The Fountainhead takes place in the United States, mostly in New York City, during the 1920s and 1930s. It chronicles the struggles of the innovative architect Howard Roark in his effort to achieve success on his own terms.
As the story opens, twenty-one-year-old Roark is expelled from the Stanton Institute of Technology for "insubordination." Most faculty and administration members want him to design in traditional styles, but Roark has his own ideas. On the other hand, Peter Keating, a classmate of Roark's and the son of the woman whose boardinghouse Roark lives in, though lacking Roark's brilliance and love of architecture, gives the professors exactly what they want and graduates as valedictorian with high honors.
After leaving Stanton, Roark goes to work for Henry Cameron, an elderly and cantankerous genius, whose ideas are far ahead of their time. Cameron is a commercial failure, but an uncompromising man of integrity. Though a successful architect in the 1880s, Cameron's ideas became increasingly revolutionary, resulting finally in the birth of the skyscraper. He is one of the first to design buildings that tower over others, and the first to insist that a tall building should look tall. Where other architects use every device they can to make their tall buildings appear shorter, Cameron openly flaunts his skyscrapers' height. When American society falls under the sway of the Classical styles highlighted in the Columbian Exposition of 1892, Cameron's modernist ideas are rejected. Compounding the problem is Cameron's contemptuous rejection of those not open to change. His hostility only increases the difficulty that a public fearful of progress has in recognizing his genius. Roark works for him for three years (until Cameron's health fails) and learns to perfect the great and original talent he possesses.
After graduating from Stanton, Keating works for Guy Francon, the most successful and prestigious architect in the country. Francon is a mediocre architect who copies from the designers of the past; but he gives the public what it's used to, and, with a superb mastery of the social graces, he wines and dines prospective clients at New York's most exclusive restaurants. Francon is a phony, who teaches Keating only about manipulating and influencing people, not about building honestly and effectively.
Francon has a beautiful young daughter, Dominique, who possesses a mind of her own. Brilliant and outspoken, she is brutally frank in criticizing the buildings of her father and his young protégé. Dominique writes a column devoted to design and interior decorating in The New York Banner, a daily newspaper owned by the powerful publisher, Gail Wynand. Dominique is a passionate idealist who recognizes and reveres the human potential for greatness. But finding little of it in the world — indeed, finding everywhere the triumph of vulgar mediocrity — she becomes disillusioned. Dominique believes that true nobility has no chance to succeed in a world dominated by the mindless and the corrupt. She recognizes and loathes the unscrupulous pandering engaged in by Keating and her father — and states her convictions openly. But Keating, smitten with the way in which her beauty and elegance impress other people, proposes marriage. Dominique replies that if she ever seeks to punish herself for some terrible crime she's committed, she will accept his offer.
Despite Dominique's recognition of his fraudulent methods, Keating enjoys great early success. By the manipulation of fellow employees, Keating rises in Francon's firm until, after only several years, he is the company's chief designer. Though not adept at design, Keating knows someone who is: Howard Roark, whose love of buildings is so great that he cannot refuse any opportunity to improve one. Roark helps Keating in his design work. But now, Keating has his sights set on becoming Francon's partner, a position currently held by the sickly Lucius Heyer. At this time comes the announcement for the Cosmo-Slotnick Building, a competition held by a Hollywood company to design the "world's most beautiful building." Francon trusts Keating to win; Keating knows he cannot do it, so he turns to Roark for help. Roark designs a brilliant and simple plan for his building, to which Keating adds his customary ostentatious ornamentation. Keating believes his eclectic hodgepodge of conflicting styles has no chance to win; he must get the partnership now, while Francon still trusts him. He berates Heyer, screaming at the old man to retire, causing the stroke the doctors had feared. Heyer dies, having left the charming Keating his money. Keating wins the Cosmo-Slotnick competition. Francon makes him partner. Keating is now wealthy, famous, and a partner in the country's most prestigious architectural firm.
Roark, meanwhile, struggles to find employment after Cameron's retirement. His brief tenure at Francon's firm ends when he refuses to design as Francon wishes him to. For a long period of time, Roark cannot find employment with any architect. Eventually, he is hired by John Erik Snyte, an eclectic builder who is not wedded to any specific school of design. Snyte is content to give the public whatever it desires. He employs specialists in various schools of design — Classical, Gothic, Renaissance — and wants Roark to be his modernist. Snyte allows his designers freedom to design in their specialties, but then combines their ideas into one finished product of clashing principles. Roark can design as he likes at Snyte's, but he will never see a building erected as he creates it. Eventually, the newspaperman, Austen Heller, recognizes his talent and hires him to build a private home. Roark opens his own office, but his designs are too revolutionary, and he receives very few commissions. When Roark turns down the commission for the important Manhattan Bank Building rather than permit the adulteration of his design, he is destitute. He closes his office temporarily and goes to work in a granite quarry in Connecticut.
The quarry is owned by Guy Francon. That summer, Dominique vacations at the family estate bordering the property. Upon meeting Roark, Dominique notices immediately the taut lines of his body and the scornful look of his eyes. Though at a conscious level, Dominique believes he may be an ex-convict like others of the work gang, at some deeper level she knows better. The way he holds himself and moves, his posture and mannerisms, his countenance and the look in his eyes all convey a proud dignity that would not stoop to the commission of crimes. She is deeply drawn to him and initiates a pursuit that results in their passionate lovemaking. But despite her profound attraction and aggressive pursuit, she is afraid of a love relationship with him. She ardently desires their sexual relationship, but almost as intensely fears it. She both physically resists Roark when he finally comes to her and experiences their lovemaking — "the thing she had thought about, had expected" — as the most powerful experience of her life. Dominique's inner conflict torments her, and, despite the love between them, it is years before they can happily be together. Before their relationship fully gets under way at the quarry, Roark's whereabouts are discovered by Roger Enright, an innovative businessman who wants Roark to design a new type of apartment building. Roark leaves the quarry and returns to New York. Even then, he finds himself thinking of Dominique.
The construction of the Enright House brings Roark recognition and further commissions. Anthony Cord, a successful Wall Street businessman, hires him to build his first office building, a fifty-story skyscraper in the center of Manhattan. Kent Lansing, a member of the board formed to build a luxury hotel on Central Park South, wants Roark and fights for him. Eventually, he wins, and Roark signs a contract to build the Aquitania Hotel. Although construction of the Aquitania is eventually stopped due to legal wrangles, Kent Lansing vows to win control of the project and complete it. Roark's growing fame attracts the attention of architectural critic Ellsworth Toohey, who is threatened by his unbending independence of spirit. Toohey, who seeks power over the architectural profession, attempts to end the career of this individualist who will not obey. He influences a wealthy lackey, Hopton Stoddard, to hire Roark to build a temple. Knowing that Roark's design will be breathtakingly original, Toohey plots to attack it as contrary to all established religious principles, thereby turning Roark into an enemy of religion. Because Roark is an atheist, Toohey coaches Stoddard regarding the best means to approach Roark to build a religious structure. He has Stoddard say, "But you're a profoundly religious man, Mr. Roark — in your own way. I can see that in your buildings." Roark accepts the commission to build a temple to the heroic human spirit.
At this point, Roark's career is on an upswing. He designs a masterpiece for the Stoddard Temple, as Toohey knew he would. He hires Steven Mallory to do the sculpture for the Temple. Mallory is a brilliant young talent, who sculpts in the Classic Greek style, emphasizing the nobility and grandeur of man. Dominique poses nude for the Temple's central piece of sculpture, and Mallory captures both the beauty of her body and the independence of her spirit in his work. Mallory, though young, has already suffered rejection because of the striking originality of his pieces, and is beginning to grow cynical regarding an innovative thinker's chances of gaining practical success. His relationship with Roark, however, inspires him. After his work on the Stoddard Temple, although still suffering from moments of despair, Mallory never again reaches the depths of torment he is in when Roark meets him. But Toohey, as was his plan, manipulates both Stoddard and the public. He denounces Roark's Temple as heretical, and society follows his lead, sending up a chorus of protests. The Stoddard Temple is torn down, and Roark is condemned as an apostate. Roark's career is now in a downturn in which he receives only a few very minor commissions.
Dominique, in agony at the attack on the hero she loves, marries Keating — the most despicable individual she can find — in an attempt to kill off in herself that greatness of soul that enables her to love only man at his highest and best. The destruction of the Stoddard Temple confirms Dominique's worst fears. It convinces her that she was right in wanting to avoid entanglement in a romantic relationship with Roark. His creative work and uncompromising character have no chance in a world that merely follows the beliefs it has been taught. He will be destroyed, just as Cameron was. This was, and remains, her deepest belief. Given her values, Dominique must love Roark and everything about the human potential that he represents. She loves man the noble hero. But society, in her view, leaves no place for such a hero's triumph. Therefore, the only choice, as Dominique sees it, is to kill off in herself her capacity for hero worship. In so doing, she can escape her agony when presented with the destruction of greatness. She believes that the way to kill in herself her capacity to respond to Roark is to thoroughly immerse herself in the life of Keating. The love of virtue and beauty, she hopes, cannot survive absorption into a life filled with corruption and ugliness. With full conscious intent, she marries Peter Keating.
Keating and Dominique are married for twenty months. Through Toohey's manipulation, Dominique is introduced to newspaper publisher Gail Wynand, for whose paper Dominique formerly worked as a columnist. The powerful Wynand is a man of mixed premises. Like Dominique, he worships man the noble hero, but, unlike her, he has sold his soul, publishing The Banner, a yellow-press scandal sheet, gaining him wealth and influence. Wynand, taken with Dominique's intelligence and idealism, as well as with her beauty, proposes marriage. Dominique, thinking she's found a man even lower than Keating, accepts; she divorces Keating and marries Wynand. The powerful publisher buys Keating's consent with a hefty check and the commission for Stoneridge Homes, a housing development he is building. But on her way to Reno to obtain the divorce, Dominique stops in the small town of Clayton, Ohio, where Roark is building a small department store. She has not seen him since her marriage to Keating. Roark notices from her questions that she is still concerned with other people and their ability to hurt — or even observe — him. She tells him that she wishes to remain with him in this small town. She says they can marry, that she will wash his clothes and cook his meals, and that he will give up architecture and work in a store. Out of consideration for her, he tries not to laugh. He tells her if he were cruel, he would accept her offer just to see how long it would take her to beg him to return to architecture. She understands. Roark knows that Dominique is not ready to stay with him. She boards the train for Reno and, after her divorce, marries Gail Wynand.
Wynand, though a man who panders to the masses in his professional life, privately worships only man's noblest achievements. Holding the same basic premises as Dominique, it is logical that he loves her. He becomes fanatically jealous of sharing Dominique with others. Wynand wishes to build a home in the country as an isolated fortress, so he will not have to see Dominique among the people of the city. Every time Wynand has seen a building he's admired, the architect has always been Howard Roark. So Wynand hires Roark to build his home. Wynand greatly admires both Roark's integrity and his genius, and he uses his great influence to bring to Roark a number of commissions. Roark's prominent buildings in New York City slowly begin to attract a growing number of individuals who understand the revolutionary nature of his designs. Roark receives more commissions and becomes better known.
One of the more prominent commissions he receives prior to his relationship with Wynand is for the Monadnock Valley Resort. The owners of the resort conceive it as a swindle. They sell two hundred percent of it. They are certain it will fail. They want it to fail. They choose Roark as the worst architect they can find. They believe that Roark's plan for separate houses where people can enjoy privacy, rather than be clustered together in one huge ant colony of a hotel, is an antisocial scheme bound to fail. They hire him because of it. But Roark's idea satisfies a need for a resort that was not currently met — and his design is spectacularly beautiful. People come, and the resort is successful. The owners are arrested for fraud, but Roark is not involved in the legal case. The simple fact, however, that Roark made money for people who did not want to make money impresses businessmen, and Roark receives commissions. Additionally, at the time of Monadnock's completion, Roark receives a telegram from Kent Lansing, now the legal owner of the Aquitania Hotel. Although Roark's original intent was to spend the first summer of Monadnock's existence at the resort, he now returns to New York City to complete the hotel.
The climax of The Fountainhead begins when Keating, whose career is slipping because he's been replaced by a newer trend, begs Roark to design for him plans for the new low-income housing project called Cortlandt Homes. Keating knows he cannot solve the problems of design, and does not attempt to. Instead, he brings the specifications to Roark. Keating requests that Roark design it and allow Keating to take the credit for it. Roark knows that he can do it and is eager to. He also knows that he could never get approved by Toohey, who is the behind-the-scenes power on the project. Roark agrees only on the condition that the buildings be erected exactly as he designs them; Keating agrees. Keating will receive the recognition, the money, and whatever other benefits society may confer on a man — but Roark will build Cortlandt. Roark designs a masterpiece, Keating submits it as his, and Toohey accepts it. But when Roark is away on a cruise with Wynand, two of Toohey's lackeys alter Roark's design. When Roark returns, he dynamites the defaced masterpiece and allows himself to be arrested. Significantly, he enlists Dominique's aid in the dynamiting. Whereas years earlier, she had been afraid that society would reject him, now she is not afraid to help Roark in an act for which society may imprison him. Roark knows that Dominique is now ready for their relationship.
Wynand embarks on a crusade to save Roark. Believing that his papers mold public opinion, Wynand defends Roark vociferously in The Banner. But Wynand's public does not care if a great genius has been wronged; they stop reading the paper in protest of Wynand's stance. When Wynand is out of town in a desperate attempt to save an advertising contract, Toohey strikes. Toohey, who writes a column for The Banner, has schemed for years to take over the paper. Gradually, he has maneuvered his followers into key editorial positions, and they all come out against Roark. When Wynand fires them, the union, controlled by Toohey, goes on strike. Wynand, with Dominique's help, struggles to get out the paper, but it comes back unread. To save the paper, Wynand is forced to reverse his stand on the Cortlandt dynamiting.
At his trial, Roark defends the right of the creator to the product of his effort. Roark points out that it was he who designed Cortlandt and that he was not paid for his work. The only price — that it be erected as designed — was not paid. He argues that an individual is not a slave to society, and that society has a claim to a creator's work only on his own terms. He points out that, down through the ages, creative men have often developed beneficial new ideas and products, only to be rejected by their societies. Despite social opposition, the creators move ahead, carrying the rest of mankind with them. Cortlandt Homes is the product of his mind; it is his creation and belongs to him. If society wants it — as it does — justice requires that his asking price be paid. It must be built as he designed it. The jury understands his position and votes to acquit him. Roger Enright buys Cortlandt Homes from the government and hires Roark to build it; Wynand, as long planned, hires Roark to build the Wynand Building, the tallest skyscraper in the city. Roark has achieved commercial success on his own terms.
The novel's climax brings to resolution the struggles of all five of the major characters. Roark sees his ideas finally winning in the field of architecture. After decades of the battle that he and Cameron fought, their new methods are ultimately gaining recognition. Dominique, seeing that she was mistaken in believing that a genius like Roark has no chance in a corrupt world, is liberated from her fears and is finally free to marry him. Wynand is psychologically and morally crushed by the realization that success did not require him to sell his soul to the masses, that his professional life was founded on a lie. When Toohey emerges victorious from the strike, prepared to dictate editorial policy on The Banner, Wynand shuts down the paper rather than allow Toohey to control it. Years of Toohey's scheming are wasted; he has failed both in his attempt to stop Roark and in his attempt to take over the Wynand papers. Toohey must start over at another paper, but time, for him, is running out — as it has for Keating, who is publicly exposed as a fraud at Roark's trial, as a man who puts his name on another man's work. Keating, who once enjoyed acclaim, now finds that his career in architecture is finished. He is a rotted-out shell of a man.