Howard Roark is the undisputed hero of The Fountainhead, and his story drives the novel. His name contains the words “hard” and “roar,” both of which accurately describe his tough, determined character. Roark’s buildings suggest his personality, for like Roark they are innovative and austere. Roark never compromises or deviates from his principles. Rand holds him up as everything that man can and should be. Consequently, Roark does not develop over the course of the novel—the ideal man does not need to change. Although Rand despised religion, she often describes Roark as if he is a religious figure. Roark does not preach, and he never actively seeks converts, but he inspires absolute devotion and rapture in his followers. Cameron, Mallory, Dominique, and Wynand change their entire belief systems after meeting him. Dominique in particular exhibits a religious passion for Roark, racked by ecstasy and guilt as if inspired by a messiah. Like all Christ figures in literature, Roark’s enemies persecute him. Despite the hatred of the world, Roark lives life as Rand thinks it should be lived.
In direct contrast to Roark, Ellsworth Monkton Toohey embodies everything evil about mankind. He is irredeemably corrupt and evil. Whereas Roark never tries to win friends or influence people, Toohey’s power lies entirely in his ability to control weaker minds and souls. Toohey’s evil is as ingrained as Roark’s goodness—Toohey learns the practice of manipulation as a child, and turns it into an art by the time he graduates from college. By making people feel small and guilty, Toohey shakes their faith in their own abilities and then assumes control of their lives. Toohey preaches selflessness and ignorance of the ego to force people to act with humble mediocrity. Toohey has no talents of his own, so he makes himself excellent by grinding down his followers. His tactics frequently evoke those of Joseph Stalin, the former Russian revolutionary who emerged as Russia’s dictator.
Dominique’s beauty and strength of spirit make her a perverse, unusual woman and the perfect complement to Howard Roark. At the beginning of the novel, she is convinced of the world’s rottenness and believes that greatness has no chance of survival. She surrounds herself with the things she despises to avoid watching the world destroy the things she loves. Dominique instantly recognizes Roark’s greatness, but she does not initially believe that he can survive in a selfless and irrational society. The thought that a man like Roark needs society in order to build pains Dominique, and she tries to destroy him before the rest of the world can. Yet Dominique wants to fail in her bid to destroy Roark, because if she fails it means absolute good and genius can survive even in an evil world.
The charismatic, capable, and aristocratic Wynand straddles the line between mainstream society and Roark’s world, and this division makes him the novel’s tragic figure. Like Roark, Wynand has extraordinary capabilities and energy, but unlike Roark he lets the world corrupt him. When we first meet Wynand, he is entirely a man of the outside world, exclusively involved with society and its interests. His youthful idealism has been crushed by the world’s cynicism. Wynand makes his living with newspapers that report on the vulgar and the common. This involvement with the world leaves Wynand misanthropic, bored, and suicidal. Wynand’s worldview changes when he meets Dominique and Roark, who ignite the passion and integrity lingering within Wynand. During Roark’s trial Wynand fights the world again and tries to turn his life around. He eventually feels that he cannot escape the ugliness he has created. Tragically, Wynand compromises at the last minute and loses his last chance at salvation.
Rand has little sympathy for the rise and fall of Peter Keating. Keating starts off as a young and attractive architecture student, and although he is clearly Roark’s inferior, their lives and careers advance in parallel fashion. By the novel’s end, however, Keating is a weak and alcoholic nobody, the exact fate once reserved for talented men like Henry Cameron. Whereas Cameron suffers because of others, however, Keating is a victim of his own mistakes. Unlike Wynand, who suffers for turning his back on his own potential, Keating is born mediocre and weak and never had a chance at greatness. Instead, Keating suffers for denying his own mediocrity and for thinking himself too good for a modest but happy life. In The Fountainhead, character determines fate, and the moment Keating becomes dishonest as well as weak, he dooms himself to unhappiness.