Critical Essays Ayn Rand's Writing Style


The subtlety of Ayn Rand's style can be understood by examining a representative scene. Near the end of Part One, Roark is offered the commission to design the Manhattan Bank Building. It is a major commission at a time when he needs it desperately, but the board wishes to alter his design. Roark, to whom the integrity of his design is far more important than money or recognition, refuses. The means by which Ayn Rand presents the scene is revealing.

The board presents Roark with an altered sketch of his building. The first thing Roark does is get up: "He had to stand. He concentrated on the effort of standing. It made the rest easier." He leans on the table with his right arm. When he answers, the men of the board cannot tell whether he is too calm or too emotional — but because his words move forward evenly, with neither anger nor excitement, they conclude he is calm, despite the fact that "the air in the room was not the air that vibrates to a calm voice." The board members also notice that Roark's demeanor and posture are normal; he is exhibiting no strange mannerisms, except that his right hand clings to the table's edge, and he moves the drawings with his left hand, as if his right is paralyzed. What is the significance of these details?

Notice that Ayn Rand chooses to narrate the scene through the eyes (and ears) of the board members. The reader gets only the sensory information available to the men in the room, seeing and hearing what they do. Ayn Rand does not tell the reader what emotions Roark is feeling. Instead, she shows the observational details that the reader would get were he sitting in the room, too. After all, an individual has no direct way of experiencing another person's emotions; all he can do is observe the sensory clues and infer. If a man's face is red, his eyes wild, and his voice loud, we can infer that he is angry. The readers of The Fountainhead discover a character's emotions the way they do it in real life: by inference from observational evidence.

Secondly, the members of the board are mistaken in their interpretation of Roark. They believe that, because Roark speaks softly and rationally, he is calm. But the factual evidence indicates otherwise. Why does Roark feel the need to stand? What is it that is made "easier" when he stands? Why does standing require an "effort"? Roark leans on his right arm, he refuses to move it, he turns pages with his left hand, looking like a man with one arm paralyzed. Why? Clearly, Roark experiences powerful emotion in this scene. His building may be compromised, his career is in jeopardy, and his commitment to his principles is tested. The disappointment, the pain, the anger at their stubborn, blind refusal to see and hear the truth so compellingly obvious to Roark is overwhelming. Roark struggles with the intensity of his feeling, struggles to keep his mind and his voice calm so that he can reason with the men, so that he can show them the brilliant lucidity of his ideas — and, perhaps, he clutches the table to keep from clutching the throats of the men before him.

A third point concerns what Ayn Rand describes as the "slanted" nature of her writing. She presents the facts of Roark's appearance, his posture, the sound of his voice. But she chooses to leave out countless other facts that can also be observed in that room: the clothes Roark wears, the length of his hair, his rosy complexion from the cold of the streets, the wallpaper, the carpet, the paintings, and a thousand more details. She chooses not to present these details because they do not facilitate the conclusion she wishes the reader to draw. Her focus is selective; she slants or stylizes the writing, presenting only the specific facts the reader needs to draw the right conclusion regarding Roark's emotional state. The reader is provided all the observational evidence he requires, and encumbered with no distracting irrelevancies. He must himself infer the conclusion, just as he would have to were he a board member sitting in that room: Roark is experiencing intense emotion.

A fourth point involves a question. A common objection to Ayn Rand's writing is that it is "unemotional," making it obvious that some readers, like the members of the board, fail to draw the right conclusion. The question is this: Why, given the selective facts with which the readers are presented, do they sometimes see a lack of emotion in Rand's writing? Because Ayn Rand's writing style is as innovative as is Roark's style of design. Most novelists name the emotions their characters experience, providing the reader with the conclusion of the thought process. But Ayn Rand's method necessitates that the reader make the inference himself. A casual reader may miss the point. But one reading Ayn Rand at a maximum effort of mental concentration experiences the intense emotionality of her heroes. The reader, too — in order to fully understand and appreciate The Fountainhead — must think independently. Thus, Ayn Rand's writing style is congruent with the novel's theme.