The manner in which Ayn Rand integrates the theme of The Fountainhead with other literary elements is important. The theme of The Fountainhead is the contrast of, and conflict between, persons of independent functioning and those of dependent functioning. The plot is an ideal vehicle by which to present this theme.
The essence of the plot line is an innovative modern architect struggling against a society indifferent or hostile to his revolutionary ideas. The innovative architect is an independent thinker. Those who reject him are dependent persons who, in one form or another, allow the thinking of others to dominate their lives. They are unable or unwilling to see the truth of the new ideas. Note that it is impossible to discuss the novel's plot without introducing its theme. The two are inextricably intertwined, which can be seen by analyzing the specific men who reject Roark. These men fall into three types and each is a variation on the theme of psychological dependence.
The first type is the traditionalists — those so blindly wedded to the thinking of the past that they cannot see the truth of any new ideas. History abounds with examples of traditionalists: those who rejected Copernicus' heliocentric theory because of their commitment to the older geocentric view; those who could not see the truth of Darwin's theory of evolution because of their Fundamentalist religious beliefs; those who rejected Fulton's steamboat because their prior experience was limited to sail. Among those opposed to Cameron and Roark are many of this same type. The Dean of Stanton Institute believes that all truths of architecture were discovered by the builders of the past; modern architects can only copy their achievements. Guy Francon imitates the designs of the Classical period and Ralston Holcolmbe of the Renaissance. The gradual acceptance of Henry Cameron's innovations is thwarted by the Columbian Exposition of 1893. The Rome of two thousand years ago rises on the shores of Lake Michigan, precipitating a rebirth of Classicism in America, closing the public's mind to Cameron's ideas. "A young country had watched him on his way, had wondered, had begun to accept the new grandeur of his work. A country flung two thousand years back in an orgy of Classicism could find no place for him and no use." The traditionalists believe that the age of an idea — particularly its old age — is a conclusive factor certifying its truth. To them, truth is not a relationship between an idea and the facts, but between an idea and their ancestors. They are blinded to the present by their commitment to the past. This is why the Dean, Guy Francon, and Ralston Holcolmbe are unable to recognize the merits of Cameron's and Roark's innovations.
The second type of men who reject Roark are the conformists — those who blindly accept the ideas of their peers. Many such individuals can be found in life. Most people who hold religious convictions — be they Catholics, Protestants, Jews, or Muslims — do not study comparative religion, but simply accept the beliefs of their families. Some individuals surrender their career preference or romantic choice in order to meet their parents' expectations. Others may know the dangers of drug use but, to please their friends, indulge nevertheless. Similarly, the universe of The Fountainhead is populated with such characters. Numerous individuals reject Roark's ideas solely because his thinking clashes with the beliefs of those around them. For example, Robert Mundy, a self-made man who grew up in poverty in Georgia, is one such person. Mundy asks Roark to build him a southern-style plantation house, not because he values it, but because it is a symbol of the aristocrats who ridiculed him as a young man. Though Roark explains patiently that such a house would not stand for his own struggle and values, but for the values of his tormentors, Mundy refuses to acknowledge Roark's point; he wants the plantation house because others valued it. Mrs. Wayne Wilmot of Long Island wants to hire Roark so that she can tell her friends she has Austen Heller's architect. She wants an English Tudor home because of "the picture post cards she had seen, [and] the novels of country squires she had read." Members of the board of the Janss-Stuart Real Estate Company refuse Roark's design because "no one has ever built anything like it." John Erik Snyte, an architect for whom Roark briefly works, differs from Guy Francon's commitment to the Classical style. Snyte is not wedded to any specific school of design; he cheerfully gives the public whatever style it wants. Mostly, there is Peter Keating, who is driven by an almost uncontrollable urge to impress others and win acclaim. Keating seeks prestige, and his method is to fawn over others, especially those in authority, and spout back to them their own ideas. He is an intellectual chameleon, who takes on the beliefs of others in order to gain their approval. Keating even expresses his policy as a formal principle, when he states to Roark, "Always be what people want you to be. Then you've got them where you want them." Keating's code is the perfect expression of a conformist's soul — putting the beliefs of others above and before the functioning of his own mind. Such an unthinking mentality is incapable of recognizing the genius of Roark's work — or that of any other innovator.
The third and last type of men who reject Roark are the socialists — those committed to the principle that it is an individual's unchosen moral obligation to serve society, and to the political-economic implementation of this belief. In real life examples of socialist principles include the contemporary American welfare state that compels productive individuals to support the nonproductive. Various socialist states in Europe and around the globe provide a similar, though much more extreme, example. Finally, Communism and Fascism — the fullest, most consistent political expressions of an individual's duty to selflessly serve society — still exist as ideologies and as forms of government in some countries. In The Fountainhead, Ellsworth Toohey is the distilled essence of such a socialist mentality. Toohey preaches socialism relentlessly in his column, "One Small Voice," and in every other forum open to him. He believes individuals are obligated to sacrifice for society, that a country requires a dictatorial government to coercively enforce those obligations, and that the most creative and productive should be compelled to serve those less so. In Toohey's world there is no room for those who will not obey. Independent thinkers will either be broken or eliminated. No Howard Roarks will be tolerated. Toohey makes clear his views in a "confession" speech to Peter Keating near the novel's end. In answer to Keating's question, "Why do you want to kill Howard?" Toohey minces no words. He doesn't want Roark dead, he says, but alive in a cell where he will finally be forced to obey. "They'll push him, if he doesn't move fast enough, and they'll slap his face when they feel like it, and they'll beat him with rubber hose if he doesn't obey. And he'll obey. He'll take orders. He'll take orders!" Toohey, the advocate of a socialist dictatorship, must break the spirit of freethinkers like Roark.
The three types of persons who reject Roark — the traditionalists, the conformists, and the socialists — are variations on the theme of second-handedness. None are independent thinkers; all permit others to dominate their lives in some form. The traditionalists copy the thinking of their ancestors; the conformists copy the thinking of their contemporaries; the socialists seek to extirpate thinking in their contemporaries, transforming them into blind followers of the political leadership. The traditionalists and conformists are followers of others; the socialists desire to rule others, but in ruling must placate the crowd to keep it from rising against them. All copy from or cater to others. All look to society for the fundamentals of their existences; all are psychologically dependent on other people. Not one is willing to wrest his mind from the thrall of other men, to look at nature, to think and judge independently, to perform creative work. They are all opposite to Roark in cognitive functioning; in one form or another, they are all threatened by him; and all reject his originality and autonomy. Inexorably, all three types line up against Roark as his opponents.
The novel's story line is Roark's quest to build his type of buildings. Roark is opposed by persons such as the Dean, Guy Francon, Ralston Holcolmbe, John Erik Snyte, Peter Keating, and Ellsworth Toohey in a conflict pitting an independent thinker against every conceivable type of psychological dependent. Ayn Rand's theme is perfectly expressed by her story. This integration of literary elements can be further seen by examining the book's characters, both major and minor. Each character is a carefully etched variation on the book's theme. In some cases, this is fairly obvious; in others, it is not obvious at all.
Howard Roark is an exemplar of the creative mind. He is more than an independent thinker; he is a genius. He is a fictional example of the greatest minds of history, the exalted thinkers who discovered important new truths only to be rejected by society. The Wright Brothers were scoffed at, Robert Fulton was ridiculed, and Louis Pasteur was bitterly denounced. In the field of architecture, Modernist designers like Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright fought a decades-long struggle to win acceptance for their new ideas. The histories of science, philosophy, and art are filled with examples of innovative thinkers whose ideas were rejected by the men of their times. Roark's character, his struggle and triumph, are Ayn Rand's impassioned tribute to the great freethinkers who have carried mankind forward on their shoulders, have often met hysterical opposition, and have rarely received the recognition they deserve. The character of Howard Roark holds a place in the history of world literature — along with such giants as Antigone and Dr. Stockman in Ibsen's An Enemy of the People — as a paragon of human independence.
Keating and Toohey are also obvious variations on the novel's theme. Keating is a status seeker, a man so afraid to risk social disapproval that he willingly surrenders his mind to others. He is an example of the pitiable nature of conformity — the motives, the behavior, the consequences, resulting in a man whose soul is voluntarily turned over to society. Despite an endless series of malicious actions, Keating is ultimately a pathetic person, not an evil one, and the pathos contains a warning: A man betrays his soul at his own peril. The person who is dependent on social approval for his self-esteem sacrifices his values and his mind, and necessarily ends as an empty shell of a man. Keating, like the main character in Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt, is a superb literary example of conformity, of one form of dependence on others.
Power-seeking is another such form. In the character of Ellsworth Toohey, Ayn Rand makes important points regarding the nature of the man who pursues power over other men. Conventionally, cult leaders and political dictators have not been viewed as weak psychological dependents, but as the opposite — as strong individuals whose control over others is a logical expression of their strength. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is one famous example of a man who glorifies the conqueror's over-brimming strength and vitality — and, more generally, dictators are referred to as "political strongmen." Civilized men, prior to Ayn Rand, had rejected the belief that there is glory in conquest, but still believed it to represent strength. In the characters of Roark and Toohey, Ayn Rand shows that this view is false. Roark is a strong man — one willing to accept the responsibilities of independent thinking. He looks at facts, he judges, he stands on his own convictions regardless of the beliefs of the crowd. Because Roark is a thinker, he is not tied to social approval. He looks to the outer world, to nature, for truth, and consequently, he is able to build. This man, the one who conquers nature, is the man with power. This is human strength.
But Roark is everything that Toohey is not. Toohey is terrified of independent judgment; he feels inadequate to confront nature directly. He is intelligent enough to realize that man's survival requires first-handed thinking. "A sublime achievement, isn't it," he says to Dominique, gazing at the city. "And it is said that but for the spirit of a dozen men, here and there down the ages, but for a dozen men — less, perhaps — none of this would have been possible." The minor point is that though Toohey recognizes Roark to be one of those men, he nevertheless seeks his destruction. The major point is that though he identifies the need of independent thought, he refuses to change his methods. He is unwilling to face the immutable world of nature that cannot be bent to his wishes. Rather, he confines himself to the world of men, to craven creatures like Peter Keating who can be molded to suit his desires. In spite of his understanding of man's survival requirements, he refuses to devote his intelligence to the conquest of nature; instead, he commits it to the conquest of men. Having given up all attempts at an independent life, he exists solely as a parasite; he survives as a virus does, by invading the tissue of healthy organisms. He needs the Keatings far more than they need him, because they can build after a fashion, but Toohey can construct nothing. The Keatings receive approval from Toohey, but Toohey gains survival from his followers. He is the most abjectly dependent creature inhabiting the universe of The Fountainhead.
Wynand and Dominique are also variations on the novel's theme, though in a form much less readily discernible. Wynand is a mixed case. A commonly held belief in our society says that, "there is no black and white, all are shades of gray." The characters in The Fountainhead show clearly that Ayn Rand disagrees with this view. Roark, Keating, and Toohey are not blends of independence and dependence, of good and evil. Rather, each is utterly consistent, fully one or the other. Roark is fully independent, possessing no elements of second-handedness. Toohey and Keating, on the other hand, are abject second-handers with no independent qualities. Wynand is the character who represents a mixture of incompatible elements. He is partly first-handed in his functioning but also partly second-handed. In his person, Rand shows the disastrous consequences of any attempt to mix logically contradictory qualities.
In his private life, Wynand lives by his own judgment. Because he is an idealist who reveres human excellence, his personal life is filled with examples of man's achievements. He recognizes Roark's genius, and commissions him to design major buildings. Likewise, he recognizes Roark's integrity, and embraces him as his dearest friend. Despite Dominique's errors, he identifies immediately her nobility of spirit and falls deeply in love with her. Finally, he fills his private art gallery with works of only the most exquisite beauty. Wynand's private life is lived in faithful accordance with his own exalted standards.
But his public life is an example of the most egregious pandering. The Banner is a lurid tabloid filled with loathsome values, directed toward the most vulgar tastes of the crowd, presenting none of Wynand's own high ideals. It is a double disgrace, for it is not only a yellow-press scandal sheet but is owned and published by a man of the most high-minded ideals. Ironically, The Banner becomes Wynand's paper only when he defends Roark's genius. He inevitably fails in his noble crusade because his readership has no interest in the ideals he defends, and sincere idealists can no longer take him seriously. Wynand allows the values of others to dictate his career, making it, in the end, impossible to get a hearing for his own values. His decades-long dependence on the standards of others makes it impossible to successfully defend his own. In the end, Wynand is defeated by his attempt to live a double life — and the tragic lesson of his character is that there is no middle ground between independence and dependence; there is no possibility of peaceful coexistence between these opposing methods of conducting one's life.
Where Wynand is a man whose independent functioning is undercut by an element of pandering, Dominique is a woman thoroughly independent but who makes a serious, though honest, error. Dominique is a thinker, a woman who sees with her own eyes and understands with her own mind. The beliefs of others do not influence her thinking. She recognizes that both her father and Keating are phony, second-rate architects despite their popular acclaim — and she understands the genius of Cameron and Roark, though most of society rejects them. She, preeminently among the characters, comprehends Toohey's evil, an identification unaffected by society's proclamations of his sainthood. But her first-hand method of functioning does not prevent her from making a serious error.
Dominique believes that virtue has no chance to succeed in a corrupt world, that great men like Roark are doomed to suffer the fate of Cameron, finishing as lonely outcasts. Phonies like Francon, manipulators like Keating, power-lusters like Toohey — these contemptible persons are the ones who succeed in the world. Roark, Dominique believes, is heading toward a tragic fate. Ayn Rand calls this pessimistic view of life the malevolent universe premise. Although Dominique's belief is grounded in the specific facts of her experience, her generalization is unwarranted. Ultimately, Roark does not merely succeed, he succeeds because he is a man of uncompromising principles. Keating does not merely fail, he fails because he sells his soul. Toohey does not merely fail in both his attempts to stop Roark and to control the Wynand papers; he fails because his corrosive evil has only the power to destroy, not the power to create. Dominique witnesses these events and, consequently, realizes her error. In the end, she understands that Roark is right: Only the good men can attain practical success, because only they possess the power to create. She thereby accepts what Rand calls the benevolent universe premise, which is the realization that the world is open to value achievement by the good men and only by the good men.
Because Dominique is a thinker, she is able to identify her error, change her mind and her actions, and achieve happiness. She makes an error in the content of her thinking, but because her method is first-handed, she is able to correct it. The lesson of her character is that independent thinking does not make a person infallible, but it does provide a self-correcting mechanism by means of which to identify and eradicate errors. Her character, too, is a variation on the theme of independence.
The same is true regarding many of the book's lesser characters. Henry Cameron and Steven Mallory are good examples. Cameron and Mallory are both innovative thinkers, creative geniuses whose new ideas are rejected by society. Both refuse to compromise, and each pays a price for his integrity. Both, in other words, are independent in thought and action. But both are hurt and angered by the unjust treatment they receive from society. Both remain true to their ideas, neither conforms — but Cameron becomes bitter and cynical and Mallory, when Roark meets him, is moving in that direction. Like Roark, they are uncompromising men of integrity; they, too, in thought and deed, will not betray their own minds. But unlike Roark, Cameron and Mallory permit society's rejection to fester at the emotional level. The rejection matters to them in a personal way, a way that goes beyond the harmful impact on their careers. Where Roark has integrated the virtue of independence throughout every aspect of his person — thought, action, and emotion — Cameron and Mallory have fallen short. Though admirable men, they possess a tragic flaw absent in Roark: they allow the beliefs of others to cause them emotional pain. Consequently, they do not live in the full state of joy and pride that their glorious achievements should provide. The undeserved suffering of these two great men is, at one level, an indictment of a tradition-bound society that rejects innovators. At a deeper level, their suffering is an exhortation to original thinkers not to permit the beliefs of others to hold power over them. These two heroes thereby represent one aspect of the theme: The virtue of independence must be assimilated into every aspect of a man's life, the emotional as well as the intellectual and the practical.
Austen Heller also needs to be understood as a variation on the novel's theme of independence. Heller is a journalist who stands for the same principles of limited government and political/economic freedom that animated the founding fathers of the United States. His writings defend the "inalienable rights" of the individual. Further, Heller will not contribute a penny to charity, but contributes more than he can afford to help political prisoners around the globe. He does not give to charities, because supporting non-working people encourages a form of dependence. He helps political prisoners, because in defending individual rights against the oppression of a dictator, they stand for political freedom, a form of independence. Heller is a carefully etched variation on the novel's theme of independence as a requirement of man's life.
Roger Enright is another good example of an independent hero. Enright is an entrepreneur, a man in business for himself. He started out as a coal miner in Pennsylvania, rising to his present fortune by his own talent and initiative. "On the way to the millions he now owned, no one had ever helped him. 'That,' he explained, 'is why no one has ever stood in my way.'" He is a self-made man, who has never sold a share of stock in any of his enterprises. Enright owns his entire fortune single-handed, "as simply as if he carried all his cash in his pocket." Before venturing into a field, he studies it for months, then proceeds as if he had never heard of the way things are generally done. He is an innovator, and though some of his ventures succeed and others fail, he continues to forge ahead with new ideas. Enright, the self-made man who rises from poverty by his own initiative, is a fictitious example of the kind of fiercely independent entrepreneur who flourishes in a free economy.
The novel's theme is also the essence of the negative characters. Take, for example, Hopton Stoddard, who hires Roark to build a Temple of the Human Spirit. Stoddard is a guilt-ridden businessman who has made a fortune, in part, through various shady deals. Seeking penance, he subscribes to Toohey's code of self-sacrifice and contributes to the causes Toohey recommends. In general, he is a slavish follower of Toohey. His last spark of independence is his insistence on building the temple. His quest for forgiveness has driven him to religion and, in desperation, he wishes to make God an offering. Toohey, an atheist and a socialist, wants Stoddard to build a home for sick children, but, for once, Stoddard refuses to obey. He is adamant — it must be a temple. Toohey finally agrees, knowing that the masterpiece Roark designs will be so unlike traditional places of worship that the public and Stoddard will be appalled. Toohey's main purpose is to make Roark notorious as an "enemy of religion." But a secondary gain is the way he can make the terrified Stoddard bear responsibility for the fiasco, and manipulate him into building the home for afflicted children. Toohey's scheme succeeds regarding Stoddard, whose last vestige of autonomous functioning is eliminated. He now follows Toohey unquestioningly in all moral issues. "In matters of the spirit he regarded Toohey upon earth somewhat as he expected to regard God in heaven." Stoddard's character illustrates that a guilt-ridden man is a prime candidate to accept a code of self-sacrifice, and to surrender his soul to the spiritual authorities who preach it. Toohey's approval assuages Stoddard's guilt, and so he kneels, he follows, he obeys.
All the minor characters obey in the way that Stoddard does. In various forms, all of these characters voluntarily surrender their minds to society, granting to others the status of master. Guy Francon, for example, is a phony. His impeccable manners, his elegant garb, his French vocabulary are all devices calculated to achieve one goal: to impress others. Other than his love for Dominique, Francon has no values of his own. His professional life is a series of actions catering to the tastes of the public. He is merely a servant. Society is his master.
Lois Cook is a different variation on psychological dependence. She is an avant-garde writer, composing in a "word salad" style, a series of incoherent sentences in which the words are related by sound and emotional association, not by an attempt to communicate meaning. Her goal, as stated by the expressionists and Dadaists of the early twentieth century, is to "shock the bourgeoisie." She is a nonconformist who attacks the values of others. Just as Cook's unintelligible writing style is a deliberate assault on the rules of grammar and meaning, so her slovenly personal habits are also calculated to shock society, whose members value beauty and grooming. As with a conformist like Guy Francon, Cook's life is dominated by the values of other people. Francon panders to the tastes of others; Lois Cook flouts them. But to both Francon and Cook, the standards of others is the ruling concern.
The foregoing analyses can be replicated with every character in the story. Each one is a distinctive variation on the principles of independence or dependence. Ayn Rand, in describing Roark's achievement at Monadnock Valley — the manner in which the individual houses constituting the resort are unique but similar — provides a fitting account of her own achievement: "There were many houses, they were small, they were cut off from one another, and no two of them were alike. But they were like variations on a single theme, like a symphony played by an inexhaustible imagination, and one could still hear the laughter of the force that had been let loose on them, as if that force had run, unrestrained, challenging itself to be spent, but had never reached its end." Each character in the story is, similarly, a variation on a single theme, created by an inexhaustible imagination.
The plot — the struggle of an innovative architect to win acceptance for his ideas against the entrenched beliefs of society — is a perfect vehicle to express the theme. Additionally, the specific antagonists who oppose the creator/hero — traditionalists, conformists, and socialists — are all variations on the theme of second-handedness, further dramatizing the novel's theme. Finally, each character — major and minor, positive and negative — is a distinctive variation on the theme. The overall result is a tightly integrated work of literature, expressing a profound thesis regarding human nature.