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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
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 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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Fountainhead!