A representation of his creator's romantic ideal, Roark is tall and
strong, all straight angles, like the structures he builds. He's a
student when we meet him in the New York of the 1920s, standing
naked on a cliff, laughing, staring down into the caverns of granite
that beckon below---the raw material for his buildings-to-be. He's
an original, and the dean sends him packing.
Others will stay on because they have learned to mimic the
traditional styles, but Roark will have none of it. He'll succeed on
his own terms and no others---although, under the wing of architect
Henry Cameron, he learns that such success comes at great cost.
Cameron is a
bitter man. He warns Roark that survival is not possible in a city
ruled by Gail Wynand, publisher of The
New York Banner, a vulgar, mass-circulation tabloid that
dictates popular tastes. With no commissions coming his way, Roark
takes a job in a quarry---and pretty soon he's locking stares with
Dominique Francon, a Banner columnist
who just happens to be the daughter of the country's most prominent
She sees him, drill in hand, all sweaty, and there's no turning
back. The sex explodes in a "rape by engraved invitation," as Rand
would later call it; the scene risked irritating the censors in King
Vidor's 1949 film version of Rand's 1943 novel, but it clearly
didn't irritate Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, who were steaming it
up off-screen as well as on.
Francon eventually discovers who Roark is, only after he has
designed the innovative Enright House, which becomes the focal point
of public fury. She begs Roark to renounce architecture, for she
can't bear the thought that he might be destroyed by those who
protest his work. Not until the novel's end does she fully respect
her lover's courage, taking his hand in marriage.
architectural critic, Ellsworth Toohey, instigates the protests.
Spouting humanitarian platitudes, he urges everyone to sacrifice
"selflessly" for a higher good, all the while conniving for personal
power. Toohey recognizes---and mocks---Roark's greatness, stirring up a
public outcry against the architect's "monstrosities."
Roark is undeterred. He'll design anything from skyscrapers to
hotels to temples to gas stations, so long as he can build in his
own way. This leads him into a deal with former school classmate
Peter Keating, who desperately wants a commission to design a
cost-effective, low-rent housing project called the Cortlandt Homes.
Roark has perfected plans for cheap, good-quality housing, but he
knows the influential Toohey will block him from getting the
commission, so he allows Keating to submit the plans as if they were
Keating must only promise that the project be built exactly as Roark
specifies. Smelling Roark's ingenuity, however, Toohey is not
fooled. He helps engineer the alteration of Roark's designs---and
leaves Roark with no recourse but to dynamite the disfigured
In Rand's version of the Trial of the Century, it is American
individualism that has been indicted---and must be vindicated.
however, Roark has a surprising new ally: Wynand, who recognizes an
inspiring and incorruptible soul and attempts to sway public opinion
in Roark's defense. But Wynand soon discovers that he is less
influential than he believed: Banner circulation
dwindles, Toohey leads an employee rebellion, Wynand capitulates.
And Howard Roark is left to argue his own case.
He does this with a psalm to all the martyred creators in human
"Thousands of years ago, the first man discovered how to make fire.
He was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to
Creators, says Roark, are not "second-handers," not parasites on the
achievements of others; they are self-motivated and independent;
they have a right to exist for their own sake. The gallant Roark is
acquitted of all criminal charges, and he agrees to rebuild
Cortlandt Homes according to plan.
Rand---who immigrated to the U.S. in 1926 after escaping Soviet
communism---faced similar challenges. She was scorned by left-wing
critics for her admiration of capitalism and by right-wing critics
for her atheism. She nonetheless would sell millions of books,
influencing philosophers, psychologists, entrepreneurs and even a
future chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.
At the end of the story, as in the beginning, Roark stands atop a
cliff. But this is a cliff of his own making, of girders and steel.
It is the peak of the construction site for the Wynand Building, the
tallest skyscraper in New York, which means the tallest building in
all the world. It is but another icon placed on the grand altar that
is New York's skyline, "the will of man made visible."