Howard Roark, a stern-faced young man, stands naked at the edge of a granite cliff. The year is 1922 and Roark has just been expelled from architecture school at the Stanton Institute of Technology. Although Roark excels in engineering and mathematics, he is an individualist whose modern designs run contrary to everything his school teaches. After serenely contemplating his future, Roark returns to his room in a local boardinghouse to work on his drawings. His designs seem severe and simple, but the structures are actually complex. Roark forgets that he has a meeting with the Dean of the college until his landlady, Mrs. Keating, whose son Peter is also a student at the architecture school, reminds him. Roark goes to see the Dean.
The Dean says that Roark was expelled for turning in overly modern designs. The Dean assures Roark that he may be able to return to the school once he has matured. Roark refuses the offer. The Dean is offended and informs Roark that he will never become a real architect. Roark leaves the Dean’s office and thinks about how he does not understand men like the Dean.
At the Stanton commencement ceremonies, Peter Keating sits reflecting on his own greatness. After the ceremony, Guy Francon, a prominent architect who has given the commencement speech, offers Keating a position in his firm. Keating does not know whether to accept the position or take a prestigious scholarship. When Keating returns home, he asks for Roark’s opinion. Roark says that Peter should make his decisions without assistance. Peter’s mother manipulates her son into taking Francon’s offer. Roark agrees that the job will mean more actual building, and Keating is elated by his prospects.
In New York, Keating begins working for Francon & Heyer, Francon’s firm. He excels at office politics. Keating soon discovers that the brains behind the firm actually belong to a man named Claude Stengel, who acts as the chief draftsman and architect. Keating befriends Francon. Roark finds work with the architect Henry Cameron, a once-popular architect who has fallen from grace. Like Roark, Cameron loves his buildings more than his clients. Roark and Cameron work hard and talk little in their run-down and failing office.
Two years pass, and Keating scrambles further up the ladder at Francon & Heyer. He gets his best friend at the firm fired by absorbing so much of the man’s work that he becomes useless. Keating knows a girl in New York named Catherine Halsey, who is plain but has a beautiful smile, and who loves Keating. Keating enjoys his time with Catherine, who he calls Katie. During one of their talks, Katie mentions that her uncle is Ellsworth Toohey, a renowned architecture critic. The revelation shocks Keating, who suddenly has a premonition that his life will be dirty and impure. He asks Katie not to introduce him to Toohey.
Henry Cameron draws on his own experience to describe the future that awaits Roark. Because Roark has integrity, Cameron says, the world will crush him. Cameron predicts that Roark will design the most beautiful building anyone has ever seen, but that the world will refuse his design. Desperate to get the project made, Roark will beg and plead, but mediocre architects will always get the commissions. Roark will break and cry like an animal. Cameron asks if Roark wants such a future, and Roark replies that he does.
Keating becomes chief designer at Francon & Heyer by getting Stengel to leave. Keating is assigned his first design job, but he is unsure of himself, and he takes his sketches to Roark. Roark takes Keating’s jumbled designs and reworks them to give them unity and grace. Ashamed but grateful, Keating takes Roark’s sketches and calls them his own.
Ayn Rand admitted that she was mainly interested in using her novels to convey her philosophy. She intentionally crafts simplistic prose and characters in order to avoid distraction and keep the focus on her philosophy. She writes simple sentences, and does not use figures of speech that most writers use. This stark style makes her sentences sound didactic or instructional rather than entertaining. Like the novel’s protagonist, Roark, the language of The Fountainhead is absolute and unwavering. Rand portrays her characters’ qualities very bluntly so that we can evaluate the characters accurately from the outset, and we become aware of her feelings toward them as soon as she introduces them. In short, she presents the world as basically black and white—composed of those, like Roark, who subscribe to her philosophy and those, like Keating, who don’t.
The four men whose names serve as the titles for the four parts of The Fountainhead—Peter Keating, Ellsworth Toohey, Gail Wynand, and Howard Roark—are the main characters of the novel, but Roark is the undisputed protagonist. While in each part the omniscient narrator focuses on the individual after whom that part is named, Roark remains a fundamental presence in all of them. Thus Keating, Toohey, and Wynand function as either Roark’s rivals or his foils (a foil is a literary character whose attitudes or emotions contrast with, and thereby accentuate, those of another character). The superficial similarities between Roark and these men serve first to emphasize the fundamental differences between him and them and second to give us a clearer idea of Roark’s character. Each of these characters represents one value or belief. Roark, for example, stands for inspirational strength, and follows his convictions without ever weakening. Keating, on the other hand, serves as a foil for Roark. He stands for plagiarism and sycophantism. Roark’s self-confidence and lack of concern for what others think of him contrast with Keating’s insecurity and desire for praise, a contrast that drives much of the novel.
The first five chapters illustrate Roark’s and Keating’s personalities, underscoring the great difference between the two men. Rand makes it obvious that their different personalities do not arise from a difference in their recent circumstances by starting them off at exactly the same point. At the beginning of the novel Roark and Keating attend the same school, work in the same field, and move to New York at the same time. Rand presents Roark as a natural being, his own man. We first see Roark standing naked among granite cliffs, which suggests that he is as clean and pure as the elements that surround him. Rand presents Keating, in contrast, as self-absorbed and unable to think for himself. We first see Keating wrapped in a graduation robe, constantly reevaluating himself based on the opinions of others. Whereas Roark thrills to a future he will carve out himself, Keating lacks the ability to plan his own future. The Fountainhead alternates between scenes of Roark’s moral success and financial failure and Keating’s moral failure and financial success.
Foreshadowing fills the first five chapters of The Fountainhead. Rand uses Roark’s and Keating’s employers to suggest what her main characters will become. Like Keating, Francon is a fake who takes credit for the work of others and enjoys great economic and social success. Like Roark, Cameron is strong, stubborn and idealistic. Cameron even likens himself to Roark, and warns Roark that the conservative world will crush Roark just as it crushed Cameron years before. Right away we get the impression that Francon and Cameron are the older counterparts of Roark and Keating.