I originally began reading “The Fountainhead” because a friend of mine said it was her very favorite book in the world, but it had been years since she had read it. So the two of us planned to read it together and compare thoughts and opinions. I had also heard all sorts of rants and raves from people of all sorts of different political opinions so I was curious. If I really wanted to delve into Ayn Rand’s political world I, perhaps, should have chosen “Atlas Shrugged,” but then again, that wasn’t my friend’s favorite book. I’ll try to do this without too many spoilers and then give warning once I’m getting into the spoilers part.
The story revolves around architect Howard Roark, who is dedicated to his own style of architecture (he detests the use of the word “modern” for his style.) He will not compromise on his buildings — they must be done exactly as he designs them. He is a true individualist who lives only for himself. He does not desire fame, glory, fortune any more than he fears, poverty, pain or criticism. I suppose I shouldn’t say he doesn’t want them, but he doesn’t live for those things and doesn’t see the point in thinking about them. We also see his character foils in his classmate Peter Keating, who lives for the approval of others, and Ellsworth Toohey, who lives for the collective good of others. We also read about another architect who tried to live for himself and failed, Henry Cameron, who was destroyed by his attempts to live in such a way. Gail Wynand is a man that “could have been” according to some of Rand’s notes. He lives for power, but sees the value in Roark. Also involved is Dominique Francon, who loves and is loved by Roark, but also seeks to destroy him.
In all if I hadn’t started the book with sooooooo much context and opinion surrounding it, I probably wouldn’t have even thought that much about it. I love theme and I would have noticed, of course. (She does, after all, dedicate nearly a whole chapter to allowing the protagonist to go on a long speech basically laying out her philosophies.) But that isn’t the sort of thing that upsets me in books. Literately, I think the book was solid. The characterization was one of the best I have read in a long time and I appreciate that because so many characters in so many books are the same exact people that you read about over and over and over and you see on TV every day, and they are flat. But these characters were fleshed out. I was surprised because initially I was annoyed that we had very little to no information about the characters’ back stories (except for the antagonist, who we do learn about his childhood.) But most characters when we meet them is where we start, we learn almost nothing about their families or how they came to be how they are. It does bug me a little, especially about Howard Roark — how does one becomes such an avid Individualist? Besides learning that he grew up poor and that his dad was a longshoreman, we know nothing about him and how he learned to be how he is when we meet him in architecture school.
Spoilers be here below:Theme-wise, of course, the book is all about the triaumph of the individual over those who are self-sacrificing or those who live for others in any way. Roark is a dedicated individualist. He does what he wants and has no compromises. At one point this includes raping Dominique, who becomes his “great love” and also in a way an enemy for a while, though I think those who argue that might misunderstand her character. The rape is, I would say, even glorified in a way, as we hear from her perspective that it is what she wanted. I understood from a characterization and thematic perspective where it was going, but I still didn’t like it.
It is, I suppose, impossible to discuss this book or type of book without discussing my own opinions. Let me state clearly from the beginning, I’m talking purely philosophically and not politically. Unlike “Atlas Shrugged,” this book is more philosophic in how humankind should live and think, not how government should run. Philosophically I fall into the “libertarian” mindset (the idea, not to be confused with the party). This means that in an IDEAL world I would rather the government stay out of both social and economic areas of people’s lives. I stress the word ideal because I recognize that this is not possible. I won’t say how I vote or how this plays out in modern politics, but I recognize that the human race simply needs a government. An extreme libertarian (I’m very moderate on the spectrum) would prefer no government at all.
So, all that to say, I had a friend who said, “So, I guess you were pretty OK with the ideas in ‘The Fountainhead.'” I got to thinking about that and I think that I might be misunderstood, because there is still a humanitarian in me. Getting back to my “ideal” world, in my ideal world all of the people who needed help because they had lost their jobs or fallen on hard times or such, would be helped out by non-profit organizations or the church. In my ideal world humankind would be unselfish enough to generously give not necessarily money, but services, goods, shelter, jobs and such which would provide for those in need. Obviously, humankind is not that generous, but like I said that is my ideal world. This, by the way, is in sharp contrast to anything Rand would have approved of obviously, but, perhaps she would be relieved that at least the government was out of the picture.
I won’t say that there is nothing appealing about the ideas in “The Fountainhead” either, though. Rand is articulate and as extreme as the ideas are, she makes a good argument that if humans really did just live for themselves — not for selfish ambition for money, or power over others, or for lust, or for the praise of the masses — but just for the satisfaction of doing their best and what they truly loved, that the world would be a better, more efficient place; and they would succeed in the end. I mean in a way it is almost like a Disney movie right? Do the best at what you love, for no other reason than you love it, and you will triumph? (I think the motivation is an important element often missed by those who dislike Rand’s philosophies.)
There is a quote which I think sums up the theme of the book:
I wished to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others.
It had to be said. The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing. I wished to come here and say that the integrity of a man’s creative work is of greater importance than any charitable endavor. Those of you who do not understand this are the men who are destroying the world. — Howard Roark
So, I enjoyed reading the story. She is obviously very extreme in her philosophies, but, as I’ve always said, I don’t think that should ever discount the literary value of a book.