The Fountainhead is more than a novel.

The entire book is a symbolism of man's ability to create and overcome. Ayn Rand portrays this through her character Ellsworth Monkton Toohey who acts as her personified pseudo-philosopher in this seven-hundred page book.

Ayn Rand published another novel known as Anthem which attempts to illustrate her feelings and philosophies.

A short summary of The Fountainhead is impossible due to the fact that there is no official plot, except for the evolution of the characters through a time line. The book is broken into four separate sections with the four most important male characters as that section's title.

The Fountainhead is an incredible book that serves as a monument to architecture, and a monument to man's ability of creation.

Note: This book was published in the latter 1930s and was the subject of much criticism.

<--- EDIT: spiregrain fixed three spelling errors and br / p oddness, 5/1/2007 -->

The Fountainhead is a novel written by objectivist founder and advocate Ayn Rand. It was originally published in 1943; today, it is published by Signet Books. If you are looking for it, it has ISBN numbers 0451191153 (mass market paperback), 0452273331 (paperback), 0684869713 (Scribner hardcover), 0453009115 (abridged audio book), and 0786103922 and 0786108789 (Blackstone audio book in two parts). It is also available in an online audio format at

Writing a summary of this book is very difficult; it is a great example of a mixture of novel and philosophy. Rand's personal beliefs and ideas are expressed throughout this book and are so tightly intermingled with the plot that it is difficult to separate them. So, bear with me if I occasionally slip in some subjectiveness into what I hope will be largely an objective discussion of this book. I am sure, however, that as I write this my own opinions will come through, so I'll be sure to make it clear if I fear I'm slipping too close to my opinion over fact (where it might not be obvious).

artlu correctly says in another writeup about this book that shortly summarizing this book is impossible. Once the book is read and the scope of the book is understood by the reader, it's easy to understand where this perspective comes from. The book is quite wide in scope, but I think that stripping it down into a few central components does make a (relatively) short description possible. So let's go...

The Plot of The Fountainhead

On the surface, this novel is the story of one man, Howard Roark, and his struggles as an architect in the face of a successful rival, Peter Keating, and a newspaper columnist, Ellsworth M. Toohey. In essence, Roark is painted as the hero, Toohey as the villain, and (from my perspective) Keating as the prodigal son. Of course, things aren't quite that simple once you dig in.

The novel begins as Howard Roark and Peter Keating approach graduation at a prestigious architecture school. Keating graduates at the top of his class, while Roark is expelled and asked not to return. Interestingly enough, the early novel paints Keating as the hero.

They both go to New York City to begin their careers in architecture. Keating goes to work for a firm with a good reputation, Francon & Heyer, while Roark goes to work with a man that he knows understands his mission and ideals, Henry Cameron. At first, Keating is the successful one; he climbs high in his firm by pushing out those whose positions he wants, and gains several major commissions for his firm mostly by schmoozing. He makes his buildings for no other purpose than to please his clients and gain prestige, which he does completely, because not one of his clients is interested in quality. Rather, they are interested in impressing the public, something that Keating can do through his designs. Enter Ellsworth M. Toohey, a journalist who seems to be in charge unofficially of many organizations in the city. Toohey praises Keating highly in his newspaper columns.

Roark, on the other hand, cannot get work because he refuses to compromise and put useless features on his buildings. His goal is to stick completely with his own designs, focused on efficiency above all. Broke and jobless, he must get a job in a quarry owned by Guy Francon (the head of the firm that Keating works at) doing manual labor. There he meets Dominique Francon, his female equivalent, and starts a love affair with her that is painful for both of them. Dominique, through her own motivations, wishes to destroy Roark because he represents her ideal person and thus no one deserves to have him (Dominique has some... issues). Roark cannot ask her to stop because he believes too strongly in free will and follows his own ethical standards so strongly. Not only does she get jobs for Peter Keating that might have gone to Roark, she marries Keating, Roark's competitor.

Peter Keating begins to feel empty even though he is very successful. Toohey assures him that to be truly happy, one must do away with the desire to be happy. One must be completely selfless. Dominique meets with Gail Wynand, the owner of a very powerful chain of newspapers (headed by the New York Banner), to discuss a building he is planning. She gets the commission for Keating, but in the process leaves Keating and marries Wynand, because he is even more an enemy to Roark. However, Wynand has taken another road to success and isn't as shallow as Keating. When he decides to build a home for himself and Dominique, he asks Roark to be the architect and finds the one person he could not and would not want to corrupt. The two become friends. Dominique watches from a distance, not allowing herself to get close to Roark, knowing that nothing can change how they feel about each other.

Keating has lost his sense of how to design anything. He asks Roark to design a project for him and Roark accepts on the condition that he will have complete control over design and construction. However, the homes are not built as Roark wanted (thanks to a number of issues; whether Keating is responsible is kind of unclear and left to the reader to decide), so Roark dynamites the project as it is being completed. He stands trial and is found not guilty. After the trial, Roark and Dominique come together and leave Wynand, giving Wynand a moral issue which he can use to boost circulation of his New York Banner, which has all but gone under (thanks to the schemings of Ellsworth Toohey). He closes the paper anyway, and asks Roark to build the Wynand Building, as they had discussed when they were friends.

The book is divided into four sections, named after the four primary male characters in the book: Peter Keating, Howard Roark, Gail Wynand, and Ellsworth Toohey. Essentially, these four characters are interesting in distinctive ways, but the purpose they really serve is to provide four different reflections of Rand's philosophy of objectivism, which is what the underlying meat of the book is about.

What The Fountainhead is About

Be warned, here I may slip down a path of subjectiveness just a bit, but my goal is to represent the issues that she is trying to cover here. My own thoughts on the novel are summarized after this section.

The book mostly revolves around Ayn Rand's philosophy of objectivism. Ayn Rand once summarized the philosophy as follows

First, metaphysics: objective reality. Second, epistemology: reason. Third, ethics: self-interest. Fourth, politics: capitalism.

In essence, this book serves as a carefully constructed morality play to reinforce this philosophy. Rand would often admit this, basically stating that the book was intended to be just that.

Within objectivism, the book addresses a number of universal themes: the strength of the individual (mostly through Howard Roark), the tug between good and evil (mostly through Peter Keating), and the threat of fascism (mostly through Ellsworth M. Toohey). It is the fact that all of these themes run so richly through the book and are so centered on a central philosophy that makes this book fascinating and thought provoking, whether you agree with it or not.

In the end, though, it is Rand's solid ability for writing that makes the whole thing work. She incorporates all of these issues into a solidly readable novel that goes down smoothly and leaves one wanting more, yet with a lot of issues that bear thinking and further consideration. In essence, this is the reason the book has pretty much stayed in print for almost sixty years.

Howard Roark laughed.

The following is an essay of my (Joseph Garvin's) interpretation of the novel The Fountainhead. Hopefully if you've read the novel this will enlighten you in some way, or make you notice a nuance you didn't before. It was written for an annual writing contest for Ayn Rand's works. I chose to wait until my essay was submitted before I posted it on E2, because it's against the rules to seek outside assistance. The essay is a response to the prompt: "The conventional view is that in life an individual can either achieve practical success or be moral, but not both. Do you think Ayn Rand accepts or rejects this conventional view in The Fountainhead? Explain by reference to characters and events from the novel."

Fountainhead illustrates that the conventional wisdom, that practical success and moral integrity are mutually exclusive, is false. This 'wisdom' comes from two main suppositions. First, that the only way to achieve success is to make moral sacrifice; the only way to beat the game of life is to cheat. Second, belief in the corrupting power of affluence; as soon as one is wealthy, one considers only one’s wealth.

Moral integrity can indeed ruin a person's practical success, as in the case of Henry Cameron. Cameron was unwilling to make any compromises. This is because Rand's philosophy places the artist's creation above any other concerns, including wealth and popularity. The creation in itself must motivate the artist, not any remuneration for it. Rand offers numerous characters demonstrating that moral sacrifice can quickly lead to riches and power. Gail Wynand becomes a millionaire by mutilating every principle he holds by publishing the Banner. Ellsworth Toohey aspires to rule by writing a column of demagoguery. Gus Webb and countless architects like him receive high paying commissions for buildings done in traditional styles, while Roark struggles for bread.

When Wynand was young he became convinced the immoral always won, because the truly moral, those that never let go of their tenets, didn’t exist. He repeatedly proves this to himself by offering exorbitant salaries to those that appear to be moral, and time after time he watches them succumb and toil on what Wynand knows to be trite trash, the Banner. Then there is Howard Roark. When Roark is tested by Wynand, he redraws Wynand’s house with popular themes incorporated, and asks Wynand if that’s what he wants. Wynand responds, “Good God no!” Roark sticks to his ethic, “Then shut up, and don’t ever let me hear any architectural suggestions.”

Wynand then comes to realize the truth about his beliefs: Roark is the ultimate counterexample. Roark resisted all temptation, he remained competent, he remained moral; he represents the world Wynand thought didn’t exist. Wynand’s error was due to his perceiving that there is no middle road. One either is rational, or one is not. There are no degrees to which men are moral, they are moral or they are not. Wynand saw that men being called moral, men claiming to stand for rational ideals, were only more difficult to corrupt. But Roark does not cheat, he does not become corrupted. Yet he becomes successful.

The moral artist’s fate is not absolute. With Wynand’s assistance, Roark receives more commissions than he can handle, without giving any control to his clients. While Cameron’s career ultimately fizzled, the novel victoriously ends with Roark going on to construct the Wynand Building; a moral and practical success.

Roark is paid for his labor. But never does the money twist him; never does he care about the money as much as his work. Roark’s character exposes the key flaw in conventional thinking. It is not wealth itself that is corrupting, but shifting focus towards it. In order to avoid being a second hander, the artist must care only about his creation in itself.

When Roark designs Cortlandt, he does so with only the building in mind, drawing every element of it from its intended function. When Prescott and Webb begin making alterations, they are second handers. They have not put thought of their creation first, instead they are only driven to assist the project because of their obsession with wealth and social prestige, both of which they would gain by being at least partly credited with Cortlandt. Thus, their changes make no sense, they are arbitrary, not derived from any purpose of the project. The issue at hand was not the corruption of wealth versus the purity of poverty, but the corruption of altruism versus the morality of egoism.

Not only has ‘wisdom’ failed to recognize the true malevolence, but also the real consequence. It is not evil that men focus on wealth instead of others, but instead of themselves. Altruism makes one put others before oneself, to put what they want, and more sinisterly, what they think, first. The impact is more significant than a lack of low cost housing. Lives are destroyed.

Keating is a victim of a second hander, his mother. Unable to create herself, she is a parasite, clinging on to Keating and refusing to let go even when he moves away. He too becomes a second hander, always doing what she prescribes, caring about what she thinks rather than thinking for himself. She pushes him into architecture. When he finally realizes that he really wished to draw instead of draft, he is too old to become what Roark is. The difference between the two of them can be seen when Keating asks, “How do you always manage to decide?” Roark answers, “How can you let others decide for you?” Keating’s life is wasted.

In the Cortlandt trial, Roark reveals the full vista of altruism’s destruction, far beyond the scope of the characters in Fountainhead alone, “The ‘common good’ of a collective – a race, a class, a state – was the claim and justification of every tyranny ever established over men.” The idea that a moral life and a practical one are mutually exclusive is simply another myth perpetuated for the ‘common good.’ Finally it is revealed that the conventional wisdom is what Ayn Rand has been rejecting all along, altruism. If you are too practically successful, you must not be giving enough of yourself to others, not committing enough moral actions. Rand posits the opposite, that thinking of oneself is the best thing for others. No pity and no charity, simply trade for mutual benefit; no justification for sacrificing the good of one for another.

Ayn Rand’s final rejection of the conventional wisdom is the last sentence of the novel, “Then there was only the ocean and the sky and the figure of Howard Roark.” He has been found innocent. He has maintained his morality. He is successful. He is now working on the Wynand Building, his biggest commission yet, and the ultimate representation of himself. Wynand told Roark to construct the project as, “a monument to that spirit which is yours... and could have been mine.” Thinking only of the building’s intended function, everything disappears, save Roark, the egotist.

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