I wrote this essay for the 2003-2004 ARI high school essay contest. I plan on doing the contest again for The Fountainhead, so I'd like to improve on the subject. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.
The prompt I chose for this year: When discussing a potential commission for an office building, Howard Roark remarks to Nathaniel Janss that most people do not want reason on their side (Part I, chapter 13). How do the events of The Fountainhead illustrate Roark’s point? Is Roark’s attitude toward rational thinking different from that of other major characters in the novel? How does this issue relate to the conflict that Roark later identifies between first-handers and second-handers
Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead depicts the conflict of two distinct ideas--that the moral basis of one's actions should be one's own independent judgment, and the idea that one should depend on the whims and decisions of anybody but oneself. Rand’s protagonist, Howard Roark, is a brilliant architect who embraces reason and, after a great deal of struggle, triumphs over those who seek to destroy the self and replace it with the collective. By presenting the major villains of the novel as subtly different foils to Roark, Rand examines the premises and consequences of second-handedness and the abrogation of reason as it pertains to the characters.
Peter Keating lives for others. He struggles to be at the top of his class at the prominent Stanton Institute, just as he strives to have his buildings displayed to the public; however, he works for the sole purpose of receiving a person’s approval. All of Keating’s “achievements” in his life are not to fulfill his own happiness, but for “greatness-in other people’s eyes.” Before Keating even attends Stanton, he lets his life become dictated by others, including his mother. She tells Peter that he should become an architect instead of pursuing painting (a career that he desires), because architecture is more socially respectable. After Keating graduates from Stanton, he faces the choice to either attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts institute in Paris, or to work for the prestigious Francon & Heyer architectural firm. Since both choices would gain Keating social approval, he has no reason to choose one job over the other. But his mom tells him that she does not want him to live so far away from her, so he chooses to work for Francon, basing his decision on another’s mind and not his own.
Keating’s philosophy in life is to “always be what people want you to be.” He adapts this notion to every aspect of his life, especially architecture. Consequently, Keating has no definitive opinions of what architecture means to him. His job is to cater to the masses, requiring only the knowledge needed to impress others. Roark explains “that, precisely, is the deadlines of the second-handers. They have no concern for facts, ideas, work. They’re concerned only with people.” As Peter’s fame and recognition grows, his mind becomes smaller because of his increasing reliance on creative and innovative men to do his work, especially Roark.
Roark’s view of architecture is fundamentally different from Keating’s. Architecture is Roark’s passion. His designs consist of the building’s logical requirements; they are the sole work of his judgment, not the expectations of his clients or anyone else. He explains to his friend and client Austen Heller that “every piece is there because the house needs it…. The determining motive of your house is in the house. The determining motive of the others is in the audience.” It is Roark’s passion and independent judgment of architecture that makes him a genius--it is Keating’s selflessness that makes him mediocre.
In contrast to Peter Keating, Gail Wynand is a second-hander for subtly different reasons. However, in his private life, Wynand is a brilliant man. He owns a private art gallery that is dedicated to man’s heroism, and he marries Dominique for her bold idealism. He even befriends Roark, Rand’s ideal man, because they share similar principles. But beyond Wynand’s private life, he lives as a second-hander. Wynand lives publicly by the dog-eat-dog philosophy; he believes that the only way to survive is to achieve a substantial amount of power. His public life is consumed by The Banner, his newspaper that is dedicated to advocating the very ideas that he despises: selflessness, collectivism, and traditional architecture. The Banner symbolizes Wynand’s betrayal of his ego and it is his only source of power. Wynand sells his soul in order to create an army of trained zealots that swallow everything he and his columnists feed them. Rand says “its enormous headlines, glaring pictures and oversimplified text hit the senses and entered men’s consciousness without any necessity for an intermediary process.”
Wynand ultimately fails because he never applies his integrity in private matters to his public life. Eventually, his readership turns on him when he chooses to support Roark in the Cortland trial. He thinks he can have the masses eating from his hands, but it is Wynand who ends up the slave with the public his master. In contrast to Wynand, Roark applies his first-handedness to both his work and his personal life. Just as Roark does not compromise with his buildings or his women, he does not compromise his basic moral principles when he deals with other men.
Ellsworth Toohey is precisely the opposite of Roark. “I don’t believe in individualism,” he declares. While Roark believes that the mind is man’s only tool of survival, Toohey believes that the mind must be destroyed. Toohey says to Keating “or you can prepare your soil in such a manner-by spreading a certain chemical, let us say-that it will be impossible for weeds to grow.” It is the destruction of the ego that Toohey’s life revolves around and establishes him as The Fountainhead’s primary second-hander. Not only is Toohey’s hatred of the mind in itself an abrogation of reason, accomplishing his dream of establishing a collectivist society consumes his thinking. He depends on it. His need for destruction is most accurately displayed in his attempts to destroy Roark. Toohey says to Keating “at times I feel it would be a shame if I never came up against [Roark] personally again.” Toohey lives to have power over others. Although it is his obsession to destroy Roark, Toohey would rather see him in prison than see him dead, because Toohey needs to see Roark’s suffering in order to maintain his own survival. Toohey epitomizes a second-hander because, unlike most second-handers who rely on original and independent men for their survival, Toohey relies primarily on the thoughtless to live. He needs people like Lois Cook and Gus Webb to join his cult, because his utopian dream cannot take place if there is a society of Roarks.
The primary distinction between Toohey and other second-handers in The Fountainhead is that he is fully aware of being a parasite. Most characters hide their selflessness under a false guise of egoism, such as Keating, who loves to tell people about his borrowed designs. He even declares himself as selfish, although he is precisely the opposite. However, Toohey proudly establishes himself as a collectivist and tells others that he believes that no “one man is any one thing in which everybody else can’t be.” Although Toohey is an extremely bright man, he holds a marked contempt for rational thinking. But the difference between two geniuses like Roark and Toohey is that Roark uses his mind to his own ends in order to live fully and achieve his own happiness. Toohey uses his brilliant mind to murder the souls of others.
Dependence upon others guides the lives of Keating, Wynand, and Toohey. For Keating, dependence implies a necessity for other brilliant men to do his work. For Wynand and Toohey, dependence implies the need to conquer the minds of men in order to achieve their own power. Ultimately, the three characters rightfully meet their demise because it is impossible for them to leech off of others forever. Keating can no longer achieve his high social status, because Roark chooses not to design his buildings for him anymore, leaving Keating helpless. Gaining power is a practice that must constantly be fulfilled, and when men choose to think independently, second-handers like Wynand and Toohey lose their only means of survival. Ayn Rand believed that evil is impotent and cannot exist without the good. She clearly makes this point by showing the fall of Wynand and Toohey. It is when men choose to think for themselves that evil can no longer prevail.
But The Fountainhead’s main point does not just demonstrate one side of the moral spectrum (selflessness). Rand also argues for the triumph of selfishness. Roark is consistent with his ideals throughout the novel. Whether it is his refusal to modify any part of his designs to “comfort” the viewer, or his decision to dynamite Cortland, he never compromises his independent judgment for any price or fame. The only consequence Roark pays in the end for upholding integrity and independent thinking is his happiness--the ultimate goal men desire.
In the words of Aristotle, “happiness depends upon ourselves.”