The Controversy Surrounding Ayn Rand's Novel The Fountainhead

Egoism Versus Altruism: Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead

Ayn Rand in her controversial novel, The Fountainhead, written in 1935, depicts a man’s struggle for independence and freedom from the tyranny of a collective society. Howard Roark is the heroic, redheaded architect whose selfish desire to express his truths makes him incapable of destruction despite the efforts of the people. Set in the streets of New York in the 1920s during the age of the skyscraper, the novel conveys the effort to retain individuality in the face of negative forces.

Ayn Rand uses scholarly diction, narrative technique, and unique imagery to institute a theme of individuality versus collectivism, where the egotistical characters strive to act independently and are constantly brought down by society. In The Fountainhead, humanity has a herd mentality, and the individuals must act selfishly to be free.

Living in St. Petersburg, Ayn Rand was influenced into writing stories with heroic visions, which thoroughly opposed the mysticism and collectivism of Russian culture.

She witnessed the Kerensky and the Bolshevik Revolutions first-hand before her family moved to America, and she immediately took the States as her model of what a nation of free men could be (The Institute of Ayn Rand). She struggled for many years at various non-writing jobs before Ayn sold her first screenplay, “Red Pawn.” Ms. Rand went on to publish a stage play, Night of January Sixteenth, and several novels such as We the Living, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged. In all of these works of fiction, Ayn Rand dramatized her unique philosophy of the individual versus the whole in an intellectual style filled with imagery, intelligent diction, and narrative technique.

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While Rand believed that one ought to be selfish, Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher, argued that the self of a human being is a vulgar thing (Machan). Ayn felt that a self can choose what to do and has a great capacity to excel, which would imply that selfishness is creative, productive, industrious, and rational (Machan). Her vision of man and her philosophy for a living have altered many of the readers’ lives and unleashed a philosophic movement with a growing impact on American culture (The Institute of Ayn Rand).

Ayn Rand wrote The Fountainhead to discuss how individuals of creative genius, although the source of all human productivity, are misunderstood and persecuted by the great unwashed. Howard Roark is the epiphany of the gifted intellect who is constantly disregarded by the mob, which Ayn makes clear throughout the entire novel. At the beginning of the story when the Dean informed Howard that he was being expelled from The Stanton Institute of Technology because of his unique imagination, the Dean easily exclaimed that Mr. Roark would “outgrow all [his modernistic views of architecture],” but Howard was not swayed by his shrewd words and was determined on finding architectural work (Rand 24). At a young impressionable age, Roark was able to resist the persistence of society and remain true to himself. Rand portrays him as the lone hero fighting against the world, which makes the readers admire his talent and courage. Countless proposals to design buildings were offered to Howard, and most of them he rejected because the chairmen attempted to alter his sketches by adding ornamental porticos and facades. With each dismissed commission, Roark simply explained why “an honest building, like an honest man, had to be of one piece and one faith… if one smallest part committed treason to that idea – the thing of the creature was dead” (196). He is not sustained by the thoughts of others but by his own selfish need to create, to unleash the buildings that reside inside his soul. Roark, an atheist, treats his work with the respect and reverence that other men lavish over God. To him, insincerity towards one’s work is the worst blasphemy possible. When Howard first encounters Henry Cameron trying to acquire an architectural job, Roark is asked why he decided to be an architect, and he replies “because I love this earth. That’s all I love. I don’t like the shape of things on this earth. I want to change them…for myself” (49). Public approval is not an issue to Roark, because when he designs a perfect building, the only reward that matters to him is the elation of knowing that he has solved an architectural puzzle. “[Howard] will be glad if people who need it find a better manner of living in a house [he] designed. But that’s not the motive of [his] work. Nor [his] reason. Nor [his] reward” (578). He wants his buildings to be erected according exactly to his designs – pure and unaltered – to reflect his integrity as an architect. Roark knows that even small compromises can weaken his morality and destroy the honor of his architecture. As a selfish individual, Roark chooses to never live for others, forever acting upon his own volition and desires.

Throughout The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand shows a very distinctive style of narrative technique, which she employs to advance her concept of individualism versus collectivism. Rand writes for pages upon pages describing her characters and situating them into different roles of objectivism. She applies values, such as the struggle of the underdog, admiration for competence, integrity, idealism, and a passion for justice, that appeal automatically to the public (Thomas). When she first introduces Peter Keating, it is obvious to the readers that he is a foil of Howard, and while Roark’s character is utilized to represent the power of egoism, Ayn uses Keating’s character to symbolize the failure of collectivism. Keating is illustrated as being “soft and bright as a sponge to be filled, unresisting, with the air and the mood of the place” (Rand 53). Capable of transforming into whomever his audience coveted, he manipulates his co-workers and flatters his boss to move up in the architectural world. Keating is a second-hander, someone who defines himself by what others believe, and he has no true sense of self because he is too impressionable. Peter lives in fear his entire life: fear that his work will not be good enough, fear that he cannot measure up to what others expect from him, and fear that someday his success will vanish (Sakuda). Keating chooses his clothes, his wife, and his actions according to accepted guidelines and has no true integrity, and because of his lack of dignity, Keating destroys himself and anyone close to him. Rand also applies the technique of inverting the value of the supposed meaning of common terms, including sympathy, which becomes a symptom of profound evil (Thomas). Ellsworth Toohey is an accurate portrayal of this malevolence, which Ayn makes clear several times throughout The Fountainhead. He attended regularly several monthly meetings of the Council of American Builders, the Council of American Writers, and the Council of American Artists; he organized them all (Rand 305). Ayn creates Toohey to be someone who cares for the masses and the struggles of the mediocre man, but in reality, he uses the weaknesses of others to control them. He thrives on power and its accumulation, which he achieves through his control of the collective opinion. Rand composes Toohey to be the true villain in the novel, and the only person to understand the concept of objectivism but not follow its beliefs.

Ayn Rand intended for The Fountainhead to be filled with the American experience, the life of the American city, with the lives of American people pursuing archetypically American occupations, she wanted the book to be a work of American literature, and so Rand uses the diction of Americans (Cox). In one scene where there is a group of writers listening to a playwright read his play, one person responds to his efforts in the way in which a cynically self-satisfied American intellectual elitist could be expected to respond. She raises her arms, stretches herself, and says, “Jesus, Ike, it’s awful… It’s perfectly awful. It’s so awful it’s wonderful.” And Ike responds in the way in which a cynically defensive American could be expected to respond. “If Ibsen can write plays, why can’t I?” he says. “He’s good and I’m lousy, but that’s not a sufficient reason” (Rand 468). The writers are trying to project themselves as individuals, but they try too hard and produce an American combination of pretentiousness and self-abasement. In the climatic episode, Roark is placed on trial before a court to determine if he is the American hero or the American villain. He wins his trial by arguing the more general case of American individualism and vindicates America, “the noblest country in the history of men,” as well as himself (684). Rand also applies repetition for aesthetic patterning, and a succession of events is necessary for a sense of history. To form a pattern and reinforce a history, Rand introduces not just Roark but also his mentor and precursor, Henry Cameron. Roark as an architect represents the individualism of the era of Frank Lloyd Wright; Cameron as an architect represents the individualism of the era of Louis Sullivan (Cox). Cameron and Roark together represent the historical pattern and continuity of the American creative imagination. Through the intelligent American diction employed by Rand, she can shape the theme of objectivism.

Throughout The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand continuously utilizes symbols, motifs, and imagery as a means to further explore the characters’ different personalities in the novel. Granite is applied multiple times by Rand as an association with Roark’s character, which symbolizes his external and internal characteristics. Resembling the rock, Roark’s face, body, and mind are unbreakable, atypical, rigid, and stunning, but he is even more powerful than the stone that epitomizes him (SparkNotes). The symbol is first introduced at the beginning of the novel with Howard standing naked at the edge of a cliff and the lake water crashing into the granite below thinking “these rocks…are here for me, waiting for the drill, the dynamite, and my voice; waiting to be split, ripped, pounded, reborn; waiting for the shape my hands will give them” (Rand 16). This is a perfect example of Roark overcoming the granite and molding it into his desires and dreams, while he never allows the general public to manipulate him into their wishes and visions. It is also very fitting that Howard is acquainted with Dominique Francon, his future wife while working in a granite quarry during the slump of his career. She journeyed down to the quarry many times to scrutinize every move Roark made, and “she liked to think of the granite being broken by his hands,” not by the drill or dynamite (207). Dominique loathes every part of Howard and craves his demise of him, yet she discovers him irresistible and yearns to see him again and again. She vows to destroy Roark because she considers him and his work too good for this world. Ms. Francon is characterized as someone convinced that good does not stand a chance in this world, and as a result, she does not allow herself to care about anything or anyone, which is the reason Dominique hopes Roark will be destroyed by the drilling (Sakuda). By the end of the novel, Roark’s ability to shape the granite according to his desires pleases her. Roark is tall and strong, all straight angles, like the structures he builds, and like these buildings, he also is a final perfect creation of the granite that produces impeccable men in a cruel harsh world. Rand portrays Howard’s genius and integrity as unyielding as the raw materials for his buildings-to-be.

By the end of the novel, Rand has depicted the strength of the individual and the vulnerability of the collective society, and our gallant hero overcame the odds. Ayn was able to introduce an idea of an objective society, which many people still believe in today. The Fountainhead is a story that all people can grasp, and those who claim it is overblown nonsense would be surprised by how faithfully its playbook is followed. Ayn conceives the theme of egoism versus altruism through clever diction, imagery, and distinctive narrative technique. It is a book that teaches all its readers to be an individual and stand out in the crowd, and even be selfish.


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The Controversy Surrounding Ayn Rand's Novel The Fountainhead. (2022, Aug 12). Retrieved from

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