Study Guide

The Fountainhead Analysis

By Ayn Rand

  • Tone

    Detached, Factual, Thoughtful, Didactic

    You might be wondering "What tone?" given how matter-of-fact (and even dry!) the narrative can be. Well, just because it isn't overly emotional doesn't mean that the novel lacks a definable tone, so let's see what's going on here.

    Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

    Overall, the tone of The Fountainhead is clear and pretty unemotional. Most of the novel is filtered through the viewpoints of various characters, and they tend to repress their emotions and approach situations with an almost clinical detachment. The characters that do freak out and have meltdowns are seen as weak, while characters like Roark—who can sometime sound robotic—are seen as strong. Take this early scene with Roark, where he demonstrates his patented emotionally detached tone.

    "You know," he said, "you would sound much more convincing if you spoke as if you cared whether I agreed with you or not."

    "That's true," said Roark, "I don't care whether you agree with me or not." He said it so simply that it did not sound offensive, it sounded like the statement of a fact which he noticed, puzzled, for the first time. (1.1.154-5)

    This quote demonstrates an almost chilling level of detachment. Roark is channelling the honey badger pretty hard here, but the fact that this is the first time he's noticed his lack of caring strikes us as edging in on sociopath territory.

    The narrator also often sounds very detached and quite factual, describing emotional things in a fairly dry manner. Take this scene where the narrator describes the release of Toohey's book by adopting a factual approach.

    Readers acquired erudition without study, authority without cost, judgment without effort. It was pleasant to look at buildings and criticize them with a professional manner and with the memory of page 439 [....] (1.6.6)

    This narrator is saying some fairly damning things about the general readership: that readers like to acquire judgement with cost, for example. But this smack-talk is done with an ounce of emotion. "That's just the way things are," the narrator seems to be saying, "People suck."

    The Thinker

    As we noted earlier, this novel is very intellectual, so it makes sense that the narrative has a pretty thoughtful tone going on in places. Characters often try to work out tricky intellectual conundrums, or puzzles, and consider their worldviews and ideas. There are long passages where characters think and equally long passages where two characters have a good old fashioned intellectual debate. The narrator also pauses sometimes for some deep thoughts and pondering.

    So he felt anger that he should find exultation only in the wilderness, that this great sense of hope had to be lost when he would return to men and men's work. (4.1.5)

    The diction here ("wilderness" and "men") sounds almost biblical, and the broad ideas being explored here are capital-D Deep. This single line contains the understanding that the wilderness contains capacity for hope and happiness, while the world of men and cities takes that hope and happiness away.

    Ugh. Now we're depressed. We also want to go camping.

    The More You Know

    Finally, The Fountainhead is pretty dang didactic. Didactic isn't the most positive of words (it can be used as an insult), but it really fits the bill here and sums up what is both good and bad about The Fountainhead's tone. The novel is definitely tries to teach its readers. This can result in interesting, informative passages and it can also result in parts that sound seriously preachy.

    A couple of these educational sections include Roark's trial testimonies, and his long-winded spiel about "second-handers" on Wynand's yacht (4.11). Be forewarned.

  • Genre

    Philosophical Literature

    The Fountainhead is all Objectivism, all the time. Objectivism is Ayn Rand's pet philosophy, and it urges people to act in a way that is (according to the Ayn Rand Institute, so it must be true) selfish.

    If you work hard and with absolute self-interest, you'll eventually succeed, states Objectivism. And hey, guess what? The plot of The Fountainhead is...a guy works hard with absolute self-interest and eventually succeeds.

    That guy is Howard Roark, and The Fountainhead follows his life from a struggling, uncompromising architecture student to a successful, uncompromising architect. Ta-da! Objectivism FTW.

    Sure, there's more to the novel than that, but the central focus is on how Roark uses the tenants of Objectivism to end up happy. It's a novel that charts a certain philosophical ideal, and because of that, it's totally in the "philosophical literature" camp.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    When she was writing the book that was to become The Fountainhead, Rand used a different title: Second-Hand Lives. This idea of living a second-hand (or conventional) life crops up near the end of the book in a scene with Roark, the protagonist, and his frenemy Gail Wynand. Neither Roark nor Rand was a fan on the idea of buying a life at a consignment store.

    The shift to a new title is a pretty significant one: Second-Hand Lives sounds fairly negative. It sounds like it's going to focus on the sad little lives of people who aren't really original. Rand couldn't care less about sad little lives: she wanted to focus on one man living in what was, according to ol' Ayn, the perfect life.

    A fountainhead refers to an original source, like a refreshing spring-fed lake. But what exactly is this titular fountainhead? Well, our protagonist Howard Roark lives an original life of own choosing, inspired by the idea of Individualism. Both Roarkypoo and Rand's darling Individualism are the fountainhead in The Fountainhead.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    She rose above the broad panes of shop windows. The channels of streets grew deeper, sinking. She rose above the marquees of movie theaters, black mats held by spirals of color. Office windows steamed past her, long belts of glass running down... The line of the ocean cut the sky. The ocean mounted as the city descended. She passed the pinnacles of bank buildings. She passed the crowns of courthouses. She rose above the spires of churches.

    Then there was only the ocean and the sky and the figure of Howard Roark. (4.20.15-9)

    In the last scene of the novel we follow Dominique as she visits the construction site of Howard Roark's new skyscraper. Roark is now her husband (the male and female leads have fittingly gotten married), and the building is the skyscraper to end all skyscrapers. It is the best skyscraper ever. Dominique hops in an elevator and goes up and up and up to meet her new hubby.

    The metaphor here is a bit heavy-handed, but effective. Dominique rises up above various other markers of civilization and makes her way up to Roark, the individual extraordinaire who represents a new kind of person and a new (and better) kind of society.

    Roark is almost god-like here, hanging out on a massive structure that he built, literally towering above everyone else. With this image, we know that Roark won his battle and can live on his own terms. He may not have defeated the bad guys entirely—Ellsworth Toohey is still alive, after all—but Roark and Dominique and their unconventional bundle of joy (Daddy's new skyscraper) get a sort of triumphant, and even happy, ending.

  • Setting

    1920s-1940s America, New York City

    Ah, the city that never sleeps. The site of American ambition. The hustle and bustle of the Big Apple. There's really no other place that The Fountainhead could have taken place: New York City, like Roark, is mercilessly ambitious, restless, and individual. It's also (like Roark) rude, abrasive, and doesn't suffer fools gladly.

    New York City is also full of buildings, many of which sort of act like characters in their own right. New York City is filled with Cameron's daring, and aging, designs, Keating's neo-classical copies, Roark's innovative and modernistic styles, Wynand's childhood slum and his grown-up penthouse. The face of New York is shaped and changed by the characters in this novel.

    But the city isn't just a blank slate. It casts a sort of spell over many of the characters, like Dominique:

    She stretched her arms wide. The city expanded, to her elbows, to her wrists, beyond her fingertips. Then the skyscrapers rose over her head, and she was back. (2.10.16)

    The Rest

    While most of the book takes place in the city, we also get a few instances of people traveling to other, less populated, parts of America. These settings are mainly used as backdrops for Roark's designs. When natural beauty is observed, it is observed as potential material for building houses:

    He looked at the granite. To be cut, he thought, and made into walls. He looked at a tree. To be split and made into rafters. (1.1.8)

    Roark doesn't just pillage the natural world in order to get building materials, however. He also builds in harmony with the natural world, and the occasional jaunts to nature in The Fountainhead emphasize certain aspects of Roark's character.

    But when these jaunts are over, it's back to New York, New York so that Roark can wake up to find that he's king of the hill, top of the heap.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (6) Tree Line

    Yup, The Fountainhead is a big one. This is an overly long book about architecture, philosophy, and 1930s politics, with some rape (or is it kinky sex?) thrown in for good measure. Sometimes it can feel like you're walking in on the middle of a conversation while reading this thing… and in some respects you are—this book is largely a mental exercise where Rand articulates her philosophy with characters who act as mouthpieces for various philosophical ideas.

    To really digest what is going on in this book you'll have to read pretty carefully, and take some time to stop and think about your own responses to what Rand is saying.

    But, mental gymnastics aside, this is still a streamlined novel with interesting characters, riveting plot, and—bonus!—an individualist streak that lots of readers have found appealing (or repugnant) over the years.

    This ain't James Joyce—you can totally choke this monster read down. Just don't expect to do it in an afternoon. Whether you end up hearting Rand or hating Rand, this big boy is going to take you a few sessions and, if you're anything like us, about twenty-five cups of coffee.

  • Writing Style

    Blunt, Sweeping

    Blunt Object

    The book's diction, or word choice, is generally quite blunt and to the point. This book doesn't go much for nuance, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Rand was writing a book about a specific philosophy, so it makes sense that the style would be pretty upfront and blunt… she was trying to educate people about her ideas, after all.

    This bluntness crops up in the narrative voice and in the speech patterns of every character. Even shifty characters like Toohey can be pretty upfront about things, as we see at the very end of the second part of the book.

    "Mr. Roark, we're alone here. Why don't you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us."

    "But I don't think of you." (2.15.141-2)

    Oh, ouch. We're totally stealing that comeback. Toohey here doesn't seem like a manipulative mastermind, since he just waltzes up to Roark and asks what's up. But again, The Fountainhead's mission is to illuminate a philosophical outlook, not win the Best Screenplay Oscar. Rand's bluntness helps guide even the least engaged readers through the (lack of) emotional turmoil of living as an Objectivist.

    Oh, the Majesty

    This is a novel about big ideas, and so the style often reflects the novel's dramatic and far-reaching sweep of ideas and events.

    She rose above the broad panes of shop windows. The channels of streets grew deeper, sinking. She rose above the marquees of movie theaters, black mats held by spirals of color. Office windows steamed past her, long belts of glass running down... The line of the ocean cut the sky. The ocean mounted as the city descended. She passed the pinnacles of bank buildings. She passed the crowns of courthouses. She rose above the spires of churches.

    Then there was only the ocean and the sky and the figure of Howard Roark. (4.20.15-9)

    Can't you just hear the music that goes along with that paragraph? The majesty and the symbolism run wild here, as Dominique literally goes up past the past pillars of civilization (religion, finance, etc.) toward a strong individual who represents the future. It's an audacious ending that captures the novel's epic sweep.

  • Architecture

    This is the big capital-S Symbol in The Fountainhead. We will never look at buildings in the same way, ever again.

    High-Rise Symbol

    Everyone in this novel seems to either be a construction worker, an architect, or inordinately fascinated with architects. Architects in The Fountainhead have a bizarre celebrity status.

    This obsession with architects might seem truly bizarre, but it was actually very much of the time. The 1920s are famous for launching the 20th century into the modern age with short skirts and jazz and cars becoming household items, but it was also a super hot time for architecture. And, in the out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new spirit of the 1920s, architecture got weird.

    From Victorian mansions came Art Deco. From Gothic came Bauhaus. The times, they were a-changing.

    The Future Is Here

    Architecture actually was a  big deal back then. It coupled art (always exciting, right?) with new exciting technologies and signaled The Future. It signaled Progress. It signaled all sorts of words that are easily capitalized to be made more impressive: Logic, Efficiency, Daring.

    Skyscrapers, guys. Skyscrapers are unbelievably cool. And Rand is not above drooling over their majesty, like in this passage:

    She rose above the broad panes of shop windows. The channels of streets grew deeper, sinking. She rose above the marquees of movie theaters, black mats held by spirals of color. Office windows steamed past her, long belts of glass running down. (4.20.15)

    Architecture in the post WWII-era already symbolized a lot of the tenants of Objectivism. Rand only needed to add a super-individualistic architect into the mix and—ka-pow!—architecture became an Objectivist parable.

    History Shmistory

    There's only one wrinkle: in the book, Roark is a persecuted character, derided for his ultra-Modernist approach. This is totally historically inaccurate: modern architecture was on fire in the 20s and 30s. The public at large liked it. Check out any movie set in the 1930s and it looks like Art Deco Digest paid a house call and spruced the joint up. The hot new skyscrapers built in the 20s and 30s (like the famous Chrysler Building, finished in 1930) are poster children for modernist architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright himself was considered a genius by the 1930s, and his designs were a hot commodity.

    This brings us to our friendly lit nerd PSA: The Fountainhead is a work of revisionist history.

    For the purposes of her philosophical argument and her plot line, Rand opted to make Roark a persecuted character. To accomplish that, she had to fudge her timelines and her architectural history. The type of architecture practiced by people like Keating is known as Beaux-Arts, and it was popular in the 1880s. In the real world, Roark would have been a successful and respected architect with plenty of commissions and a comfortable lifestyle.

    But the real world wouldn't have allowed Rand to use the historical symbolism of modern architecture (new exciting progress!) to augment her literary symbolism of modern architecture (persecuted individual triumphs over stupid old fashioned architecture!).

  • Industry and Technology

    Industry and technology are definitely celebrated in The Fountainhead. This book might star a bunch of wealthy people, but, like a presidential candidate on a stump tour, it tries to act like the working man's BFF. Check out this quote about Mike, a blue-collar worker:

    People meant very little to Mike, but their performance a great deal. He worshiped expertness of any kind. [...] He was a master in his own field and he felt no sympathy except for mastery. (1.7.128)

    Manual labor, and people doing the "dirty" work of creation are looked upon very favorably in this novel. Industry and technology represent things like skill and practicality, with strong people like Mike embodying this idea of skilled labor. Mike has mastered his trade and doesn't care what people think about him. He is, therefore, almost as awesome as Roark.

    Roark too is always praised for his willingness and his ability to get his hands dirty. He's not just an idea man; he understands building from the ground up. Roark works a series of "dirty" jobs over the course of the novel, and his ability as a worker earns him respect from friends like Mike.

    Industry and technology also represent the book's idea of progress and achievement: progress and achievement are always a good thing. And while this is a book of ideas, physical and material achievement is also celebrated. Roark is great because he designs and builds things that are useful and beneficial, like his resort in Vermont and the world's coolest gas station.

  • Journalism

    Half of the book's major characters are journalists or are somehow connected to the journalism field, which probably means something. This book seems all about the architecture at first glance, but the power of the written word plays a huge role in the novel. Unlike architecture, which has the champion Howard Roark in its corner, journalism doesn't really have a hero. Unless we count Gail Wynand as a hero… and his truly heroic action is giving up journalism all together. So what's the deal?

    Journalism, like architecture, is an influential form of communication and self-expression in the novel. The journalists we see all let some of their individual selves bleed through into what they produce. Toohey infuses his pieces with his own manipulative philosophy. Dominique lets her admiration for Roark come out in roundabout ways. Even Wynand, for all his pandering to the public, reveals something of himself.

    "News," Gail Wynand told his staff, "is that which will create the greatest excitement among the greatest number. The thing that will knock them silly. The sillier the better, provided there's enough of them." (3.1.173)

    Wynand's cynical spiel here reveals something of Rand's own view of journalism in this era. If you think the American press has problems today, you should check out the press in the early twentieth century. Unbiased journalism wasn't always widely practiced—in fact tabloids, propaganda papers, papers bankrolled by wealthy politicos, and "yellow journalism" (overly sensational journalism) was pretty widespread. Yellow journalism didn't really disappear as the twentieth century progressed (news today can attest to that fact) but it definitely hit an infamous peak around the turn of the century. You can read more on the history of the press in America here.

    Rand was responding to a lot of aspects of American journalism's history in The Fountainhead. She was also tackling issues she saw in Europe and in the state-controlled media outlets of Soviet Russia. Rand used the journalism we see in The Fountainhead to criticize the way media outlets could easily become biased, uninformative, and ultimately harmful. The press in this book has the power to attack people, to destroy people, to sway public opinion in bad directions, to misrepresent things, and to ignore important events.

    So what does journalism represent in the novel? Overall, it represents the power of the spoken word and the danger inherent in communicating ideas. Journalism is a key component of the book's philosophical ideas, the book's theme of communication, and the book's view of America and American corruption.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person Omniscient

    The narrator here is wholly omniscient, meaning that the narrator can let us in on any character's inner thoughts at will. However, we get most of the story filtered through the point of view of our various main characters—including Roark, Wynand, Keating, Dominique, and Toohey—with occasional cameo narrative stints from people like Katie Halsey.

    The points-of-view go like a revolving door, altering out by chapter, and sometimes within chapters. And the third person omniscient narrator keeps the narrative moving, shifting the spotlight to focus on different characters. The narrator tends to stay in the background and lets the characters themselves dictate the story.

    However, that doesn't mean the narrator is totally objective and that the characters aren't in cahoots with the narrator. All the characters here act as philosophical mouthpieces and either express views that the narrator (basically Rand herself) agrees with or views that she sets out to prove as "wrong." For example, check out this quote:

    The public asked for crime, scandal and sentiment. Gail Wynand provided it. (3.1.170)

    This is not an unbiased narrator commenting on either Wynand or society at large. This quote is almost glowing with Objectivist sentiment: society is dumb, and Gail Wynand is a baddie for providing trash to appeal to the masses.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    Anticipation Stage and Call

    Roark leaves architecture school, apprentices himself to Henry Cameron, and then sets up his own practice. The "call" here is basically Roark answering his own professional calling in life, and we follow him on the start of his career as an architect. His professional debut is contrasted sharply to that of fellow architect (and professional schmoozer) Peter Keating.

    Dream Stage

    Roark keeps up the good fight in his professional life and manages to get something of a personal life through his screwed-up relationship with the love of his life, Dominique Francon.

    Frustration Stage

    Things go from bad to worse as Roark faces new professional challenges and loses Dominique due to her fears. Roark has to go on trial for the Stoddard Temple, and Dominique marries Peter Keating.

    Nightmare Stage

    Dominique leaves Keating and marries Gail Wynand. The book focuses heavily on the triangle springing up between Wynand, Roark, and Dominique. The nightmarish power trip of Toohey and the drama of the Cortlandt House project also take center stage.

    Thrilling Escape from Death and Death of the Monster

    Roark blows up the Cortlandt House, goes on trial, and survives to go on and marry Dominique.

    Roark triumphs when things look bleak and he and Wynand manage to knock Toohey down a few pegs. Dominique also frees herself up and marries Roark, and Roark of course keeps on building, which is his real triumph over Toohey and his crowd.

  • Plot Analysis

    Initial Situation

    The first section of the novel parallels the start of Keating and Roark's respective careers. When Roark finally strikes out on his own, it represents a turning point in the action.


    After setting up Roark's career and the complications that come up at work, Rand introduces love to the mix. At this stage in the game, Roark is battling for both his professional and his love life.


    Roark and Dominique start a complex emotional and physical affair in secret while Dominique grows further connected to Peter Keating and Toohey at The Banner. The cast of characters is, at this point, all assembled, and rivalries start to become apparent.


    Roark goes to trial over the Stoddard Temple debacle (or disaster) and Dominique marries Keating. Everything sort of blows up in people's faces here as Roark's career and personal life becomes epically stormy. The events in this section impact everyone in the novel, though, not just Roark.


    Rather than resolve things, Rand makes them more complicated by having Roark continue to struggle with his career and by having Dominique move on to another man: Dominique and Keating's marriage disintegrates and she ends up leaving him for Gail Wynand.


    This book is so long that it has a series of climaxes and denouements and build-ups to new conflicts and climaxes. However, Roark's commission of the Cortlandt House and Wynand and Roark's bromance signal the wrap-up of the novel and pave the way for the conclusion.


    Roark blows up the Cortlandt House, goes on trial, and wins both the trial and Dominique. The end.

  • Three-Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    The first act of The Fountainhead basically follows our boys Keating and Roark, from the time they leave architecture school until Roark meets his icy beloved, Dominique. We see Keating the shmoozemonster get in good with Guy Francon, and Roark takes a modern-day apprenticeship at Cameron's broken-down architecture firm. Keating ascends the social ladder and Roark bottoms out, eventually working in a quarry and locking eyes (and lips, ooh la la) with Dominique.

    Act II

    This act is a stormy one. On the Roark side of the world, we watch as he goes through the Stoddard Temple fiasco and goes on trial. Don't you worry, though: he stays sharp and true to his principles. Dominique marries Peter Keating (who is turning into a big pile of complacent, talentless mush) even though she hates him. Once Gail Wyland shows up, though, Dominique leaves Keating in the dust and hops on the Gail train.

    Act III

    Things reach a fever pitch and then wrap up neatly in this act: Roark continues to be our unflappable, principled hero. He builds and then torches the Cortlandt House. He befriends and lectures Gail Wynard and continues to woo Dominique on the side.

    Meanwhile, Peter Keating and Toohey conspire to bring Roark down, but Roark proves to be unsinkable. He is put on trial for being a firebug, but he uses his razor-sharp mental prowess to defend himself. This act (and the novel) ends as Roark is building a skyscraper for Gail Wynard and is happily married to Dominique.

  • Allusions

    Literary and Philosophical References

    • "It's time to talk of many things," reference to "The Walrus and the Carpenter" poem in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass (2.12.6)
    • Romeo and Juliet (4.16.56)

    Historical References

    • The Parthenon (1.1.126)
    • Beau Arts (1.2.93)
    • Renaissance style (1.2.93)
    • The Columbian Exposition of 1893 (1.3.68)
    • Louis XV (1.4.16)
    • Jacobean style (1.5.111)
    • Louis XIV (1.6.2)
    • Petronius, Roman author of the Satyricon (1.9.47)
    • Gothic style (1.10.5)
    • TB or tuberculosis (1.12.8)
    • Helios, Sun god in Greek mythology (1.12.92)
    • Tudor style (1.13.54)
    • Louvre (2.3.21)
    • Nike, Greek goddess of victory (2.3.53)
    • Marquis de Sade (2.8.102)
    • Herbert Spenser, British Social Darwinist (3.1.156)
    • Joan of Arc (3.4.24)

    Pop Culture References

    • Rachmaninoff (4.15.74)
    • Mickey and Minnie Mouse (2.4.100)
    • Richard Wagner, "Song to the Evening Star" (4.16.57)