Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Primacy of the Individual
Howard Roark is the novel’s embodiment of the perfect man. Rand wants us to admire his talent and courage, and his struggle to resist society’s sway and remain true to himself. The Fountainhead revolves around Roark’s struggle to retain his individuality in the face of forces bent on bringing him to heel. At his second trial, Roark argues that individuals, not societies, propel history. He says that individual creators are the fountainhead of civilization. Roark’s speech is passionate and lyrical, and the audience receives it with awed silence. The struggle for individuality is not confined to Roark. Every one of the novel’s sympathetic characters struggles to act independently from society, and the desire to assert one’s self becomes the single greatest virtue a character can possess. The novel ends triumphantly not because Roark defeats or converts his enemies, but because he has won the right to act according to his own principles. The thesis at the heart of The Fountainhead is that society has a herd mentality, and individuals must act selfishly in order to be free.
The Importance of Reason
The Fountainhead disapproves of sentimentalism, and argues that everything worth thinking or feeling should be the product of reason and logic, not emotion. Whenever Roark, Dominique, or Wynand expound on the supremacy of the individual, they justify their positions with logical arguments rather than with emotional appeals. The novel respects logic and reason so much that everything it applauds is scientific, factual, and pure. The novel’s mathematicians, engineers, builders, and businessmen are inevitably more intelligent than its sentimental writers and journalists. Roark bases all of his designs on the simplest geometrical shapes, such as triangles or squares. Rand condemns sentimentality and compassion as the enemies of reason because they confuse the mind and compromise individualism. The arch-villain Toohey controls the weak by advocating such values as selflessness. Collectivism, altruism, and mysticism are depicted as illogical beliefs that manipulate the heart rather than engage the mind. In order to justify the novel’s tough attitude, Rand argues that even the best intentions lead to imprisonment, while cold, unflinching reason sets man free.
The Cold Ferocity of Love
In The Fountainhead, love, like integrity and invention, is a principle worth fighting for and defending. The protagonists constantly hone and improve their relationships. Even Roark and Dominique forego some of their fierce devotion to independence and eventually allow themselves to surrender to one another. The emotion of love might seem to contradict the novel’s devotion to reason, but the characters demand relationships so perfect that they come to seem logical and mathematical. Roark stands by while Dominique marries first Keating and then Wynand as if watching her enact an algebraic equation. He calculates that she will emerge from the marriages more suited to him, so he bears the pain of losing her to other men. Even in their passionate encounters, Roark and Dominique refuse to yield to emotion. Instead, they make love with a violent and calculating fury in scenes that Rand writes in prose more technical than romantic. The novel extols the virtues of science and logic and argues personal relationships can exist within these virtues. As long as relationships help people maximize their potential, then the novel sees love as a version of logic, and therefore approves of it.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
In The Fountainhead, technical progress indicates the forward movement of society. The novel measures the progress of mankind by the number of buildings and scientific innovations it produces, rather than by its art and philosophy. All of the most crucial industrial developments come from the minds of individuals and entrepreneurs rather than from the masses. Therefore, the period of greatest industrial development also marks the period of greatest individualism. Rand’s adoring treatment of the New York skyline signals her glorification of industry and technology. Wynand, Dominique, and Roark all gaze admiringly at the skyline, which serves as a reminder of their ambitions and goals. Beautiful, inspired skyscrapers represent human conquest over nature and symbolize modernity. In contrast to this glorification of architecture, the novel scoffs at other forms of art. Every time a new play or work of literature crops up in the narrative, the work in question is made to appear ridiculous and self-indulgent.
The novel holds up architecture as the ideal art form, and journalism as all that is banal and corrupt. The villainous Toohey works his ill will as a sneaky, manipulative journalist, and Wynand builds his empire on a chain of exploitative and sensationalist papers that cater to the most depraved emotions of the masses. Rand constantly suggests the impossibility of reasoned, intelligent journalism. The one time Wynand tries to use his paper for good, he fails. According to Rand, newspapers are fundamentally weak because they have to cater to the public. The idiocy of the public becomes clear when Wynand holds a contest. He tests the public by trying to raise money simultaneously for a brilliant scientist and for the pregnant girlfriend of a convicted murderer. When the public overwhelmingly supports the girl, it suggests that the public is incapable of the rationality necessary to accomplish great things. Rand suggests that any medium that relies on the public is doomed to mediocrity.
The novel exhibits mixed views on manual labor, regarding it as both one of the few authentic occupations and as a den of collectivist activity. Roark works at many construction sites, which allows him to preserve his integrity by earning wages when he cannot find clients. Roark has good friends who work as laborers, such as Mike the electrician. The novel presents physical labor as a pure, productive activity and thus something admirable. On the other hand, labor breeds unions, groups that the novel violently condemns. Nefarious Toohey makes his first appearance in the novel when he addresses a crowd of discontented laborers and easily manipulates their cooperative spirit to make them his spiritual captives. Rand was a virulent anti-communist and saw socialism, which grew out of the labor movement, as the greatest threat to the United States. The novel admires laborers and workmen as individuals, but it fears and mistrusts them as a group.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Rand associates granite with Roark’s character. Granite symbolizes his external and internal features. Like the rock, Roark’s face, body, and mind are hard, rare, unchanging, and beautiful. Roark, however, is even stronger than the rock that symbolizes him. In a number of scenes, we see Roark breaking granite or using it for his designs. When Dominique first sees Roark at a granite quarry she wishes the drilling would hurt and destroy Roark, but by the end of the novel, Roark’s ability to shape the granite according to his desires pleases her. The novel believes in the absolute supremacy of man, and consequently it rejoices when man triumphs over nature.
Ice symbolizes Dominique. Rand describes Dominique’s body as fragile and angular. The clothes that Dominique wears either glitter like ice, shine like glass, or are the color of water. Wynand gives Dominique a diamond necklace made to look like loose pieces of ice scattered on her cool skin. Ice also reflects her personality at the beginning of the novel—blank and frigid. Once Roark warms Dominique’s spirit, the associations between her and ice grow infrequent and eventually disappear.
In The Fountainhead, the Banner symbolizes the worst elements of society and mass culture. The Banner reflects and feeds the public’s poor taste. In The Fountainhead only individuals are noble, so anything designed for a group is necessarily ugly, crude, and ignorant. Wynand realizes this fact at the very end of the novel when he tries to make the Banner into an honorable machine and finally sees that the newspaper cannot elevate public opinion to something noble.
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