I read this book when I was in 11th grade and I have read it a countless times since then. I have always wondered about the secret of its appeal. Most people think of it as a brilliant satire. It talks about how we celebrate mediocrity but fail to reward greatness and originality. It communicates this through five principal characters. Howard Roark the hero of this book. He is a brilliant architect who believes that a building should have integrity. He is original and talented at the same time uncompromising. He does not believe in adding frills to a building just to make it look beautiful. Everything about a building should serve a purpose. At the other end is Peter Keating who is every thing which Roark is not? He possesses no great talent or originality, believes in playing to the gallery and copying other great works of architecture. You can guess who is the more successful of the two! Ayn Rand brings out the stark contrast between the two characters in a brilliant dialog
No man likes to be beaten. But to be beaten by the man who has stood as the particular example of mediocrity in his eyes, to start by the side of this mediocrity and see it shoot up, while he struggles and gets nothing, to see the mediocrity snatch from him, the chances that he did give his life for, to see mediocrity worshipped, to lose, to be sacrificed, to be ignored and beaten not by a greater genius, not by god, but by Peter Keating. Do you think the Spanish inquisition ever thought of a torture to equal this?
Then there is Dominique Francon, a newspaper women and the daughter of a very famous architect. She is in love with Roark and appalled by the way the world treats him. Ellsworth Toohey, another newspaper man, who wants to control the world by preventing independent thought. Finally, Gail Waynand, my favorite character in this book. He is a media baron. He owns the largest newspaper chain in the country. He is a man of great intelligence and refinement. Yet he achieves success by compromising his integrity, by writing not what he believes but what appeals to the majority.
There is something timeless and larger than life about each of this characters. The more I think about it, the more I feel that it is not just a satire. It’s genre is mythology. The story is written like the epic struggles between the gods and the demons. Like the gods and demons the characters in this book understand the working of the world and can determine its destiny. These characters do things which would be quite unacceptable for mere mortals. And just like mythology, this story sells a philosophy, the philosophy of selfishness. The importance of putting our own selves before anyone else. Maybe, this is one of the reasons for it’s appeal. Most of us are selfish most of the time and it feels good when someone says it is the right thing to do . There are many dramatic moments in the book. Like the first time Dominique and Gail meet. The conversation between them is brilliant.
Once Gail presents Dominique with a beautiful diamond necklace set in platinum. She tells him, “The story of the Bronx housewife who murdered her husband’s young mistress is pretty sordid. But I think there is something even dirtier, the curiosity of people who like to read about it. And I think there is something dirtier still – the people who pander to that curiosity. Actually it was the Bronx housewife who made this necklace possible, I shall be proud to wear it”
Gail replies, “That is one way of looking at it. There’s another. I like to think that I took the worst refuse of human spirit, the Bronx house wife and the minds of people who like to read about her and made of it this necklace on your shoulders. I like to think I was an alchemist capable of performing so great a purification”.
Ayn Rand is a brilliant writer. As you read the book, you feel like you are being let in on a huge secret. It is just you and the characters in the book, the rest of the world is out of it. She does it by means of subtle statements which leave a lot unsaid and makes you think you have figured out the meaning yourself. It is full of symbolisms. And just like most mythological stories, it has an enduring quality; you can read it a million times and still want more.
It is one of those great books that can never leave you untouched.