Study Guide

The Fountainhead Themes

  • Philosophical Views: Individualism

    Rand's philosophy of "I Am A Beautiful, Unique Snowflake" (or Objectivism, if you want to sound stuffy about it) goes a little something like this:

    • Earn a lot of money. (Okay, sure, we like money!)
    • Go against the crowd. (Okay, yeah, being a sheep ain't great.)
    • Get your selfishness on. (Okay, but within reason, right?)
    • Have lots of sex (Okay, yes, can do!)... even if it ain't necessarily consensual (Um... wait. Hold up. That's not sexy.)
    • Don't care about people's feelings. (Umm, wait, what?)
    • Go ahead and blow things up in order to preserve your individual and artistic integrity. (Whoa, whoa, whoa.)

    The Fountainhead's main man/Objectivist mouthpiece Roark does all these things. So you can base your allegiance to Objectivism on where you think Roark falls on the "dirtbag to superhero" spectrum.

    Questions About Philosophical Views: Individualism

    1. How does Howard Roark embody Rand's view of individualism?
    2. What does Toohey think about individualism and why does he think the way he does?
    3. When they meet again after many years, Katie tells Keating to let go of his ego. Is ego viewed as positive or negative in The Fountainhead?
    4. How do the opening scene and concluding scene of The Fountainhead parallel each other and promote the book's theme of individualism?

    Chew on This

    Dominique has her fair share of issues, but ultimately she's a bold individual who stands on par with Roark himself.

    Dominique isn't a brave individual; instead she's someone who acts out of fear and ends up conforming to society even as she supposedly revolts against it.

  • Choices

    At the start of Trainspotting, Ewan McGregor's character goes on an epic rant about the acceptable choices we're expected make in life: from picking a career to picking out a shiny TV. In this rant McGregor totally sounds like he's channeling the inner monologue of Peter Keating.

    Keating, and pretty much everyone else in The Fountainhead, make the choices that society tells them they're supposed to. He does what society expects him to do. And this bums him out: as a result of his following the directions of the herd, he constantly questions himself.

    Roark isn't bummed out. Unlike everyone else in the novel, Roark is never conflicted. For strong individuals (like our boy R), choices are something you make with confidence and without doubt. A choice that leaves you conflicted is the wrong choice, according to Rand.

    Questions About Choices

    1. How is Keating's choice between going to work for Francon and going to Paris a character-defining moment for him? And what does it reveal about how people (other than Roark) make decisions?
    2. Does Dominique have similar motivations for marrying Keating and later Wynand, or do her marriage decisions differ?
    3. Keating realizes he wanted to provoke Heyer into having a stroke. How do unconscious choices drive a lot of the action in this novel?
    4. Do we ever get a clear sense of why Keating chooses Dominique over Katie? How does Keating explain it to himself? Does the narrator provide any additional insight into his decision?

    Chew on This

    Wynand tries to make good choices, but he is ultimately forced to back down. Wynand's efforts count for something though, and he's depicted as a tragic hero figure in the story.

    Though Wynand tries, he fails to stand by his good choices and, in the moral laws of the story, is seen as a failure.

  • Language and Communication

    In The Fountainhead, Roark's communication style is blunt. He's a straight-shooter. But other characters speak in roundabout ways and downplay what they are saying, often with the help of the media. For example, Toohey rambles on about things like charity and selflessness (which sound nice), but his underlying meaning turns out to be sinister. The Banner's anti-Roark pieces, spearheaded by Toohey, are often couched in terms of "the common good" in order to both justify and soften the attacks against Roark.

    Toohey's manipulation of language mimics the way a lot of the dictators in the 1930s (Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini) utilized media in order to gain power. Rand opposed any sort of collective politics, and she questions the use of language and communication in order to explore the evil of people who manipulate popular opinion.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. We often get descriptions of Toohey speaking rather than getting Toohey's actual words. How are scenes where we hear other people's reactions to Toohey significant, and why might the narrative include scenes like this?
    2. Do the characters in this novel speak in a realistic way? How are the characters' speaking styles significant in this novel?
    3. Is verbal communication and speech an important part of Dominique and Roark's relationship, or do they rely more on non-verbal forms of communication?
    4. How do conversations and shared ideas play a role in Wynand and Roark's friendship?

    Chew on This

    Communication is often seen as a sort of terrifying power in the novel, whether it's manipulative (Toohey's communication tactics) or blunt (Roark's communication tactics).

    Rand portrays journalists as people who rarely say what they really mean, and often deliberately confuse the public.

  • Happiness

    The Fountainhead's view of happiness is serious business: it has more to do with the U.S. Constitution than sunshine and daisies. Remember that whole "pursuit of happiness" bit in the Constitution's preamble? Ayn Rand certainly does, and she stakes her entire individualist philosophy around that right. People have a right to make themselves happy. Individual happiness isn't seen as selfish in Rand's worldview.

    Roark pursues his own personal happiness through his work, even though he constantly offends and irritates and upsets other people. Toohey, meanwhile, encourages everyone around him to give up their own happiness for the sake of others. That whole self-sacrificing routine doesn't do people like Katie any favors, and it's an idea that Rand strongly disapproved of. The character who really sums up the book's take on happiness is probably Dominique, oddly enough. After spending years being miserable, she finally tells society to take a flying leap and embraces her own (scandalous) happiness with Roark.

    Questions About Happiness

    1. At the start of the novel, Katie seems content. What is driving Katie's character and helping her to remain happy?
    2. Why does Dominique refuse to be happy? What do her views on happiness tell us about her character?
    3. How does Roark define happiness? Does the novel overall seem to support his view of happiness?
    4. Why is Wynand so unhappy when we first meet him, and he does he ever manage to become truly happy?

    Chew on This

    Within the book's philosophical system, people like Keating and Wynand are doomed to be unhappy because they value the wrong things in life.

    Though she was destined to be with Roark, Dominique was actually happy to some extent with Wynand, since they had a lot in common personally and could identify with each other's struggles.

  • Visions of America

    The Fountainhead totally believes in the American dream: the idea of America as a land of opportunity, where it is possible to work hard and achieve great things. Howard Roark, American to the core, is an idealized American hero: self-made, hard-working, individualistic, and at liberty to achieve greatness.

    While Rand's America might be a place of opportunity, it is far from a paradise. Among the problems America has in this book are intolerance, persecution, and (the #1 thorn in Rand's side) collectivism.

    Rand imagines an America that is falling prey to dangerous influences, like the socialist ideas preached by Toohey. Rand's portrayal of America is part warning and part praise: America has a lot of problems, but people like Roark could still make it great.

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. Though we get some scenes of nature, this novel is largely an urban view of America. How is the almost exclusively urban setting significant, and how does it help set a certain tone for the novel overall?
    2. In what ways is Wynand strongly connected to the city of New York, and how does New York help to flesh out Wynand’s character?
    3. Roark seems at home no matter where he is; he isn’t strongly linked to a specific place like some characters are. How is Roark’s ability to be comfortable everywhere (city, country, New England, Midwest) significant?
    4. Do you think this novel could have worked in another American city, or are there things that are particularly New York-y about the book?

    Chew on This

    Rand adopts a very gloomy view of America. The Fountainhead suggests that she thinks the country is facing steep obstacles.

    Rand exaggerates certain historical facts and features of 1920s and 1930s America in order to explore her ideas, but The Fountainhead would have been a stronger novel had she created a historically accurate vision of America.

  • Society and Class

    The Fountainhead sticks out like a sore thumb in the American literary tradition of celebrating the underdog. Granted, Roark is a poor underdog, and persecuted to boot. So how is Rand abandoning the "Yay, underdog!" stance, exactly?

    Well, usually in underdogs stories the baddie is the rich dude. Capitalism and selfishness is portrayed as none too great: think of Ben Stiller's sleazy, rich character in DodgeBall: An Underdog Story, or the wealthy, pampered Apollo Creed in Rocky. But Rand is all for capitalism and wealth. For example, the character of Wynand isn't seen as evil because he's rich or because he's a conspicuous consumer. His character flaws revolve around his lack of individualism; he bows down to society too often to be a true hero.

    And just as wealth is exalted, poverty is looked down on. Take a look at Katie's vicious attitude toward the people she is supposed to be helping with her social work.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How is poverty portrayed in this novel through characters like Henry Cameron?
    2. Is monetary wealth seen as very important in the novel, or is it sort of beside the point for characters like Roark?
    3. Wynand seems like he's living the American dream—he pulled himself up from his bootstraps and became a success. Yet he isn't the novel's hero and he isn't very successful in the end. Where exactly did Wynand, and the American "dream" he represents, go wrong?
    4. Do we ever get a sense of what class Roark belongs to, or does he exist beyond class definitions?
    5. What exactly does Toohey mean when he rambles on about "the public" and "society"?

    Chew on This

    This novel celebrates wealth and doesn't see anything wrong with having it; it judges characters more on how they behave and not on their class affiliation.

    Society at large is depicted as kind of dumb and pathetic here; society falls for Toohey's lies, after all.

  • Love

    Unlike what the famous biblical passage in First Corinthians says, love is not "gentle or kind" in The Fountainhead. In fact, love is dark, twisted, furious, and violent.

    The types of romantic love depicted in Rand's novel are seriously screwed up. Keating and Katie's relationship is a disaster; Dominique and Roark's affair is borderline abusive, and Dominique and Keating's marriage takes a page from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

    Love might not be positive here, but it is something very powerful and very real. Also, in this novel, love isn't always about romantic relationships. Love of ideas (and even things) is very important, exemplified by Roark's love for his work and his buildings. His love ties into his personal pride and his strong individualism.

    Questions About Love

    1. Roark and Wynand have something of a bromance together. Do these two crazy kids love one another, or is their relationship based more on platonic respect and mutual interests?
    2. What does Dominique and Roark's relationship tell us about how the novel understands love?
    3. Does Keating ever really love anything during the course of the novel?
    4. What does Toohey seem to think about love—is he a fan or not?

    Chew on This

    Dominique and Roark's love affair might be intense, but it is ultimately twisted, damaging, and unhealthy.

    Dominique and Roark's love affair is a positive thing and helps to emphasize the book's themes of individuality and personal pride.

  • Power

    The Fountainhead's attitude toward power is kind of... weird. It doesn't so much resemble real life, especially real life in America (circa the 1940s or otherwise).

    Who is the oppressed, initially powerless figure? Oh yeah, it's Roark: the white, male capitalist. Poor dude must have really had it hard, right? And what is this underprivileged figure railing against? He's oppressed by a society that dabbles in the Socialism-lite of collectivism.

    That whoosh sound you just heard was every brain cell in your mind succumbing to epic confusion. Rand was writing about America, right?

    But Roark ultimately attains power—the power of his beliefs and of his individualism. Go get 'em, tiger.

    Questions About Power

    1. Does Roark have power in this novel? If so, how does he get it and how does he use it?
    2. Roark and Dominique are engaged in an ongoing power play. Does either of them ever really get the upper hand?
    3. What sort of lessons about power do we get from Gail Wynand's life story?
    4. Does Roark really seem to want power, or is he just too cool to care?

    Chew on This

    Toohey is ultimately not very powerful since he is taken down by the strong individualism of Roark.

    Toohey is actually very powerful and maintains his power even as the novel ends; while Roark might triumph, Toohey's widespread and strong influence can't be discounted.