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.