The title of the novel symbolizes the character of Howard Roark and Rand's insistence that men like him should be considered the source of all human progress, as the fountainhead is the source of a river. She suggests that an independent spirit coupled with a creative imagination will produce an ideal man who will, through his inventions, help society prosper. Roark gains satisfaction by being true to his independent spirit, and at the same time, that spirit aids society as it creates functional and artistic buildings.

Rand employs the image of skyscrapers to suggest similar qualities. When Roark rejects the traditional stone and wood materials for glass and plastics, molding them into open, innovative designs, he becomes the symbol of progress. The fusion of the images of the fountainhead and the skyscraper occurs at the end of the novel when Roark is standing on the top platform at the construction site of the Wynand Building. His devotion to his individualism has propelled him to this height at the top of the skyscraper, as noted by Dominique who watches from below. She describes how he becomes a part of the landscape. Raising her eyes, she sees him high above the city where "there was only the ocean and the sky and the figure of Howard Roark."

Social Concerns

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Rand's visualizations of society are radically different from the majority of those embodied in most popular fiction. Her Objectivist philosophy encourages nonconformity and the acceptance of no constraints over an individual's reason. Howard Roark, the brilliant architect hero of this work, accepts no precedents for his designs, and has no interest in what society wants from architecture. Rather than studying Greek or Renaissance designs, he leaves the school of architecture and strikes out on his own, designing his unorthodox buildings for those clients who have the worth to see the brilliance and functionality of his buildings.

Rand's works are essentially studies of these few, scattered, brilliant individuals against the whole of society, which is usually depicted as, at best, ignorant and uncaring, and at worst, actively working to destroy those of great ability. Mediocrity, the power of pull, and the ability to repeat what has been done before, without dangerous innovation, often result in elevation in the society found in Rand's works. Peter Keating, merely competent as an architect, is extremely successful, while Roark must scrape along from client to client, often behind on his bills as he waits for those rare clients of vision equal to his own. Keating is "safe," while Roark is brilliant but unstable because he insists on the clarity of his own vision. The Fountainhead is antisocial, in that it extols the virtues of a few far-thinking individuals over the majority.

Compare and Contrast

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1930s: Joseph Stalin is the oppressive dictator of the Soviet Union. His reign of terror lasts for two more decades.

Today: In 1991, President Mikhail Gorbachev orders the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and a new Commonwealth of Independent States is formed by the countries that formerly made up the U.S.S.R.

1930s: Germany invades Poland in 1939 and World War II begins.

Today: George W. Bush declares a war on terrorism after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in September 2001.

1930s: America and the world is in the grips of a severe economic depression.

Today: America sees one of its strongest economic booms in the 1990s. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, that boom is now over, but, even on the brink of a recession, the economy is very stable.

Techniques / Literary Precedents

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As a writer, Rand set for herself the unusual task of presenting philosophical theory in a dramatic fashion. Most philosophers have outlined their theories in treatises, and Rand herself concentrated on these nonfictional presentations after Atlas Shrugged (1957). While difficult, philosophy that has been dramatized may be enormously effective, as evidenced by Rand's work. In her fiction, characters espousing pro- or anti-Objectivist ideals speak at length on their philosophies, but additionally, the dramatic action in each work illustrates these speeches and the alternations of idea and action are perfectly intermeshed. The culmination of Rand's work, the radio speech delivered by John Gait in Atlas Shrugged, would be as difficult to understand as a typical philosophical treatise if it were delivered out of context. The reader easily apprehends it in this case because he has followed the book's plot line; he has seen what happened, and Gait's speech, explains why it happened.

Rand described herself as one of the last practitioners of the Romantic school of fiction, a school typified by writers such as Victor Hugo and Feodor Dostoevski. The Romantic conception of life is quite different from later literary phases such as Realism (exemplified by Gustave Flaubert) and Naturalism (as written by Emile Zola or Stephen Crane). Where the two latter schools depict people as they are typically found, Romanticism depicts the ideal; where Realism and Naturalism picture people controlled by fate or society, the Romantic view places them in control of their own destinies. The construction of plot also differs between the three forms. Romanticism, because of its belief that men determine the course of their own lives, presents a plot that moves through logically connected events to a climax. Realism and Naturalism do not have this luxury; because they put their characters at the mercy of fate or circumstance, these works are typically narratives of events with no causal links and no artistically-constructed climax.

Hugo and Dostoevski are Rand's most important literary antecedents. She read Hugo from an early age and admired his works because they depicted man as hero, depicted a world where important and exciting things could happen. Although not philosophically compatible with Hugo, who accepted conventional moralities that Rand rejected, she agreed whole-heartedly with his artistic impulses. She also learned from Dostoevski, one of the first novelists to convincingly depict the inner thoughts of his characters. Rand even surpassed him in some areas. Where Dostoevski was supremely gifted in writing about mentally disturbed characters like Raskolnikov, the "hero" of Crime and Punishment (Dostoevski; 1866) Rand was able to enter the thought processes of all her characters and convincingly reveal them to the reader.


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Rand adapted two of her novels for other media, only one of which is available for comparison. (The Unconquered, an adaptation of We the Living, was produced on Broadway in 1940, but is unpublished.) In 1949, The Fountainhead, for which Rand had done the film script, was released by Warner Brothers. Directed by King Vidor and starring Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, and Raymond Massey, the movie represents a triumph of sorts for Rand, who battled the studio, the stars, and the censor (the Johnson Office) to present her ideas without dilution. It may also represent a common pitfall: An author is often too close to a work to successfully adapt it for the screen. Reviews on the film are mixed, ranging from those condemning it as high-flown nonsense to those who describe it as ambitious but not completely successful.

Media Adaptations

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The Fountainhead, the film version of the novel, was released by Warner Brothers in 1949 and directed by King Vidor. The film stars Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal.

An audio version of The Fountainhead was released by Blackstone Audio Books in 1995 and read by Christopher Hurt.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Berliner, Michael S., Letters of Ayn Rand, Plume, 1997.

Deane, Paul, "Ayn Rand's Neurotic Personalities of Our Times", in Revue des langues vivantes, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, 1970, pp. 125-29.

Gladstein, Mimi Reisel, The Ayn Rand Companion, Greenwood Press, 1984, pp. 26, 36, 46, 56.

Gordon, Philip, “The Extroflective Hero: A Look at Ayn Rand," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 10, No. 4, Spring 1977, pp. 701-10.

Miller, Laurence, "Ayn Rand," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 227: American Novelists Since World War II, Sixth Series, The Gale Group, 2000, pp. 251-60.

Peikoff, Leonard, Afterword, in The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand, Signet, 1993.

Pruette, Lorine, "Battle against Evil," in New York Times Book Review, May 16, 1943.

Rand, Ayn, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, New American Library, 1966.

Rand, Ayn, “The Objectivist Ethics," in The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism, 1964.

Rothman, N. L., "H. Roark, Architect," in Saturday Review, May 29, 1943.

Sciabarra, Chris Matthew, "Ayn Rand," in American Writers Supplement 4, Scribners, 1966, pp. 517-35.

Sobran, Joseph, "Mussolini Shrugged," in National Review, Vol. XLI, No. 1, January 27, 1989, pp. 52-53.

Stetco, Dayana, "Rand, Ayn," in Reference Guide to American Literature, 3d ed., St. James Press, 1994.

Further Reading

Den Uyl, Douglas J., and Douglas B. Rasmussen, eds., The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, University of Illinois Press, 1984.
This collection of essays presents a comprehensive statement of Rand's philosophy of objectivism.

Evans, M. Stanton, "The Gospel according to Ayn Rand," in National Review, Vol. XIX, No. 39, October 3, 1967, pp. 1059-63.
Evans evaluates Rand's philosophy from a conservative perspective.

Rosenbloom, Joel, “The Ends and Means of Ayn Rand," in the New Republic, Vol. 144, No. 17, April 24, 1961, pp. 28-29.
Rosenbloom presents a review of Rand's philosophy.

Smith, George H. "Atheism and Objectivism and Objectivism as Religion," in Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies, Prometheus Books, 1991, pp. 181-192, 213-30.
This essay focuses on the religious aspects of objectivism.


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Baker, James T. Ayn Rand. Boston: Twayne, 1987. An objective study of Rand’s career. Includes brief descriptions and analyses of her major works of fiction and drama. One chapter succinctly describes the main themes and ideas expressed in her written work.

Branden, Barbara. The Passion of Ayn Rand. Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday, 1986. Branden’s biography of Rand is based partly on her own association with Rand (including the extensive interviews she had with Rand while preparing the biographical sketch published in Who Is Ayn Rand?) and partly on interviews with more than two hundred people about their relations with Rand. Branden appears to have done substantial research in available documentary materials, but the absence of footnotes makes it impossible to pinpoint her sources of information.

Branden, Nathaniel, and Barbara Branden. Who Is Ayn Rand? New York: Random House, 1962. The Brandens were Rand’s closest associates in the Objectivist movement until she broke with them in 1968. Barbara Branden’s biographical essay is based upon information provided by Rand herself and thus reflects the version of her life that she wanted to present to the world. Nathaniel Branden’s contributions include an examination of Rand’s literary methodology, as analysis of the significance of her ideas for psychology, and “The Moral Revolution in Atlas Shrugged.”

Gladstein, Mimi R. The Ayn Rand Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984. Gladstein is successful in her goal of providing an objective and balanced guide to the writings of Ayn Rand. The volume consists of a brief biographical sketch, summaries of Rand’s major writings—fiction and nonfiction—including a listing and descriptions of her principal fictional characters, and a survey of critical reactions.

McGann, Kevin. “Ayn Rand in the Stockyard of the Spirit.” In The Modern American Novel and the Movies, edited by Gerald Peary and Roger Statkin. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. An illuminating analysis of the adaptation of The Fountainhead into the 1949 Warner Bros. motion picture, directed by King Vidor and starring Gary Cooper as Howard Roark and Patricia Neal as Dominique Francon.

Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1991. Based on a set of the author’s lectures on Rand’s philosophy, which were authorized by Rand. Understanding Rand’s philosophy is vital to understanding The Fountainhead.

Rand, Ayn. For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Random House, 1961. Provides Rand’s introduction to her philosophy. Separate chapters on individual works of fiction give excerpts from those works that illustrate her philosophy.

Rand, Ayn. Philosophy: Who Needs It? Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1982. Essays range in content from the basics of Rand’s philosophy to its applications in social policy. Most were written between 1970-1975 and reflect contemporary events, her philosophy, and thoughts on her fiction.


Critical Essays


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