In the spring of 1935, Howard Roark completes a summer resort, Monadnock Valley, in the mountains of Pennsylvania. Monadnock Valley is both an artistic and a commercial triumph. Customers love Roark's concept and design, and they flock to it. A young college graduate sees it as he rides his bicycle through wooded trails. Despite his youth, he is disillusioned by what he has been taught in college — that an individual owes selfless service to the community, that society comes first, and that virtue resides in sacrifice for one's fellow men. He finds a sense of exultation only amidst the beauties of nature. Among the works of men — surrounded by the pool halls and billboards — he experiences a sense of despair. He does not want to despise man or the works of man; he wants to admire them. But he finds little worthy of admiration. The young man had always wanted to write music, because the special sense of life that he finds so generally elusive has been captured by mankind's greatest composers. He thinks that men have not found the words for it, nor the deed, nor the thought, but they have found the music. He seeks to find the promise of that music made real in some act of man on earth. He's not looking for sacrifice or suffering or selflessness — but for joyousness. He does not ask his brothers or sisters to work for his happiness, but to show him theirs. He needs the sight of it, because he needs to know that it is possible. He wants to see human achievement made real. The knowledge of it will give him courage for his own. At the top of a hill, he sees the broad expanse of a valley below him. He sees houses of plain fieldstone — like the rocks jutting from the green hillsides — "and of glass, great sheets of glass used as if the sun were invited to complete the structures, sunlight becoming part of the masonry." He knows, by looking at the hillside, that someone understood how to build without altering the natural contours or beauty of the terrain. The houses were separate, cut off from each other, utterly distinct and individualized. The young man gapes. Then he notices that he is not alone. Some steps away from him, a man sits on a boulder and gazes at the valley below. He is absorbed in the sight. The man is tall and gaunt and has orange hair. The college graduate approaches the man respectfully and asks him if the sight before them is real. The man replies that is. It's not a movie set or a trick, the younger man wants to know. No, Roark, the orange-haired man tells him. It's a summer resort just completed that will be opened in a few weeks. "Who built it?" the boy wants to know. "'I did.' 'What's your name?' 'Howard Roark.' 'Thank you,' said the boy." The boy knows that the perceptive eyes looking at him understand everything that those words convey. Roark bows his head, in acknowledgment. The boy wheels his bicycle down the slope of the hill toward the houses in the valley, and Roark looks after him. "He had never seen that boy before and he would never see him again. He did not know that he had given someone the courage to face a lifetime."
Roark had not understood the reasons that he was hired to build Monadnock Valley. He had heard of it a year and a half before, in the fall of 1933. He had gone to see Caleb Bradley, who headed the company building the resort, and who was doing a good deal of promotion. Bradley's face reveals no flicker of emotion as Roark describes his plan, but he asks one strange question. Bradley asks if Roark was the architect who designed the Stoddard Temple. When Roark answers that he was, Bradley states it was funny he hadn't thought of Roark himself. Several days later, Bradley calls and asks Roark to explain his idea to Bradley's partners. Roark presents his plan: the worst curse of poverty, he says, is the lack of privacy. The rich can enjoy their summer vacations because they have their private estates to which they can retire. But people of good taste and small income have no place to go to escape the crowded conditions of the city. As Roark explains how to build cheaply not one huge hotel but many small, private ones, the men exchange occasional glances. Roark feels certain that they are the type of glances people exchange when they cannot laugh at the speaker aloud. But it could not have been that, he thought, because several days later he signs a contract to build the Monadnock Valley Resort.
Roark remembers his experience building the Stoddard Temple, and he demands Bradley's initials on every drawing that comes out of his drafting rooms. Bradley is eager to initial, sign, and approve. Beyond keeping a close watch over the budget, he is not involved himself in the project and leaves Roark in complete control. Roark is able to discover little about Bradley, and then loses interest in him altogether. He is building his greatest assignment. For a year, he lives at the construction site. Steven Mallory does the fountains and all the sculptural work for the resort, and he comes to live at the site long before he is needed. Roark's old draftsmen come to work for him again, some leaving better jobs in the city. When Mike Donnigan arrives with the crew of electricians, Mallory observes that the look on Mike's face matches Mallory's feeling that this project is more than a building, it is a crusade. Slowly, over the course of a year, the buildings of the resort are completed. But occasionally, Mr. Bradley visits the construction site, smiles blandly and departs, leaving Mallory with an unexplained anger — and fear.
Several months after the resort's completion, in the fall of the year, Roark and Mallory discover the reason for that fear. The resort is commercially successful. Roark had been correct in his conviction that there was a need for this kind of vacation spot. Even though Mr. Bradley's staff virtually stopped advertising the place, within a month of its opening every house in Monadnock Valley was rented. The vacationers love the design, and word of mouth causes the resort to become private news. One magazine, unsolicited, prints four pages of photographs of Monadnock Valley and sends a writer to interview Roark. Before the end of the season, the houses are leased in advance for the following year. In October, the story hits the newspapers that Mr. Bradley and his gang built Monadnock Valley as a swindle. They acquired the land for very little and sold two hundred percent of its stock. They thought it was too out of the way and inaccessible, not near any train or bus lines. They thought the time was not right, that the low income of the Depression era precluded the construction of a successful resort. They had an ingenious scheme for declaring bankruptcy when the place failed, as they were sure it would. They chose Roark as the worst crank they could unearth to design the place, and thought that his plan for individualized recreational areas was an antisocial idea. They prepared for every contingency except success. Therefore, they cannot go on, because now they have to pay back twice the amount the place earns in a year, and, as Mallory points out, it earns plenty. Bradley and his gang are arrested and face trial and possible prison time for their fraudulent scheme. But Roark understands that, although the owners will now sue each other, the place will not be torn down and neither he nor Mallory will be dragged into the legal wrangles. Quietly, he goes on with his work.
Before Roark can rent a house at Monadnock Valley and spend the summer, as he intends, he is summoned back to New York to finally complete the construction of the Aquitania Hotel. He receives a telegram from Kent Lansing saying, "I told you I would, didn't I? It took five years to get rid of my friends and brothers, but the Aquitania is now mine — and yours. Come to finish it." After five years of legal battles, Kent Lansing now owns it outright; Lansing and Roark finish it together. Roark sees the rubble and the dust cleared away from the building's girders. He sees the unfinished symphony completed and its light glowing at night in the city's skyline.
Roark has been busy in the last two years. The resort at Monadnock Valley was not his sole job. From different parts of the country, requests came for him. The reasons were always the same: Individuals were in New York and liked the Enright House, the Cord Building, or both; or someone saw a picture of the Stoddard Temple and loved it. He designed these new structures — shops, private homes, small office buildings — on trains and planes that carried him from the construction site at Monadnock Valley to these far-off towns: "It was as if an underground stream flowed through the country and broke out in sudden springs that shot to the surface at random, in unpredictable places." These are small jobs that do not generate publicity, but Roark is designing and building as he wants.
Because the financing behind the construction of Monadnock Valley is revealed to be fraudulent, there is a scandal in art circles as well as a trial, but Roark is not directly involved. Austen Heller writes an impassioned article in defense of Roark's genius that creates a stir among those interested in the arts. Heller describes the buildings Roark has designed and the brilliant innovativeness of his work. He exhorts his readers to understand and appreciate the achievements of Roark's career — and he does so not in his usual calm tones, but as an outraged cry against injustice: "And may we be damned if greatness must reach us through fraud!"
Ellsworth Toohey is worried. The commercial success of Monadnock Valley, the completion of the Aquitania Hotel, and the publicity generated by Heller's article have once again brought Roark to the forefront of public attention. Toohey breaks his general silence regarding Roark to attack the architectural qualities of the Monadnock resort. He writes that Caleb Bradley's morals were certainly questionable, but his artistic judgment was impeccable. Bradley, Toohey claims, was martyred by the bad taste of his customers. "In the opinion of this column his sentence should have been commuted in recognition of his artistic discrimination. Monadnock Valley is a fraud — but not merely a financial one." Roark's fame causes little change among the established gentlemen of great wealth, who are responsible for the preponderance of architectural commissions. Where previously their response was "Roark — never heard of him," now it is, "Roark — he's too sensational." But there are entrepreneurs who are impressed by the simple fact that Roark made money at Monadnock for owners who did not want to make money. "This was more convincing than abstract artistic discussion." Roark is gaining recognition. In the year after Monadnock, he builds two private homes in Connecticut, a movie theater in Chicago, and a hotel in Philadelphia. In the fall of 1936 Roark moves his office to the top floor of the Cord Building. At the time he designed it, he had intended that one day he would have his office there. He stops and looks briefly at the sign on the door that says simply, "Howard Roark, Architect." His inner office contains three walls of glass, high over the city, from which he can see the Enright House, the Aquitania Hotel, and far to the south, the Dana Building designed by Henry Cameron. On a rainy day in November, returning from a construction site on Long Island, he is accosted by his secretary, who tells him that he just received an important phone call. He has an interview the following afternoon with Gail Wynand.
As Roark enters the building housing The New York Banner, he reflects that Gail Wynand is the man whom he has come nearest to hating in his life. Wynand is both the symbol of the mindless conventionality that Henry Cameron saw as his primary enemy — and the husband of Dominique. Roark enters Wynand's office prepared to refuse any commission he is offered. Wynand, in turn, believes this interview will go exactly as all previous interviews with architects have gone: He merely has to speak to convey what he wants. The architect then nods in understanding, and the interview ends. But when Roark and Wynand meet face to face, neither of them is certain that there is not a moment when each stops in his normal course of movement. There is a moment when each forgets the immediate reality — when Wynand forgets the building he wishes to construct, and Roark is oblivious to the fact that this man is Dominique's husband — and focuses solely on the man he meets. There is one instant in which there is "only the total awareness, for each, of the man before him, only two thoughts meeting in the middle of the room — 'This is Gail Wynand' — 'This is Howard Roark.'"
Wynand intends to build a private home in Connecticut, and has purchased five hundred acres for that purpose. He has taken a long time to choose his architect. He has traveled around the country looking at buildings — at homes, at hotels, at office buildings. He never before heard of Roark. But then he saw Monadnock Valley, and recognized it as a masterpiece. After that, whenever he sees a building he likes, he asks who the architect is, and he always receives the same answer: Howard Roark. Wynand states that he wishes his home to have "the Roark quality," a sense of a joy that is so demanding and uplifting that it "makes one feel as if it were an achievement to experience it." Roark accepts the commission and Wynand explains his thinking regarding the home he wants.
Wynand desires a fortress in the country, so that he will not have to share Dominique with the people of the city. He tells Roark that he feels something much worse and much stronger than jealousy, that he cannot stand to see her on the streets of the city and must take her away from any contact with the shops, the streets, the taxicabs. He wants a fortress in which Dominique will be touched by neither the conventional lives of the men of the city nor the vulgar affairs of The Banner. He wants his home to be a vault to guard treasures too precious for the sight of men, but more, a world so beautiful that Dominique will not miss the one she's left. Wynand wants something sacred. He asks Roark if he's ever built a temple. He wants a temple built to Dominique Wynand — and he hires Roark to build it. He chooses Roark — even though he was away at the time of the Stoddard Temple and knows nothing about it — because what he sees in the Monadnock Valley Resort and in Roark's other buildings conveys a quality of the sublime akin to religion. He tells Roark that, when he finds an artist whose work he admires, he refuses to meet him, out of fear that the creator will not match his creation. When he meets Roark, however, Wynand realizes that this is one case in which an artist matches the greatness of his work. When Roark departs, Wynand has the paper's morgue send him all the material it has on Howard Roark and his career.
Alvah Scarrett hears of Roark's visit to Wynand's office, and tells Toohey. Both are concerned regarding the change that Dominique has wrought in their boss's attitude — by how he now kills popular pieces of trite sentimentality that he formerly published. But Toohey has succeeded in the past several years in placing his followers in positions of influence on The Banner. He tells Scarrett that if it comes to a showdown regarding control of the paper, the two of them do not have to worry about Gail Wynand any longer. Toohey is confident that he now has the power to control the newspaper.
Wynand and Roark become close friends, drawn together by their mutual love of man's highest accomplishments. Wynand makes clear how much he admires Roark's rise from humble origins. Nevertheless, driven by an uncontrollable lust to prove to himself that there are no men of integrity, he attempts to bribe and intimidate Roark into selling his soul for profit. He offers to build the home exactly as Roark has designed it, and to hire Roark as the exclusive architect for all future Wynand construction projects. In exchange for such a massive boost to his career, Wynand demands that all future Roark buildings be designed in compliance with traditional standards. He wants Roark to "build Colonial houses, Rococo hotels and semi-Grecian office buildings." He warns Roark that, should he refuse, Wynand will use his considerable influence to make sure that no future commissions will be offered to him, and that even the work gangs and granite quarries will be closed to him. Roark knows that Wynand is serious. He responds by telling Wynand that what the newspaperman wants is easy. He reaches for a slip of paper on Wynand's desk and proceeds to draw an adaptation of Wynand's home — but "with Colonial porches, a gambrel roof, two massive chimneys, a few little pilasters, a few porthole windows." He shows Wynand the sketch and asks if this is what he wants. Wynand gasps involuntarily. "Good God, no!" "Then shut up," said Roark, "and don't ever let me hear any architectural suggestions." Wynand slumps in his chair, defeated, and asks Roark if he realizes what kind of a chance he has taken. Roark says he took no chance, that he had an ally he could trust. When Wynand asks, "What, your integrity?" Roark replies, "Yours, Gail." Wynand realizes that he has finally met a man whose spirit cannot be broken. The results in Wynand's life, in the long run, will be monumental.
Wynand shows Roark's sketch of their home to Dominique, who knows the designer without seeing the signature or asking his name. When he tells her that Roark is coming that night to dinner, Dominique is stunned but manages not to show it. At the meal, Dominique is angered by Wynand's close familiarity with Roark and by Roark's obvious respect and affection for her husband. She mentions the Stoddard Temple, to remind Wynand that he has no right to Roark's friendship, but when Wynand responds with the appropriate guilt Roark tells him sincerely to forget that incident. Dominique, in love with Roark but married to Wynand, is tortured by their growing closeness. When Wynand visits Roark's office and goes to dinner with him alone, Dominique must acknowledge that, under the present circumstances, she has no right to visit Roark but Gail Wynand does.
Wynand summons Toohey into his office and informs him that he is forbidden to write one word about Roark in The Banner. Toohey smiles easily and replies that, at present, he has no need to write about Howard Roark.
Peter Keating's career is slipping. Toohey pushes Gus Webb, and Keating has been replaced by a newer fad. In desperation, Keating comes to Toohey, the power behind a new government housing project, Cortlandt Homes. Toohey gives Keating the specifications, but Keating knows he can't do it. He asks Roark to design it for him and to allow him to put his name on it. Roark agrees on one condition: that it be erected exactly as he designs it.
Roark designs Cortlandt; his plan solves the structural problems and is accepted. As construction begins, he and Wynand depart for a long cruise on his boat, the I Do. When they return, Roark finds that his plans have been altered. Although Keating has tried to protect the integrity of Roark's design, he has found it impossible against the bureaucratic power wielded by Toohey. Gus Webb and Gordon L. Prescott, two proteges of Toohey, have connections among the government officials in charge of the project, and get themselves appointed as associate designers. The changes in Roark's design begin with one of the social workers assigned to the Cortlandt development. She demands an added wing for a gymnasium, although there are two schools and a Y.M.C.A. within walking distance. Webb and Prescott both desire to express their individuality, and Toohey sees no reason to hold them back. Keating trudges from office to bureaucratic office, seeking to preserve Roark's building, but finds no one willing to assume responsibility for "an issue of esthetics." Roark, after seeing an announcement in the newspaper describing Webb and Prescott as associates, stands across the future road from the construction site and stares at what had once been his design. "He saw the economy of plan preserved, but the expense of incomprehensible features added . . . a new wing added, with a vaulted roof, bulging out of the wall like a tumor. . . ." The evening after Roark's return, Keating comes uninvited to Roark's apartment. Sincerely contrite regarding his inability to prevent the alterations to Roark's building, Keating offers to openly confess the truth in public, but Roark declines. He does not tell Keating his plan, but points out that the consequences of his impending action will be worse for him than for Keating.
With Dominique's assistance, Roark dynamites the building. Although he does not need her help, he judges that she is now rid of the belief that the good has no chance at success, and is consequently free to take an active role in aiding him. She pretends to run out of gas in front of Cortlandt, and sends the night watchman to get gas at the nearest service station, one mile away. With no lives endangered, Roark then blows up the building. He turns himself in and says he will speak at the trial.
There is public outrage against the destruction of a housing project. For the first time in his career, Wynand goes against public opinion. He defends Roark in The Banner. Wynand maintains that his newspaper controls public opinion, and that his readers will believe what he wants them to believe. He personally takes charge of the campaign to defend Roark, putting on display his own brilliant journalistic skills in the process. He writes a series of articles describing trials in which innocent men were unjustly convicted by the ignorant bias of society. The Banner recounts the history of those great thinkers persecuted by an uncomprehending public — Socrates, Galileo, Pasteur, and many others. Wynand runs an exposé of the public housing industry: "the graft, the incompetence, the structures erected at five times the cost a private builder would have needed." He puts out the word to his twenty-two newspapers, his magazines, and his newsreels: Defend Roark, demonstrate his innocence, reshape public opinion. But because Roark blew up a housing project for the poor, opinion runs heavily against him. The backlash against his defenders is swift and strong. There is an outcry against Wynand, and circulation drops. The strongest elements of dissent come from Wynand's own public — from the Women's Clubs, the ministers, the mothers, the small shopkeepers. "Roark was almost forgotten in the storm of indignation against Gail Wynand." For several years, the popularity of The Banner had been dropping, as Wynand, inspired by Dominique's presence to display his real values, had killed many of the sentimental pieces adored by his public. Further, Toohey had subtly orchestrated a campaign against Wynand featured in the small but prestigious intellectual magazines. Now, stickers and posters proclaiming, "We Don't Read Wynand," appear on walls and subways across New York City. Many news vendors refuse to display The Banner; they carry it hidden under their counters, to be provided for customers only on request: "The ground had been prepared, the pillars eaten through long ago; the Cortlandt case provided the final impact."
Toohey now judges the moment propitious to strike. When Wynand is out of town, he goes against policy and attacks Roark in The Banner; Wynand fires Toohey. The union of Wynand employees, organized and controlled by Toohey, goes out on strike. Wynand and Dominique, with virtually no assistance, put out the paper by themselves; it comes back unread. The newspaper's board of directors meets and points out the huge sums of money The Banner is losing. Mitchell Layton, a wealthy follower of Toohey, who owns the second largest block of the paper's stock, offers to buy Wynand out. The board makes clear that the choice is simple: Either accept back the men fired and alter the paper's stand on Roark, or close the newspaper. Wynand relents; in order to save The Banner he agrees to publicly reverse his position on the Cortlandt dynamiting.
Dominique leaves him and moves in with Roark, who awaits trial. On their first morning together, she calls the police and newspapers to report her jewelry stolen in the night. She knows that the story of Mrs. Wynand spending the night alone with another man — especially the accused dynamiter, Howard Roark — will be front page news on the New York tabloids. Dominique realizes that if Gail Wynand, in order to save the tawdry, pandering Banner, publicly calls the noble Roark "a reprehensible character, a dangerous, unprincipled, antisocial type of man," then justice requires his own wife and reputation to be offered up to his public in as lurid a story as possible. Even though Dominique knows that what she is doing makes it harder for Roark, that it adds scandal to everything else society throws at him, she is happy. For now she is unafraid of society's judgment — willing to face whatever it does to her or to Roark — and is free to pursue her values.
At his trial, Roark defends the right of a creator to his creation. He argues that, through the centuries, individuals have had new ideas and developed new methods and processes, and often these individuals have been rejected by their peers because their theories or products were new and upset the established routine of people's lives. Roark points out that the first-handed creators have carried mankind on their backs, but have often been kicked in the teeth for their efforts. Roark had the new ideas that enabled Cortlandt to be built; the housing project was a product of his thinking, and remains his intellectual property. An individual is morally and legally entitled to be paid for his work, and the payment he demands is that the building be erected as he designed it. According to this definition, Roark was not paid. Society gladly took the product of his mind and effort, but refused to pay him his asking price. This is an injustice. Because it is not possible to sue the government, he was left with no recourse but to blow up the project and make it a test case for the courts to decide. Roark stands for an individual's right to his own mind and to ownership of the product of his efforts. The jury understands Roark's argument, and he is acquitted. Roger Enright buys Cortlandt from the government and hires Roark to build it. Gail Wynand, though morally and psychologically broken, hires Roark to build the Wynand Building, the world's tallest skyscraper. Roark and Dominique marry. He has achieved both commercial and romantic success — and has done so on his own terms.
Peter Keating is exposed publicly as a fraud at the Cortlandt trial — and his career is finished. Ellsworth Toohey is reinstated to his position at The Banner by the labor board. Wynand has Toohey report back to work at 9:00 p.m. and waits for him in the door of his office. Wynand stands silently as Toohey arrives early and takes again his accustomed place at his desk. Toohey is made nervous by the specter of Wynand hanging over him in the doorway, but is reassured by the sound of the rolling presses — the constant accompaniment of a newspaperman's life. Then the presses stop. Wynand looks at his wristwatch and says, "It's nine o'clock. You're out of a job, Mr. Toohey. The Banner has ceased to exist." Wynand refuses to turn his life's work over to Toohey, so he closes the paper. Standing alone with the man he recognizes as the most contemptibly evil member of society, Wynand says, "This was the end of The Banner . . . I think it's proper that I should meet it with you." Toohey must start over again at another newspaper, having failed in his attempts to both stop Roark and to control Wynand's Banner.
Part Four is dedicated to the triumph of Howard Roark. By the end of the story, Roark is in his late thirties and has endured significant hardships but now has everything he wants. His trial shows that his was the genius responsible for Cortlandt; his acquittal demonstrates recognition of his moral principles; his hiring by Enright and Wynand to build Cortlandt and the Wynand Building gives him both commercial success and fame; his marriage gives him an enduring intimate relationship with the woman he loves. How — by what means — was he able to triumph over such concerted social opposition?
The answer to this question goes to the heart of the book's meaning — to the role played by values in a man's life. A person's values are those things or persons he considers valuable, of significant worth; the things that fill his life with meaning and purpose. Roark's values are clear: He loves architecture of a certain kind — "my work done my way" — above all else. He loves his future wife, Dominique, and his dearest friend, Gail Wynand. These are of paramount importance in his life; other things are of lesser or of no value to him. One key point is that these are his values, chosen by Roark's own judgment. Unlike Keating, Roark does not go into architecture because his mother chooses it; nor does he marry Dominique because she impresses other people. Roark becomes an architect because the field fascinates him; he marries Dominique because he loves her. In Ayn Rand's revolutionary way of looking at moral issues, Howard Roark is profoundly selfish. He is a prime representative of what she calls "the virtue of selfishness."
The question regarding the sense in which selfishness is a virtue is raised at the end of Part One. Roark desperately needs the commission for the Manhattan Bank Building. Mr. Weidler fights for him, but the board keeps him waiting. Finally, they give it to Roark, but on one condition — they will alter his design. Roark refuses. The board members are incredulous; Roark is on the brink of utter destitution, yet he turns down a major commission in the heart of New York City in order to protect the integrity of his design. "Do you have to be quite so fanatical and selfless about it?" they ask. "That was the most selfish thing you've ever seen a man do," Roark responds, squeezing his drawings to his side.
The questions of how Roark's behavior is selfish — and of what is virtuous about selfishness — can be answered only in the context of the entire story. Ayn Rand challenges 2,500 years of moral philosophy in this book. "What does it mean to be selfish?" she asks. It can only mean, in its denotation, to be concerned with oneself — with one's self. But one's self consists of two components: the values that one chooses and the thinking or judgment that one uses to do the choosing. This issue of selfishness is the one that Roark's life dramatizes. Roark is true, under all circumstances, to his mind, to his judgment, to his values. He certainly wants the commission for the Manhattan Bank Building, and he wants the money and the career boost it will bring. But these are not as important to him as the integrity of his design. If he permits the adulteration of his design to gain the commission, it would constitute a self-sacrifice. It would involve giving up that which is more important to him for that which is less. Such a self-betrayal Roark refuses to make.
Roark realizes that his happiness requires his buildings to be erected as he designs them. Were he to compromise his design for fame and fortune, he would not be happy. Every time Roark looked at the building on which he had compromised — whenever he thought of it — he would experience only shame. Roark understands that happiness requires commitment, in action, to one's values. To surrender the things most important to him is a sacrifice that Roark will not make. His rejection of the Manhattan Bank commission is the act of remaining true to his values, that is, to his self — in action and under extreme duress. This scene in The Fountainhead often recalls Polonius' famous line to Laertes in Shakespeare's Hamlet — "To thine own self be true, and it follows as the night the day that thou cannot play false with any man." Polonius says it in Hamlet; Howard Roark lives it and shows what it looks like in The Fountainhead.
The board members of the Manhattan Bank Building accuse Roark of selflessness. This accusation is false. But there is a character in the story who is specifically designed by the author to be the essence of selflessness: Peter Keating. According to conventional ethics, Keating is a ruthless example of egotism. He lies, cheats, flatters, manipulates, and virtually murders Lucius Heyer in order to attain partnership in the country's most prestigious firm. It looks as though Keating does all this for himself. But Ayn Rand challenges us to analyze the issue at a deeper level. A self, she argues, is exactly what Peter Keating lacks.
If a person's self is the values he chooses and the independent judgment by means of which he makes the choices, then these are the very things Keating has abdicated. His values and his mind have been turned over to others. In his youth, for example, painting was a budding passion for him. Had Keating pursued painting, it may have brought him a fulfilling career. But he does not; he surrenders his desires in order to please his mother. Mrs. Keating is concerned with respectability; she wants social acceptance. To her, painting is a bohemian — not a respectable — lifestyle. An artist, after all, wears torn, paint-splattered jeans, he freezes in a garret in New York City's Soho district, he has nude women in his apartment as models. But architecture, she believes, offers a very different kind of life. Architects wear double-breasted, pin-striped, Brooks Brothers suits; they have offices on Park Avenue; they draw their clients from the Social Register. For these reasons, architecture is a respectable career. Keating gives up a career he would have loved not because he loves architecture more (he doesn't love it at all) but because others want him to. He surrenders a career in art not merely to meet his mother's expectations, but to meet her understanding of society's expectations. Keating is a conformist. Other people, not his own judgment, dominate his career choice. He is selfless.
A person generally pursues long-term happiness in two areas: career and love. Because Keating is not excited by architecture, he has condemned himself to a career of unrelieved drudgery. His one chance at lasting happiness lies in the area of romantic love. The good news is that he and Catherine Halsey love each other. The sincerity of Keating's love is shown by his refusal to use Katie. He desires to meet Ellsworth Toohey, the rising star of architectural criticism, whose patronage is sufficient to make or break an architect. Catherine, Toohey's innocent niece, is willing to introduce Keating to Toohey immediately, but Keating refuses. He confesses to her that he uses people, and vows that he will not do it to her; he wants their relationship clean, untainted by his manipulative methods. Gail Wynand says in another context that "love is the exception-making," that a person will do for the loved one things he would do for no other. Keating manipulates everyone. Katie is the only one he relates to honestly; she is the one exception in his life. He loves her and he would be happy with her. But he leaves her the night before his wedding to marry Dominique Francon.
Keating does not love Dominique; he does not even like her. Because Dominique sees clearly Keating's fraudulent nature and is unafraid to state the truth openly, she intimidates him. He jilts the woman he loves and marries a woman he does not love for the very reason he originally became an architect: to impress other people. Keating doesn't leave Katie just because she's plain. In addition to beauty, Katie lacks poise and elegance; she has none of the social graces that Dominique has. If Keating walks into the grand ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria with Katie on his arm, not one head in the room will turn; no one will be impressed. But Dominique is quite another matter. In addition to her beauty, Dominique possesses the charm and poise lacking in Katie. She impresses people. This is the exchange Keating makes: He gives up the woman he loves and a lifetime of happiness in order to impress other people with the "trophy" wife he has in Dominique. Love and happiness for prestige — this is the trade Keating makes. Again, Keating betrays what he wants, and what will make him happy, in order to gain social approval.
The deeper point in Keating's life is that, in giving up his values, Keating gives up his mind. His life is no longer ruled by what he thinks, knows, and wants — but by what others believe and want. Their values and thinking now govern his life, not his own. Keating has abdicated his self; he has betrayed it so fully that, by the end of the story — before he is even forty — there is nothing left of him. He is an empty shell of a man, with nothing uniquely his own. Every personal vestige has been sacrificed in order to please others. He has reached a state of selflessness in its literal meaning — he is without self. He is the opposite of Howard Roark.
The results of selfishness and selflessness are obvious. Roark, no matter the duration and difficulty of his struggle, is on a value-quest; his life is filled, from top to bottom, with the things he loves. A life full of designing structures like the Aquitania Hotel and the Enright House, of intimate moments with the woman he loves, of hours with friends such as Wynand, Mallory, Mike Donnigan, and, of course, Henry Cameron — this is the impassioned, value-driven existence of Howard Roark. Even though at times he struggles, Roark has surrounded himself from morning until night with the things, people, and activities most important to him. Roark's life, therefore, is an ongoing love affair.
The exact opposite is true of Keating. He has abandoned the things most important to him — painting and a relationship with Catherine Halsey. The things his day is filled with — architecture and a relationship with Dominique Francon — are not important to him. His life is a series of meaningless actions, an existence of drudgery. For several years, he has all the prestige and social approval a man can ask for, but this is external. Internally, he has nothing. The heartbreaking scene near the end, when Keating returns to his abandoned childhood love — painting — and brings his canvases to Roark, shows this. Roark, looking at the crude, childish work, is overcome with pity and can barely bring himself to speak the truth. But it is too late for Keating. A lifetime of betraying his mind, his thinking, his artistic judgment, has killed whatever creative spark he may have possessed long ago. Creativity, by its very nature is a self-driven activity; it is not borrowed from others. On the contrary, it necessarily involves new ideas, thoughts that others have not had. One can choose to follow the crowd or one can choose to be creative, but one cannot be both. Keating's stated lifelong policy, "Always be what people want you to be," is the credo of blind followers. As such, it is anathema to creativity. Consistent acts of self-betrayal cannot be performed with impunity.
Just as Roark's success relative to Keating's failure shows the virtue of selfishness and the evils of selflessness — so Roark's triumph over Toohey's machinations demonstrates another moral truth. Toohey is a highly intelligent, possibly brilliant individual, who, though lacking the creative abilities of Roark and Wynand, could have been an outstanding scholar had he made other choices. But for all the ingenious cunning of his schemes, Toohey fails utterly in his attempts to stop Roark and to take control of Wynand's newspaper. The reasons for Toohey's defeat go to the heart of Ayn Rand's philosophy. Every activity of Toohey's life is oriented toward other people. He critiques the work of others by reference to moral and aesthetic theories developed by still others in order to control and enslave others still. Not a single act of Toohey's life is creative. In other words, nothing he does is directed toward building or constructing something. He does not even hammer nails into wood to make a chair or paint the walls of his living room. Such creative activities as carpentry and house-painting are utterly alien to him. Toohey is helpless to deal directly with nature, with physical reality; his distinctive orientation is social. He seeks no mastery over nature but exclusively over men.
It is the very parasitism of Toohey's functioning that makes him dangerous. It is also what leaves him helpless. If he cannot perform constructive tasks, how is he to survive in a physical world? Only by insinuating himself into the souls of others and controlling them can he survive. Roark states in his courtroom address that the creator seeks to conquer nature and the parasite to conquer men. Toohey's helplessness in the face of reality drives him toward spiritual and social conquest. He must hold dominion over others in order to ensure his own survival. The larger Toohey's cult following, the more powerful the buffer between him and the physical world of which he is terrified. Victims like Keating and Catherine Halsey are not weaker — like antelopes devoured by a lion — but essentially stronger in their capacity to deal efficaciously with physical reality. Toohey must control them, for their very ability to perform at least some types of productive work is the lifeline he craves. Keating and Catherine are his sole source of survival, and so, like a vampire of the spirit, he sucks their lifeblood.
But Toohey is even worse than this. His power-seeking is not fundamentally motivated by a quest for survival, but by something significantly more evil. He doesn't merely fear the men capable of independent existence; he hates and desires to destroy them. In his childhood, he knew Johnny Stokes, "a bright kid with dimples and curls," whom people always turned to see. Because no one ever turned to look at Ellsworth Toohey, he turns the hose on Johnny. Years later, part of his scheming to involve Dominique first with Keating, then with Wynand, is a plainly stated intention to destroy this brilliant and beautiful woman. He openly seeks to ruin Roark's career and, in a confession speech at the end of the novel, Toohey answers Keating's question regarding a desire to kill Roark by stating that he wants Roark alive — but utterly broken. The question of the fate to befall the independent men of the world if and when Toohey reaches his goal of intellectual advisor to a Fascist or Communist dictator is clear: Just as he intends to imprison and break Roark, so he intends the same for Roark's comrades-in-spirit. Only two kinds of power exist in life: the power to create and the power to destroy. Toohey neither seeks nor attains the power to create. He possesses only the power to destroy — and he is particularly concerned with using it against the able and successful individuals whom he envies.
Toohey is a spiritual killer looking for an opportunity to become a physical one. He has the power to destroy. This power is limited, however, to conformists like Keating, who are looking for a master to follow — and to a panderer like Wynand, who allows Toohey a foothold in his organization because of the columnist's popularity. But over an independent man like Roark, who has no need of him — who does not even think of him — Toohey has no power. His power is limited to those victims who voluntarily grant him their souls or, at least, a beachhead in their lives. Those who grant Toohey nothing, like Roark and Dominique, are in no danger from him.
That Toohey's destructive capacity is limited is true — but it is a relatively minor point. The major point is that Toohey has no power to create. Ayn Rand's claim is that evil is irrational; it does not focus on reality, seeking to build, create, or grow; it focuses only on other men, seeking to enslave, control, and destroy. She calls this point the impotence of evil. Evil men are capable only of destruction, never of construction. They can tear down; they cannot build up. Toohey succeeds in destroying The New York Banner, but is incapable of recreating it after Wynand closes it. Any "victory" won by evil men is empty. They are incapable of creativity and — despite the number of souls they conquer, innocent lives they destroy, or dollars they loot — their lives are miserable. As Toohey tells Keating, "Enjoyment is not my destiny." Happiness comes from achieving values, from building and producing, not from desecrating and destroying.
Roark is a happy man. He creates value by bringing into the world new designs and structures. He is a builder and looks out at nature joyously: "He looked at the granite. To be cut, he thought, and made into walls. He looked at a tree. To be split and made into rafters." His life is filled exclusively with plans to build; even during the times with no clients, he studies the new materials and technologies, learning how to use them, working toward the day when he can apply this knowledge to build a Cortlandt Homes and other new buildings. Even working in a granite quarry is a means toward that end, for Roark saves money so that he can reopen his office and return to architecture. Roark, the independent thinker, is rational (focused on facts, on nature, on reality). This rationality is what enables him to build. Roark is an exemplar of the man who conquers nature, not other men. His rational functioning, like that of a scientist, is what enables him to achieve, build, and produce. Here is the positive side of the issue — the potency of the good. Only the good can achieve values. Only the good can deal effectively with reality. Only the good can create and build. In consequence, only the good can reach a state of flourishing life and experience joy.
Roark's triumph and Toohey's failure — the potency of the good and the impotence of the evil — explain another point in the story: the nature of Dominique's error. Dominique, for all her brilliance and idealism, is tormented by her pessimism — by her belief that the good and the noble have no chance in a corrupt world. While still young, Dominique sees her father wine and dine his way to the top of his profession, even though he is a mediocre architect. Dominique realizes that Henry Cameron is the world's greatest designer but sees that he is a commercial failure. In her twenties, Dominique finds Peter Keating on the fast track to success and Howard Roark consigned to a granite quarry. She observes that Ellsworth Toohey, the most evil creature imaginable, is hailed as a moral saint by millions of people. Her conclusion is that evil is a dominant force in man's life; that the good are weak and ultimately doomed. Ayn Rand terms such pessimism the malevolent universe premise. Its optimistic contrary, held by Roark, that the world is open to the achievement of values by the good, she calls the benevolent universe premise.
Dominique's view is mistaken, though given her experiences, understandable. The events of the story clearly dramatize Ayn Rand's benevolent universe theory. Dominique, an honest and acute observer, witnesses Roark's steady, if tortuous climb, Toohey's inability to reach either of his goals, Keating's decline and eventual exposure, Wynand's inability to succeed by the method of pandering — and she changes her mind. An early note of Dominique's transition is her warning to Wynand regarding Toohey. This warning signals more than a growing respect for Wynand's virtues; it indicates her shifting view regarding the world's moral nature. She no longer believes that the world deserves Toohey. She now sees that the world is better than that — and that it deserves better than the Fascist/Communist dictatorship Toohey seeks to impose. Her willingness to help Roark dynamite Cortlandt, though the action could well bring him imprisonment, shows her final liberation from the grip of her malevolent premise. Before the trial, Dominique says, "Howard . . . willingly, completely, and always . . . without reservations, without fear of anything they can do to you or me. . . . Howard, if you win the trial — even that won't matter too much. You've won long ago. . . ." Dominique understands that, regardless of social rejection, it is the independent thinkers like Roark who understand nature's laws, who make advances and who carry mankind forward. He is the creative man who gives life its meaning; he is the one who recognizes and lives up to man's highest potential. She now understands to whom the earth belongs — and it is to the creators, not the parasites; to the virtuous, not the guilty.
Roark's life, and its successful outcome, dramatizes the benevolent universe principle. The world is open to a thinking man's achievement of values. Conformists, nonconformists, and power-seekers cannot achieve values and be happy, because all of them, in one form or another, give up their minds to the crowd — the Keatings to follow, the Lois Cooks to spit defiance, the Tooheys to rule. Men who surrender their judgment have no chance at success or happiness. But the thinkers learn to grow food, to make fire, to build homes, to cure disease. They can flourish, and by means of their creative work, make flourishing life possible for the rest of mankind. The world is open to those independent thinkers who refuse to renounce their minds.
The novel's theme is expressed fully in the final section. The triumph of Roark, and the utter defeat of Keating and Toohey, represents the victory of the independent thinkers over the followers and parasites. Roark's courtroom speech explains the issues that lie at the heart of the book's meaning. He examines the contrast and conflict between those whom Ayn Rand terms first-handers and second-handers.
The first-handers are those who use their own minds. They do not accept ideas second-hand, merely because other people believe them. First-handers learn from others — like Roark learns from Cameron — but they do not copy or obey. Learning requires a thoughtful understanding, an autonomous recognition of an idea's truth; it is made possible only by a thinking process and is the opposite of the unthinking acceptance of the Keating-style conformist. All innovators, inventors, and discoverers of new knowledge are first-handers. Individuals like Edison, Pasteur, Copernicus, and Darwin — first-handers — are original thinkers, not glorified draftsmen copying the work of previous minds.
The second-handers are those who abdicate the responsibility of independent judgment. In one form or another, they allow the thinking of others to dominate their lives. They are unwilling to accept the arduous effort of thinking, and instead, exist as cognitive puppets of society, ruled by the ideas popular in their cultural milieu. They accept ideas second-hand — as hand-me-downs from others. All conformists, nonconformists, and power-seekers — the Keatings, Lois Cooks, and Tooheys — function in this manner. They are not thinkers, they are not focused on reality, they cannot and do not build. Their existence is entirely social; they accomplish nothing creative or innovative; they merely accept and copy.
The fundamental issue in life is survival. Roark spells out the life-and-death stakes in his courtroom speech. He points out that man comes onto earth with none of the goods necessary for his survival. Everything required for human life is a product of his own effort. According to Roark, man faces a constant alternative: He can survive by means of his own effort or as a leech fed by the productive work of others. "The creator originates. The parasite borrows. The creator faces nature alone. The parasite faces nature through an intermediary. The creator's concern is the conquest of nature. The parasite's concern is the conquest of men."
Jacob Bronowski, the American scientist and cultural historian, tells the story of the agricultural revolution, an example that bears out Roark's distinction. To the best of our knowledge, human beings first learned to grow crops and domesticate livestock in ancient Mesopotamia, in the fertile lands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Prior to this, human societies had existed by means of hunting, a method dependent on weather conditions and limiting man to a subsistence level. But then some innovative thinkers figured out how to cultivate the soil — how to grow crops, fertilize the ground, irrigate during times of drought, and domesticate livestock. These farmers had a much higher standard of living than did the hunters living in the hills surrounding them. When drought struck, the farmers irrigated, but the hunters starved as the game migrated or died. The hunters then swept out of the hills with their spears and other weapons, murdered the peaceful farmers, stole the food, and gorged themselves. When the food ran out, they starved. Unable to grow the food, they too died.
The farmers are first-handers. They are Howard Roark-type innovators who deal directly with nature. By use of their own minds, they identify the means by which to create abundance. The hunters are second-handers. Unable or unwilling to perform the creative work necessary, they instead steal from those whose effort has produced the goods. They survive (briefly) as leeches. They are one type of parasite of whom Roark speaks.
Many other types of parasites exist. The Keating-style conformists can be found in many organizations and corporations, seeking to rise by manipulation, on the premise of "it's not what you know, it's who you know that counts." These individuals are "gravy train riders," performing no productive work themselves, but instead attempting to cash in on the work of others. Real life provides a multitude of second-handers, some barely touched upon in The Fountainhead. Family bums, welfare recipients, criminals, psychological manipulators, spiritual power seekers, political dictators, and military conquerors are all examples of those seeking a second-handed form of survival. All exist as leeches off the thoughts and work of more productive people.
Roark's courtroom speech is an impassioned defense of the first-handers — of their creative nature, their life-giving abilities, and their historical and present persecution. He speaks about the struggles of the great original thinkers — not merely of the effort spent to invent products or create new methods, but of the battles waged to get the new ideas a hearing. Roark points out that those battles were waged by the inventors against the very men who stood to benefit most from the innovations. "Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision. The great creators — the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors — stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed." But the creative thinkers, on fire with the truth of their visions, persevered; sometimes they were executed or otherwise silenced, but they refused to surrender, and, in the end, they triumphed. Though a myriad of second-handers may oppose and/or exist parasitically off of the creative thinkers, the first-handers are the great men who ultimately are responsible for human progress.
The distinction drawn between first- and second-handers is the answer to the question Roark poses in the book's opening pages. Roark wonders about "the principle behind the Dean." He understands men such as himself but is puzzled by those like the Dean. By the end of the novel, Roark is no longer puzzled. He understands that the key difference among human beings is not one of gender, race, nationality, or even intelligence — but of the method with which they use their minds. A man like the Dean, despite his intelligence and erudition, is a follower because his orientation is toward society; other people are the Dean's fundamental reality, so he necessarily seeks truth by looking to their beliefs. He is a good example of second-handedness, because his ideas, his standards, his values are borrowed from others. But Roark himself, he realizes, is oriented toward nature or physical reality; here, not in society, is where Roark looks in his search for truth. Roark embodies the essence of first-handedness, because his ideas, standards, and values are unborrowed; they are derived independently from reality.
Although the novel is not fundamentally about politics, the distinction between first- and second-handers has definite political-economic implications. These implications are made clear by examining several of the main characters in The Fountainhead. Toohey is the one character in the novel with political goals. He is a collectivist intellectual seeking to establish a Fascist/Communist dictatorship in America. Toohey knows that such a society is one of, for, and by the second-handers. Its appeal is its claim to provide cradle-to-grave care for an individual. A person will be born in a state-controlled hospital, raised in a state-controlled nursery, educated in a state-controlled school, employed in a state-controlled factory. In return for its generosity, the state requires only one thing of its citizens: obedience. Toohey realizes that there is no chance to form such a state with a citizenry of Howard Roarks. Such independent persons desire to support themselves; they will not be wards of the state — and they refuse to obey. But with a society of Peter Keatings, Toohey's goal is achievable. The Keatings will surrender their minds to a leader; they want to do so; they will obey in order to win approval from the rulers. Toohey, the aspiring power behind the throne of such a dictatorship, makes clear to Keating the world he envisions: "We'll enjoy unlimited submission — from men who've learned nothing except to submit. We'll call it 'to serve.' We'll give out medals for service. You'll fall over one another in a scramble to see who can submit better and more." Hence, Toohey's lifelong quest to induce submission in others.
Those individuals like Roark, who are psychologically independent, require political/economic independence. These individuals think for themselves and will not, under any circumstances, surrender their minds to a leader, whether religious, political, or other. They wish to live their own lives, pursue their own goals, seek their own happiness. Many have the entrepreneurial spirit and want to work for themselves. They will not exist as wards of the state, for they are not robotic automata. These individualists will create and thrive in a free country such as the United States. Just as the psychological dependence of a Keating leads to political/economic dependence, so the psychological independence of a Roark leads to political/economic independence. The conformists will voluntarily give up their minds and their freedom to a dictator like Hitler; the individualists will defend their freedom to the death.
In a free society, the Roarks of the world flourish. The freest country in history is the United States; and the height of its freedom was from the late nineteenth century (when the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in 1863) until the early twentieth century (when the socialist ideas of Marx began to win control of the American universities and political system). That era saw a plethora of inventions and new developments. The freedom of American society enabled the most independent minds — those real-life creators of whom Howard Roark is a fictitious representative — to think freely, to develop new ideas, to take those new products and methods to the marketplace, to convince the customers that the innovations were superior to the established ways of doing things, and to make a fortune. Independent thinkers like Roark require the freedom to act on their thinking. Without that, all of their thinking is fruitless. This is why the freest countries — the United States, Japan, Western Europe — are the most prosperous, and why dictatorships — whether of the Communist, military, or theocratic varieties — are significantly poorer. Given liberty, the Howard Roarks of society are free to innovate and create abundance; in the absence of liberty, the most independent minds are stifled, productivity is squashed, and the standard of living cannot rise. Independent minds are responsible for progress and prosperity; independent minds require freedom.
egoism a moral theory urging an individual to attain his values and live a joyous existence. Here, it is lived by Roark in the form of rational egoism, the commitment to earning the things he wants by his own mind and effort.
altruism a moral theory urging an individual to sacrifice his values and happiness in order to serve others. Here, it is the code advocated by Ellsworth Toohey.
selfishness the commitment, in action, to one's self, i.e., one's own values; a persistent quest to achieve — and the refusal to betray — one's values for any reason. Here, it is embodied consistently in the life of Howard Roark.
selflessness the opposite of selfishness. A betrayal of the self by the surrender of one's values. Here, it is embodied in the life of Peter Keating.
first-hander an individual who relies on his own thinking, who does not place the beliefs of others before the functioning of his own mind. Here, it is most fully represented by Roark.
second-hander an individual who places the beliefs of others above the functioning of his own mind, whether as a follower or a rebel. Here, it is exemplified by Keating, Toohey, and, in one form or another, all of the novel's negative characters.
benevolent universe premise Ayn Rand's belief that the world is open to the achievement of values and happiness by good men and only by good men. Here, it is embodied in the life and ultimate success of Howard Roark.
malevolent universe premise the opposite of the benevolent universe premise. The view that the good have no chance in the world and that evil has the ultimate power. Here, it is the mistaken premise held by Dominique Francon.
totalitarianism a political system in which the government has full or total control over the life of the individual, who has no rights. It is the logical application to politics and economics of the collectivist view that an individual exists solely to serve society. Here, it is the theory of government advocated by Ellsworth Toohey.
Fascism a nationalistic type of collectivist dictatorship in which the individual is subordinate to the country or nation, as in Nazi Germany or Italy under Mussolini.
Communism a type of collectivist dictatorship in which the individual is subordinate to the needs of the poor or the working class, as in the Soviet Union. Here, the theory is advocated by Ellsworth Toohey.