66 pages 2 hours read

Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1943

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 1945, The Fountainhead was written by Russian American author Ayn Rand (1905-1982) and focuses on the genius architect Howard Roark as he struggles to pursue a career of innovation and integrity in an increasingly hostile society of altruists and con men led by the Machiavellian humanitarian Ellsworth Toohey.

In The Fountainhead, Rand promotes values such as radical individualism and the primacy of objective reason, both of which would later form the foundation of her systematic philosophy of objectivism. This philosophy is closely linked with 20th-century American libertarianism and teaches that the highest moral good is the pursuit of one’s own happiness and satisfaction through economic productivity. The Fountainhead, like Rand’s later magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged (1957), is a controversial and inflammatory text that has elicited harsh criticism across the political spectrum. It nonetheless remains popular and influential in the public consciousness to this day.

This guide refers to the 2007 Penguin Books Modern Classics edition.

Content Warning: The source text and this guide include depictions of rape, sexual violence, and unequal sexual relationships, as well as alcohol addiction and suicidal ideation.

Plot Summary

The Fountainhead follows protagonist Howard Roark as he struggles to establish himself as an innovative Modernist architect in a society that stifles independence and creative achievement. He is expelled from college for refusing to design in historical styles, while his peer Peter Keating—an inferior architect who is dependent on Roark’s support and beholden to the opinions of others—graduates with top honors. Both Roark and Keating begin working in New York; Roark works for the impoverished Modernist genius Cameron, while Keating finds employment with the successful but incompetent Francon.

Roark stands by Cameron as his company flounders but then struggles to find long-term work once Cameron’s failing health forces him to retire. Eventually, Roark is able to establish his own company thanks to a commission from a wealthy businessman named Heller, with whom he forms a lasting friendship. Meanwhile, Keating advances to the position of partner in his firm by using Machiavellian manipulations, enlisting Roark’s aid with architectural designs, and engaging in an attempt at blackmail that leads to the death of Francon’s previous partner.

Unable to keep his company afloat, Roark spends the summer working at a quarry, where he meets Francon’s daughter, Dominique. They share an immediate mutual attraction that pushes Roark to rape Dominique before leaving suddenly to work on a new commission. Dominique writes for the tabloid The Banner, and after learning Roark’s identity, she dedicates herself to stealing his clients for Keating. She does this to try and destroy him for his integrity and to keep his genius creations from an unworthy world. During this time, she and Roark regularly engage in violent sex.

Author and humanitarian Ellsworth Toohey also wants to destroy Roark, just as he seeks to destroy all men of genius and ability. He hopes to create a world of universal slavery in which all men are dependent on each other and beholden to his ideological leadership and dogma of selflessness. He sets Roark up by manipulating him into constructing the Stoddard Temple, a monument to the human spirit, and then suing him for malpractice and remodeling it at Roark’s expense. To punish herself for her part in Toohey’s scheme, Dominique agrees to marry Keating—who jilts the woman he truly loves in order to marry her. Dominique then attempts to subsume her own will to his. Roark consents to her abandonment because she needs to learn to become independent of society before they can love each other properly.

In an attempt to break Dominique’s spirit, Toohey manipulates matters to compel her to sleep with Gail Wynand, the owner of The Banner, in exchange for an important real estate commission for Keating. Wynand and Dominique have much in common, as Wynand shares the same values and convictions as Dominique. However, he enjoys destroying the integrity of other men to justify his own disillusionment. Wynand falls in love with Dominique, and she agrees to marry him out of hatred for his paper and out of a desire to make herself suffer. Wynand bribes Keating to divorce Dominique, and over the course of their marriage, she comes to like and rely on Wynand, although she still does not love him as she does Roark. Wynand then commissions Roark to design a home for him and Dominique, before attempting to pressure Roark into abandoning his ideals. Wynand’s attempts are soundly rebuffed by Roark’s unshakable integrity, making Wynand admire him all the more, and they develop a strong, passionate friendship. When Roark finishes Wynand’s home, he is the only visitor permitted inside, and the three of them spend much of their time together.

Keating, his own career floundering, begs Roark to help with the design for the Cordtland Houses project for Toohey. Roark agrees on the condition that his plans be followed without alteration. However, upon his return from a cruise with Wynand, Roark discovers that his designs have been vastly altered and ultimately compromised, so he blows the whole project up with dynamite. While Roark awaits trial, Wynand dedicates all his papers to defending Roark. As a result, his workers, led by Toohey, go on strike, demanding that he change the paper’s stance on Roark. Wynand holds out as long as he can, but he eventually concedes and chooses to denounce Roark rather than closing his flagship publication, The Banner. This act destroys his integrity entirely and leads Dominique, who is no longer afraid of public opinion, to publicly scorn him and choose Roark.

Keating, now broken by Toohey’s influence and interrogation, testifies against Roark in his trial. Roark calls no witnesses and speaks in his own defense, admitting that he caused the explosion but claiming that it was his right since his conditions for doing the work were not met. He pontificates on the importance of independence and individualism, and his specially chosen jury of like-minded peers immediately declares him not guilty. After the trial, Wynand divorces Dominique, who then marries Roark. Wynand refuses to meet with Roark, save to commission him to build the tallest skyscraper in New York as a testament to Roark’s spirit and to the collective spirit of humanity’s achievements.

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