This is the first of two blog articles on “The Fountainhead”. This one is a review of the book itself, while in the second article I want to dive into some of the concepts. “The Fountainhead” is one of Ayn Rand’s most famous pieces of work and is widely considered a classic piece of literature. The book revolves around architecture and one architect, Howard Rourke’s uncompromising approach to his career. Rourke will not compromise even an inch of himself on his designs. So, for example, if a customer wants to hire him but will restrict even one small detail, Rourke will abandon the contract. This leads to circumstances where he becomes bankrupt and lives in abject poverty for a time.
The story plays out like a reverse of “A Christmas Carol”. The book is written in a format that has an introduction followed by three sections where three different men challenge Rourke, ending in Rourke’s own segment and triump. However, unlike Scrooge’s story, The Fountainhead involves three “visitors” that attempt to defeat Rourke with various schemes and are in turn themselves defeated by his virtue. It’s Scrooge as the virtuous soul fending off the ghosts. It’s a novel twist and one I quite enjoyed. The book’s strengths lie in its characters. Rourke himself is attractive, if unrealistic, in the way that he will not compromise himself. As a right-wing individualist myself, the way that Rourke lives his life comes off like a champion – even if I believe his uncompromising vision is impractical in real life.
**Some spoilers follow past this point**
For me the “stars of the show” are the three men that rise to challenge Rourke. The first, and most relatable, is Peter Keating. Keating is a fellow architect who grew up with Rourke but is his polar opposite foil. Where Rourke is strong and individualistic Keating is insecure and a people-pleaser. He’s also downright manipulative to the point of actually purposefully stressing out a supporting character to the point that he has a stroke and dies – which was Keating’s goal. The second challenger is Ellsworth Toohey, an architecture critic with a prodigious talent for persuasion and an ardent socialist. Toohey initiates an elaborate and devious plan to discredit Rourke in court (I’ll expand on these character’s motivations more in my in-depth blog on the book). Finally, there is Gail Wynand who is a former child gang leader who ends up taking control of a newspaper because it will have the most influence on people. Wynand is awesome, think Darth Vader as a newspaper baron. He is pure evil, taking delight in getting good people to compromise their virtues. As a game, he spends huge sums of money to attract news-writers that he can force to go against their own morals and ethical codes. Same goes for his taste in women where he will only sleep with women he buys – and only buys women that “cannot be bought”. There’s an elegance to his evil that’s intoxicating if not downright scary at times because he’s a very intelligent man. At one point Wynand and Rourke become friends but something occurs that changes their relationship.
Alas the book is not perfect and I have two main criticisms.
From a narrative point of view, my first criticism is how Rourke is handled. For the first 150 pages or so of the book he speaks only in questions or short phrases. His character is established as a very strong and silent type. But around 150 pages in Rourke has his first large monologue where out of nowhere he spews long and articulately about his individualistic philosophy. Howard Rourke is the hero and represents Ayn Rand’s own philosophy, what I read as what happened is that she could not find a way to let Rourke’s virtues just stand for themselves: she had to interject her monologue onto the character to get it to the reader. By doing this, she shocks you with how much Rourke suddenly changes, it doesn’t make sense or jive with how his character was established, and just comes off as giving in to temptation so she can get her politics out there.
For defenders of the book…This one is going to earn me much scorn as I’m going to join the masses. I’ll just get it out there: The Fountainhead involves a scene of explicit and violent rape. Now, I prefer non-fiction books so I haven’t read a ton of fiction, but I’d never read anything like the first sexual encounter between Dominique Francon and Rourke. There’s an internal battle in Dominique’s mind where her mind is battling if she enjoys it or not. But Rourke doesn’t know this. The book implies that they have some sort of super intense connection that Rourke might ‘know’ she somehow secretly wants the sex – but overtly she doesn’t. The book clearly describes Dominique as physically trying to fight off Rourke while he throws her around the room and into walls. I’m going to weigh in on why I agree with the ‘mainstream’ critiques in part 2 of my analysis.
However, those two criticisms should not detract from the fact that I think the book is brilliant. It encapsulates the virtue, allure, challenges, and triumphs of being true to oneself. We live in a world that pressures us to conformity. That conformity is always changing but The Fountainhead has a hero striking back against the tide. Making a stand for true humanity in the face of the masses. And it’s damn good!