When I came across this novel after my teacher generously gave my eleventh grade English class all of the copies she had purchased with the intent of assigning it as required reading, little did I know the value of the literary gem I had just acquired. The struggle of the brilliant architect, Howard Roark in striving to pursue his passion according to his set of uncompromising standards laid out in each of his projects conflicts with the contemporary expectations of what great architecture should look like and thus places him before the brunt of scorn from the public. But he refuses to sacrifice his own artistic integrity just to bend to their demands or gain wealth. He is the very embodiment of human perfection for he seeks neither to influence nor please others with his work. His is the judge of his own work and sets his own standards.
The novel essentially poses a moral dilemma by juxtaposing Howard with his antithesis, Peter Keating. Peter lives only to please others and to elevate his own popularity by doing so. He’s obsessed with how others perceive him and constantly fears what should happen to him if his esteem in their eyes diminishes, which leads him to loathe his work since he takes no personal pleasure in it. He sacrificed everything that made life enjoyable to him in his race to secure a so called “successful” career. Ayn Rand identifies this process as the corrosion of his soul. Alternately Roark is obstinate and unyielding to the expectations of others and is altogether immune to self-consciousness altogether. It is his inherent loyalty to himself, what some would define as selfish, that preserves his soul throughout the duration of the novel, making him the ultimate protagonist who triumphs over a world heel bent on destroying the symbol of individualism that he represents.
Keating lives his entire life off the ideas of others – men like Ellsworth Toohey, who use their influence over others as evidence of their ‘greatness’. He chose to live according to the expectations others have of him – like his mother, from whom he learned to second guess any idea he might be inclined to act upon. When he enters Roark’s office, it is apparent that his psychological dependency – a primitive need to use others in his benefit just so that he can continue to live another day in the apple of the public’s eye- has left him incapable and unwilling to even attempt to tackle the Cortland Project on his own.
Unlike Roark, Keating never ‘decided’ to become an architect in the literal meaning of the word. He does not have the compulsion to design or the desire to become involved in the building process, beyond the question of how the finished product will appeal to his peers and in turn, elevating his supposed ‘greatness.’ All Keating sees in the occupation is the connotation affiliated with the word ‘architecture.’ In the minds of the incompetent, this field of study is synonymous with shelter, which everyone including the incompetent needs to survive. In Keating’s mind, if it appeases both the competent and the incompetent, then it must be an accomplishment. He never forces himself to stand back, analyze his blueprints and think, “Wait a minute, there’s a better solution for this problem” before he pawns it off to the next man for review. Tragically, he has been taught to not trust himself to think rationally about his work by striving to please everyone but himself with the final product.
Whereas Roark invests all of his time and energy into meeting the challenge and solving each problem that arises from a project with his own intellect, Keating’s concerns himself only with how he ‘should’ design according to what he thinks people will praise him for. He will go out of his way to avoid spending more time than he has to on any one project. If he cannot solve a problem, he passes it on to someone else. For him, it was never a question of interest or passion that prompted him to study architecture – only one of fame.
It is this manner of living that Roark calls “selling your soul”: For a man to allow himself to dumb down his ability just so that he can appeal the sensitivities of other men at the expense of the personal value he places in a project. While he may obtain the things that the world can give a man who ignores his aspirations to satisfy the ignorant, the stupid, and the unreasonable, he will have accomplished nothing worthy of respect in the end. He cannot claim to be an individual anymore than a rock could claim to be a pillow. His life will end in nothing because he proved ultimately that he valued nothing by mimicking the thoughts of others, of men who delude themselves they are “making a change” but at the end day know they are miserable, without possessing a single original thought to claim as their own.
When a man sells his soul, he surrenders his will power; he forfeits his right to think logically, to think freely, and to live for the fulfillment of his own happiness.
This is definitely a must have for any reader who claims to be a connoisseur of all the world’s literary classics. It is my all-time favorite novel and I would love to read the novel suggested by anyone who challenges its position as the best book ever written.
By Rachel Ford, staff member