This is the first book by Ayn Rand book that I’ve read, and despite being initially put-off by the length, this is very interesting and enjoyable novel to read. It is an epic book, worthy of its length, and even though it was written in the 1940s, it is about timeless truths and has relevance for us today.
Knowing of Ayn Rand’s reputation, it was not a great surprise to find that the book is about the individual versus the collective, with the enemy of socialism. As she sees, this is not a one-off battle, but an ongoing fight, where even if the socialist can be stopped in the short term, they will keep trying another way.
My only disagreement with this book, would be in Rand’s atheist world-view and so in my mind she has too high a view of how man’s self-esteem should be, but otherwise I find it a very powerful novel and great insight into the dangers to society of socialism.
The book is in four parts, each with a different character taking the focus of that section, but all the characters still have large involvement in each section. The book starts off with the focus on two architects, the hero of the whole book, Howard Roark, who is expelled from college as he will not follow the instructions and produce work in the required styles, but only wants to design based on how he sees things, and thinks they should be built; and Peter Keating, top of the class, someone who’ll do anything to build his own career and image, but lacking the creativity and understanding of Roark.
As the book goes on we follow these two characters but also get to know others, including Dominique Francon, Ellsworth Toohey and Gail Wynand.
Toohey is the villain of the book, a socialist, who works subtlety to promote his cause, using others, even if they aren’t aware of his purpose, and not caring if they end up unhappy, so long as they are doing what he thinks is best. He has a strong dislike for Roark, as the individual who wants to create new things and who won’t conform.
Toohey ultimately wants power over all. He needs people to be a crowd all looking to each other for approval, and hates those like Roark.
Wynand is a supporter of Roark. He has built himself up from nothing, to own a successful media empire. The unpleasant side of him is that he has in him a strong desire to control of others, but he finds his match in Roark, and they become great friends.
I find Dominique the hardest character to understand. The heroine of the novel, and Roark’s lover, she has a contempt and hatred for the world. She reacts to this by submitting herself to do what she thinks the world wants of her, punishing herself, and Roark who she loves.
Going back to Roark, he is a heroic individual. He will only do things his way, and won’t compromise on anything at all. He divides people of the world into creators and second-handers. The book ends with a wonderful speech by Roark on this topic; he sees that man can create great things, or be pitiful, looking only to copy the ideas of others, and impede anything new or different to that. We have earlier seen this in his architectural work, where he will only work if he can create the design entirely on his own and without any input from anyone else, or otherwise he will not be involved.