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New Ideal - Reason | Individualism | Capitalism

The Fountainhead as a Romantic Novel (Part 1)

Explore the creative methods of Romantic artists.

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Part 2 of this essay will be published on Friday, August 25.

This is the Heller House:

The house on the sketches had been designed not by Roark, but by the cliff on which it stood. It was as if the cliff had grown and completed itself and proclaimed the purpose for which it had been waiting. The house was broken into many levels, following the ledges of the rock, rising as it rose, in gradual masses, in planes flowing together up into one consummate harmony. The walls, of the same granite as the rock, continued its vertical lines upward; the wide, projecting terraces of concrete, silver as the sea, followed the line of the waves, of the straight horizon. (124)

The Heller House, Howard Roark’s first commission in The Fountainhead, is designed according to the architectural principles he has proclaimed in the novel’s opening chapter:

Here are my rules: what can be done with one substance must never be done with another. No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike. No two buildings have the same purpose. The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape. Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it’s made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail. A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose. . . . Its maker gives it the soul and every wall, window and stairway to express it. (24)

What is the “one central idea” of the Heller House? We cannot be certain, since the house exists only as a brief description in a novel. But one feature of that description is striking: the combination of walls, which continue the vertical lines of the rock, and projecting terraces, which follow the lines of the sea and the horizon.

Not only the site, but the materials used are integrated with this idea: the granite of the walls is the same as the rock, the concrete of the terraces is “silver as the sea.” And as for the building’s purpose, when Austen Heller tells Roark, “You were very considerate of me,” Roark answers, “You know, I haven’t thought of you at all. I thought of the house. Perhaps that’s why I knew how to be considerate of you” (136–37). The implication is not that Roark was indifferent to his client’s needs, but that these were so well integrated into the central design idea that Roark could just go ahead and let the building “follow its own truth.”1

A central idea, in Roark’s sense, determines everything else about an artwork. It “sets every detail.” It is the artist’s standard of selection, governing all his choices. And if the Heller House’s central idea is indeed found in the description given of the house,2 then, qua standard of selection, this idea has several interrelated characteristics worth noting.

First, the idea is an original creation of Roark’s.

Second, the idea is unique to the Heller House. “The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape”—and these are different for every building. The site of the Heller House is particularly unusual, as is the client (and thus the purpose). So Roark has not simply copied the central idea of some other building; and he will design no more Heller Houses.

Third, the Heller House’s central idea is internal to the building and its site, a part of their substance. The idea is not an abstraction like “the abode of a crusading columnist,” but an imagined combination of the actual granite, concrete, sea, and horizon that will constitute the house, site, and wider setting.

These characteristics of Roark’s central idea point to a distinctive method of artistic creation. “Creation,” in Ayn Rand’s words, “means the power to bring into existence an arrangement (or combination or integration) of natural elements that had not existed before.”3 In a superficial sense, any building is a creative achievement. But the Heller House is much more profoundly creative than most buildings, since Roark has originated not only the combination of natural elements which constitutes the completed house, but also the standard of selection governing his design of this totality. That standard, Roark’s “one central idea,” is itself an original combination of natural elements, unique to the Heller House, internal to it, a part — the core part — of its substance.

Creation by means of such core combinations is, I submit, the method of artists like Howard Roark — and of the romantic school of art.4


In The Fountainhead, Roark confronts the influence of architectural classicism. For instance, it is demanded of him that he give his design for the Manhattan Bank Company building a classical façade, which means adding columns and an entablature designed by the rules of one of the five classical orders. (The bank’s board suggests Doric.) Such a façade bears no relation to Roark’s central idea for the building, and so he turns down the commission.

The combination of Roark’s modern design and a classical façade would be a bastard abomination to a true classicist no less than to Roark. But consider how Roark’s method of creation differs from that of the classicist who sets out to design, by his own standards, a good classical building. This architect knows from the start that his façade must have columns and an entablature — regardless of the building’s purpose, site, or material. Further, the columns must have a shaft, a capital, and (except in the Doric order) a base, and the entablature an architrave, a frieze, and a cornice. The radius of the columns is the module that decides the relative sizes of the other elements; for instance, if the order is Doric, the columns are fourteen modules high, the architrave one module high, the capitals two and one-sixth modules wide (according to Vitruvius in De Architectura). In the Doric order, the shafts must have flutes. Whatever the order, the building must be horizontally symmetrical.

This is just a brief indication of the mind-numbingly complex set of rules that governs not merely the façade, but every part of a classical building’s design. Indeed, it has been said (with some exaggeration) that from the tiniest fragment of a classical building, the whole can always be reconstructed. Given a few optional parameters like the size of the building and the order, the rules set every detail. They are a classicist architect’s standard of selection.

This standard is obviously not an original creation of the individual architect, or unique to his building, but derives from ancient models and authorities. Nor is the standard internal to the substance of a building. Rather, the rules are imposed from outside, from the textbooks, on the building’s material, purpose, and site.

We can see why Howard Roark, in the first chapter of The Fountainhead, tells the dean of his school, “I see no purpose in doing Renaissance villas” (22). The classicist method of creation is the exact opposite of his own. The Dean, a champion of classicism, tells Roark:

You must learn to understand—and it has been proved by all authorities—that everything beautiful in architecture has been done already. There is a treasure mine in every style of the past. We can only choose from the great masters. Who are we to improve upon them? We can only attempt, respectfully, to repeat. (23)

According to the Dean, “all the proper forms of expression have been discovered long ago” (24). Roark replies, “Expression—of what? The Parthenon did not serve the same purpose as its wooden ancestor. An airline terminal does not serve the same purpose as the Parthenon” (24). And yet, as Roark comments, “here we are, making copies in steel and concrete of copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood” (24).

Roark’s meeting with the Dean takes place in 1922, almost a century after Victor Hugo published his play Cromwell (1827), with its famous “Preface” that became the manifesto of the romantic movement in literature. In words that closely foreshadow Roark’s confrontation with the Dean, Hugo attacks the classicist literary establishment of his time. “We were told that everything was done, and God was forbidden to create more Molières or Corneilles. Memory was put in place of imagination.”5 Hugo rejects the classicist “unities” of time and place, according to which the action of a play must unfold in one day and in a single location; and to the anticipated objection that “this rule that you discard is borrowed from the Greek drama,” he answers, “Wherein, pray, do the Greek stage and drama resemble our stage and drama?”6

He asks:

And whom are we to copy, I pray to know? The ancients? We have just shown that their stage has nothing in common with ours. . . .

Whom shall we copy, then? The moderns? What! copy copies!7

Just as Roark tells the Dean that “what can be done with one substance must never be done with another,” Hugo says:

Every plot has its proper duration as well as its appropriate place. Think of administering the same dose of time to all events! of applying the same measure to everything! You would laugh at a cobbler who should attempt to put the same shoe on every foot.8

Like the rules of architectural classicism, the unities of time and place are not the original creation of the individual artist, or unique to his work. They derive from ancient models and, supposedly, from the authority of Aristotle (who does not in fact prescribe them). As standards of selection, they are not internal to the subject matter of any given play but are imposed from outside, from the textbooks, on whatever plot idea an author starts with.

The unities of time and place govern primarily the organization of a classical play’s events, but the standard that governs the nature of the events themselves is just as external to the playwright’s subject matter. As one scholar puts it:

The work of the classical artist is to give individual expression, the beauty of form, to a body of common sentiments and thoughts which he shares with his audience, thoughts and views which have for his generation the validity of universal truths.9

In literature, this attitude led the classicists to make conventional ideas of propriety a standard of selection. For instance, they objected when, in Hernani, Victor Hugo has a noblewoman fall in love with a bandit. For a woman to love beneath her station was improper by common sentiment and thought. Two centuries earlier, in the heyday of classicism, Corneille was attacked for having the hero of Le Cid appear before the heroine after he has killed her father — a similar breach of etiquette.

In the classicist view, the inclusion of such behavior in a story is as incongruous as a Doric column without flutes. Literary characters must conform to social conventions — and this is a literary convention to which an author must conform.


Rejecting the unities of time and place, Hugo champions the “unity of plot”:

This one is as essential as the other two are useless. It is the one which fixes the view-point of the drama; now, by that very fact, it excludes the other two. There can no more be three unities in the drama than three horizons in a picture.10

Like unity of time and place, plot is a kind of formal organization. Ayn Rand defines it as “a purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax.”11 However, in contrast to unity of time and place, unity of plot is not imposed from outside on a story’s subject matter but springs from within, from the core of that subject matter itself.

Plot is based on conflict and presupposes what Ayn Rand calls a “plot-theme.” The plot-theme is “the central conflict or ‘situation’ of a story—a conflict in terms of action, corresponding to the theme and complex enough to create a purposeful progression of events.”12 How does the central conflict “create” a plot progression? By virtue of its inner logic, which makes it unfold in a series of logically connected events.

In a plot story, the plot-theme is the standard of selection, the central idea that determines everything else and sets every detail. For instance, as Hugo puts it, subplots are allowable only on the condition that “these parts, being skillfully subordinated to the general plan, shall tend constantly toward the central plot.”13 Similarly, since the plot-theme determines the plot, it also determines (to repeat Hugo’s phrase) the plot’s “proper duration as well as its appropriate place.”

The plot-theme is an original creation of the writer’s, a new combination of natural elements, unique to the given story. A plot-theme is a different kind of combination than the central idea for the Heller House: a writer works not with granite and concrete and the line of the horizon, but with human action and motivation, and the elements of these are what he rearranges. But in a deeper sense, a plot-theme is exactly like Roark’s central architectural idea: both constitute a standard of selection internal to an artwork—a standard at the core of the work’s substance.

Both are core combinations.


The relationship between Howard Roark and Dominique Francon is only a part, although an important part, of the central conflict situation in The Fountainhead — yet even on its own, this relationship is a core combination in miniature.

Prior to meeting Roark, Dominique has “kept herself clean and free in a single passion — to touch nothing” (242). The world, she believes, recognizes no true ideals and thus is poised to crush them.

You want a thing and it’s precious to you. Do you know who is standing ready to tear it out of your hands? You can’t know, it may be so involved and so far away, but someone is ready, and you’re afraid of them all. And you cringe and you crawl and you beg and you accept them—just so they’ll let you keep it. (143)

Dominique’s answer is to pursue no serious values. “If I found a job, a project, an idea or a person I wanted—I’d have to depend on the whole world” (143). This she refuses to do — not out of indifference to values as such, but out of a strong desire to protect them from an inimical world. When asked, “What if you found something you wanted?” she answers, “I won’t find it. I won’t choose to see it” (144).

Then she goes to her father’s granite quarry, stands at “the edge of the great stone bowl,” and she “looked down.”

She knew it was the most beautiful face she would ever see, because it was the abstraction of strength made visible. She felt a convulsion of anger, of protest, of resistance—and of pleasure. (204–5)

Dominique “had lost the freedom she loved” (209). She has found a great value that ties her to the world. She tries to stay away from the quarry, but she comes back again and again. Recognizing Roark as a true hero, she cannot resist the desire to see him. Nor can she resist him when he comes to her at night. She does not give him “the one answer that would have saved her: an answer of simple revulsion—she had found joy in her revulsion, in her terror and in his strength” (219).

The relationship of Roark and Dominique, and Dominique’s inner conflict, is an original creation of Ayn Rand’s — a new combination of natural elements. That some men are heroes; that some women are hero-worshipers; that some think the good is doomed to defeat; that some act to avoid whatever threatens their freedom or purity of soul; that men and women fall in love; that lovers seek the sight of their beloved, and have sex — all of this can be observed in the world. But the combination of these elements into the conflict of a woman torn between an idealistic withdrawal from values and her passionate love for a hero — that is unique to The Fountainhead.

This situation functions as a standard of selection for the rest of the novel. For instance, the situation dictates the violence of Roark and Dominique’s first sexual encounter, where she resists him with every means possible except those that would actually stop him (calling for help or showing revulsion). Given her love for Roark, Dominique does not stop him; given her struggle against that love, she resists him. Any other kind of sex scene, featuring, say, a sultrily seductive or sensuously eager Dominique, would be incongruous in the context of the central conflict.

The same conflict determines Dominique’s later actions. When she is told that the man “with very bright orange hair” has left the quarry for New York, she makes an unusual decision. “She would not ask for his name. It was her last chance of freedom” (220). But she returns to New York and goes for long walks through the streets. “Each step through the streets hurt her now. She was tied to him—as he was tied to every part of the city. . . . She came home, after these walks, shaking with fever. She went out again the next day” (242–43). These actions express both Dominique’s love for Roark and her resistance to that love.

Dominique’s campaign to sabotage Roark’s career also flows from the central conflict.

Seeing a drawing of Roark’s Enright House, she judges it “the most beautiful building in New York” (273). She learns that its architect is the man she loves. When her acquaintance Joel Sutton plans to give Roark a big commission, Dominique skillfully manipulates him to give the commission to Peter Keating instead. That night she comes to Roark and tells him, “I’m going to fight you—and I’m going to destroy you. . . . I will fight to block every step you take. I will fight to tear every chance you want away from you” (272).

Dominique thinks that Roark’s dedication to his career makes him vulnerable to the world, which will not merely destroy him, but given his genius, destroy him through a process of slow torture. She wants to spare him this torture — by hastening his defeat. As she says, “when I go swimming I don’t like to torture myself getting into cold water by degrees. I dive right in and it’s a nasty shock, but after that the rest is not so hard to take” (248). Dominique in effect wants to push Roark into the cold water, to make the rest not so hard to take.

Dominique first meets Roark when he works in the quarry; and she starts her campaign against his career a few hours after Ellsworth Toohey tells her about the terrible struggle with society that led Roark to such a position. These facts are important for understanding her actions: they make her motives concretely real. Since Roark was once reduced to a workman after making a promising start, Dominique can realistically fear that it will happen again (as indeed it almost does, after the Stoddard trial). Dominique could have sabotaged Roark’s career simply on the basis of her general premises. As she tells him, “Roark, everything I’ve done all my life is because it’s the kind of world that made you work in a quarry last summer” (284). But this is a very abstract statement of Dominique’s unusual motives. Her motives appear much more forceful and pressing when, with reference to the actual quarry incident, she says, “Roark, you worked in that quarry when you had the Enright House in you, and many other Enright Houses, and you were drilling granite” (273).

Dominique is here reacting to the conflict of Roark versus society — an element of the plot-theme of The Fountainhead different from the Roark-Dominique conflict. The combination of these two plot-theme conflict strands is what leads inevitably to Dominique’s campaign.

A third strand is constituted by the relationship between Roark and Gail Wynand.

Like Dominique, Wynand has concluded that idealism has no chance against society. The difference is that Wynand — who has “the will of life, the prime power” (483) — does not retreat from the world. He wants to act, to live for his own sake, and so he pursues the only means to that end he thinks possible: power. “I wanted power over a collective soul and I got it” (604). His tool is the New York Banner—a popular newspaper he has built by expressing “the opinions, the desires, the tastes of the majority” (603).

“I’ve never justified myself to anyone” (493), Wynand tells Dominique in a line that is telling but untrue. For Wynand to “justify himself” would contradict his entire philosophy: it is precisely in order to act without justifying himself to anyone that he has sought power, believing that reason and justice are impotent among men. Yet no man can give up his integrity and not feel unclean — or, if he has Wynand’s soul, a sense of treason. Thus, without understanding his own motive, Wynand is driven to justify himself to himself.

He does so by breaking men of integrity, like Dwight Carson, a talented young champion of individualism whom he drives to write a column extolling the masses. This “proves” to Wynand that integrity is a sham. “The man I couldn’t break would destroy me. But I’ve spent years finding out how safe I am,” Wynand tells Dominique. “The thing I’ve missed” — or, in another words, betrayed — “it doesn’t exist” (497).

And then he meets Roark.

It is love at first sight. Each man responds to “the prime power” in the other — and Wynand responds to Roark’s integrity. Yet given Roark’s professional success (at this point of the story), his integrity is a threat to Wynand. “According to my judgment and experience,” Wynand says, “you should have remained in the gutter” (548). Roark’s existence disproves Wynand’s philosophy, so Wynand decides to break him. He has commissioned a residence from Roark, and he tells him that the house will be the last Howard Roark design. Thereafter, Roark will build in historical styles — “within forms chosen by the taste of the people” (532) — or Wynand will drive him to bankruptcy and make sure even the granite quarries are closed to him.

Roark gaily adapts the elevation of the Wynand house on the back of an envelope. Confronted with this demonstration of what his demand would mean in practice, Wynand gives in.

Wynand is not destroyed by this defeat. He has another way of justifying himself. “I’ve sold my life,” he tells Roark, “but I got a good price. Power. I’ve never used it. I couldn’t afford a personal desire. But now I’m free. Now I can use it for what I want. For what I believe. For Dominique. For you” (604).

His opportunity comes with the Cortlandt Homes affair. When Roark’s design of this housing project is disfigured by politically connected second-handers, Roark blows up the project. In the frenzy of public hysteria against Roark, Wynand steps forward to defend him. “We’ve always made public opinion,” he tells his staff. “Let’s make it. Sell Roark” (624).

They are powerless to do so. The support of the Banner hurts Roark instead of helping him. As for the Banner, Wynand’s lawyer says: “An unpopular cause is a dangerous business for anyone. For a popular newspaper—it’s suicide” (628). The Banner is almost destroyed, and Wynand gives in to popular pressure, abandoning Roark’s cause. He realizes that in catering to the mob, he has turned himself into its slave. “Here I am, my masters,” he says, addressing in his mind the faceless masses. “I am coming to salute you and acknowledge, wherever you want me, I shall go as I’m told. I’m the man who wanted power” (659).

Roark’s acquittal at his trial is his final triumph and the seal of Wynand’s defeat.

The central conflict situation of The Fountainhead is the standard that governs the choice of these events. Given the characters of Roark and Wynand, it is logical that they would love each other, that Wynand would try to break Roark, and that Roark — the ultimately stronger personality — would prevail in this encounter. It is logical that defending Roark against the collectivist society would be the cause in which Wynand decides to test his power over the mob — and that he will find his power illusory.

In the climax, the separate plot-theme strands again work as a unity. Wynand at first sides with Roark in his conflict against society. And for Dominique, Wynand’s defeat is the ultimate confirmation that the men she thought owned the world “don’t own it. They own nothing. They’ve never won. I have seen the life of Gail Wynand, and now I know” (665). She does not have to fear that the world will crush Roark.

Ayn Rand once said that We the Living has the best plot of all her novels, “because it’s a simple story” that has “almost a classic progression of one event leading to another.” The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged have plots, she continued, “but on so grand a scale, and with so many involvements, that they are not as perfect one-line plots as in We the Living.14

In making this comparative literary judgment, Ayn Rand is applying unity of plot as an external standard. But she did not do so in plotting The Fountainhead. Instead of imposing some kind of “perfect unity” on the novel, she let the plot-theme govern the choice of events. Observe that the superior unity of We the Living springs from the simplicity of its central situation.15 The Fountainhead has a much more complex plot-theme, encompassing the three conflict strands we have discussed, and also the characters of Peter Keating and Ellsworth Toohey. The development of this complexity cannot form a textbook example. But since the plot-theme strands do constitute a unity, they create a coherent novel — of monumental scope.

In The Fountainhead, Dominique sabotages the career of a hero of independence and integrity. Wynand tries to coerce this same hero to abandon his principles and cater to the mob. Ayn Rand regarded both of these characters as moral, although profoundly mistaken. In making this judgment, she was applying her moral philosophy as an external standard. But she did not do so in choosing the events of the novel. She did not ask herself, What would a moral person do in this or that situation? A moral person, holding Ayn Rand’s philosophy, would not act like Dominique or Wynand. Rather, Ayn Rand asked herself, What would Dominique do, in the context of this particular plot development, given her particular premises? What would Wynand do? (I am not here presumptuously putting thoughts in Ayn Rand’s brain, but describing the method of romantic plot construction.)

Ayn Rand is not a classicist and does not use morality (let alone propriety) as an external standard of artistic selection.16 She selects by the standard of her core combination, the plot-theme, which is of her own creation, unique to her novel, and part of its subject matter.


The action of The Fountainhead spans eighteen years and locations from New York City to the South Pacific. Yet the literati of Ayn Rand’s time were not outraged by her violation of the unities of time and place. They were outraged by something else. People like Howard Roark, Dominique Francon, and Gail Wynand, they fumed—as their heirs are fuming still—do not exist. The events of The Fountainhead mirror nothing observable in the world around us.

'It was against naturalism that Ayn Rand would be fighting her esthetic battle.' Click To Tweet

Victor Hugo had won the battle against literary classicism. After the “Preface to Cromwell,” romanticism flourished briefly as the dominant school. Then it was supplanted by naturalism — the portrayal of “things as they are.” It was against naturalism that Ayn Rand would be fighting her esthetic battle.

What is the naturalist standard of selection?

Consider the following touches from Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis’s portrayal of a smarmy American evangelist.

At the beginning, Elmer is a boorish young lout. His views on religion are characteristic of his type: “after giving minutes and minutes to theological profundities Elmer had concluded that ‘there must be something to all this religious guff if all these wise old birds believe it, and some time a fellow had ought to settle down and cut out the hell-raising.’”17

Much later in the novel, at a low point in his career as a preacher, Elmer makes a brief excursion into the New Age (or “New Thought”) movement of his time. What is his attitude?

In some ways he preferred New Thought to standard Protestantism. It was safer to play with. He had never been sure but that there might be something to the doctrines he had preached as an evangelist. Perhaps God really had dictated every word of the Bible. Perhaps there really was a hell of burning sulphur. Perhaps the Holy Ghost really was hovering around watching him and reporting. But he knew with serenity that all of his New Thoughts, his theosophical utterances, were pure and uncontaminated bunk.18

The reader chuckles at this, recognizing the acuity of Lewis’s observation: this would be Elmer’s attitude. Why? Because the dogmas of traditional religion have been inculcated in him from a very young age by men of graver moral authority than the peddlers of New Thought — as indicated in the first quote from the novel.

Every aspect of Elmer’s childhood, college years, religious awakening, life at a theological seminary, and preaching career is on the same order: it contributes to a pattern that is taken from real life. Lewis has observed that certain traits — emotions, thoughts, actions — commonly occur together to constitute a type of man. His observations govern his creative process: he selects the most telling of the relevant traits and unites them in his novel, drawing a portrait the reader can recognize as accurate from his own perception of reality.19

The naturalist standard of selection is an observed characteristic pattern.

This standard is more first-handed than that of classicism. It takes perceptiveness and a complex process of abstraction to identify a (significant) characteristic pattern and then select its essential features, discarding accidental details. This is why Lewis’s portrait of Elmer Gantry can be simultaneously recognizable by and a revelation to the reader, who has encountered this type of man in real life but has not done the same mental work.

A naturalist’s standard of selection is (or should be) his own original identification, and unique to his work. But as in classicism, the naturalist standard is not the individual artist’s creation and is not internal to his work. It is found in the outside world. The artist combines certain elements in his art because he has seen them go together like that in reality.

At the time when she started planning The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand listed Sinclair Lewis as her favorite author.20 This evaluation was presumably caused not by Lewis’s naturalist method, but by his brilliant satire of aspects of American society that Ayn Rand too despised. Nevertheless, a definite methodological influence of Lewis is apparent in The Fountainhead. (And Ayn Rand would not have named him her favorite in any other period of her life.)21

A typical Lewis novel features some broad sociological field of early twentieth-century America — medicine in Arrowsmith, religion in Elmer Gantry. In charting the career of his protagonist from college onward, Lewis presents not merely a certain type of man, but a satirical survey of an entire profession. This is what Ayn Rand does for architecture in the first part of The Fountainhead.

Lewis’s systematic studies of his subject matter have been compared to “anthropological field research.”22 For Elmer Gantry, he not only read widely on religion and interviewed countless clergymen (sometimes, as he put it, “getting them drunk enough to tell the truth”), but he also spoke from the pulpit in Kansas City churches, “to give me a real feeling of the church from the inside.”23 Similarly, Ayn Rand read widely on architecture — and worked for six months as a file clerk for a prominent New York architect.

The fruits of her research are found mainly in Part One of The Fountainhead, which tells the story of two architects and the first six years of their careers. At the beginning, Howard Roark, a creator of intransigent integrity, and Peter Keating, an opportunistic parasite, leave the same school. At the end, Keating is made partner in a leading architectural firm. Roark goes to work in a granite quarry.

How is this story told?

Consider the key steps of Roark’s career. He is expelled from architectural school for refusing to copy the Greeks. He works as a draftsman for the one architect he admires, Henry Cameron. When Cameron retires, his health broken by his struggle with society, Keating gets Roark a job with Guy Francon. Roark again refuses to copy the Greeks, and Francon fires him. Making the rounds of architects, Roark is turned down everywhere until John Erik Snyte hires him. Roark starts his own practice when he secures a commission from Snyte’s client Austen Heller, who wants the Heller House as originally designed by Roark, not as conventionalized by Snyte. Roark turns down Snyte’s offer of a reconciliatory bribe. The Heller commission leads to a few more, but Roark loses many prospective clients by refusing to copy established styles. In the end, he runs out of money, closes his office, and sets out for the quarry.

In broad terms, there is nothing unusual about most of these events. Aspiring architects work as draftsmen for established architects. They often seek the mentorship of someone they admire; but if they have no choice, they work for anyone who will hire them. They sometimes get jobs through acquaintances. As in many professions, they often establish their own practices by taking with them one or more clients of their last employer’s.

Those aspects of Roark’s (and Cameron’s) career that involve an unusual integrity are also based on real life. In researching The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand read biographies of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, the pioneers of modern architecture. She noted about Sullivan: “Ousted by inability to conform to the prevailing mode, the majority” and “Lack of social ability to get jobs. Arrogance with customers. Refusal to comply with their tastes.” And about Wright: “Apprenticeship in architects’ offices. Originality and insubordination” and “Attempt to bribe [him] into submission to prevailing styles and commercial success—on the very basis of the originality of his talent.”24

Roark’s struggle in Part One of The Fountainhead is the story of Louis Sullivan, of Frank Lloyd Wright, and of all the other great independent creators in history. Such men have been expelled, fired, denied jobs and commissions, offered bribes to conform, and been reduced to poverty — for the same reason that all these things happen to Roark.

Now consider Keating. On the day that Roark is expelled from school, Keating graduates at the head of his class — and is offered a job in Guy Francon’s Firm. Thereafter, Keating works to secure Francon’s patronage, while enacting little schemes in order to advance. He schemes to have the favored draftsman fired, so that he can take over his position, and then to make the chief designer resign, so that he can take over his. He tries to establish a romantic relationship with Francon’s daughter. And he attempts to blackmail Francon’s partner into retirement — which causes the man to die of a stroke.

Keating’s course is even less unusual than Roark’s. Untold numbers of real-life opportunists reach early success through patronage rather than professional excellence and innovation. This type of man will scheme to outmaneuver his rivals. And the strategy works because many successful men of a certain age desire a protégé.

In characterization and style, Part One of The Fountainhead is anything but naturalistic.25 But in regard strictly to the broad selection of events, this part of the novel follows a predominantly naturalistic method. The events are chosen by reference not to a central conflict, but to observed characteristic patterns relating to architectural careers, innovators, and opportunists.

Observe that there is little sustained existential conflict in this part. Roark’s conflicts with Cameron and Keating are psychological and do not impact his career. The conflicts which do — those with the Dean, Francon, Snyte, and various actual or prospective clients — involve people with walk-on parts in Roark’s life and are generally confined to some particular episode. Similarly, Keating is not in conflict with Francon, who knows what kind of man Keating is: a cruder variant of himself, and thus safe and comfortable.

Given the absence of a central conflict, the career steps of Roark and Keating do not constitute the logically connected events of a plot. For instance, Roark does not take a job with Cameron because he has been expelled from Stanton; he would have sought that job had he graduated with honors (though it might have occurred a year later). Roark simply takes the cleanest jobs and commissions he can get, and Keating looks out for the next chance to advance his career. In the case of neither man does one step follow inevitably from another.

When Roark goes to work for Francon, he tells Keating, “I’m selling myself, and I’ll play the game that way — for the time being” (88). He does not mean that taking the job is a breach of his integrity, merely that he is acting conventionally: he is a draftsman accepting a job offer from a prominent architect.

But when Roark goes to the quarry, he does not act conventionally.

The great innovators of history have struggled as Roark struggles — but they have not taken workmen’s jobs. They have preferred a more genteel, middle-class form of poverty. Roark does not. When a friend tells him, “You can get a nice clean job,” he answers, “I would have to think on a nice clean job. I don’t want to think. Not their way” (198). So he takes the larger-than-life action of seeking the lowest job society can offer him. (And the complete believability of his action is a testament to the fact that, as a character, Roark has never been a naturalistic portrait.)

In going to the quarry, Roark ends the “naturalistic” part of The Fountainhead and sets the stage for the romantic plot drama that is to follow. As Dominique tells him later in the novel, “Anyone else would have taken a job in an architect’s office.” Roark answers, “And then you’d have no desire at all to destroy me” (273).

The “naturalism” of Part One of The Fountainhead is not a breach of artistic integration but serves the full development of the novel’s plot-theme. Observe that both Dominique and Wynand, Roark’s key antagonists, have very unusual characterizations. They are particularly far removed from “people as they are.” Yet their special premises have been formed precisely in confrontation with things as they are — with the conventional and mediocre. In the context of the full novel, the nature of Roark’s initial struggle grounds the psychologies of Dominique and Wynand. It provides a realism that prevents the rest of the novel from becoming a fantasy semi-detached from reality. Having seen Roark’s struggle against things as they are, we can see why Dominique and Wynand would think that idealism has no chance.

Ayn Rand is not a naturalist. When she uses the naturalistic method, she does so ultimately by reference to her own kind of standard: her plot-theme, or core combination.

Yet Ayn Rand recognizes that a method other than her own is possible, unlike the critics who complain that The Fountainhead does not present things as they are. Never having been taught any method but the naturalist one, they do not identify Ayn Rand’s own method, or criticize her application of it. They simply complain that she is not a good naturalist.

The irony is that, when she wanted to be, she was.

Reprinted from the English Language edition of Essays on Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead,” edited by Robert Mayhew and originally published by Lexington Books, an imprint of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc., Lanham, MD, USA. Copyright © by the author. Published in the English language by arrangement with Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, reprinting, or on any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.

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  1. Later in the novel, Roark says, “I’m never concerned with my clients, only with their architectural requirements. I consider these as part of my building’s theme and problem, as my building’s material—just as I consider bricks and steel.” (578)
  2. To be precise, the description would be the verbal summation of a somewhat more specific visual-structural idea.
  3. Ayn Rand, “The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made,” Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1984), 25.
  4. The kind of modern architecture created by Howard Roark, and in real life by Frank Lloyd Wright, can legitimately be called romantic. The first designs of this school date from the beginning of the romantic era in the late eighteenth century, when some French architects “rejected any imitation of the past” and, as in the case of Claude-Nicholas Ledoux, “wanted the creative mind to depend upon its own thinking, and exhorted the artist to dare in order to overcome the past.” (Emil Kaufmann, Three Revolutionary Architects, Boulée, Ledoux, and Lequeu [Philadelphia: Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series 42.3, 1952], 434, 479.) A few of these architects’ designs are eerily proto-Roarkian, like Ledoux’s House of the Surveyors of the Loue or Etienne-Louis Boulée’s Entrance to a Cemetery.
  5. Victor Hugo, “Preface to Cromwell,” in Charles W. Eliot, ed., Prefaces and Prologues to Famous Books (New York: P F Collier & Son Company, 1910), 385.
  6. Hugo, “Preface to Cromwell,” 377.
  7. Hugo, “Preface to Cromwell,” 382–83.
  8. Hugo, “Preface to Cromwell,” 378.
  9. Herbert Grierson, quoted in Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 7.
  10. Hugo, “Preface to Cromwell,” 379.
  11. Ayn Rand, “Basic Principles of Literature,” The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature, revised edition (New York: Signet, 1975), 82. This sentence is italicized in the original.
  12. Rand, “Basic Principles of Literature,” 85.
  13. Hugo, “Preface to Cromwell,” 379.
  14. Robert Mayhew, ed., Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q & A (New York: New American Library, 2005), 189.
  15. Ayn Rand discusses the plot-theme of We the Living in Ayn Rand, The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers, ed. Tore Boeckmann (New York: Plume, 2000), 38.
  16. In The Art of Fiction, 58, Ayn Rand cautions young writers not to “check yourself against your moral code” when imagining events. Such checking, she implies, properly comes later.
  17. Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry (New York: Signet, 1967), 17.
  18. Lewis, Elmer Gantry, 224.
  19. See Ayn Rand’s remarks on the method behind another of Lewis’s character portraits, Babbitt, in “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” Romantic Manifesto, 21.
  20. See Jeff Britting, Ayn Rand (New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2004), 48.
  21. Ayn Rand notes the presence of naturalistic elements in The Fountainhead but does not mention any influence from Sinclair Lewis, in Mayhew, Ayn Rand Answers, 200. Robert Mayhew discusses the similar styles of satire in The Fountainhead and Elmer Gantry in “Humor in The Fountainhead,” in the present collection, 209.
  22. Mark Schorer, “Afterword,” in Lewis, Elmer Gantry, 419.
  23. Schorer, “Afterword,” 422.
  24. David Harriman, ed., Journals of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1997), 118.
  25. In her lecture course on literature, Ayn Rand used this part of The Fountainhead to illustrate romantic characterization and style, as opposed to the naturalism exemplified by Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith. See Art of Fiction, 59–83, 112–14, 127–28.
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Tore Boeckmann

Tore Boeckmann has lectured and written extensively on Ayn Rand’s novels and literary esthetics. He edited for publication her guide to literature, The Art of Fiction.