The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

I first heard about this book last summer when my then-boyfriend was complaining about how bookstores never had it in stock, but always had her other well-known book Atlas Shrugged. Because of this, I was so happy when I found it tucked away in a little used bookstore for $2.50. I had planned to give it to him, but kept forgetting it at home, and then things fell apart between us. I saw it on my shelf a few months ago and got reminiscing about all he meant to me, and I tucked the book into my purse for an hour-long bus ride. Since then, I have been reading a chapter or two every day before going to work and when I get home, and the other week I finally finished it, so I wanted to share my thoughts on this remarkable book. 

I find this novel so difficult to review because, while I can discuss the philosophy behind it, any mention of the plot makes me feel like I have to preface each sentence with *SPOILERS*. However, this is one of the few novels that can be reviewed with minimal discussion of the characters, as each serves as an extreme personality crafted to support the overall theme of her writing. 

Rand came from an upper-middle-class family in Russia and, after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, her family’s fortune was considerably reduced as a result of nationalism. This sparked Rand’s objections to communism, socialism, and collectivism. However, she did not want her beliefs to be confused with either the libertarian or conservative political movements in the United States, so she started her own movement titled Objectivism. In its simplest terms, objectivism advocates rational selfishness and condemns selflessness, i.e. altruism. 

Along the spectrum of good and evil, each character represents a different level. At one end is Howard Roark as the ideal man whose talent and courage we are to admire throughout his struggle to act independently from society and its imposing traditions and norms. At the other end of the spectrum is Ellsworth M. Toohey as the overall antagonist, who promotes altruism as the ultimate virtue of mankind. It is important to note that Rand’s characters are deliberately extreme and one-dimensional, one of the many critiques of her writing. 

My favourite line of this novel explains the title, as Roark argues that individual creators are the fountainhead of civilization, while second-handers promote altruism and selflessness, which is just that, a lack of self in the face of society’s herd mentality. To this end, Rand explains that people must act selfishly to be free.

This novel advocates that all things worth thinking or feeling should be the result of objective logic and reason, not subjective emotion or sentimentality. Sentimentality and other illogical beliefs confuse the mind and compromise individualism in society by advocating selflessness. 

Most importantly, the fountainhead sees love as something worth fighting for and protecting, despite the argument that the emotion of love is a direct contradiction to the novel’s commitment to logic and reason. Rand believes that personal relationships can exist within the virtue of logic as long as they help the individual maximize their potential. 

Rand is one of those “love-them-or-hate-them” authors, and I fall on the left of that binary because I absolutely love her writing. While I can’t see myself becoming a devoted follower of Objectivism, I believe it is a worthwhile philosophy to understand, particularly in the context of when it was formed. 

And now for the usual bookish facts:

Opening Paragraph: 

Howard Roark laughed. He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water. The water seemed immovable, the stone–flowing. The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion. The stone glowed, wet with sunrays. 

What I Loved Most: I honestly don’t know if I can pick just one thing about this book that I loved above anything else. I went into this book knowing nothing of Ayn Rand or her philosophy, knowing only that my former boyfriend had loved the book and was irked that bookstores did not often carry it with its sequel Atlas Shrugged. What I found as I read this book is that I couldn’t put it down. I would almost make myself miss the bus or be late for work because I wanted to finish a chapter. I think perhaps what I love most is that Rand did not write this book expecting to garner fame and fortune from it; rather, she wrote it because it was a book that ought to live, and it did, and continued to be published 25 years later when my edition was published. 

What I Loved Least: I can definitely understand why 12 publishers rejected this book, citing it was “too intellectual” because it is just that. This is not a book that you can sit down and read with a cup of tea. Each sentence commands the reader’s full attention, each word needing to be read at least once for the entirety of the book’s message to be understood. But once committed to reading this book, it is incredible.

Memorable Line: For me, the most memorable lines of this novel are in Howard Roark’s testimony in his second trial. For 8 pages in the 18th chapter, Roark’s testimony perfectly encapsulates Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. While I was very tempted to type out all 8 pages and quote them as my memorable line, economy of time and space in this blog post motivated me to select to main excerpts from these pages that I loved. 

The creators were not selfless. It is the whole secret of their power–that it was self-sufficient, self-motivated, self-generated. A first cause, a fount of energy, a life force, a Prime Mover. The creator served nothing and no one. He lived for himself. And only by living for himself was he able to achieve the things which are the glory of mankind. Such is the nature of achievement. Man cannot survive except through his mind. He comes on earth unarmed. His brain is his only weapon… From [the] simplest necessity to the highest religious abstraction, from the wheel to the skyscraper, everything we are and everything we have comes from a single attribute of man–the function of his reasoning mind. But the mind is an attribute of the individual. There is no such thing as a collective brain. There is no such thing as a collective thought. An agreement reached by a group of men is only a compromise or an average drawn upon many individual thoughts. It is a secondary consequence. The primary act–the process of reason–must be performed by each man alone. We can divide a meal among many men. We cannot digest it in a collective stomach. No man can use his lungs to breathe for another man. No man can use his brain to think for another. All the functions of body and spirit are private. They cannot be shared or transferred. We inherit the products of the thought of other men (680).

Altruism is the doctrine which demands that man live for others and place others above self. No man can live for another. He cannot share his spirit just as he cannot share his body. But the second-hander has used altruism as a weapon of exploitation and reversed the base of mankind’s moral principles. Men have been taught every precept that destroys the creator. Men have been taught dependence as a virtue…Men have been taught that the highest virtue is not to achieve, but to give. Yet one cannot give that which has not been created. Creation comes before distribution–or there will be nothing to distribute. The need of the creator comes before the need of any possible beneficiary. Yet we are taught to admire the second-hander who dispenses gifts he has not produced above the man who made the gifts possible. We praise an act of charity. We shrug at an act of achievement (682).

Closing Paragraph:

Then there was only the ocean and the sky and the figure of Howard Roark. 

Final Thoughts: This book is far more than a published story; it is the manifesto of Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, by which 

Have you read this book before??? What did you think of it, or its sequel Atlas Shrugged??? 

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