The Fountainhead is Ayn Rand’s first full novel. Released in 1943, it is often overshadowed by Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s masterpiece. The Fountainhead is however, in my opinion, perhaps Rand’s best work. The plot of the novel is disciplined, it has less monologues than Atlas and reflects more of the inner travails of the characters. The plot pits Howard Roark – aspiring architect – against the architectural community which values tradition over reason in the construction of America’s buildings.
The novel’s genre is close to literary fiction, although following Rand’s singular style the characters are still somewhat two-dimensional. The story is different from Rand’s other main book. Atlas Shrugged tells of the heroic battle between the producers and the looters; the industrialists and the politicians; those who live at the expense of others against those who would live for themselves alone – as they vie against each other on the world stage for the soul of a nation. It is epic and sweeping and grand. The Fountainhead is instead the struggle of a single man to find and hold his place in a world not unlike our own without surrendering his principles and values; and finding out in the process just how hard that is.
The most insightful exploration I have read of The Fountainhead (although I can’t remember where) presents the book as a juxtaposition of four archetypal characters. The man who was not, but thought he was. The man who was, but chose not to be. The man who was not, and knew it. And the man who was, knew it, and endured unimaginable adversity to remain so.
The most dangerous man in this story – not only for the men of the mind but for the well-being of society as a whole – is the third character, the man who was not and knew it. His singular mission, bring society to his level. He was not smart? Ridicule intelligence. He was not strong? Glorify weakness. He had no honor? Make integrity meaningless. He was unable to produce? Put those who could to work for him. It is this man and his archetype that represents the greatest evil in the story – and in the world. As he builds a coalition against the individual man of the mind – represented by Howard Roark – will he prevail? Read the story to find out.
I also like this book because it highlights the individual struggle in a world easy to recognize. Unless you live in Venezuela or Cuba or Argentina, Atlas Shrugged’s world is easily dismissed (like Whittaker Chambers put it) as preposterous. In our modern world there are rarely only two groups; the “looters” and “supermen” identified by Rand. There are also a lot of people like me, and maybe like Howard Roark. People who must live in the world, not above it. Like Roark, I am not a great man. I am not an industrialist or a tycoon – I am not a superman and do not consider myself a “motor of the world.” I cannot singlehandedly confront the great evils as do the heroes we read about and admire. Nevertheless I do consider myself a man of reason – a man of the mind; and I do what I can to advance the principles of the self-made man in liberty wherever I have the opportunity. Perhaps for this reason I too have occasionally found myself in the granite quarry. That’s why I find comfort in Roark’s struggles and travails. There is honor in our battles, even if the outcome is unsure and the minstrels will never sing of them. For those of us without loud last names or deep pockets the fight for freedom is harder, because it is more risky. This does not make it less important, but more so. Because it is those of us who would have been serfs who better understand the meaning of living free.