by Ayn Rand
I don’t think I understood this book.
I understood parts of it. The hero, Howard Roark, is intended, I think, to represent the ideal man in Ayn Rand’s terms: he is self-made, dependent upon no one else, answers to no one but himself, acts for no other reason than his self-interest. He is not selfish in that he does not take things that he does not earn, does not steal from others nor hoard things that others would find valuable; he does not seek to impose his ideas on anyone else. He is a mix of what I would call an artist and what Rand would call an artist, in that she puts a higher premium on production and industry than I do, and thus Roark’s art – architecture – is seen as grander, by Rand than it is by me, because Roark erects man’s greatest achievement, in Rand’s view: the skyscraper. The city. I don’t know that I see cities as the ideal human creation, but I agree that architecture is an art with a particularly elemental aspect, in that architects build our homes, build our places, and thus have great influence on our lives. I can live with that as a sort of pinnacle of value.
(By the way: it isn’t that I would argue that architecture is a lesser art than, say, literature or music or painting; it’s just that art has to have an impact on the viewer to achieve its highest, or deepest, effect, and for me personally, a building doesn’t have the same magic as the perfect poem or song or painting. Totally subjective. Speaking of subjective, Rand keeps trying to pawn off Roark’s architectural style as the perfect ideal, and I don’t see it that way; she’s clearly a fan of Modern architecture, and I like several styles. Unimportant but kind of annoying while I was reading.)
The villain, Ellsworth Toohey, is the opposite of Roark. He lives entirely through others, but focused on himself in a purely selfish, greedy, and therefore evil manner: Toohey seeks to control others, to force them to obey his whims, for no other reason than because he desires that control (Rand hints, as she states more clearly in Atlas Shrugged, that by denying his own self-interest, what Toohey really wants both for others and for himself, is death. Okay.). He uses public opinion, which he can sway, to intimidate or extort others until they obey him; if they will not, he tries to use it to destroy them. He tries to destroy Roark because Roark can’t be controlled, because Roark doesn’t care about public opinion. (One of the best exchanges in this book is when Toohey, having used his manipulative wiles to screw up Roark’s life, catches Roark alone and says, “You can tell me what you think of me,” because he thrives on hatred and envy and bile. To which Roark responds, “But I don’t think of you.” That was a great line.) But because Roark doesn’t care about public opinion – because he lives only for his own happiness, using only his own reason to determine his value – Toohey’s attempts to destroy Roark do not work. Roark, like the honey badger, doesn’t give a shit. I appreciate that. I can even admire it.
The other character I understood was Peter Keating. Keating is not the opposite of Roark, but the negative of Roark: he cares only for public opinion. He never uses his own standards, nor even his own ability to accomplish anything; like Toohey, he excels at manipulation, and Keating uses that manipulation to worm his way into people’s trust and then take credit for their work. He is supremely successful because of that, and absolutely miserable: the opposite of Roark. (Keating too is an architect.)
I got all of that. I could appreciate that story, of Keating competing with Roark and not really understanding why he feels like he’s losing even though he wins every award, every contract, every accolade that he and Roark both try for. I could appreciate the story of the evil Ellsworth Toohey trying to destroy the good Howard Roark, and Roark essentially winning that fight even though Toohey is appallingly effective at manipulation, just because Roark doesn’t care what anyone else thinks, and because he is good enough at what he does for the quality of his work to show through despite what the critics have to say about it (Among other things, Toohey is the premiere critic of architecture in the book.).
What I didn’t get, though, was the love story. The female protagonist is named Dominique Francon: she is the daughter of Peter Keating’s boss and predecessor as most-successful-but-least-actually-talented architect, and she is, like Toohey, a critic of architecture. She is also, like Roark, a Randian ideal in that she thinks for herself and cares not at all what others think of her. She enters into relationships as a self-interested party offering value for value, which is how Rand says that love should work.
The problem is that she loves Howard Roark. It wouldn’t be a problem, because Roark is the ideal man and therefore of course she loves him, except: their relationship starts when Roark rapes her. Straight up, not simply according to my overly-sensitive interpretation; Roark breaks into her house at night and rapes her, and when she refers to it later, she says “He raped me.” And then they love each other. They love each other so much, in fact, that Dominique leaves Roark and marries Peter Keating. Who, because she does not at all love him, she does not respond to, turning into a lifeless mannequin whenever he touches her (A particularly distasteful element that Rand also played up in Atlas Shrugged, with one of the female villains in that book.). Now, Dominique does this ostensibly because she can’t stand to watch Roark go through the crap he has to deal with from Toohey and all of his allies as they try to destroy his reputation and therefore the man himself, but I really don’t get it. I don’t get why she marries Keating, I don’t get why she then leaves him and marries Gail Wynand (who I also don’t get), and I don’t get why she loves Roark after he raped her. I don’t get what Rand is trying to say with all of this. I don’t get why Dominique is the ideal woman when her major quality seems to be her unearthly beauty (Which, as an unimportant side note, I also couldn’t see simply because Rand’s idea of beauty is not mine: Dominique is tall and thin and pale and cold and has hair that is repeatedly compared to a helmet complete with metallic sheen. But that’s neither here nor there: if she had been described as my ideal imaginary woman, I still wouldn’t understand her actions or role in the book.) and her determination to leave the man she loves and marry a man she loathes. I don’t get how that’s good.
My problem with the book is that the parts I didn’t get took too much away from the parts I did get. I can’t root for Roark when he’s a rapist. I can’t root for Dominique when I don’t know why she does what she does. I can’t root for Toohey or Keating when I do understand that they’re scum. I would actually root for Gail Wynand, who is a badass and also a Randian ideal: he is self-interested, motivated, hard-working, and entirely self-made. It seems that his failing that makes him a flawed character is that he has built an empire based on public opinion rather than his own ideals and reason. Wynand sought power, and he found it along with wealth by becoming William Randolph Hearst: he owns all of the trashiest, most sensational, and most successful newspapers in the country. In the second half of the book, Toohey goes after Wynand (Because Wynand has power that Toohey wants), and Wynand is finally destroyed by Toohey, though Wynand makes it a Pyrrhic victory for Toohey. I’m not sure why Wynand loses, though. Rand shows how manipulating public opinion, and really socking home the idea that altruism is the only good and anyone who is wealthy is greedy and therefore vile and selfish, can destroy an empire; that’s how Toohey takes Wynand down. But I think Wynand is not supposed to be a victim, here: he is somehow partly responsible for his downfall. He used his papers to manipulate public opinion in order to garner power, and that is finally turned against him; I suppose that is his evil, his tragic flaw. But I feel that undercuts the message of Toohey’s villainy, and it made me unsure if I should be mad at Toohey or Wynand. And then there’s the fact that Wynand falls in love with Dominique, and she marries him and loves him on some level – but then drops him like a hot rock and goes back to her rapist. (And I feel like I’m supposed to appreciate how Dominique can look past the fact of her rape, and therefore I’m being like a stick in the mud or a prude or something by harping on this. And if so, well, bite me.) So is this more evidence that Wynand is flawed and I’m supposed to admire Roark more than Wynand? I don’t. I see Wynand’s evil side, in his abuse of power; but I see Roark’s evil side in his abuse of Dominique. And Dominique’s evil side in her betrayal of – well, everyone, in one way or another; particularly herself.
Basically, I dislike everyone in this book, and so I can’t see the ideal aspect I’m supposed to appreciate and try to emulate. I was not made happy by the happy ending.
So I figure, either I didn’t understand the book well enough to appreciate it, or I did understand it, and it’s pretty much evil crap. Either way, I can’t recommend it.
I invite anyone who feels they can explain the book to me to do so. I completely accept that I am not a fair judge of it because I didn’t really get it, and I would like to understand it even if I still don’t agree with it, should that be the case.