The following post contains major spoilers for Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead, but don’t worry—you really shouldn’t read this book.
A number of public figures have expressed admiration for Rand’s writing and philosophy, including Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump, Ron and Rand Paul, and Clarence Thomas. (Paul Ryan was also once a famous Rand enthusiast, but has since reversed his position on her philosophy, describing it, accurately, as atheist.) Trump has even stated that he identifies with the protagonist of The Fountainhead. Knowing that her work has been influential with many powerful people, I felt a (possibly misplaced) sense of civic duty to learn the details of her famous views on altruism and selfishness from Rand herself.
I listened to The Fountainhead as an unabridged audiobook, specifically the 25th anniversary edition with a special introduction by the author. In it, she explains that her goal in The Fountainhead was “the portrayal of a moral idea” and “the presentation of an ideal man” in the protagonist, Howard Roark. Roark is an architect, and the story follows his career and the lives of several of his contemporaries in New York City from the early 1920s to the 1940s.
Even without Rand’s introduction, the principles depicted in The Fountainhead are clear. Rand unambiguously spells out her ideas on morality and ethics via both the actions and the dialogue of the main characters, including a pair of long monologues delivered by the hero and the primary antagonist.
In short, the philosophy of The Fountainhead is this: Fostering human genius is the only moral imperative. Gifted people must be free to pursue their own artistic, scientific, or philosophic endeavors at all costs. If one does not possess genius, one can redeem oneself only by recognizing and promoting it in others. Most people do not possess the former and are not capable of the latter, and these people do not matter. Rand, via the protagonist Roark, refers to them as “parasites”; the geniuses (referred to as “creators”) can ignore the parasites in the pursuit of their own ends.
Self-sacrifice and concern for the opinions of others are the ultimate evils. Altruism will lead to the downfall of the human species. Charity is wasteful at best and reprehensible at worst; if it distracts one from the selfish pursuit of one’s own goals, it is evil.
I want to stress that these ideals are not implied or represented symbolically; they are stated explicitly. Roark says, “Altruism is the doctrine which demands that man live for others and place others above self.… The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves.… All that which proceeds from man’s independent ego is good. All that which proceeds from man’s dependence upon men is evil.”
The idea that mothers should try to love all the world’s children as they love their own is a “line of tripe.” A home for “subnormal” children built by a philanthropist, which contains amenities such as playgrounds and an art room, is a waste of space and resources. The only semi-likable character, a social worker who, on the surface, appears to genuinely wish to help poor people improve their lives, admits that she’s miserable, that she hates and is disgusted by the indigent people she works with, and that she doesn’t know a single coworker who actually enjoys the job.
Further, the poor are depicted as being solely responsible for their own poverty. The main female character, a journalist, moves into a slum for two months to write an exposé on the conditions inside tenement housing. The article she actually writes makes it clear that the poor are poor because of their own laziness and inadequacy. One family’s children are roaming the streets half naked and their rent is going unpaid while their father drinks up his salary at a local speak-easy. Another poor family just purchased an exorbitantly priced radio. A third lives on charity while their able-bodied father avoids work; they are pregnant with their tenth child.
Because the pursuit and recognition of personal genius are the only morals that matter, no act is immoral as long as it doesn’t interfere with these two principles. Roark, for example, violently rapes the main female character, Dominique Francon. After the rape, Francon becomes obsessed with Roark and the two begin a bizarre and toxic relationship. Roark later becomes Francon’s third husband. This, remember, is the hero that our current president claims he identifies with.
Roark’s best friend, a wealthy newspaper owner named Gail Wynand, has no real genius of his own but does possess the gift of recognizing artistic genius in others. As a hobby, Wynand enjoys singling out activists and idealists, offering them huge salaries to write columns for his paper denouncing their own ideals, and ruining them financially if they refuse. One commits suicide as a result. To this Wynand responds, “If lightning strikes a rotten tree and it collapses, it’s not the fault of the lightning.”
Roark himself dynamites a building he designed because it wasn’t being built to his exact specifications. He is arrested and refuses a lawyer; at the trial, he presents only his own testimony as evidence—his monologue about “creators” and “parasites.” He is acquitted.
Wynand is Francon’s second husband, and after she leaves him for Roark, he allows his newspaper to fall apart and liquidates most of his assets. He pours the money into building the largest skyscraper in New York and awards the design contract to Roark. The novel ends with Roark and Francon standing atop this building in progress, surveying the city and reflecting on the greatness of man.
The morality of individual genius and selfishness and the immorality of altruism are emphasized again and again throughout the book, and we should be legitimately concerned that a number of public policymakers find this book inspirational. The idea that the poor are completely to blame for their poverty, and that charity or tax-payer funded programs to assist them are useless and wasteful, is objectively, provably wrong. The notion that a man of genius is justified in any immoral act he might commit in the pursuit of his ambitions is disturbing. The assertion that a few select men among us are “creators” and the rest are mere “parasites,” whose lives are meaningless and irrelevant, is horrifying.
Further, the book’s stance on rape and the rights of women is backward even for the 1940s. That a reader could continue to admire the hero despite his commission of a violent rape tells us something important about that reader’s views on the seriousness of sexual assault.
Ignoring its moral philosophy for a moment, how does The Fountainhead hold up as a piece of literature?
Rand’s style is probably an acquired taste. She describes individuals’ appearances, clothing, and movements in intense detail, from the knot of a tie to the turn of a hand during a conversation. But when it comes to characters’ internal motivations, she ignores the admonition to “show, don’t tell.” Not only does Rand spell out the main characters’ thoughts in words, the characters themselves do the same in extended, unnatural-sounding soliloquys.
Rand also has a habit of reusing distinctive words in a way that’s noticeable and distracting. Characters’ clothes are never trendy or respectable; they’re always correct. In the second half of the novel, Rand falls in love with the word bromide—it appears eleven times. In short, her literary skill wasn’t enough to salvage my enjoyment of this undertaking.
You shouldn’t read The Fountainhead. There are too many better written and more worthwhile books out there. But when a public figure professes love for a piece of art, fiction, or philosophy, we might learn something important about that figure by examining the thing that they love. Once in awhile, then, perhaps it is a civic duty. I heard John McCain loves For Whom The Bell Tolls; maybe start there.
Rand, Ayn. The Fountainhead, read by Christopher Hurt. 25th anniversary ed., Blackstone Audio, 1968. https://www.amazon.com/Blackstone-Audio-Inc-The-Fountainhead/dp/B000Z7FH38/ref=tmm_aud_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr.