The Fountainhead: Ayn Rand’s Ode to Individualism

Russian-born American writer and philosopher Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead holds the key to her philosophy of Objectivism. Rand emphasizes the significance of individualism over collectivism.

Oct 25, 2023By Susanna Andrews, BA Interdisciplinary Arts
fountainhead ayn rand


The Fountainhead was written by Ayn Rand and published in 1943, with 9 million copies sold since its release. Rand is best known for her fictional literary works and her philosophy of Objectivism. The Fountainhead was her first highly successful work of writing and established her as a well-renowned philosophical narrative author. Here is the background of how The Fountainhead was created, an in-depth look into the main characters, and the themes that are foundational to the novel.


The Background of The Fountainhead

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Ayn Rand in NYC by Allyn Baum, 1957 via The New York Times


The premise for The Fountainhead was originally created by Rand for a film during her time as a junior screenwriter for producer Cecil B. DeMille. Her assignment was to write a script for a movie in 1927, which was dismissed for director Dudley Murphy’s concept. In the end, the film Skyscraper was produced in 1928 from his idea, which Rand took inspiration from when formulating her rejected proposal. Instead of two construction workers building a skyscraper and fighting for a woman’s love in Murphy’s story, her plot follows two rival architects designing a skyscraper. As an immigrant from the Soviet Union, seeing New York City’s skyline in 1926 for the first time influenced her to integrate skyscrapers as symbols of freedom into her work.


In 1928, she began a draft for a novel based on her story about rival architects, titling it The Little Street. These early notes helped inform her process when she more seriously dedicated herself to writing it in 1934; the original title was Second-Hand Lives. With lacking knowledge of the world of architecture, Rand prioritized performing heavy research on the subject. She even became an unpaid typist for the architect Ely Jacques Kahn to gain hands-on experience. Her debut novel published in 1934, We the Living, was politically charged. She didn’t want to be perceived as one-dimensional, so she ensured the incorporation of additional fields of study.


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Photo of New York City in 1920, from “Old New York yesterday & today” (1922). Photo by Henry Collins Brown. Via the Internet Archive Book Images.


The undertaking of executing this novel was strenuous at times. Rand faced multiple roadblocks that interfered with the book’s completion. She paused the process to write the novella Anthem in 1937, and she proclaimed her intention to quit writing the novel altogether one year later. Her husband and actor Frank O’Connor emboldened her to proceed, and when she finally found a publisher her novel was only partially finished. During this time, she was involved in Wendell Willkie’s presidential campaign, conservative intellectual groups, and scriptwriting for movie studios. Bobbs-Merrill Company took a chance on The Fountainhead after the manuscript had been rejected twelve times, and it was finally published in 1943.

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The Fountainhead’s Main Characters: Howard Roark and Peter Keating

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Ayn Rand and Frank O’Connor via Cineplex.


Early in Rand’s development of the novel, she stated its purpose as “a defense of egoism in its real meaning… a new definition of egoism and its living example.” As mentioned previously, she didn’t want the story to solely centralize around politics. Instead of exploring the political ramifications of individualism vs. collectivism, a common dichotomy found throughout her work, she focused on the psychological consequences of adopting these different mentalities.


Howard Roark is the protagonist and represents the value of acting on individualistic thought. He is an innovative architect whose unconventional designs and theories cause him to be the target of much criticism from creatives and academics alike. He is alone in his rebellious spirit, which means he must face the collectivism around him, questioning if pursuing artistic freedom is worth the constant rejection. Unlike those around him, he believes in the power of self-interest and seeking all answers within the mind, not phased by emotions or societal beliefs.


Before Roark’s expulsion from a well-renowned architecture school due to his non-traditional style, he roomed with Peter Keating. His character serves as Roark’s opposite. Keating is Rand’s example of stereotypical selfishness that triggers questions about his true motives. His ambitions and greed for recognition boost him to the highest position at his firm. He desires acceptance from his peers and reaches his goals through manipulation. Although he eventually gains the success he has chased after, his achievements still leave him unfulfilled. Looking deeper into his character, perhaps the root of his drive didn’t stem from his true self, which debunks his initial defining trait as “selfish.”


Additional Main Characters: Ellsworth Toohey and Dominique Francon

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Howard Roark in “The Fountainhead” directed by King Vidor, 1949 via Metrograph


Keating’s rise to the top is promoted by the columnist and architectural critic Ellsworth Toohey. Although Toohey acknowledges Roark’s innovation, he criticizes him and strives to ruin his career. Toohey’s influence is great, and he is a proponent of self-sacrifice and service, embodying the spirit of collectivism.


Another character that Roark encounters is Gail Wynand, a publisher and the owner of a dominant media empire. Coming from a humble background, he forced his way to power by ignoring true artistry and providing the public vulgarity that would lead to his inevitable popularity. His mindset is one of black-and-white thinking: an individual has the choice to lead or be led, and he chose the position of authority.


Another character meant to reveal the motivation behind people who’d like to destroy those like Roark is Dominique Francon. As Roark’s lover, she praises him as a creative genius and sees greatness in him. However, she thinks it’s idealistic to believe that men like Roark could find success in a world full of mediocrity. In an internal battle between the desire to cultivate innovative minds and avoiding their inevitable failure, she chooses the latter. Betraying Roark, she joins Toohey’s mission to keep him from achievement and success.


The Themes in The Fountainhead: Independence and Individualism

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Dominique Francon in “The Fountainhead” directed by King Vidor, 1949 via Jewish Renaissance


Roark’s primary characteristic established from the start is his independence and his ability to form judgments completely on his own. An important distinction is that he doesn’t exist separate from others; he learns from the teachings of his architect idol Henry Cameron and his professors at school. But instead of blindly accepting everything he consumes, he critically analyzes the information and decides for himself what he believes. He values collaboration with others on projects—unless he is forced to compromise his own visions.


As stated earlier, Rand’s original title was Second-Hand Lives,” which references her perception of the characters trying to destroy Roark’s reputation and career. The foundational difference between Roark and them lies in their levels of dependence on others. These “second-handers” look to social approval to form their understanding of self and follow the rules of authority without straying from them.


If an individual’s main objective is to reach a high level of power, abusing the human potential for domination in the process, Rand argues this is a form of dependence at the core. This kind of independence that sets Roark apart aligns with the reinvented concept of individualism that Rand proposes. The commonly understood perception of selfishness is typically associated with corruption and exploitation. Rand believes that this is a form of hidden collectivism, where self-sacrifice simply leads to over-powering those who were used to reach an authoritative role. Rand desires to transform the readers’ opinion towards “selfishness” from recognizing it as a vice to a virtue.


Ayn Rand’s Objectivism

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The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, 1943 via Esquire


Beyond her works of fiction, Rand was most well-known for her philosophy of Objectivism. Although she hadn’t fully formulated the philosophy when The Fountainhead was published, some of the defining elements are evident throughout the novel. In addition to advocating for individualism and self-interest, she believed in the importance of having a central purpose in life. Roark was fully committed to his work, and his intentions were rooted in strengthening his intellectual ability to find solutions and his creative execution of aesthetic and functional structures.


In contrast, Keating’s motivations lie in finding success in his work, and not his passion for the work itself. He lacks a central purpose, and because of this, he feels unsatisfied even after achieving what he strove for. Rand chose the field of architecture as a stage to display the importance of independent thinking in a creative setting. Architecture is often defined by a strict dedication to following traditional designs from the past and a distaste for reinventing what’s already been well-established. The novel can be interpreted as a commentary on the need for innovative thinkers who resist conformity; Rand states this is the only path towards the advancement of the human race.


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Ayn Rand, 1943 via LA Review of Books


Although The Fountainhead is considered an incredibly influential and well-respected novel, it has received highly polarizing mixed reviews since its release. Although there were many positive initial ratings, Rand believed overall that many critics didn’t understand her message of individualism fully. In recent years, it has been mostly dismissed from the mainstream and ignored by literary critics in comparison to her later novel Atlas Shrugged. Feminist commentators have condemned her for questionable sexual encounters between Francon and Roark, with discussions over consent. Amidst controversy, the novel still represents a major breakthrough in her literary career, which led to significant opportunities. The Fountainhead continues to have a cultural influence in the spheres of literature, business, and architecture.

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By Susanna AndrewsBA Interdisciplinary ArtsSusanna is an artist passionate about generating concepts for creative writing pieces and short films. During this process, she loves to research topics related to art history and philosophy to inform her ideas. She graduated from the University of Washington with a BA in Interdisciplinary Arts and lives in Southern California.