The Good: One thing that makes The Fountainhead considerably more palatable, to my way of thinking, than Atlas Shrugged is that, although its hard to regard Roark and Wynand and Toohey as real human beings, Rand at least attempts to make us care about Roark and Wynand, and make us horrified at Toohey. Roarks' stainless integrity, his lonely battle against ingrained stupidity and corruption, resembles the similar stance taken by Cyrano de Bergerac in Edmond Rostand's famous play of that name. Moreover, Rand's characterizations of her three main characters is more ambitious and less ideological than what we run across with the heroes and villians in Atlas Shrugged. She has fun introducing biographical anecdotes of Wynand and Toohey. Reading about the reactions of these characters to various episodes throughout the novel provides diversion.
Perhaps the most palatable aspects of The Fountainhead involve something Rand is not generally known for. I have in mind some of the satirical sections, where she makes fun of things she doesn't like. While she does the same thing in Atlas, in the latter novel, her satire comes off as too portentous and moralistic. The satire in The Fountainhead features a lighter touch and is more imaginative. Consider the following passage concerning Lois Cook (based on Gertrude Stein) and the "Council of American Writers":
Lois Cook was chairman of the Council of American Writers. It met in the drawing room of her home on the Bowery. She was the only famous member. The rest included a woman who never used capitals in her books, and a man who never used commas; a youth who had written a thousand-page novel without a single letter o, and another who wrote poems than neither rhymed nor scanned; a man with a beard, who was sophisticated and proved it by using every unprintable four-letter work in every ten pages of his manuscript; a woman who imitated Lois Cook, except that her style was less clear; when asked for explanations she stated that this was the way life sounded to her, when broken by the prism of her subconscious—"You know what a prism does to a ray of light, don't you?" she said. There was also a fierce young man known simply as Ike the Genius, though nobody knew just what he had done, except that he talked about loving life.
The council signed a declaration which stated that writers were servants of the proletariat—but that statement did not sound as simple as that; it was more involved and much longer....
Rand then introduces another Council:
The Council of America Artists had, as chairman, a cadaverous youth who painted what he saw in his nightly dreams. There was a boy who used no canvas, but did something with bird cages and metronomes, and another who discovered a new technique of painting: he blackened a sheet of paper and then painted with a rubber eraser. There was a stout middle-aged lady who drew subconsciously, claiming that she never looked at her hand and had no idea what the hand was doing; her hand, she said, was guided by the spirit of the departed lover whom she had never met on earth. [313-314]
Looking back at The Fountainhead, it's the satirical sections that, to my mind, leave the best impression.
The Bad: Rand prided herself on her ability to develop gripping plots. In many ways, this talent of hers is in full display throughout the course of the novel. However, what often happens with gripping plots is that they racket up the tension only to give way to an satisfying climax and denouement. The Fountainhead disappoints with its portentous and unconvincing climax. Rand has her hero, Roark, anonymously design the Cortlandt housing project, under Peter Keatings name. As a stipulation for doing the design, Roark makes Keating promise that the design won't be changed. When the design is nonetheless changed, Roark dynamites the building and is arrested. In his trial, after giving a long and tendentious speech (although thankfully not as long and tendentious as Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged), Roark is acquitted.
There are a number of things that are deeply problematic with all of this which is representative with what is wrong with the novel in general. The first problem is the insane level of Roark's integrity. It may start out as somewhat inspiring, but in the end, Rand takes it to such absurd extremes that it begins to verge toward narcism and self indulgence. Moreover, it should be kept in mind that if everyone attempted to behave like Roark, and insisted on always getting their way when it came to "their" vision, society would quickly descend into a war of all against all. An individual who wishes to maintain a given level of integrity must do so with certain amount of judgment, knowing when it's appropriate to be loyal to the purity of one's visions and when it is merely eccentricity and pretentiousness. It's not clear that Roark meets that standard in the climatic scene in the book, where he uses integrity as an excuse to engage in a dangerous act of vandalism.
The trial scene also suffers from a strong sense of unrealism and deus ex machina. Rand wants the book to end triumphantly, so she needs a "not guilty" verdict. But how can she manage that? Roark is clearly guilty of an act vandalism; he admits as much in his speech at the trial. So why would a jury declare him not guilty? Rand attempts to lend an aura of plausibility to the scene by explaining how Roark had chosen "the hardest faces," rather than the "gentlest types," for the jury. Somehow we are supposed to believe that a "tough" jury would have let Roark off. Rand clearly didn't understand that tough-minded people are often great sticklers on points of law, and are not likely to be taken in by mere patter, no matter how eloquent.
It should also be noted that the trial verdict is hardly the only deeply implausible event in the novel, just the one that sticks out the most.
The Ugly. And then there's the rape scene, probably the most infamous scene in all of Rand's writings. Rand is famous for her excesses, in both her fiction and her philosophy, but she really out-does herself here.
What is particularly odd and even disconcerting about the rape scene is that Roark, in the novel, is presented not merely as a hero, but as an "ideal man"—someone to be respected, admired, imitated, even worshipped. If we are to take the scene seriously, then it's difficult not to make the following assumption: namely, that the ideal man, assuming he has reason to believe that a woman he fancies desires him, can skip the formalities of wooing and courtship and go straight to the sex. He doesn't even need to bother with attaining the woman's explicit consent beforehand! After all, as Rand would later insist, such behavior was not really "rape," but rather "rape by engraved invitation." Real rape (i.e., rape lacking the all important—but merely metaphorical—"engraved invitation") would, Rand assured us, constitute a "dreadful crime." Well, that's a relief!
Perhaps what's most disturbing in all this is the poor judgment Rand evinced in writing the scene and putting it into her novel. The Fountainhead was supposed to be the author's paean to the heroic in man. This being so, did Rand really believe that her "rape by engraved invitation" made Roark more heroic, more of an ideal man? Would she have wished to be "raped" in such a manner? I would hazard to guess that, had she actually been subjected to such behavior by any man, ideal or not, the author of The Fountainhead would have been deeply mortified. The rape scene not only fails as a projection of an ideal, it fails in terms of Rand's own self-knowledge. Perhaps some women really do fantasy about "rape by engraved invitation"; and perhaps Rand was one of those women. But is there any woman, however deranged and removed from all sense of reality, who would want such a thing to happen to them, not in the world of dreams and fantasies, but in the brute world of fact?