Man and Nature in The Fountainhead
Updated: Jun 16
One could describe great literature as being like great architecture: all the elements pull together and buttress a central theme. Characters, plot, setting, style, and the other aspects of a story contribute to an idea or sensibility that lets us experience something important about the world in a concretized yet subtle way. A great work of literature is rich with telling details, compelling language, and pregnant motifs. This richness is in keeping with two related major functions of art: to heighten the subtlety of our discernment of the world and to stylize experience. The degree of complexity and/or subtlety of a work is what separates “literary” fiction from “popular” fiction (which of course has its place but is not as beneficial to an sensitive person as literary fiction is).
Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead is an outstanding example of this kind of integration. Its central theme, according to its author, is “individualism versus collectivism, not in politics, but in men’s souls.” This is a philosophical theme and the book could reasonably be classified as a “novel of ideas,” but The Fountainhead is not a tract and is not a vehicle for communicating Rand’s philosophical beliefs. Rather it is a means of creating an experience for the reader.
Like any great work of art, The Fountainhead has its subordinate themes. Most of these sub-themes are never made explicit, but exist as systems of motifs, reinforcing the main theme and lending it texture and ornament. In this essay I will explore perhaps the most important such sub-theme of The Fountainhead—“the relationship of man and nature”—pointing out examples and commenting on their relation to other aspects of the novel.
Let us begin at the beginning. When the novel opens we see the its protagonist, Howard Roark, standing naked and alone on a cliff above a lake. I call this initial short section the “prologue” because it precedes the plot proper and because it echoes the prologue of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, with its image of a great man standing alone on a pinnacle. Starting with this introduction, Roark is linked with certain grand elements of nature:
“The lake below was only a thin steel ring that cut the rocks in half. The rocks went on into the depth, unchanged. They began and ended in the sky. So that the world seemed suspended in space, an island floating on nothing, anchored to the feet of the man on the cliff.” Here we see Roark associated with the three elements that follow him all through the novel: Sky, Stone and Water, the last being a motif Roark shares with Roark’s love interest, Dominique. The tableau of Roark and the floating rock at his feet suspended in space is a symbol for planet Earth existing in dependence on man for its meaning.
From his pinnacle Roark contemplates nature both as material to be used in pursuit of his life’s work and as a respite from that work, a place to relax, to swim, to be alone and alive. That he has just been expelled from college is not even real to him when he looks at the stone and wood surrounding him. Roark clearly feels at home outdoors, and can be happy on his lonely promontory. He is the Natural Man.
Roark’s walk home from the lake takes him through part of the town of Stanton. Stanton begins with a dump, with the refuse of man. The forms of the town’s buildings are distorted and taken from the past and misapplied to their present purposes, much like an architectural dump. Here we behold the man-made world in a bad light; later we will see Roark redeem that world.
Soon we watch Roark as he is looking over some architectural drawings he has been making for himself in his spare time. The buildings in the drawings are described as being like those of the “first man,” a figure which shows up later in Roark’s courtroom speech and which may be an allusion to Nietzsche’s “Last Man.” The First Man is the Natural Man whose work is organically right and borrows nothing from anyone else’s. Nothing gets between the First Man and nature.
By contrast, Peter Keating, the Artificial Man who deals primarily with other men instead of with nature, is first seen overdressed, in a crowd of people inside a poorly-designed building encrusted with borrowed ornament, listening to its architect spout borrowed words, enduring a ceremony that has no meaning to him. He is embedded in an unpleasant, man-made environment and is sweaty and bored.
Rand develops the theme of man’s relationship to nature through the contrast between the creator, who is the First Man, and “second-hander” parasites like Keating and the novel’s villain, Ellsworth Toohey. As Roark says in his courtroom speech, “The creator’s concern is the conquest of nature. The parasite’s concern is the conquest of man.” The creator is serene and confident because it is lawful nature with which he deals; the second-hander puts himself at the mercy of other men and becomes anxious and spiritually twisted as a result. Rand suggests that “natural” desires are good, and that society (to be exact, living through others instead of through oneself) is the source of all corruption. From Roark’s courtroom speech: “All that proceeds from man’s independent ego is good. All that which proceeds from man’s dependence upon men is evil.” (This ethical principle is at best a sketch of Rand’s later view of good and evil.)
The use of architecture as the setting of the story is particularly felicitous because a building is an interface between man and nature. When Roark’s mentor Henry Cameron asks Roark why he wants to be an architect, Roark answers that it is because he never believed in God, that all he loves is the earth and that he wants to improve the shape of things on it for himself. (As Nietzsche’s Zarathustra would speak it, “Remain faithful to the earth.”)
Those of Roark’s buildings that get described in any detail contribute to the man-and-nature theme. Roark, without quoting Louis Sullivan, who does not exist in the alternate universe of The Fountainhead, believes in Sullivan’s dictum, “Form follows function,” refusing to borrow tradition and irrelevant ornament—refusing to load artifice onto his works. At one point Roark compares a beautiful building to the beautiful functionality of the human body. Obviously he means a naked, “natural” human body.
Roark always uses setting to advantage and incorporates it into the themes of his buildings. The Austen Heller house (which could with justice be styled Fallingwater-by-the-Sea) “had not been designed by Roark, but by the cliff on which it stood.” Its vertical central lines and projecting balconies form a cross that mimics the cliff against the horizon of Long Island Sound. The Sanborn House is an exercise in expanses, with broad terraces rising gently from the nearby river and the surrounding gardens, summoning the sunlight into the house. The Stoddard Temple embraces the earth. Sunlight, stone and space are its materials, and its sole adornment is a statue of a naked woman.
The climax to the man-and-nature theme is the famous first scene of Part IV, with the boy on the bicycle. It is stressed here, as elsewhere, that nature is not the end for man but a beginning, background and challenge. The boy, despairing of man’s works, is riding through the leaf-filtered light of a spring day as through a vision. He sees a patch of blue sky ahead at the top of a hill, looking like a film of water. He pedals up the hill, imagining that at the crest he will see nothing but sky above and below. What he does see is the Monadnock Valley Resort with its fieldstone houses and its creator, Howard Roark, contemplating it. (Here again Sky, Water and Stone are all associated with Roark.) The sight jars the boy into realizing that not only nature but also man’s works can be beautiful. This scene is a lyrical tribute to man’s power to build on earth:
There were small houses on the ledges of the hill before him, flowing down to the bottom. He [the boy] knew that the ledges had not been touched, that no artifice had altered the unplanned beauty of the graded steps. Yet some power had known how to build on these ledges in such a way that the houses became inevitable, and one could no longer imagine the hills as beautiful without them—as if the centuries and the series of chances that produced these ledges in the struggle of great blind forces had waited for their final expression, had been only a road to a goal—and the goal was these buildings, part of the hills, shaped by the hills, yet ruling them by giving them meaning.
Read between the lines a little and you will see the novel’s thesis about the relationship of man and nature in a nutshell: Man may have come upon an earth created by “great blind forces” of nature, but he gives meaning to it. We cannot imagine nature as complete without man, and yet man is subtly part of nature. Man's task is to develop his nature, not overmaster it.
Note the use Roark makes of the location of this project. He doesn’t create an “ant-hill” of a hotel (ants being the paradigm of social insects). He doesn’t level the valley’s steps. He retains for each individual house its own bit of private nature. Roark is not out to create a wholly human world, but to create a human place within the natural world. The man-made should not obliterate nature, but complete it. This is The Fountainhead’s version of the “conquest of nature.”
Observe also that for Roark’s draftsmen, the year Monadnock was built was “the strange time when the earth stopped turning and they lived through twelve months of spring.” Spring is the time in which many of the novel’s important events occur, and some of Rand’s most striking passages deal with descriptions of spring. Take one example from the beginning of the novel. It is Keating’s impression as he walks up to his house where Roark sits on the front steps:
It was strange to see an electric globe in the air of a spring night. It made the street darker and softer; it hung alone, like a gap, and left nothing to be seen but a few branches heavy with leaves, standing still at the gap’s edges. The small hint became immense, as if the darkness held nothing but a flood of leaves. The mechanical ball of glass made the leaves seem more living; it took away their color and gave the promise that in daylight they would be a brighter green than had ever existed; it took away one’s sight and left a new sense instead, neither smell nor touch, yet both, a sense of spring and space.
This synesthetic perception of a mundane scene by Keating demonstrates not only the power of spring but also that he has the sensitivity of an artist, a vocation he let his mother sway him from following.
Spring, green leaves, and sunlight are recurring images in the novel (but not flowers, interestingly). The word “spring,” referring to the season, occurs three dozen times in the novel. (Summer is mentioned more often than spring, but with less symbolic significance.) And in one of Rand’s double entendres, a fountainhead is the source of a spring and one of Rand’s provisional titles for the book was The Mainspring.)
The spring imagery reaches a high point in the description of how Roark's career comes back after the catastrophe of the Stoddard Temple trial. Clients come to him based on their independent judgement of his work. "It was as if an underground stream flowed through the country and broke out in sudden springs that shot to the surface at random, in unpredictable places." (The dynamism of the image is part of another motif in the novel and will be dealt with in another essay.)
Contrast the scene with the boy on the bike with the scene later in Part IV in which Keating has lunch with Catherine Halsey and sees what she has become. All the touches are perfect. The luncheonette is cramped and feels sticky. There is green and white icing on some cake that reminds Keating of St. Patrick’s Day and the wonderful way it heralds spring, but which has no place being there on a gray fall day. Catherine is completely cut off from reality (i.e. nature) and moves entirely within a social world. The demolished soul of Catherine is surely the artificial at its worst.
It would have been in line with conventional wisdom for Rand to glorify Nature by damning the City. And there are hints of the corruptive force of the City in the novel, notably in Wynand’s experience of tenements, rotting wharves, and a Hell’s Kitchen from which he can never escape. But Rand redeems the City through the Natural Man and his works, demonstrating that the City does not have to be corrupt.
Roark loves the City, but notice that when he needs “recharging,” he heads for the country and especially to water: the cliff and lake near Stanton while he is in college, to the beach with Dominique during their initial love affair, to the lake on Wynand’s estate, and out in the ocean on Wynand’s yacht during the successful phase of his career. The only sport we see him engage in is both solitary and set in nature: swimming (always in a natural body of water, not in a swimming pool). He tells Wynand and Dominique that he wants to die some day stretched out on a shore, i.e. returning to the water. Water is a life-generating element for Roark, who is connected to both the man-made and the natural worlds.
Water is an emblem not only for Roark but also for Dominique. She wears dresses fragile like ice. She goes out onto the ocean on Wynand’s yacht. Her thick blond hair, cut like a helmet, moves like a heavy liquid. The glass objects on her dressing table look like ice crystals. When Dominique finally achieves her victory over fear she is lying by a lake. She is shown studying the trees and the sunlight as it reflects off the water. In an echo of the scene with the boy on the bike, right down to the sun-dappling, she realizes that the beautiful background that is the earth does not belong to second-handers like Wynand, but to people like herself and Roark—and she finally becomes capable of loving it. Could we say that her ice had melted?
The nature motifs in The Fountainhead are far too numerous to be mere coincidence. For example, at Roark’s trial the City stands visible through the courtroom window, framed by a tree branch. Wynand is reminded of a moment when Roark used the potential of a tree branch in his hands to illustrate that the meaning of life lies in working the materials the earth gives us, while Dominique thinks of the earth as man’s background.
(One could multiply these examples almost to the point of absurdity: Young Ellsworth Toohey, second-hander par excellence, is described as having a prodigious memory for names and dates—human artifacts—but as “not too good at mathematics, which he disliked.” This makes sense: Toohey’s world is other people, not nature, and as Galileo said, the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics.)
In the final chapter of the novel, the “epilogue,” Dominique visits the unfinished Wynand Building. It is spring again. The building is set in the middle of a park (a patch of nature, but shaped by man). The building appears to her as the fire at the core of the earth that Roark loves bursting out to freedom. The novel ends as it begins, with a tableau of Roark, sky, stone and water. But now Roark is not alone, having Dominique to adore him, and instead of being naked in the woods, he is clothed and on top of a building he has designed in the middle of a great city. The arc from the initial tableau to the final tableau represents Rand’s thesis that the man-made is a development of the natural—and its culmination.
The man-and-nature sub-theme of The Fountainhead is well-integrated with the other elements of the novel. It buttresses the image of Roark being the First Man, who deals with nature without the mediation of others, while the Artificial Men who think and live through others are ugly parasites. It allows Rand to show the meaning of life as working with the material nature gives us. It obviously ties in with the use of architecture in the story. And it is a potent symbol of Rand’s atheism/naturalism because it directs man toward the earth, even as it shows man’s works to be the completion of nature, taking Nietzsche’s idea of remaining faithful to the earth and doing it one better. All of these building blocks support and ornament the main theme of individualism versus collectivism in men’s souls.
Just as integration is Howard Roark’s principle of construction, never allowing him to separate setting, materials or purpose from the building as a whole, so too was integration Ayn Rand’s principle as a writer. As a philosopher she was unwilling to detach man from his proper setting, which is the natural world, as opposed to the supernatural or purely social world. As a novelist she uses the motif-system of man and nature to integrate The Fountainhead, tying together its theme, its characters, its architectural setting, its allusions to Nietzsche, its small touches, and its unique sense of life.
Although it could never be said that Ayn Rand was an environmentalist “nature-worshipper,” it is clear from her use of the man-and-nature sub-theme in The Fountainhead that her description of her intellectual system as “a philosophy for living on earth” was meant as the literal truth and not as a mere figure of speech. In The Fountainhead we see a man-made object almost as rich as nature herself.
If you liked this essay, you might also like my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life