Ever since I reviewed Rain is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith, I’ve been lowering my expectations when going into a new book. This has helped me tremendously to see the many facets of the novel in question and to be as neutral as possible. Today’s subject was a challenge because it came with plenty of baggage, and it still has a following even in the nearly eighty years since its publication in 1943. Now, one might ask, “Emily, what is this book in question?”
Reader, it’s The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand – a novel that I see the timelessness of even though it’s not for me.
The Fountainhead tells the tale of Howard Roark, the extremely uncompromising young architect; of Dominique Francon, an exquisitely beautiful woman who marries his worst enemy despite loving Howard passionately; and of the society who tries to bring him down. This novel sowed the seeds of Rand’s famous Objectivism philosophy and presented the idea that man’s ego is the fountainhead of human progress.
Since this book helped popularize the philosophy of Objectivism, I will give my two cents on it as promised. Here are four tenets to this thinking:
- Objective Reality: Reality is objective. There’s a true reality outside of our own personal perceptions.
- Reason: Reason is all we had and all we need, and it’s absolute. Facts outweigh emotion and faith.
- Self-interest: The highest moral purpose should be the pursuit of your own happiness.
- Laissez-faire capitalism: The economy should be completely unregulated and separate from the government.
I’m going to be honest. While I understand certain aspects of Objectivism, I have some issues with it. With reality and reason,while there are certainly people who view the world that way, there are others whose worldviews are impacted by their personal experiences. As a result, they can’t always see the world around them objectively. It’s not entirely their fault. Nonetheless, having objective reality and reason helps to put things in perspective.
When it comes to self-interest, on one hand, people have been selfish in order to take care of themselves and achieve what happiness they want. That’s why self care has been highly important, especially since the initial Covid rise. On the other hand, selfishness has led to harming and exploiting others. Rand herself never really acknowledged that aspect of self-interest. In addition, I get that she grew up in a time where the Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian monarchy and replaced it with communism. I also comprehend that there are times, in which people have utilized compromise to use others for their personal gain. One can look at Joseph Stalin and how he ruled the Soviet Union to grasp that notion. However, that doesn’t always mean taking advantage of others nor the end of one’s dreams. In a way, compromise can allow for people to pursue their own goals using different tactics.
Finally with laissez-faire capitalism, I get that having that kind of economy allows for free trade and lack of government interference. On the other hand, there have been plenty of issues caused by unregulated economies including inequalities in wealth and income, depressions, and monopolies.
For the content itself, I can see its timeless quality. Every generation will have people who are idealists, selfish, and/or rich. If they come across this book, it would be easy for them to form a personality around it, especially if they are teenagers who see it as a metaphor for creating art for one’s own happiness as opposed to doing it for the masses. This is so because the book is absolutely convinced of its ideals and has a clear distinction of what are the right and wrong ways to work and live. It also helps that most of the characters are more symbolisms than people for a certain way of living, so readers don’t have to think too hard on their personalities and can focus more on what is being said. In other words, I can see why people like big business CEOs, politicians, certain celebrities, and teenagers would be attached to the novel.
In addition, one can easily have a genuine conversation with another if the book is ever brought up. During the two months that I read it, I’ve chatted with people who’ve liked and disliked it. They would usually go into their own beliefs and values as well as their feelings on the novel itself. These are the kinds of conversations that I yearn to have with other readers, so I do thank The Fountainhead for opening plenty of doors.
However, the book is not intended as a metaphor. It’s basically a manual on how Objectivism, especially with laissez-faire capitalism, is the way to live life as a story. In that regard, it somewhat works. While it certainly discusses how self-interest is good; how altruism is bad; and how the main character Howard Roark uses reason and sees the world in a objective way, it barely touches upon capitalism outside a brief discussion involving Ellsworth Toohey and a group of people in the second half of the novel. I wonder if this is so because Ayn Rand wanted readers to see the first three tenets more than the fourth one in order to hook them in. If the book spent more time asserting the pros of that specific kind of capitalism, then it would be a better guidebook.
Moreover, the novel definitely would have benefited from an editor. It seems like every character, no matter how important they are to the plot, has a speech of some sorts that goes on and on. Granted, there are times where the detailed descriptions and long-winded ruminations are tolerated. For example, since architecture is an integral part of the book, Rand describes almost every characteristic of the buildings that are mentioned. Also, Howard delivers the speech of all speeches with a lecture on the unalienable rights of man in the courtroom to justify why he blew up the Cortlandt building (to be fair, Ellsworth gave a big speech defending a sculptor who tried to assassinate him early in the book, and the latter got off scot-free, which is a nice and hokey piece of foreshadowing to what would happen with Howard). Prior to that, he rarely went on rants. Personally, I would’ve cut out at least 100-200 pages to make it tighter.
However, there are some things that I liked about The Fountainhead. For starters, Rand does a good job with making her audience not like Peter Keating, Ellsworth, and Gail Wynand. Peter is the type of person whose self-esteem is determined by the people around him and has no personal values of his own. This is best illustrated with his relationship with Catherine, Ellsworth’s niece. Peter sees her every few months or so, but he promises to marry her. Then, when he is supposed to wed, he does it with Dominique Francon. Ellsworth is a man who preaches collectivism and how everything one should do is for the greater good. However, he does this as a way to dominate others by controlling their opinions (*cough Joseph Stalin). This is exemplified by his attempt to take over The Banner newspaper. Gail is a media tycoon who was self-taught and self-made, but he became the people whom he despised. He becomes Howard’s ally and friend because the latter reminds him of his younger self. Sadly, Gail betrays the latter at the end after the people turned against the former for his opinion on the architect.
Additionally, I find Dominique to be a fascinatingly complex character. I like how cold, distant, and witty she is, and how she uses them to shield her deep love of various things, including Howard, to prevent them from ruining her. She spends a good chunk of the novel trying to destroy him, while helping him behind his back. It’s clear that she’s the most developed character in the novel, which is saying a lot since it was published in a time, where complex women in literature were rare, and that the rest of the (male) cast are mainly symbols.
Now there’s one thing that I know certain people will want me to discuss in the novel, and that’s the rape scene. Before I started reading the book, I had a feeling that I was going to be frustrated by it because of all its philosophical rants and what it represented. Surprisingly, I wasn’t because I knew about these beforehand, except for the rape. I had a hunch about the assault after watching the 1949 movie version starring Gary Cooper (hey, I recognize that name) and Patricia Neal.
It’s not the forced act itself that I have an issue with since I’ve read other titles that contain scenes similar to that. It’s more of how it’s reasoned and framed. Rand herself has defended writing this scene, calling it “a rape by engraved invitation.”
Now, I understand that Dominique striked Howard with the tree branch and that people have different perceptions of what consent looks like. My problem with Rand’s reasoning is that this is what a rapist would say to justify violating another person. It’s victim blaming. Remember, this book was written by a person who truly believed that white people were completely justified in stealing indigenous land because of the belief that the natives weren’t doing anything productive with it in the name of capitalism. Furthermore, it’s a fantasy rape, for Dominique falls in love with Howard even more because he drilled her without asking for her permission, and she wanted to be treated like a servant being punished by her master. Outside of the philosophy itself and how certain Rand disciples have acted, this romantic framing of the heinous act is the reason why the book remains controversial in some circles. This is also why I couldn’t root for Howard despite his objective reality, rational reasoning, and pursuit of his own interests.
Finally, if one decides to read this book, I want to warn them of how on-the-nose it is. In fact, I had to put the book down after the second sentence when Rand describes how Howard is butt-naked standing by a lake. She’s the type of author who wants to be as clear as whistle when it comes to interpreting her material. In fact, in the author’s introduction that was included in the novel’s 25th anniversary edition, she spends a lot of time clarifying its intent and certain statements like how the character Hopton Stoddard says, “You’re a profoundly religious man, Mr. Roark —in your own way. I can see that in your buildings” and Howard agrees (p. xi). In other words, Rand and subtly mix just as well as oil and water do.
Overall, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand is a novel that will get people talking for good or worse. I liked certain elements, yet it can be cumbersome due to the philosophy that’s promoted, the writing itself, and how specific things are handled. It’s not that dense of a book, but it can certainly feel that way at times. Nonetheless, I see how truly timeless it is because it appeals to the idealists, whether they are teenagers, big business CEOs, politicians, and/or celebrities. So for that reason, I would recommend it to those kinds of people as well as to those who do not understand the former. If one doesn’t want to read it, I won’t force it on them. Despite my grievances, I came out of reading The Fountainhead with an appreciation for it because I lowered my expectations.
Before I go, I want to let you all know that I’ll be talking about the movie adaptation with Zita Short on her The 300 Passions Podcast! We’ll be discussing the baggage associated with the book and film as well as why the latter failed to make the cut on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…Passions list. It’ll be my second time on that podcast. I had seen the movie before, and it motivated me to read the book, so it’ll be a fun time talking about how faithful it is to the novel. Stay tuned for my movie review as well as for that episode!
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