I’ve been a parasite all my life. . . . I have fed on you and all the men like you who lived before we were born. . . . I have taken that which was not mine and given nothing in return.
Ellsworth Toohey attends a dinner party hosted by a petulant heir with no talents of his own. The guests at the party all speak as if they were Toohey’s puppets. The guests revile Wynand and argue that unselfishness is the only true virtue. After the party, Toohey walks home in a daze of exhilaration.
After Francon retires, Keating gains a reputation for being too old-fashioned. Keating puts on weight and becomes dejected and bitter. At thirty-nine, he feels lost. On weekends, Keating goes to a shack in the woods and paints, which brings him some peace but no pleasure. Keating’s last professional chance lies in securing a contract for a large housing project called Cortlandt Homes. Keating asks Toohey to recommend him to the Cortlandt committee, but Toohey receives him coldly. Keating asks why Toohey has abandoned him and taken on a new favorite, named Gus Webb. Toohey replies that he only backed Keating in order to prevent the rise of truly talented men. Toohey then tells Keating that Cortlandt Homes is an architectural challenge because it must be cheap to build and easy to maintain. If Keating can overcome this challenge, Toohey says, he will back Keating. Keating knows that the design is too complicated for him and telephones Roark.
For the first time in years, Keating talks to Roark simply and honestly. They discuss the Cortlandt project, and Roark asks Keating to return to Roark’s office the next day for an answer. The next day, Roark says that he will do the project because it is a puzzle he wants to solve, and not because of money or pity. Roark agrees to let Keating take credit for the plans as long as Keating does not change anything in the design. Keating vows to fight for Roark’s plans, even though he knows it will be difficult. Keating realizes that although he will get the credit and the money, Roark will get the pure joy of designing a perfect building. It pleases Roark that Keating finally understands which reward is more valuable. Keating shows Roark his paintings, which he has never shown anyone else, and Roark gently tells Keating it is too late. After Keating leaves, Roark feels sick with pity and disgusted that society considers pity good.
Roark creates a design that would make the Cortlandt Homes economical as well as airy, beautiful, and functional. When Toohey sees the drawings, he declares Keating a genius, although he knows Keating did not do the designs. Gail Wynand orders every department in the Banner to promote Roark, but Wynand’s support works against Roark. The city’s intellectuals scorn the paper and anything it supports, including Roark. Wynand ignores them and continues his crusade, using his influence to win commissions for Roark. One day, Wynand takes Roark to his old Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. He plans to build a great skyscraper on the site, and wants Roark to begin dreaming about the building with him.
Keating is walking home one day when he runs into Katie Halsey. He feels the sting of remorse, but Katie seems lively. They have lunch, and Keating discovers a dramatic change in Katie. Her spirit is dead, and she speaks only of the joys of selflessness and charity. She tells him she suffered when he married Dominique, but that she has since learned that it is futile to fight fate. Keating tells her that he truly wanted to marry her and that the worst sin he ever committed was marrying Dominique. Keating asks Katie why people think doing what you really want is easy, when it is actually the hardest thing in the world. Katie reprimands him for being so selfish and leaves.
Keating and Wynand find themselves questioning their lives, and Rand narrates their stories side by side for comparison. Despite the great differences between Keating and Wynand, they share the opportunity for salvation through Roark. Wynand saves himself; Keating does not. Keating represents the sad fate that awaits those too ignorant to understand Roark and his values. Roark consistently rescues Keating, and only in Chapter 8 does Keating understand that Roark helps him for the sake of architecture, not out of pity or to gain the upper hand. Without wealth and success to corrupt him, Keating finally becomes honest and realizes that architecture is not just a means to power but an actual end in itself. He becomes even more self-aware upon meeting Katie again. He sees that he has ruined her life and deadened her spirit. Keating sees the hollowness of his life at this point, but Rand judges him sternly, and Keating’s realization comes too late.
Wynand’s awakening comes at just the right time. Keating feels too weary to act on his repentance, but Wynand throws himself into the fight against society with vigor. Since the emergence of the Banner, Wynand has believed that he controls the world, and when he finds that the world actually controls him, he spares no effort to fight back. Wynand succeeds where Keating fails because Wynand was secretly ready for an awakening, whereas Keating’s realizations take him completely by surprise. Keating has not marshaled the tools or desire to adapt to Roark’s way of living.
Interestingly, Rand never provides a personal history of her protagonist, Howard Roark. Rand details extensive personal histories for Keating, Toohey, and Wynand in the sections named after them but never explains where or how Roark grew up, even though the fourth book of the novel is named after him. We know only that he comes from a poor family, though we know nothing about his parents or upbringing. Roark’s mysterious past makes his story applicable to everyone, as if Rand wants to suggest that background has nothing to do with genius or principle. It also makes Roark the perfect man. He has no history because he does not change. He is born a creator. His lack of a family makes him even more independent and free from the influence of others. Anything that is important in his past, present, or future resides in his buildings.
This last section does, however, expand our view of Roark in two important ways: we get to look inside both his heart and his head. Rand does not want Roark to be a completely isolated human, and thus, in this section, we see him love Dominique and Wynand. Roark also makes two key declarations about his beliefs in life—the first on Wynand’s yacht, in Chapter 11, and the second during the Cortlandt trial, in Chapter 18—that underscore The Fountainhead’s message of independence and egoism.