Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Characterization and Symbolism

February 15, 2021 by Essay Writer

How does Ayn Rand implement characterization and symbolism in The Fountainhead in order to explain objectivism?

The purpose of this essay is to discuss how Ayn Rand implements characterization and symbolism in her novel The Fountainhead in order to explain objectivism. The guiding research question was chosen, because it is clear throughout the novel that Rand uses these literary elements with the obvious purpose of conveying her personal philosophy. Rand’s views are so central to the novel, that any analysis of the work that fails to include an analysis thereof would be lacking in holistic context of the novel’s purpose. In regard to the guiding question, characterization can be loosely defined as the process by which the author reveals the personality of a character. Likewise, symbolism occurs when certain concepts represent an idea or philosophy separate from how they are concretely presented. Ayn Rand characterizes Howard Roark as an ideal model of objectivism, and she characterizes Ellsworth Toohey to demonstrate that objectivism is superior to any other philosophy by allowing him to understand the tenets of objectivism but simultaneously preventing him from acting in accordance with the philosophy; he rather acts against it. She further demonstrates the morality of objectivism through her incorporation of symbolic elements such as architecture and the concept of “the monster.” The elements of her objectivist philosophy that she achieves in explaining through these literary constructs are rational self-interest and reason. Rand’s philosophy dictates that reason is simply choosing to think when one is given the option either to think or not to. Reason should be viewed as absolute truth, as opposed to accepting reliance on emotions or faith as a source of knowledge. Objectivism also explains that rational self-interest is a necessary ethical consideration for people, because one must act in accordance to their own desires “in order to achieve, maintain, fulfill and enjoy that ultimate value, …which is his own life (“Introduction to Objectivism”).” Objectivism dictates that one cannot achieve happiness without their personal interest being the driving force of all of their actions; acting any other way would be immoral, because it would indicate choosing to not maintain the what should hold the greatest value—a person’s life. Two other tenets of objectivism include capitalism and reality, however the scope of this paper will focus mainly on self-interest and reason.

The objectivist principle of rational self-interest is a dominant component of the philosophy that exists within The Fountainhead. One method Rand uses to communicate the nature of self-interest is through the characterization of Howard Roark, the protagonist of the novel. Roark is an architect who gives little notice to others and is a self-proclaimed egoist. Shortly after Roark is introduced in the novel, it is revealed that he was recently expelled from the Architectural School of Stanton Institute of Technology. Roark meets with the dean of the school to discuss his expulsion, which occurred because Roark had never given architectural design “the attention that it deserves (Rand, The Fountainhead 21)”. After a while of speaking, the dean explains to Roark that he will likely be able to return to Stanton the following year, thanks to the dean’s persuasion of the school’s president and his colleagues. However, to the dean’s surprise, Roark rejects the offer. Roark ultimately explains that the reason he would not like to return to Stanton, and the reason he was expelled for that matter, “was insubordination (21).” During his enrollment, he purposefully gives modern sketches in response to problems that require him to use a specific architectural style such as Tudor or Greek. Roark’s insubordination to his professor of architectural design shows that Roark is not willing to be submissive to old architectural principles that are archaic and obsolete. He is too committed to his personal architectural standards to abandon them to instead “respectfully try to repeat (23)” other older structures or styles. Roark’s magnified sense of individualism portrays him as somebody who properly follows the objectivist philosophy regarding the self. Additionally, his opinions regarding architecture allow his vision of the ideal building to parallel Rand’s idea of the ideal objectivist.

Rand further conveys individualism through building through Roark, who sees men and buildings in a very similar light. Being a man committed to rational self-interest, he despises people who have no sense of self and no integrity; Roark explains to the dean at Stanton that “…he looked for a central theme in buildings and he looked for a central impulse in men (27).” Roark understands that people all have a driving force that plays a major role in everything they do, and he recognizes that buildings should have a similar central theme. This mindset allows for buildings and architecture to be introduced as a symbolic element in the novel; architecture ultimately becomes symbolic of humanity, and it is developed as such through Howard Roark’s convictions regarding the art.

Roark’s opinion of how buildings should be designed is also representative of how the ideal objectivist would act. A “rule” of Roark’s regarding buildings is that “The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape. Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it’s made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail (24).” He believes that one cannot simply pick a style and build around that; he demands that the context of a building determine its design. For example, when Mrs. Wayne Wilmot offers Roark a contract to design her house, he refuses to build it for her, because she requires that the house be of the English-Tudor style. Roark knows that the design will not fit the house’s purpose, so he refuses to build it (162). This is significant because Roark is struggling financially, and any contract he could get would greatly improve his situation, but he would still not build the house. This shows how dedicated he is to the conviction that houses need to be created for a reason and based around one central idea. The fact that Roark will not go against this conviction even in times of trouble is a testament to his own devotion to one ideal, which further characterizes Roark as a human embodiment of Rand’s philosophy.

When Roark is in the process of constructing one of the first houses he ever creates, the owner of the house asks Roark why it is that he likes the house Roark built for him so much. Roark explains that “A house can have integrity, just like a person…and just as seldom (136)”. Roark goes on to explain the fundamental difference between houses with and without integrity; “The determining motive of your house is in the house. The determining motive of the others is in the audience (136).” Herein lies the same difference between people who practice rational self-interest and those who live for others. Roark names the former “second-handers”; he explains that, “They have no self. They live within others. They live second-hand (605).” The similarity between these people and buildings is that their sole purpose is to gain respect from others. Conversely, the goal of a man possessing a self-sufficient ego is to achieve happiness through self-motivated actions, and the goal of any of Roark’s buildings is to simply exist as a building that accomplishes the purpose for which it was built, not to gain prestige.

Roark indirectly identifies Mrs. Wilmot as a “second-hander” when he thinks, “There was no such person as Mrs. Wayne Wilmot; there was only a shell containing the opinions of her friends… (162).” This acts as yet another example of how Rand communicates her thoughts on rational self-interest to the audience. Mrs. Wilmot is described as a “shell,” indicating that she is empty inside and lacks happiness. Rand uses this example of an empty woman who is more concerned with others than with herself to demonstrate that one cannot achieve happiness by trying to impress other people, and that one can only achieve it by acting in accordance with their personal desires. However, Rand does not indicate that Mrs. Wilmot actually wants anything, because there was “no such person” as Mrs. Wilmot, thus the woman could have no real desires. This creates an even stronger argument for self-interest, because it indicates that if one relies too heavily on “the second hander’s delusion (607)”, which is synonymous to “gaining prestige from others,” he will eventually lose himself entirely.

Prestige is often discussed in the novel, and it is made out to be a very negative concept. Ellsworth Toohey equates prestige to a fiend when he describes the world as a place in which “man will not work for so innocent an incentive as money, but for that headless monster—prestige (638).” Toohey is an intellect and altruist with the hidden motive of seizing control of mankind, that being said, it’s significant to note that he is fully aware of how dangerous prestige is. Toohey is personally glad that he lives in the world as he described it, since he is bent on controlling it, which is something that is much easier for him to do when people are more concerned with that “headless monster” than anything else. Toohey describes the monster as headless to indicate that people in this society rarely think. He believes that instead of generating original thoughts, people are more concerned with what their neighbor is thinking, who is in turn thinking about what their neighbor is thinking, and so on. Rand uses the concept of prestige to communicate the importance of self-interest and reason in her philosophy by developing prestige so it’s perceived as mindless and in opposition to individuality. The morality of these ideals is further clarified by explaining the opposite of them to be evil by comparing it to a monster.

Rand also uses juxtaposition to emphasize the horrors that come along with prestige; she uses integrity to contrast prestige. Another important sense the characters in the novel experience is dignity, which is more closely aligned with prestige than integrity, contrary to what one might think. Integrity demands that a person have strong moral principles and be undivided in their total devotion to one belief. Alternately, dignity requires that a person be worthy of honor or respect from others. An example of this type of dignity from the novel exists when Guy Francon, the successful owner of an architectural firm is speaking with his most recent hire, Peter Keating. Francon mentions, “We must give our clients dignity above all (42).” Francon’s statement indicates that clients have to be “given” dignity, which is determined by one’s standing in front of an audience. According to Francon, an architect’s job “above all” is then to give his client a house that other people will enjoy. This is in contrast from Howard Roark’s mindset on architecture, for he believes that any house motivated by the audience’s opinion is a house that lacks integrity (136). This approach to the specific meanings of these words in the novel is very closely related to Roark’s thoughts regarding “second-handers,” who receive the houses and seek after prestige and dignity, and “creators,” like himself, who design the houses and seek after integrity.

Roark believes that similar to buildings with integrity, creators are people who are motivated by their own truth, not fellow man (678). It is impossible to live for or through others, and is angered when people are told to act as altruists and to be selfless, another word which the author uses in an untraditional sense to convey the importance of individualism. She uses “selfless” in a negative connotation so it means a person is actually without a self, because they are so concerned with pleasing others that they are unable to live for themselves. She also uses “selfish” with an unorthodox meaning in mind; it does not have a negative connotation, indicating that somebody who is selfish is evil or unkind, rather it simply means that this person is considerate of their own desires and needs. Roark maintains that “to think, act, and judge are functions of the self, of the ego (678).” In this appositional phrase, Rand also redefines the word “ego,” causing the word to shift from meaning one’s perception of self-importance or self-esteem simply to one’s perception of “self.” Rand uses these beliefs of Roark to demonstrate the connection between reason and self awareness. He thinks without the ego one cannot think or act independently. He firmly believes that “The first right of man is the right of the ego. His moral obligation is to do what he wants (682).” Because the ego is a requisite to independent thoughts and actions, this statement indicates that Roark is of the opinion that above all, mankind should maintain the right to individualism and rational thought. For this reason he does not believe altruism to be moral, for one cannot have a self if they are living solely for others.

Rand clarifies her opinion on this concept of altruism when Roark explains that “the world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrifice (684).” The use of the word orgy indicates that the world was destroying itself because it was indulgently partaking in indecent behaviour, which can be attributed to people’s desire to help others more than themselves. In addition to clarifying Roark’s disgust for altruism, this sentiment also indicates how unintelligent he believes the world to be because of its desire to be selfless. He indicates that the world is indulging in self-sacrifice and thereby dismantling itself, in other words the world is enjoying its own process of self-destruction. As a man who heavily relies upon reason to guide his actions, Roark cannot see the sense in this, especially because he believes the only way a man can truly enjoy any aspect of life is by providing for himself the things that he needs and wants.

It is because of Roark’s interest in seeking after his own happiness that architect Peter Keating approaches Roark and asks him if he would design the housing project Cortlandt Homes for him. In this case, Roark would do all the work, and Keating would receive the money, fame, and credit for being so altruistic as to help those in need of the homes that he had supposedly designed. The reason Peter asks Roark such an odd-seeming favor is that Peter knows Roark will actually get more out of designing Cortlandt Homes than Peter would. This is because Peter is only getting the prestige that society will give him for “his” design, whereas Roark is getting what man can earn for himself (581). Roark uses this opportunity to do what he loves by designing a building, whereas Peter ultimately gains nothing from the exchange except for the heightened sense of the fact that he is what Roark would call a second-hander, and what he himself would call a parasite (575). Roark tells Peter that he will fulfill the request as long as Peter would be able to have the “courage of [Roark’s] convictions (580),” meaning that Peter will be allowed to oversee the construction of Roark’s design, but he must promise that Roark’s exact building design would be erected. Roark knows this will be difficult, because most people do not appreciate the design of his buildings, and such people would want very badly to change Roark’s structure. The dean conveys similar dissent to Roark’s style of architecture in the beginning of the novel, saying that Roark is not great enough of an architect to develop his own style and improve upon traditional styles that were already “proven” to be beautiful (23). Most are unwilling to accept new forms of architecture, because they are overly reliant upon the merit of reputable architectural styles.

However, the fact that something’s reputation precedes its credibility presents a problem. Roark would assign the title of “second-hander” to anybody who refuses to accept a building simply because they are concerned with what its reputation will be. Roark is strongly against people’s’ tendencies to simply do what is expected of them for the reason of gaining respect from others or trying to fit in as a member of a collective. Roark agrees to design the housing project for Peter Keating simply because of his passion for architecture, but he knows it would be a challenge for Peter to erect Roark’s design in its exact form. Ultimately, Peter Keating finds himself unable to combat others who are involved in the construction process, and he cannot prevent them from altering the design. To make matters worse, Cortlandt Homes was initially intended to be an apartment complex that was designed to be inexpensive and well-suited to a middle-class individual or to somebody who simply wanted a home that wasn’t very costly. However, the draftsmen and builders entirely altered Roark’s intention for Cortlandt by not only making vast changes to the design, but also by remarketing the homes to make them seem as though they were built for the altruistic purpose of aiding the poor who otherwise could not afford housing. Upon seeing what Peter’s coworkers had done to Cortlandt Homes, Roark is horrified; his horror is later developed when he makes his decision to destroy Cortlandt Homes.

Roark ultimately decides to dynamite the buildings because they are a “double monster. In form and in implication (683).” Roark knows the building’s physical existence to be unacceptable due to the changes Peter’s coworkers made, assuming “the right to improve upon that which they had not made and could not equal (683).” Even more dreadful, the changes were made under the altruistic premise of doing so to help the poor. The former “monster” relates to the Dean at Stanton in the beginning of the novel, who asked Roark, “Who are we to improve upon [the great architectural masters]? We can only attempt, respectfully to repeat (23).” These two situations are significant because it analogizes Roark to a great architect by comparing him to somebody whose work cannot be improved upon. However, this is a false assumption, because the supposed “great masters” of architecture have designed far from perfect buildings, whereas Roark has only designed buildings that are flawlessly fitted to their purposes. Thus, there exists another discrepancy when the Dean uses the pronoun “we,” by which he incorrectly groups Roark into a collective classification for the commonplace architect, which is a group that by no means includes Roark.

In fact, Roark wars against the collective throughout the entire course of the novel. Roark explains that he had wanted to be an architect since he was 10 years old. He had decided this because he loved the Earth, but didn’t like the shape of things on it, so he wanted to change them to suit his own liking (49). However, he obviously encounters many setbacks in fulfilling his desires to change things and to build; an example of this can be seen whenever he deals with a second-hander who impedes his efforts of creating buildings. Roark explains that this struggle between second-hander and the creator has another name, “the individual against the collective (682).” The reasoning behind this sentiment is that every motivating force for second-handers lies within others, so they can be equated with the collective, whereas a creator is never “prompted by a desire to serve his brothers…His truth [is] his only motive (678),” so he can be defined as an individual.

That being said, Rand thoroughly conveys the importance of individualism through Roark’s convictions, which she aligns to the looming concept of the monster, which acts as Roark’s adversary and as a symbolic antagonist in the novel. Roark explains, “collectivism, the rule of the second-hander and second-rater, the ancient monster, has broken loose and is running amuck. It has brought men to a level of intellectual indecency never equaled on earth (683).” To reiterate, Roark believes the second-handers have achieved the power to subvert and destroy the world’s convictions, and that this is the source of collectivism. Collectivism comes with many detrimental impacts, Ellsworth Toohey explains that through collectivism, “we’ve taught men to unite. This makes one neck suitable for one leash (639).” Rand characterizes both Ellsworth Toohey and Howard Roark as individuals who understand the truth behind collectivism, being that it serves the purpose of a “monster,” ruining people’s’ understanding of the importance of rational self-interest. An important difference between Toohey and Roark however, is that while Roark is an advocate of individualism, Toohey works to increase the rule of collectivism in order to gain power over man. This foil makes this tenet of Rand’s objectivist philosophy clear, because Rand uses Roark’s characterization to show that individualism is beneficial to society, and she shows that collectivism is an extreme detriment to society through Toohey’s support of the collective and his ability to rule over anybody who promotes it.

It is for this reason that Ellsworth Toohey is the victim of a failed attempt at his life by Steven Mallory, a sculptor who eventually becomes Roark’s prodigy. Long after Mallory attempts to shoot Toohey, he confides in Roark, explaining “I shot at him because I think he knows everything about that beast (344).” The beast that Mallory is referring to is his greatest fear—to be trapped unarmed in a cage with a beast incapable of reason. He would do nothing but tell the absolute truth and give the beast plausible reasons as to why it should not eat him, but it cannot understand the reasoning (331–332). Roark replies with “The principle behind the dean (332).” Rand uses this “principle” in conjunction with the symbolic importance of the monster to demonstrate reason, an integral part of objectivism.

When Roark is expelled by the dean in the beginning of the novel, Roark attempts to use logic and persuasion to explain to the dean why students shouldn’t be expected to use archaic and historical designs for modern buildings. However the dean does not understand this reasoning, causing him to ignore what Roark says and insist that old styles of architecture are still presently correct and necessary styles of design. The dean explains to Roark, “Your only purpose is to serve him [the client] (26).” The dean believes it’s more important to consider what the client thinks than what is reasonably plausible and what one personally believes, thus demonstrating his lack of both logic and selfishness, which characterizes him as a person who is in total opposition to the tenets of objectivism discussed in this investigation. This circumstance also provides an example of how architecture is used as a symbol that aids in the explanation of objectivism.

Overall, Ayn Rand effectively implements literary devices to clarify the meanings of reason and rational self-interest. A large example of this exists in the characterization of Howard Roark, who is developed as a man who perfectly displays the qualities of objectivism, and whose convictions are perfectly aligned to Rand’s objectivist philosophy. Additionally, Rand characterizes Ellsworth Toohey and the dean at Stanton as foils to Roark, resulting in the audience’s better understanding of rational self-interest and reason, because they receive information from the opposing perspectives of collectivists and an individualist. To further convey the meanings of these two tenets of objectivism, Rand effectively uses juxtaposition and diction to reevaluate words such as selfish and selfless, prestige and integrity, and ego to challenge the beliefs of the collective, and to make her audience consider that their previous thoughts regarding concepts like altruism and prestige might not be correct. This is an effective method of persuasion, because she not only uses reasoning to discuss the superiority of her philosophy, but she also shows the audience that their fundamental understanding of key phrases regarding the philosophy are likely incorrect, thus making them more likely to be receptive of Rand’s explanation of the philosophy, knowing they have a flawed understanding of the concept. Finally, Rand incorporates symbolic elements such as architecture and the monster to respectively create a clear analogy for humanity and to display the detriments of the collective on society as a whole. Buildings become representative of people, in that both possess either integrity or prestige, which is the concept that the monster demonstrates as inherently negative to an individual’s ability to thrive. Holistically, Ayn Rand expertly integrates the discussed literary elements and devices into The Fountainhead in order to leave her audience with a clear understanding of two integral parts of her objectivist philosophy, rational self-interest and reason.

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