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The Theme of Integrity in The Fountainhead

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Integrity is a quality frequently sought after but rarely achieved; once achieved; it is even more rarely maintained. It is an elusive gem with the potential to inspire and transform a person. Unfortunately, it is often compromised – a valuable payment for something of lesser value- whether it be wealth, prestige, or social standing. This odd yet common exchange is demonstrated in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and is explored in the context of architecture. First, the concept of integrity is portrayed through Henry Cameron in the sense that he maintains his integrity yet is destroyed by society due to his uncontainable passion. Second, Peter Keating and partner Guy Francon willingly substitute not only their own integrity, but that of their buildings in exchange for wealth and popularity in society. Finally, Howard Roark defies and overcomes the seemingly destructive and menacing society all whilst maintaining his most precious possession: his honour. As is demonstrated throughout the novel, society despises passion, devotion, and individuality, and will often stop at nothing to destroy any hint of it. However, Cameron and Roark share an understanding necessary for true greatness: it is not only commendable, but desirable to be hated by society, because in being so, the precious gem of integrity has been sustained.

Henry Cameron – though an architectural genius – is seen as a commercial failure among societal members. In essence, his unstable career as an architect is spent introducing the supposition to society that it is more admirable to be a commercial failure while maintaining genius, as opposed to sacrificing genius for the sake of social success. Essentially, Cameron fights for integrity in a corrupted society. The corruptor of this society – Ellsworth Toohey – convinces the public to hate Cameron on the basis of poor architectural skills. However, Cameron’s only mistake is that “he love[s] his work” (46), and has an unbridled passion for it. As a result, his passion is evident in his buildings, and screams in the faces of passersby. Ultimately, Henry Cameron’s work is passion; it is honesty, and fearlessness. Subconsciously, society hates Cameron for the sole reason that his early buildings manage to achieve what they cannot: pure honesty and uprightness. In truth, “men hate passion, any great passion” (45) causing them to reject Cameron’s own portrayals of passion. However, armed with Toohey’s excuses of ungodly architecture, society disguises these feelings of inadequacy by condemning Cameron’s work. Cameron admits to Roark that “thirty years of a lost cause” (64) is not as romantic as it sounds, and in a moment of regret, warns him to follow a different path saying “accept them, Roark. Compromise. Compromise now, because you’ll have to later, anyway” (62).

Ultimately, in the moments of his career that Henry Cameron is most obsessed with his work, he is most successful. However, when his focus strays from his passion to the menacing public, his career gradually collapses. He begins not only to see them, but to fear them and their hatred; the public condemnation of Cameron, leads to the demise of Cameron. This fear is expressed when he asks Roark “do you ever look at the people in the street? Aren’t you afraid of them?” (64). Following this, Cameron admits that he fears these people, and in saying “the substance of them is hatred for any man who loves his work” (64) he is revealing the reason he has been destroyed by the masses. Only when he begins to recognize and fear the masses, is he overcome. Therefore, though Cameron recognizes that it is desirable to be hated by society for the sake of integrity, his fear of the masses lead to his destruction.

By contrast, for Peter Keating and his advisor Guy Francon, their greatest fear is not sacrificing their integrity, but being hated by society. As a result, Keating and Francon readily surrender their honour for social popularity. Like a beggar so desperate for money he yields anything, such is Keating and his thirst for a respectable social standing. Contrary to Roark, who refuses to compromise his integrity for the sake of social acceptance, Keating compromises his morals, interests, and even the love of his life-Catherine-in exchange for prestige and false respect. The respect given him is false, because those who know of his sleazy escapades do not respect him in the least. This willingness to exchange integrity for abstract, worthless possessions is the fundamental difference which places Keating and Francon in an entirely different spectrum than Cameron and Roark. Just as the public hates Cameron’s buildings because they are honest and upright, Keating resorts to despising Roark because he represents everything that Keating never was. Peter claims that “it [is] not necessary to wonder about the reasons. It [is] necessary only to hate, to hate blindly, to hate patiently, to hate without anger; only to hate, and let nothing intervene, and not let oneself forget, ever” (194). In spite of this claim, the reason for his hatred is evident – just as men hate passion, they also hate integrity, for it is a surreal treasure that so quickly vanishes. Despite his contempt for Roark, after decades devoted to appealing to the insatiable public, Keating finally recognizes the truth: that hatred from society for the sake of integrity is not only the most respectable result, but the most desirable. In saying “I am a parasite. I’ve been a parasite all my life” (575) Peter Keating admits that he is truly poor, for even the things he has gained have left him empty. He verbally affirms the futility of all he has strived for when he says “I need a prestige I don’t deserve for an achievement I didn’t accomplish to save a name I haven’t earned the right to bear” (575). Gradually, societal love for Peter Keating only becomes a reminder to him of his readiness to sacrifice integrity, and he begins to desire their hatred instead.

The internal tug-of-war between social acceptance and maintaining integrity that Keating struggles with throughout his career is not prevalent in the life of Howard Roark. In truth, it does not even exist. In contradiction to Keating, Francon, and even Cameron, Roark does not consider the opinions of society in the least; moreover, he claims he does not see them, saying “but I never notice the people in the streets” (64). His presence “[makes] them feel that he [is] not there; or perhaps that he [is] and they [aren’t]” (62). It is for this reason that Roark is able to overcome the hatred of society and eventually become not only an artistic and moral success, but also a commercial success – a feat which Cameron does not accomplish. Instead of fearing their contempt, Roark welcomes it, seeing it as a commendable and desirable result, because it reflects his greatest accomplishment: his relentless integrity. Unlike Keating, Roark builds entirely for the purpose of building, and in doing so, his own honour and uprightness are portrayed in these structures. As is the case with Cameron’s buildings, society chooses to reject them because they confidently and unashamedly represent passion and integrity – qualities that the majority of people no longer possess. Roark establishes in his conversation with Austen Heller that “a house can have integrity, just like a person…and just as seldom” (136), demonstrating that his buildings are the essence of what man should be. Unlike Cameron, who fears the masses and their capabilities, Roark expresses his distaste for them strongly, saying “do you not know that most people take most things because that’s what’s given them, and they have no opinion whatever?” (165). It is in this way that Roark and Cameron differ dramatically: while they both recognize integrity as a necessity that must be maintained, Roark overcomes the hatred that possesses society simply by refusing to recognize it as an obstacle. Success only exists if it is recognized as success. Failure only exists if it is declared as such. In the same way, the masses are only an obstacle if they are recognized as one. Roark refuses to see society as an opponent; therefore – until it directly interferes with his work in the case of the Cortlandt Homes – he does not view it as an opponent. Instead, society represents everything that Howard Roark does not want to be: dishonesty, corruption, and compromise. Realistically, if one was adored by people whose morals contradict one’s own personal morals, the present lifestyle would be questioned. Therefore, if Roark is detested by a group of people which stands for such faulty standards, this is not a downfall, but an accomplishment, for he has sustained his integrity.

In conclusion, characters such as Howard Roark and Henry Cameron demonstrate that contempt from society is not only meritorious, but it also desirable. For in receiving hatred from those who so readily compromise their own honour, personal integrity is re-established. This is demonstrated by various characters throughout the novel, such as Henry Cameron who – though managing to preserve his own integrity – is destroyed by a society whom he fears. It is contradicted by Peter Keating and Guy Francon, who represent those in society that only realize too late that integrity is one’s most precious possession. Finally, Howard Roark is the image of this ideal as he not only overcomes the masses in the pursuit of integrity, but becomes a moral, artistic and commercial success. In brief, integrity is not only humanity’s most valuable possession, but it is also the most influential, for by fighting to maintain its existence, honesty, truth, and a faultless world are also fought for.

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The Theme of Integrity in The Fountainhead. (2018, April 29). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 31, 2023, from
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