The Fountainhead is one of Rand's two immense fiction tomes in support of Objectivism. The plot follows Howard Roark, an extraordinarily gifted architect, on his life quest to be faithful to his gift and himself and to remain untouched and uncorrupted by the pressures of the rest of the world. In the end, we have learned that goals of altruism, personal power, or community are ruining the world. Only by focusing on oneself in absolute isolation and exercising one's innate abilities without reference to any external opinion can the world move forward.
The story begins as Roark is expelled from college where he is studying architecture because he refuses to do any assignments requiring him to copy styles of previous ages. Roark believes that every aspect of a design should have a purpose and reflect the use of the building in its particular setting. He will only design by this principle. So, he finds himself out in the world, trying to get jobs where he is allowed to design the way he wants. He will only sign contracts that give him the final and only say over design. He is unappreciated by the masses and only understood by a select few who either worship him as the epitome of mankind, or try to destroy him as the enemy of a communal state. The rest of the cast of characters are mostly these various people who recognize him for the "superman" that he is.
Given the scope of this book, there are a range of criticisms that I can levy at it. The story itself was interesting, but not interesting enough to justify a book of this length. In part this was because Rand didn't follow the basic rule of "show, don't tell". Usually, a brief scene would take place where a character actually did something, and then a large number of scenes would follow where subsets of the characters would discuss what happened, why they thought it happened, how it affected them, and how it reflected on society as a whole.
The characters were emblematic of ways of living, lacking enough independent personality to draw the reader to empathize with them. For example, we are introduced early on to another architecture student, Peter, who finished as the top of his class, gets an important job right out of school, and is the opposite of everything that Roark is. He has no inherent talent and can only copy others. He has no thoughts that were formulated for him by other people. He is the man formed entirely by public opinion. He is the straw man that Roark is set up against. From this, we get the central problem of the book - how should one live one's life? What is one's obligation to others and the common good? What types of achievements are worth achieving?
This comes to perhaps my largest frustration with the book. There is no middle ground. One cannot be talented and independent, but decide that there are times you listen to popular opinion. Roark refuses to ever compromise on anything. He denies that there is ever any reason to do something for public good. When he is asked to design public housing, he does so because if the job is going to be done anyway he wants to have it done correctly, but he would rather design housing that will ultimately not be approved or built, rather than compromise in order to help others. On the flip side, Peter can never be redeemed after he starts down the road of listening to others. As a child, he lets his mother convince him to go into architecture rather than painting. Even when he eventually gets a glimmer that he might be able to be a great painter, he cannot change his path. Rand seems to tell us that you are either the type of person who is inherently great, or you are one of the unexceptional masses.
On a more personal level, we see through Roark that love only exists for him as a mutual attraction for the perfection of another supreme person, but should never result in one person sacrificing any part of oneself for the other. Love is about resistance and fighting to maintain one's independence tooth and nail. There is no middle ground between co-dependence and isolation. Being touched by another person is a weakness. Rand shows this through Roark's interactions with his female counterpart, Dominique. Dominique's perfection, though, is in her ability to remain untouched by the world. She doesn't actually do anything exceptionally, besides observe others as they really are. She resists the influences of the world by allowing herself to be humiliated and dominated, but so long as nobody actually affects her, she is the perfect woman.
I don't believe any of these views, and I didn't feel that there was any justification for this extreme view. The world of the book as Rand lays it out is not clearly representative of the world we live in. I give this book a '0', rather than a '-', because there are some interesting ideas raised. As always with Rand, though, she reduced the questions she was considering to two extremes and arrayed them as the only possibilities. Ultimately, the conclusions she comes to are not only not supported, but are distasteful.
Review written June 2001.
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