Most people have such strong feelings, either positive or negative, about Ayn Rand that the major difficulty with her 1943 novel The Fountainhead is to try to put those feelings to one side and judge the book on its own merits. The first thing I should state is that I am not a Rand cultist and do not subscribe to her political programme.
That’s made even harder by the undeniable truth that this is a political novel with a very definite and uncompromising point of view. To make things even more difficult still it’s a novel about a modernist architect, modernist architecture being a subject that produces equally strong and polarised opinions.
The hero of the novel is Howard Roark. He’s obviously very much a vehicle for expressing Rand’s own views and in fact she sets up a courtroom scene at the end for the sole purpose of giving Roark an opportunity to deliver a lengthy and impassioned speech expressing those views.
Roark is a man who is incapable of compromise. The book opens with his expulsion from the Stanton Institute of Technology architecture school. For any other aspiring architect this could be a disaster, but Roark has such a single-minded determination to succeed that he simply ignores this event. And, painfully slowly, he does succeed.
Roark believes an architect should be constrained only by the needs of the site and the function of the building. If a client tries to tell him how to design a building he tells them to find another architect. He is pure individualism personified. Roark represents the modernism of Frank Lloyd Wright, not the sterile modernism of Mies van der Rohe. It’s a modernism that seeks beauty, and finds it in buildings that are in perfect harmony with their setting and their function.
His fellow student at Stanton, Peter Keating, is the direct opposite of Roark. Keating has no opinions, he simply reflects what he thinks others want to see. He designs building that he thinks other people will want. He has no personality, no sense of self. He does have a driving ambition, but no clear idea of why he wants to succeed. He becomes hugely successful.
Keating at first seems to be the villain of the piece, but he isn’t. The real villain of the book is the man who made him America’s leading architect, Ellsworth Toohey. Toohey is an architectural critic but as the story progresses we find he is much more. He is in fact the classic left-wing intellectual. He is obsessed by power and control. He does not seek to destroy Howard Roark’s career because he thinks Roark is a bad architect. He does so because he thinks Roark is a great architect. In Toohey’s Marxist vision of society there is no room for great men. By getting a talentless nonentity like Keating recognised as a great architect he believed he can create a world which has no room in it for great men or for individualists. Thee will only be the remorseless workings of economic forces and mass movements which will propel men like Toohey into position of power.
The fourth major character, Gail Wynand, is more complex. He’s a press baron, and his flagship newspaper is the ultimate embodiment of the gutter press. He seeks power as well, but he has a weakness. He recognises greatness in art. He becomes an unlikely friend of Howard Roark’s. Like Roark he is an individualist.
The remaining major character is Dominique Francon, who loves Howard Roark and marries Gail Wynand. She is an architectural critic as well and seek to sabotage Roark’s career not because she hates him and thinks he’s a lousy architect but because she loves him and believe he’s a great architect. She seeks to destroy his career because she believes the world will destroy him. The relationship between Dominique and Roark has enraged generations of feminist critics, which simply shows how little feminists understand of women.
This book actually reminds me quite a bit, oddly enough, of George Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four which was published a few years later. That’s not really surprising when you think about it. The 1930s had seen the communists gain an extraordinary degree of influence over the intellectual life of both Britain and the US. Intellectuals in both countries embraced socialism en masse and many became ardent apologists for Stalinism. So Orwell and Rand were both reacting against the same trend. And it’s clear that both saw the same evils in left-wing political movements - the crushing of the individual, the enthusiasm for collectivism and for totalitarianism, the unthinking acceptance of dogma and the rejection of free thought. Both writers proved to be remarkably prescient. The monolithic and soul-destroying political correctness of modern British and American society would not have surprised them.
Ellsworth Toohey and his disciples represent a way of thinking that would have made them right at home in Orwell’s Airstrip One. They mouth slogans about freedom through compulsion that are uncannily close to Orwellian Newspeak. They would certainly love Big Brother.
Rand’s greatest strength is her understanding of the hidden and often unconscious motivations of the left-wing intellectual - their contempt for those whose interests they claim to champion, their thirst for power, their determination to crush dissent, their willingness to embrace repression to enforce their doctrines, their preference for theory over experience, their strategy of gaining power through control of the media and education, and most notably the shallowness of their thought.
You don’t have to accept her political philosophy in order to enjoy this novel. It’s far more entertaining than I expected and considerably more subtle. It’s provocative and intelligent and not be easily dismissed even if (like me) you’re not a Randite.