Essay Contests » Winners From Previous Years » 2004 The Fountainhead Essay Contest » 2004 The Fountainhead Essay Contest

First Place

Gena Gorlin, North Central High School, Indianapolis, IN

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.

Readers jaded by modern culture might read the first lines of The Fountainhead and suspect that Howard Roark intends to commit suicide. He stands naked on the edge of a cliff, upright, his body taut and radiantly free of any guilt or burden; this can only mean—a modern reader might suppose—that he is about to kill himself.

Happily, The Fountainhead delivers the diametric opposite of what one finds in a modern “slice-of-life” novel. Howard Roark—the man who faces the world with taut uprightness—rises to a life-affirming victory in the end. The moral, shows Ayn Rand, is the practical—when life in reality is one’s standard.

Howard Roark is upright and unbending in spirit as in posture. He lives by his own form of divine law—a set of principles he holds inviolable. However, Roark’s moral character is distinct from that of conventional “moral” types, as embodied in The Fountainhead by Ellsworth Toohey. Roark’s principles do not follow from any book or papal authority. They flow exclusively from Roark’s own mental grasp of reality and his life’s relation to it. Thus, when the Stanton dean angrily lectures Roark on the sacredness of past traditions, Roark does not counter by preaching; he replies calmly–“I have, let’s say, sixty years to live. Most of that time will be spent working . . . . And I can find joy [in it] only if I do my work in the best way possible to me. But the best is a matter of standards—and I set my own standards….” Roark identifies his practical goal, given the nature of his life—to excel at his work, erect the best buildings he can and revel in their creation. He knows that to achieve it he must have a standard to guide him. Just as no surgeon has ever cured a patient by randomly plucking out pieces of flesh, so no architect has ever designed a properly functional building by randomly piling up bricks and stones—based on someone’s whim or past tradition. A standard, a ruling principle, must govern the surgeon’s procedure as well as the architect’s. Nor does Roark set his standard arbitrarily; “The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape” of his buildings, just as the facts of reality determine his life’s design. On this principle—of adhering to the facts, unswayed by others’ opinions—Roark operates without compromise. His moral integrity is, first of all, integrity to the facts—and consequently to his soul that grasps them.

Others, like Peter Keating, do try to operate without a standard. A butchered building design is not as obvious, to some, as a butchered body. Nor is a butchered soul.

Keating never holds to a principle for two days running. He “never felt the need to formulate abstract convictions”—instead, he acts on impulse or substitutes another’s ideas for his own. After instigating the fatal stroke of Lucius Heyer, he gets himself named partner of Guy Francon’s prestigious firm. Incapable of designing even a passable building, he mooches help from Roark—and, with Roark’s design, wins national renown in the Cosmo-Slotnick competition. Riding on underhanded tactics and borrowed ability, Keating gains extraordinary public success.

Meanwhile Roark adheres staunchly to his principles. He declines commissions that would require him to compromise; he accepts only clients like Austen Heller, who recognize the objective merit of his designs and erect his buildings without alteration. In the midst of financial decline, he is offered a commission for the Manhattan Bank Building—but the commissioners insist that he adjoin a classical Portico jarringly incongruous with the bank’s design. As he explains to the vacuous board, “the good, the high and the noble on earth is only that which keeps its integrity;” thus his own integrity requires that he reject the commission. Consequently, he must shut down his office and take a job in a granite quarry, where he sweats as a common laborer. By all the measures of practical success—productive output, wealth, recognition—Roark seems, thus far, a dismal failure. The old adage seems affirmed: either be a principled martyr or a prosperous villain.

Yet the consequences of each man’s policy take their toll across the years. Peter Keating, once the “modern” style replaces old architectural fashions, begins to slip professionally. Since he could never design his own buildings, only cater to his clients’ preferred styles of imitation, he is trapped when his clients adopt new preferences. Ellsworth Toohey—to whom he had clung for “moral support”—suddenly abandons Peter when he no longer serves Toohey’s machinations. Peter’s business wanes. Being dependent on others for his work, Peter cannot stand on his own feet when abandoned. At the height of his fame, he had “looked at [admirers’] faces… saw himself born in them, saw himself being granted the gift of life. That was Peter Keating… the reflection in those staring pupils.” Now that they have withdrawn their stares, Peter has lost sight of his soul—which has never existed but as a reflection.

Meanwhile Roark’s principles guide him inexorably to success. After being summoned from the quarry by a commission from Roger Enright, who has recognized the uniform rationality of his buildings, he begins to gain clients who—seeing the uncompromised logic of his work—hire him as their architect. Roark rises above Toohey’s attempts to poison his success. In destroying the Stoddard Temple, Toohey cannot destroy the spirit that made it. Increasingly, rational friends and clients—like Kent Lansing, Stephen Mallory and, ultimately, Gail Wynand—recognize Roark’s genius and support him unequivocally. In time he moves his new office to the Cord building, the skyscraper he himself designed. Already he is living out in practice the values that his moral soul has forged.

Keating, finally realizing his incompetence and begging Roark to design Cortlandt, confesses in a gasp of honesty the groundless nature of his “success.” “I’ve been a parasite all my life . . . . I have taken that which was not mine and given nothing in return.” There is no way around man’s need for principles to direct his actions. Lacking his own, Peter has tried to borrow others’—but ideas cannot be borrowed. In the short term, Peter’s parasitic strategy appeared to buy him success. All it really bought was fame, as groundless and ephemeral as the undigested principles he parasitized. One cannot hang onto “ideals” suspended to nothing, floating in midair. But such are in his mind the ideals of Toohey, Francon, and all the “authorities” who rule Peter’s world. In reality, he has built nothing; to achieve real values, one must dwell in reality first—not in others’ minds. To know what actions will bring long-term values in reality, one must hold reality-based principles—i.e., one must be moral.

Roark, unlike Keating, knows where his actions lead.

In the climactic expression of his principles, Roark dynamites the butchered Cortlandt housing project, thus asserting his moral right to the product of his mind.

Toohey attempts his last smutty campaign against Roark at the Cortlandt trial—hoping that the world, which he has worked so hard to turn against itself, will convict Roark as “an egomaniac devoid of all moral sense.” Yet Toohey’s plan backfires; for Roark has life-promoting principles as his weapon, while Toohey’s “principles” lead to self-destruction.

“The [moral] code of the creator is built on the needs of the reasoning mind which allows man to survive,” says Roark at his trial. Thus he defends not only his person, but every man who wants to live. The moral code he names is essential not only to his life, but to that of every jury member. The verdict reached in the trial is to be a verdict not merely on Roark, but on every man’s right to exist. If the jury condemns Roark for reclaiming Cortlandt, his mind’s creation, from those who deny his right to it, they condemn every human act of self-preservation; they waive their right to raise their children as they see fit, to keep their hard-earned money, to choose their own wives, to treat themselves against disease. That is what the jury grasps from Roark’s speech. Such is the expansive scope of vision that principles bring within man’s mental range.

Naturally, Roark is acquitted.

“I am an architect,” Roark says; “I know what is to come by the principle on which it is built.” Indeed, Roark is the sole architect of his life as well as his buildings. His principles do not hang overhead as an imposed burden demanding blind obedience; rather, they serve as his compass—always pointing the way to the achievement of his goals.

In romance, too, his fidelity to principles brings long-term fulfillment. Roark knows that before Dominique can fully act on her love for him love for his soul as concretized by the gradeur of his buildings—she must know that such values, her values, can survive in the world. For Dominique to marry Roark while believing him doomed would be an act of dishonesty akin to spending one’s life on pursuit of a goal one thinks unattainable. Roark renounces such dishonesty on principle. He waits until she resolves her contradiction and, having done so, Dominique finally weds him with unconflicted reverence.

In life’s every avenue, Roark achieves lasting, authentic success. He stands in consummate happiness at the finale, as he stood in confident anticipation at the outset. The Wynand Building, towering over all, is the practical embodiment of Roark’s upright moral soul.