The Perfecting of Howard Roark

Publicity still from The Fountainhead (1949)

There are four major ways to develop a character in literature. The first is by revealing something that we didn’t know about the character but that is not something new in the character’s make-up. An example of this occurs in To Kill a Mockingbird when we learn that Atticus can shoot a rifle. This revelation is surprising to his children and to us, because Atticus is portrayed as a non-physical man, but it does not represent change on Atticus’ part.

The second, third and fourth ways involve a change in the character. The second takes place when the character transforms his life at the level of fundamentals. An example of this would be Huckleberry Finn confronting his racism when he apologizes to Jim. The third way is more superficial: It involves the character gaining insight but not changing his personality in any profound way. Joseph Knecht in The Glass Bead Game might serve as an illustration. He learns more about the relationship of intellectualism and life, but his personality does not change.

The fourth way steers a middle course between the second and third. Here the character gains insight and has experiences of an unexpected nature and thus changes in important, though not fundamental ways. This developmental path is ideal for authors who want to play out the logical conclusion of a character’s initial premises and to show how, in the case of good premises, a person with such premises can and should achieve his mature form. An example of this would be Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead.

I. Innocent at 22

While it would be easy for admirers of Rand to idealize the Roark who appears at the beginning of the novel and to agree with the character Steven Mallory that Roark does not change, that would be to miss a major point of the story, which is that the seed is not enough and the fruit must grow and ripen to realize itself.

Mallory is of course correct in saying that Roark’s sense of life and cognitive style do not change in any fundamental way, but at a somewhat less profound level Roark changes quite a bit. Untheoretical and naïve at the outset, he becomes philosophical and wise by the story’s conclusion. Detached and aloof to begin with, he finds connection to others even to the point of heartbreak.

Rand’s portrait of Roark is stylized and slanted to project his independence. Rand never shows Roark reading a book or attending a play or even listening to music, although a real Roark would surely do these things sometimes. Roark is shown against of backdrop of nature and man’s interface with nature, architecture. But beyond the stylization, Roark is supposed to be an extreme example of a certain type. Rand crafted him with the purpose of setting up a controlled experiment to answer the question, How would a man who was independent to the bottom of his soul evolve as person, especially in the modern American environment?

To facilitate this experiment Rand has Roark grow up along a developmentally delayed trajectory: He does not come to terms with friendship, frustration, love, pity, and tragedy until he is an adult. Although this path is not entirely credible in real-world terms, it does allow us to see how the independent man consciously (although not always self-consciously) engages features of life as an adult that most of us deal with almost completely implicitly as children. Roark starts out as a pinnacle of unselfconscious purity. Rand shows us what such a man must go through to realize his full, self-aware potential.

The Roark of the first portion of the novel is unfinished, untheoretical, unself-aware and socially passive. To be sure, his virtues are considerable: He is certain about what he wants to do with his life and how he is going to set about doing it. As he says to Henry Cameron, he wants to be an architect because he does not believe in God. But beyond this, his motivation, as he tells Cameron, is primal—love of the earth—not philosophical in the usual sense.

Gary Cooper as Howard Roark

Using one of her favorite characterization gambits, Rand gives Roark the defects of his virtues. Here I do not mean “moral defects,” but “deficiencies.” Observe Roark’s thought processes early in the story. When the dean fires Roark from architectural school, he tells Roark that Roark would be more persuasive if he cared what the dean thought. This is a revelation to Roark. Somehow he had gotten to the age of 22 without noticing that he did not care what others thought. Presumably, this is because Roark had simply gone about his business without deliberately not caring what others thought—he was not being rebellious, defiant or willfully non-conformist. He just does what he does with an almost Zen attitude, but what he does is still shockingly unself-aware on his part.

Roark knows there is some important difference between the dean and himself. He tags it “the principle behind the dean” and thinks of in terms of a central impulse, like a theme in a building, rather than in philosophical or psychological terms. But he forgets the issue, which is the most crucial of his life, in terms of both his self-realization and his place in society, when he sees the setting sun’s rays on a stringcourse of limestone!

This is typical of Roark early on. He is so marvelously first-handed that he has trouble attending to aspects of social life that he needs to, aspects like why he receives the reaction he does and why people build incompetent buildings, and what it is that is the motor of his own life. The principle behind the dean would have been something most intelligent people would have figured out in an hour if they thought about it. And they would have thought about it as teenagers (although not as systematically as Roark eventually does). It takes Roark another 16 years to get around to the matter.

Beyond a certain point Roark does not know himself or know much about life. His mind is uncluttered with thoughts about right and wrong in many areas. His modus operandi is a kind of untheoretical logic. He does not care about the world’s judgments on most subjects and so comes to neglect those subjects, even at his own peril. He is dangerously naive. When someone says he is “abnormal” or even “monstrous,” he just says “Probably.” When he begs Guy Francon to let him design a building his way, he unintentionally insults Francon. A more socially sophisticated person would not have implored Francon in this manner.

Roark gains in insight during the novel, and these insights engender changes in his personality, if not his fundamental premises (unlike Joseph Knecht’s insights in The Glass Bead Game). For example, Roark learns that he is a religious man in his own way from of all people, Ellsworth Toohey, via Hopton Stoddard. This revelation of Roark to himself moves him considerably and surely adds a much-needed degree of self-consciousness to his character. Presumably it is this knowledge that enables him to build a temple.

It is easy to put Roark’s early independence and passion up on a pedestal, but that would be a mistake. Roark may be in some sense “ideal” for his stage of development, but in the long view, he is incomplete. Rand certainly does not mean the reader to see Roark as morally flawed in this regard, but she knows and tries to communicate that Roark has some growing to do and that his strengths lead him to fail to do some things he “should” do, such as to define his moral place in the world, and to do things he “should not” do, such as such as design buildings for Peter Keating.

In the human realm, Roark early on is inactive to the point of self-negligence. For example, he contacts Steve Mallory because he needs a statue. Apparently, it never occurs to him that he might simply enjoy the company of a person with Mallory’s view of human potential, although Mallory wishes he had met Roark outside of the context of a commission. And as he watches Mallory sob he realizes for the first time that he is engaged in a battle with part of the world and he feels a new emotion in the form of protectiveness for Mallory. This is a radically new form of connection for the paradigm of independence.

In the most striking example, look at how surprised Roark is to find that he needs Dominique after their first sexual encounter. What did he expect from a lover? Clearly nothing, because in his mid-twenties he never had that experience or even thought about the matter. Realizing that he needs Dominique is not a mere revelation of character on Rand’s part or just a new insight on Roark’s part—it is an experience of connection that represents a change in Roark’s personality.

Or consider Roark’s relationship with Peter Keating. Roark keeps on helping Keating because he feels sorry for him, or to be exact, because he feels sorry for Keating’s buildings. He just cannot stand by and watch a building be botched—even though he knows they will be botched every day. If he gave the matter five minutes thought he would see that he was not doing himself or Keating any favors with these acts of “mercy.” Further, agreeing to design the Cortlandt housing project for Keating is the biggest error Roark commits in the story, a clear flaw for which he is justly punished by the ordeal that follows. Roark’s dealings with Keating demonstrate one of Roark’s serious defects as a person, one that exists almost to the very end of the novel, and he cannot help himself because he has no theoretical framework.

II. Roark’s and Rand’s Ethics

It would be easy to say that Rand did not intend Roark’s actions with regard to Keating to be seen as immoral, just the product of “error.” That is Rand’s mature view of such matters starting with Atlas Shrugged. It is not clear whether she took this view in The Fountainhead. But whatever she intended, it is clear to any unbiased reader that what Roark does for Keating is professionally unethical. His love of the earth and his naivety have led him to do something that he should not have done. Even if we went along with the mature Rand and said that it was an error, it would still be a defect in Roark’s character. Ideal men don’t do other people’s work for them.

Rand’s view of error and immorality in The Fountainhead is more complex and less rigid than in Atlas Shrugged. Dominique is supposed to be seen as a frustrated idealist, not as neurotic, perverse and destructive. Steven Mallory is supposed to be seen as a good person even though he is a would-be murderer. Gail Wynand is supposed to be seen as more tragic than contemptible and as worthy of Roark’s love.

These are not views that Rand would have taken in her later thinking, at least not if she was consistent: Maybe Rand would have excused Dominique, but Mallory would have been condemned as someone who initiated force, even if it was against an evil person like Toohey—and the later Rand is unequivocal about the immorality of the initiation of force. Wynand would have been regarded as loathsome for the almost erotic anguish he takes in breaking great men. However, Roark is shown loving these people, thereby, in Rand’s later way of looking at things, sanctioning their wickedness. This is not presented as an error on Roark’s part. It is simply part of a more complex ethical worldview on the earlier Rand’s part.

I would argue that Rand’s view of morality in The Fountainhead still contains a considerable residue of Nietzscheanism. She is still interested in how primal forces of light and dark play out in the economy of the soul even as she works her way to the virtue ethics of her later thinking. To some extent her thinking is still pre-philosophical, despite the fact that one of the main points of the novel is that man needs to become self-conscious in his thinking about ethics.

That may seem like an untenable paradox given that Rand clearly intends her philosophy of individualism to be the culmination of the development of her ideal man in The Fountainhead, but I would argue that Roark’s observations about morality are barely philosophical at all. His conclusion that all that proceeds from the self is the good is not fundamental as part of a theoretical approach. He is clearly thinking and feeling his way to general principles that could be the basis of a later philosophy, as they clearly were for Rand, but he is not there yet. (Not surprising since Roark is not a philosopher.) This is the “philosophy” of common sense and sense of life and passion and fresh observations about man’s situation. I would argue that such thinking is and must be developmentally and historically prior to true philosophy, but that point does not take away from the fact that it is not “full” philosophy. We could call it “proto-philosophy.”

III. The Growth of the Middle Years

Rand walked something of a literary tightrope in portraying Roark’s process of growth. Given her commitment to free will in life and in literature, she didn’t want Roark to be “molded” by outside events but to be self-propelled. So she structured events to catalyze Roark’s development but at the same time was careful to show Roark learning and discovering what he needs to know for himself, rather than being shaped in the manner of naturalistic fiction. For example, in the episodes with his early prospective clients, like Mrs. Wilmot, who wants a Tudor house because her friends say she has an Elizabethan personality, we see Roark building the concept he would eventually call the “second-hander.”

These episodes are examples of insights that Roark gains, but that same time they are examples of real character change, as Roark’s thinking about his work and life in general becomes more explicit. Roark’s need to become self-conscious and philosophical in the broadest sense is at the heart of his character, and the novel’s. The necessity of philosophy is a major theme in Rand’s novels. Many of her major characters are clearly good, even great men and women, despite not being explicitly philosophical. Rearden and the other industrialists in Atlas Shrugged would be the obvious examples. One of the interesting differences between The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged is that Roark is shown discovering for himself what he needs to know onstage, while the heroes of Atlas Shrugged do their discovering offstage or are helped by others.

Roark’s growth is not a change, much less a reversal of fundamental character, as we see in Huckleberry Finn, but is a change in the sense of completion at a profound level. This could serve as an illustration of the fact that Rand, even in her later work, sees moral character as largely pre-philosophical. One becomes great by practicing virtues that one has arrived at through untheoretical logic, sense of life and moral models in art (although Rand does not speak of moral models in her fiction as she does in her later non-fiction works). These virtues are not arrived at through abstract reasoning from first principles. That comes later.

A clearer example of a change occurs after Roark’s commissions dry up and he goes to work in a quarry instead of finding work in an architect’s office. Roark is hard on himself in this period. The strenuous physical labor is a metaphor for the way in which Roark drives self-pity and despair from his heart. Nathaniel Branden interprets this self-discipline as emotional repression, but Rand clearly sees it as a step along Roark’s path to greater serenity. This is Roark bending he personality to his will.

Gary Cooper as Roark at the quarry

After the time of Roark’s self-exile in the quarry, he is humanized by his encounters with other people. Witnessing Dominique’s struggle and Mallory’s torment, Roark comes to see and feel how other great souls are crucified by the world. Roger Enright and Austen Heller help initiate him into a wider social world by making him buy a tuxedo and go to parties. While working on the Stoddard Temple he spends time with Mike Donnigan, Mallory, and Dominique, just having hot dogs and coffee and listening to Mallory tell stories. “Roark laughed as Dominique had never seen him laugh anywhere else, his mouth loose and young.” This is a far cry from the “contemptuous mouth, shut tight, the mouth of an executioner or a saint” described in the first scene of the novel. Clearly Roark is becoming different, even as he stays the same.

Even still, Roark has no words to say in his defense when Stoddard sues him over the temple: He just presents photos of the building. This is not a gesture, as Gail Wynand later opines. For Roark, the best evidence is the building itself. Roark’s defense, while eloquent in its own way, is completely unphilosophical—and ineffective. If he had repeated this performance at his next courtroom appearance, he would have gone to prison.

IV. The Sagacious Roark

The mature but unphilosophical Roark is displayed in the second half of the novel. Three examples: First, in Part 3, Dominique stops on her way to get her Reno divorce from Keating to see Roark at a worksite in Ohio. She is bitter at his having to build medium-sized department stores in small towns after having designed skyscrapers. He replies, “I don’t think of it that way… I love doing it. Every building is like a person. Single and unrepeatable.” The Roark at the beginning of the novel did not pay enough attention to other people to have made such a comparison.

Second, in Part 4, Roark has a remarkable conversation with Gail Wynand the first time Wynand shows Roark the site on which he wants his and Dominique’s house to be built. Roark displays a knowledge of the workings of guilt and forgiveness that would rival Nietzsche’s, leading Wynand to call him “wise,” which is not an appellation one would have been tempted to apply to Roark earlier in the novel. Roark, who has learned something about give and take from his friends and something about the power relations of love from Dominique, enjoys the teasing and testing he has with Wynand, both in this conversation and later. He becomes playful in an unprecedented way.

Finally, in his discussion of Cortlandt with Keating, Roark is friendly, even gracious to Keating, while making sure Keating really understands the conditions under which he will design the project for him. This is Roark at his most benevolent. Before leaving, Keating shows Roark his paintings, and Roark, reluctantly, has to tell him that it is too late for him as an artist. After Keating leaves, Roark “was sick with pity . . .There was shame in this feeling—his own shame that he should have to pronounce such judgment on a man, that he should know an emotion that contained no shred of respect.” Amazingly, Roark has gotten to 38 years old without ever having felt pity, another example of Rand’s experiment in delayed development. And look at Roark’s reaction to his own feeling: “He thought that there must be something terribly wrong with a world in which this monstrous feeling is called a virtue.” This experience surely changes Roark.

Roark’s growth to this point is a beautiful thing; he has become wise and gracious and happy in a more relaxed way. But he is not complete. While he has developed a degree of self-awareness and a set of personal principles, he is still not immune to the temptation to help Keating, to give his mind and energy to the world under a pretense. He still has no philosophy.

Image from

V. Howard Roark, The Realized Ideal

It is on his yacht cruise with Wynand that Roark finally has time and peace to think about the lessons of his life. He consolidates the observations he has made and finally unriddles the “principle behind the dean,” the principle that separates him from most people. It is not enough that Roark lives through and observes a great deal or that he acquires some practical wisdom. What he needs to do and finally does do is to think abstractly. He integrates his experiences into the beginnings of a theory, which he shares with Wynand in their discussion of the first-hander versus the second-hander. It is important that Rand has plotted this reflection to occur before Roark discovers the travesty that has been made of Cortlandt. This order of events demonstrates that Roark is not merely reacting to circumstances, but is taking the next step on his own initiative.

Roark’s transformation enters a final phase when he sees Cortlandt. He realizes that helping Keating those many times was a bad idea. More importantly, Roark decides he will no longer just mind his own business and do his work in the world. He will demonstrate to his fellow men that they have no claim upon him. This he does by dynamiting Cortlandt and speaking out at his trial. Because he has thought about individualism and collectivism both in society and in men’s souls, he is now able to offer a verbal, conceptual defense of his actions and to win an acquittal.

Two final encounters complete him as a man, both having to do with human relationships. Before the trial Dominique leaves Wynand and comes to Roark, and two things occur that have never occurred before: First, he is tempted to compromise out of love for Wynand, although Dominique convinces him by her attitude that it is useless, like all sacrifices. Second, he surrenders to his happiness with Dominique, displaying an unprecedented vulnerability and tenderness.

Last is his interview with Wynand about commissioning the Wynand Building. On the elevator up to Wynand’s office, Roark, in a last burst of naivety, holds out hope for Wynand, only to have it dashed at the sight of the composed ruin of a man he meets there. He accedes to the charade of formality that Wynand requests, in order not to shatter Wynand’s fragile control. Roark, who at the beginning of the novel would never have allowed anyone to wound him, now sees that some wounds never heal.

Except for the final, dialogueless, tableau of Roark atop the tower against the sky, this sad farewell is the last we see of Howard Roark. Are we to leave Roark on a tragic note? I do not think so, for two reasons: First, in the final tableau we see Roark at work on his greatest achievement, his statement about the earth’s imprisoned heart of fire bursting through and leaping to freedom. This is the essence of Roark, realizing his purpose in life.

Second and more importantly from the perspective of Roark’s growth as a character, Howard Roark has learned from Wynand, as well as from Dominique, the possibility, the price, and the limits of love. The overflow of a great spirit, important as it is, is not enough to save those he loves. They must stand or fall on their own. That Roark accepts this, that he neither denies the pain he feels over them nor gives up the admiration he feels for them, that he incorporates the struggles of those he loves into his building in the form of the liberation from imprisonment theme, demonstrates that Roark is at last able to stand in full wisdom, both practical and theoretical, dedicated to the earth and connected to other human beings. Howard Roark has become the self-perfected man.

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life.

4 thoughts on “The Perfecting of Howard Roark

  1. Thank you for this masterful analysis. I’ve read it twice and don’t have much to add.

    Roark’s work designing buildings for Keating has long puzzled me. It’s a central plot device, leading up to the climax of Cortlandt Homes. Yet it’s utterly inconsistent with everything Roark says and thinks, even early in the novel: recall the scene where Keating asks whether he should accept Francon’s job offer or study on the Beaux Arts scholarship in Paris, to which Roark replies that it’s never a good idea to ask anyone for advice, especially about one’s work. Yet here is Roark, ghost-designing for Keating from start to finish. This is not an matter of helping Keating at all, because it’s clearly destructive of Keating’s independence (to the extent that he has any) and a cause of Keating’s ultimate unhappiness. Whether we call this unprofessional, dishonest, fakery, immoral, or “just” an error, it’s plainly wrong. Would Rand have ghost-written novels for some less serious but popular writer of the 1940s, say Kathleen Winsor? (I’ve never read anything by Winsor, merely picking on her at random.) No way! Roark’s actions are justified in his mind because he “just has to” jump in to save these buildings, as anyone who’s able would jump into the water to save a drowning person (the connection to and contrast with Rand’s later essay on “The Ethics of Emergencies” is yet to be explored, as far as I know). Yet a building is not a living thing and early on Roark is much more inclined to abandon a human being (Dominique) than he is to abandon one of Keating’s school assignments, which even on the level of “untheoretical logic” (I’m curious to know more about that!) is patently bizarre. It all works novelistically, but in philosophical and human terms it makes absolutely no sense. Your analysis helps to clarify the matter around the edges, but doesn’t address the central problem (which is of Rand’s making, so naturally there’s no compelling need for you to solve it).

    None of these musings are to be taken as detracting from your essay, which is the best thing I’ve read on Rand in a long time.

    • Thank you for your response to my essay, Peter. It means a lot to me.

      I think Roark’s unethical help for Keating is a symptom of his love of architecture overwhelming his need to engage in philosophy. He is almost too self-sufficient for philosophy. (I’ve know a real person like this, too, so it’s quite plausible to me.) As for trying to save Dominique, he doesn’t try, because he knows he can’t. On the other hand, he does try to give Wynand a spiritual blood transfusion after Wynand caves in on Cortlandt. That suggests that he views Wynand as more fundamentally needy than Dominique. This isn’t surprising because Wynand, although he wasn’t born to be a second-hander, is one, while Dominique isn’t.

      I think that the best heuristic to use in this case is to assume that Roark (as well as Rand) is self-consistent and let that guide our understanding of his character. I worry that many of Rand’s fans are so lost in rapturous contemplation of Roark as a moral ideal that they can’t see his deficiencies or at least his incompleteness for most of the story.

  2. I’ve always thought that Roark taking on the project was a rather simple calculation for him: this is work I can do and want to do, so I’ll make this deal with Keating so I can do it. The focus on the work rather than on the duplicity is pure Rand [to me], with the duplicity having been forced on the situation by the stunted social environment of world at large.

    • But William, Roark isn’t forced to build a housing project for Keating. He does it because he wants the achievement. If he weren’t so naive he never would have agreed to something so foolish. Did he really think that anyone would believe that Keating really designed Cortlandt? Did he think that weak old Keating could fight off Toohey and his despicable minions? Apparently he did not give the matter enough thought because of how naive he was even at this late point in the story. This is of course my point in the essay.

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