The Fountainhead

The importance of reason is a central issue in The Fountainhead and, along with the primacy of the individual, forms the backbone of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. And yet, Howard Roark declares that reason is something that no one really wants to have on his side. Throughout the narrative of The Fountainhead, a majority of characters, such as Roark’s potential clients, Peter Keating (and all the other architects) and Gail Wynand repeatedly prove that statement. On the other hand, Roark, the model “creator,” evidently wants reason on his side, as his defense against this multitude of “second-handers” who seek his failure. At the end of the novel, Toohey’s conversation with Keating and Roark’s testimony in court clearly explain this issue by detailing the role of reason in society.            

The majority of clients who come to Roark’s office with commissions abhor reason. The characters of Mrs Wilmot, Mr Mundy and Mrs Sanborn, in particular, are vessels for the opinions of their equally vapid friends. Mr Sanborn, who had specifically requested a modern house, initially thinks Roark’s design is great, but “after others had seen the sketches [he] was not certain of this any longer [...] [he] swayed with every new current” (166-7). The simple disapproval of a few others is almost enough to deter him from the construction of the dream residence he so obviously craves. Conversations between Roark and these clients illustrate that they don’t possess a thought, or will, of their own. They are impervious to reason and rely solely on the tastes and knowledge of their questionably qualified friends, who themselves have only the taste of their friends upon which to base their judgements.

This parasitic circle of insecurity and spinelessness, much deplored by Rand’s narrative, is compounded when a board must make a decision. Though Roark can force Nathaniel Janss to see reason in a personal interview by stating that, like the human body, a building is beautiful because “there’s not a single line wasted; [...] every detail of it fits one idea” (163), he knows from past experience that he will be all but impotent when faced with Janss’ board of directors. His exquisite argumentation is swept aside in the maelstrom of their interminable, mindless pontification, as each so-called director, as devoid of will as Roark’s clients, strives to gain the approval of those seated beside him as well as serve the intangible will of the public. Roark senses the inevitable outcome and resigns himself to not even hope for the commission before receiving the letter of rejection from Janss. This deplorable herd mentality serves to reinforce Rand’s opinion that only the sole individual can employ reason.

Peter Keating is introduced as the quintessence of American success: talented, charismatic, instantly likeable and arrestingly handsome. Yet in conversation with Roark the polished facade that graces the eyes of his friends and audiences crumbles away and he is left all too human. Though Keating has yet to admit it to himself, in reality his constant deference to Roark’s skill and judgment is due to the fact that he himself has little of either. While Roark is consumed by his passion for architecture and consequently feels not the slightest moment of hesitation when it comes to his career, Keating, the man who couldn’t be and doesn’t know it, despite the illusion of his immense popularity with the public, is his antithesis. This highest achiever of Stanton is in fact nothing more than a “second-hander,” a mediocre architect who can only produce derivative monstrosities. He does not want to face the “question asking him whether he was really as great as this day would proclaim him to be” (17); subconsciously he already knows the answer. Instead, Keating allows the public’s admiration to blind him and serve as his denial of a gnawing truth. Reason would reveal his ineptitude, dismantling his precious self-image and crushing him utterly, so throughout his career he suppresses it with increasing doubts as his firm slowly declines. When, tired of his stagnation, he confronts Toohey, his former mentor, demanding to know why he is no longer winning commissions, he is destroyed by the sudden exposure to reason. Later, when Keating leaves the stand after testifying in the Cortland case, the audience “had the odd impression that no change had occurred [...] as if no person had walked out” (709).

New York skyline

Gail Wynand, the man who could have been, started his life in the cauldron of Hell’s Kitchen. Initially, a talent and energy comparable to Roark’s lead to success in his noble aspiration to escape his origins, but Wynand ends up creating the Banner, a symbol of the worst of society’s depravity. His career is devoted to feeding the tasteless “second-handers,” bred by Toohey, what they want to hear, thus helping to validate their existence. Though it is evident that the world has corrupted him, Wynand too does not want reason on his side. Instead, he misguidedly believes he is a “creator” like Roark and that through the Banner he is able to control public opinion; in reality his newspapers simply cater to a slavering public. Later, during the Cortland trial, he will try to transform the Banner into an honorable instrument through his defense of Roark, but to no avail. His power is nonexistent and the public is affronted by his contradictory viewpoint; sales of his newspaper evaporate. Yet even after his disillusionment, he still cannot embrace reason. When he fails to immediately close the Banner, his dearest creation and the product of a lifetime, Wynand tragically moves beyond salvation. His final words are ones of defeat, as he asks Roark to “build [the Wynand Building] as a monument to that spirit which is yours ... and could have been mine” (725).

The mass dismissal of reason in The Fountainhead is not a natural process; instead it is men like Ellsworth Toohey, the man who couldn’t be and know it, who have purposefully corrupted society in a hunt for power. His methods are as discreet as they are potent: by preaching the unattainably idyllic virtues of selflessness and altruism, he strips man of all aspirations and self-respect; “since the supreme ideal is beyond his grasp, he gives up eventually all ideals” (665). By setting up standards of achievement open to all, he eliminates the threat of great men, men who can’t be ruled: “laugh at Roark and hold Peter Keating as a great architect. You’ve destroyed architecture” (665). By encouraging an unlimited sense of humour, telling men to laugh at everything, he ensures that nothing will “remain sacred in a man’s soul – [...] his soul won’t be sacred to him” (666). Lastly, by equating evil with any personal desire or enjoyable activity, Toohey denies men happiness, their greatest freedom. They will come to him “for consolation, for support, for escape” (666), their souls empty, his to fill. The only weapon each individual has to employ against this deleterious philosophy is reason, a weapon that a “creator” like Roark will never relinquish, but that a “second-hander” will let slip away in the face of Toohey’s assertion that there is an intangible Feeling or Belief  above reason. A thinking man cannot be ruled, thus Toohey does not want any thinking men. Reason is what separates Roark from “the drooling beast of prey [...] that can’t be reached [...] in any way” (340), and thus plays a singular role in the triumph of the individual over society’s herd mentality.

Ayn Rand

Roark is one of the only characters who wants reason on his side, as it is his only bastion against destruction by a society brimming with Sanborns, Wynands and Keatings. From his conversation with the Dean of Stanton, through his debates with his clients, to his speech before the courtroom of the Cortland case, Roark’s argumentation is always guided by his own “truth.” As a “creator,” Roark’s strength lies in his reliance on his self, or ego, the fountainhead of human progress. He is reliant on himself to provide the indomitable spirit of impassioned vision and determination needed to attain self-fulfilment. The ego also grants him reason because each man thinks independently; collective reasoning is impossible. Therefore, while Roark’s noble pursuit of his “truth,” through the design and construction of buildings, has reason both as a support and a by-product, the “second-hander’s” parasitic pursuit of the subservience of others through showmanship produces nothing of value and indeed conflicts with reason. Rand’s ideal man does not need others to live; “he holds [his truth] above all things and against all men” (711). Since it is a reasoning mind that sets the “creator” apart, the issue of reason therefore constitutes a large part of The Fountainhead’s theme of Objectivism. In the last lines of the novel, Roark, the man who was as man should be, Rand’s ideal man, the embodiment of her philosophy, stands triumphant atop his greatest achievement, an equal to the ocean and the sky.

In conclusion, the events of The Fountainhead show that no character, save Roark, wants reason on his side. These “second-handers,” having lost all integrity after failing to behave selflessly, live vicariously through their friends without a thought or opinion of their own, while Roark, the “creator” of the narrative, thrives independently of others on the power of his ego as he pursues his own “truth.” Though the importance of reason is already a major part of the theme of Objectivism, this coupling of reasoning and the primacy of the individual in the society of The Fountainhead is what truly ties the issue to Rand’s philosophy.

The Fountainhead
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