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In her historic novel, The Fountainhead, author Ayn Rand presents one man’s struggle to reconcile his desire for success with an admirable vision of morality. One can define both success and morality in a variety of ways. On the one hand, success can represent a person’s power, prestige and wealth; on the other hand, success may imply personal happiness, integrity and self-respect. Morality might be understood in the most literal sense, where one acts in accord with standards of right or good conduct, but in the context of Rand’s story, morality represents a character’s ability to think for himself. While the initial success of Peter Keating, the pessimism of Dominique Francon, the power of Gail Wynand, and the popularity of Ellsworth Toohey suggest that Ayn Rand upholds the conventional theory that success and morality cannot coexist, the final triumph of protagonist Howard Roark supports the theory that characters can achieve practical success and be moral at the same time.
A constant foil to Roark, Peter Keating is the antithesis of the morality that Roark represents. Envious of others, Keating ruthlessly uses other people in order to advance his own position, acquire money, and achieve fame. For instance, although Keating is aware that Roark is more talented than he, Keating pretends to be Roark’s friend and uses him whenever he is stuck on a problem. Despite his immorality, Keating is astonishingly successful, graduating from Stanton with high honors while Roark is expelled. He is a pet at Francon’s office while Roark worries about how to pay the electric bill. He basks in the glory of Cosmo-Slotnick while Roark works in a quarry under the sun. In a confession to Catherine, Keating exclaims, “I am getting ahead. I think I can have any job I want in the place eventually…” (p. 58) For Keating, a disregard for morality is a key factor in his success. Had he not used underhanded methods to get rid of his competitors one by one, Keating would not have advanced in Francon’s company so quickly. Had he not hardened his heart to kill Heyer, Keating would not have earned the partnership before the result of Cosmo-Slotnick. His disregard for moral conduct, combined with its reliance on the opinions of others, leads to Keating’s eventual failure. “Always be what people want you to be. Then you’ve got them where you want them,” he discloses to Roark at a party. In the end, this credo ruins Peter Keating, as he falls into Toohey’s trap, becoming too dependent on other people.
A more powerful practitioner of Keating’s reliance on public opinion, Gail Wynand panders to the public taste with his Banner, “deliver[ing] his paper, body and soul, to the mob.” (p. 408) A prime example of Wynand’s deference to others’ whims lies in the case of Pat Mulligan. Despite Wynand’s knowledge that Mulligan, “the only honest man he had ever met in his life” has been framed, Wynand fails to defend him. (p. 406) Wynand faces a moral dilemma: either he loses his job defending Mulligan, or he follows the orders of his superiors. He chooses the latter. Had Wynand chosen the moral decision, he would never have had a chance to succeed and to later build his Empire. Although Wynand has sold his soul to obtain that fortune, when Dominique and Roark enter his life, he finally decides to be true to himself by defending Roark in Banner, this time ignoring the public opinion. However, Wynand’s gallant attempt is unsuccessful, proving that practical success and morality cannot coexist. His power lies in his submission to others.
While Dominique lacks Wynand’s sense of submission, she has her own weakness: pessimism. Although she recognizes Roark’s genius and falls in love with him, she believes that he has no chance in a world dominated by second-handers. She deprives Roark of commissions and says to him, “You know that I hate you, Roark. I hate you for what you are, for wanting you, for having to want you… and I’m going to destroy you.” (pp. 272-273) While she understands Roark’s greatness, she destroys both Roark and herself, tainting her nobility by marrying Peter Keating and then Gail Wynand. Throughout the novel, Dominique believes that evil will triumph over goodness, just as dependence will trump independence, collectivism will trump individualism, second-handers will beat out creators, and most importantly, immorality will triumph over morality. In her characterization of Dominique, Ayn Rand explores the incompatibility of practical success and morality; evildoers hold the majority and only the immoral can succeed.
Ellsworth Toohey’s popularity further supports the conventional view that practical success and morality cannot coexist. While Toohey is extremely popular, a saint in the eyes of the public, he is in no way moral. Seeking to ensnare others’ souls, he preaches self-sacrifice, telling Keating that he “missed the beautiful pride of utter selflessness. Only when you learn to deny your ego, completely, only when you learn to be amused by such piddling sentimentalities as your little sex urges – only then will you achieve the greatness which I have always expected of you.” (p.322) “We must not think. We must believe,” Toohey advises his niece, one of his numerous victims. (p. 365) Revealing his true nature, Toohey explains to a frightened Keating, “I use people for the sake of what I can do to them. It’s my only function and satisfaction. I want power. I want my world of the future.” (p. 638) Just as Roark seeks power over nature, Toohey seeks power over men, dreaming about “a single word – collectivism. And isn’t that the god of our century? To act together. To think together. To feel together. To unite, to agree, to obey. To… unite and rule.” (p. 639) An independent thinker, Roark is a serious threat to Toohey, since Roark represents the type of person over whom Toohey can never have control.
Leo Durocher, a baseball manager, once said that, “nice guys finish last,” implying that one cannot be both moral and successful at the same time. While Ayn Rand does not support Durocher’s view in her presentation of Roark, The Fountainhead’s protagonist, she suffuses elements of this view throughout the novel in all her major characters. For example, a member of the “moral” horde, Roark is forced to work in a quarry, just as Wynand has to accept the reality that he is not in charge. In contrast, among the “immoral” horde, Keating reaches a high point in his career, while Toohey is always popular. While Ayn Rand did not intend to endorse Durocher’s view, one cannot deny its existence in The Fountainhead. An embodiment of the ideal man, Howard Roark must battle and triumph over the collective desire for success in order to persist as a free-thinking creator.
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