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 audible.com.
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.