Study Guide

The Fountainhead

By Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead Introduction

Much like Howard Roark had a hard time finding a client for his innovative architectural designs, Ayn Rand had a hard time finding a publisher for The Fountainhead. She heard "no" twelve times before a dude over at Bobbs-Merill Company decided to go for it. Wise choice, Bobbs-Merill: The Fountainhead became a mega-hit when it was published in 1943.

Was it the sexiness of architecture that made The Fountainhead so famous? Its nostalgia trip to the 1920s and 1930s? The novel's "individualism power!" shtick? The anti-communist/anti-socialist stance? Trick question, Shmoopers: it was all of the above that turned The Fountainhead from a poor orphan manuscript into a money-making success. Just like Little Orphan Annie, if Annie had hated self-sacrifice.

That isn't to say that this book was universally beloved. Far from it. The Fountainhead—and indeed of Ayn Rand herself—is one of the most controversial novels of all time. There's no real gray area when discussing The Fountainhead: there are fanboys and fangirls, and there are people who refuse to touch the novel with a ten-foot pole. But before we check out this novel's weird and complicated legacy, let's check out the origin story of this sucker.

When Rand set out to write The Fountainhead, she decided to write a book where she could explore her views on individualism and explore her own philosophy. Rand's philosophy is called Objectivism and (no big shocker here) it is super controversial.

What's Objectivism, you ask? Here are the nuts and bolts of it, straight from the Rand-fans over at the Atlas Society:

Objectivism rejects the ethics of self-sacrifice and renunciation… (men are urged) to hold themselves and their lives as their highest values, and to live by the code of the free individual: self-reliance, integrity, rationality, productive effort.

The Fountainhead follows the life of a pioneering architect named Howard Roark, who basically embodies all of the tenants of Objectivism. He does what he wants. He is totally self reliant, rational, and true to himself. This is a double-edged sword: on the one hand Roark stays true to his artistic vision, and on the other hand he's not above raping the woman he loves (erm, loves?) and blowing up buildings. He struggles against society for a while, but ends up being a huge success.

And you wonder why this novel is controversial?

Since Rand incorporated her Objectivist philosophy into the novel, it ended up reading as part pulp-fiction, part intellectual exercise, and part Architectural Digest. Many critics slammed the novel, including conservatives. No one could seem to figure out how to read it—was it a pot-boiler or a philosophical tract? Some agreed wholeheartedly with Rand's philosophy; others thought her ideas were dangerous trash, like hazardous waste material. But at any rate it become a best-seller and an attention-grabber.

Hollywood took notice, too. In the late 1940s Rand adapted a screenplay for her novel, and The Fountainhead was made into a movie starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. This film helped secure The Fountainhead's place in American literary history.

And The Fountainhead found a place in American political history as well: Rand's philosophy went on to become a cornerstone of the Libertarian Party. In fact, the Libertarian Party considers Ayn Rand to be one of the three "founding mothers" of Libertarianism.

So: one plump novel about an aspiring architect helped launch a) the career of an author b) a little philosophical stance called Objectivism and c) a major American political party. Not too shabby. Is The Fountainhead controversial? Hecky yes. Is The Fountainhead inconsequential? Absolutely not.

What is The Fountainhead About and Why Should I Care?

As we learned on John Oliver's Last Week Tonight, "three decades after her death, Ayn Rand is still the subject of serious debate… and not just over how to pronounce her name."

Ayn Rand doesn't provoke a lot of "meh" feelings. People either think she's worse than week-old liver stew or the best thing since Nutella on ice cream. People think she's either a brilliant Nostradamus figure or Satan reincarnate. She's either Paris in the springtime or Nome, Alaska in January.

Welcome, Shmoopers, to The Fountainhead: one of the most polarizing books, by one of the most polarizing authors… ever.

Hey, who doesn't like a divisive topic? If you want get in on this argumentative action (and who wouldn't, right?) it's not a bad idea to check Rand out and see what all the fuss is about.

Why else should anyone care about The Fountainhead? Well, The Fountainhead is worth checking out for two reasons: architecture and philosophy.

The Fountainhead is basically a crash course in American architecture at the turn of the century, when froo-froo Victorian and Classical styles were on the way out and Modernism was on the way in. The protagonist of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark, is basically a thinly disguised Frank Lloyd Wright. This novel is filled with oodles of architectural detail, and highlights the important role of architecture in shaping the zeitgeist of the 20th Century.

It's also a philosophical field guide to Individualism and Objectivism, two personal faves of Ayn Rand. If you like putting on your philosopher's hat and contemplating life and the universe, The Fountainhead is indispensible. Sure, you may not agree with Individualism or Objectivism, but half the fun of philosophy is the argument, right?

But architecture and philosophy take a back seat to the real importance (and fun) of The Fountainhead (and Rand in general): the fact that it is a freaking powderkeg of controversy.

More than seventy years after the publication of The Fountainhead, Rand is a still a significant figure in today's political and pop culture. And no one can agree.

If you want to be an informed participant, or even just an amusedly informed bystander, in these socio-political debates, then you have to get your Fountainhead reading on.

The Fountainhead Resources

Websites

Ayn Rand Institute
The main homepage of the institute includes tons of information on Rand's life and her work as well as current news and events.

Ayn Rand's Novels
Another Ayn Rand Institute website, this one focuses on all of Rand's novels and her philosophy. Current news and essay contests are also included here.

"Rand-O-Rama: Ayn Rand's Long Shelf Life in American Culture" Article
Fun article that tracks Ayn Rand's life in current American pop culture.

A Liberal Reads Ayn Rand
Here's a series of blog posts/essays that chronicle a committed liberal's attempts to read and assess the definitely polarizing Ayn Rand. 

Ayn Rand at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
A very detailed and academic analysis of Rand's philosophy by the folks at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is like a one-stop shop for your philosophy needs.

Frank Lloyd Wright and Ayn Rand
Neat article at the Atlas Society which explores Rand's relationship with Wright and the ways in which Wright inspired parts of The Fountainhead.

Ayn Rand and Zombies?
Well, that got your attention, didn't it? Alas, there are no zombies here. What is here is more essays than you can shake a stick at on "What's Living and What's Dead in Ayn Rand's Philosophy?" hosted by the Cato Institute (a conservative think tank). Worth checking out if you are interested in Ayn Rand as a political figure today.

Ayn Rand and 1930s Pop Culture
A cool photo essay that looks various 1930s cultural trends and their influence on Ayn Rand.

Why Ayn Rand?
Interesting blog post that takes a stab at determining why Rand is as compelling as she is today. There's no definitive answer, but the article raises some interesting points.

The Ayn Rand School for Tots
In one of the best Simpsons episodes ever ("A Streetcar Named Marge"), Maggie attends the oppressive Ayn Rand School for Tots and turns into a rebel.

Movie or TV Productions

The Fountainhead (1949)
Here's the IMDB page for the 1949 movie version of The Fountainhead. Ayn Rand actually worked on the script for this movie, which starred Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. If you feel that Gary Cooper as Howard Roark was the weirdest casting ever, join in on the message boards.

The Fountainhead at TCM
Turner Classic Movies page for The Fountainhead, which features excellent articles, photos, and trivia (like some details on the intense affair that Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper began while working on the film).

Historical Documents

Introducing Objectivism
A short description of Objectivism written in 1962.

Ayn Rand's Testimony before the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, October 20, 1947
This is a transcript of Rand's testimony during the McCarthy hearings.

Video

Jennifer Burns on the Daily Show
Burns, a professor who wrote a biography of Ayn Rand entitled Goddess of the Market in 2009, chats with Jon Stewart about Rand and her appeal to the American right-wing.

Stephen Colbert vs. Ayn Rand
Stephen Colbert hilariously takes on Ayn Rand in his usual satirical way.

Ayn Rand in Springfield
This Simpsons episode features a lot of jokes about Ayn Rand, including a plotline where Maggie starts channeling Howard Roark.

Ayn Rand Interview with Phil Donahue
This interview originally aired in 1979; this clip is the first of five parts.

Images

Ayn Rand
Here's our author.

New York in the 1930s
Get a feel for the world of The Fountainhead and enjoy all the retro-goodness.