Howard Roark stands naked at the edge of a granite cliff overlooking a lake. He sees himself as part of the harmonious view and thinks about what he will have to do that day. He also sees each thing as the building material it provides, waiting for him. He dives into the lake as usual, ever since he arrived at the Stanton Institute of Technology. This is his last swim because he has been expelled. As Roark walks through the town of Stanton, he passes placards celebrating the graduation of the class of '22.
On the porch of his boardinghouse, Roark meets his landlady, Mrs. Keating, who tries to commiserate with him over his expulsion. She comments that he will have to give up architecture and become some kind of clerk. She also tells him that the dean wants to see him. Mrs. Keating then rhapsodizes about her son Petey, who is graduating today from Stanton. Insisting that she does not like to brag, she declares that "if that boy isn't the greatest architect of this U.S.A., his mother will want to know the reason why!"
Roark goes upstairs to start packing, but he gets distracted while putting away his architectural drawings. He suddenly has an idea how to fix a drawing that he has never been happy with, so he sits down to work. A bit later Mrs. Keating comes in and is shocked to discover that he has not left. He washes his face and departs despite her protestations that he cannot go to see the dean dressed as he is.
Roark walks one last time into the Institute, built to resemble a medieval fortress. He enters the dean's office, which resembles a chapel. The dean tells Roark about the vote to expel him on no apparent ground. Roark learns that the dean abstained from the vote and that several of his teachers had ardently defended him--but Professor Peterkin, Roark's design professor, had insisted that he would resign if Roark were not expelled.
The dean encourages Roark to explain why he refuses to fulfill his assignments and design buildings in classical, time-tested styles. He suggests that after a year Roark could reapply to the school and finish his education, but Roark defends his decision to design things in his own way--whether he was supposed to design a medieval church or a gothic cathedral. He tells the dean that he has nothing more to learn from the school, so he has no intention of returning.
Roark explains his architectural philosophy: "the purpose, the site, the material determine the shape" of a building. He states simply that the days of classical design are over. He intends to have his own clients so that he may build as he sees fit. The dean becomes so angry that he tells Roark that the committee was right to expel him. Roark leaves the office, almost immediately forgetting their conversation, distracted by another image of a drawing with his signature shining in the corner.
Guy Francon, the Institute's most successful graduate, is giving the graduation oration. He speaks about "the three eternal entities: Truth, Love and Beauty," wishes the graduates "rich, active careers," and cautions them against originality for originality's sake. A list of Guy Francon's honors, titles, and awards substantiates his position as the leading architect of the day, and as he walks to the hall for the graduation ceremony, he remembers that he designed this room twenty years before.
At the ceremony the narrative turns to Peter Keating, a startlingly handsome boy who is graduating first in his class. Peter is immensely pleased with his success, moreso because he is aware that he was almost bested by a boy named Shlinker. Along with his diploma, Peter is awarded a four-year scholarship to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. As professors and classmates crowd around him to offer their congratulations, Guy Francon himself shakes Peter's hand and reminds Peter that he has a job in Francon's firm if he wants it. Peter's feelings continue to alternate between a glowing sense of his own accomplishments and vague unease at the possibility that others are more deserving than he. He gets some relief from remembering that Roark has been expelled, although this thought also brings guilty feelings, for Roark has always been perfectly kind to Peter, even helping him with his drafting exercises. But Peter is quick to shake off such reflections.
At the class banquet, Peter Keating gives a speech where he echoes the ideas expressed earlier by Francon. On his way out, several boys from his class stop Keating and tell him that they will pick him up in a few hours for a real celebratory dinner in Boston. Keating heads home to see his mother, and as he walks he thinks about what she had to sacrifice to help him make his way. Without him to think about, Mrs. Keating would never have taken in boarders. As he thinks about his childhood, Peter remembers that he once thought of being an artist, but his mother had suggested architecture instead.
Keating seeks Roark sitting on the front porch and is happy to see him, for he wants Roark's advice. When he sees Peter, Roark congratulates him, and Peter becomes a bit embarrassed when he realizes that his mother has been going on about him. He hesitatingly asks Roark's advice about choosing between the scholarship and Guy Francon's job offer. Roark's immediate response is that Peter should never ask anyone for advice; he needs to decide for himself. Before Peter can press him for an answer, Mrs. Keating sees them on the porch and insists they come inside and have the cookies and hot chocolate that she has prepared in honor of Peter.
Once inside, Mrs. Keating asks Peter what they were discussing, and Peter begins pressing Roark to answer his question. Peter offers reasons for both courses of action, hoping to elicit some response from Roark, but he is distracted when his mother offers to leave the room so they can have this important discussion in peace. Though he wishes he could agree that she should leave the room, instead Peter asks her what she thinks he should do.
Mrs. Keating tells Peter that he might as well move to Paris to study, but of course Guy Francon will have to take someone else to fill the job--he will probably take Shlinker. This possibility upsets Peter, who turns once again to Roark for guidance. Reclining on the couch, Roark finally comments that the job with Francon is the lesser of two evils because at least Peter will be building something rather than spending four more years drawing imitations of the Parthenon. He casually mentions that Peter sometimes does good work and that four years in Paris would probably ruin him. Peter is very pleased by this compliment and becomes much more relaxed now that Roark has given him this advice.
As Mrs. Keating goes to get their food, Peter asks Howard about his plans. Roark tells him he is moving to New York to work for Henry Cameron. Peter is horrified, insisting that Roark is making a terrible mistake, for Cameron is considered totally washed up. Roark insists that his future lies with Cameron, but when Peter asks what Cameron said to him, Roark comments that he never met him.
Just then Peter is distracted by a car horn, and he rushes upstairs to change, assuring his mother that he will just be going into Boston with some friends and will return later to celebrate his decision to work for Francon. As Peter hurriedly throws on his clothes, he suddenly decides to wire a girl named Katie about his decision to move to New York. That night as he rides into Boston, Peter envisions his future, certain that a great destiny lies before him.
Peter arrives at Francon & Heyer for his first day of work, aware of how much he has to learn about life in New York. Peter is immensely struck by the rich, beautiful design of the building with everything done in the classical style. Immediately the head draftsman directs him to put on the uniform grey smock of the draftsmen and sets him to work expanding someone else's design. Peter wonders how he ever thought he could become an architect, but he shortly looks around the room and feels reassured by the flawed appearances of the men around him.
Peter takes another look at the design, sees where he went wrong, and begins to work with much more confidence. By lunchtime Peter has begun to feel more friendly towards the other draftsmen, and he learns from a tall blond boy that Francon no longer does any of the designs for the firm. Everything important is handled by a man named Stengel.
Later that afternoon, after Guy Francon arrives in the office, Stengel sends Peter up to show him some plans. As Peter approaches Francon's desk, he is struck by the shiny, reflective quality of the office. Francon chats with him, calling him Kitterage and complaining about his hangover from too much champagne the night before. When Peter tells him that Stengel sent him up, Francon becomes irritated and confides in Peter that Stengel takes too much pride in the fact that he is a good designer. He continues to complain that Stengel does not realize what hard work it is to go to parties and secure commissions for the firm. Peter suggests a slogan that would make an appropriate comment at a party, and Francon is so pleased with it that he openly writes it down.
When Francon finally looks at the plans, Peter Keating realizes he is barely taking them in. Peter tactfully suggests that a change should be made in the design, implying that Stengel needs to be taken down a notch or two. Francon is clearly pleased by his attitude and approves of his suggestions, sending him away with a piece of sartorial advice. As he makes his way back to the drafting room, Peter sees an associate ushering in a client, and for a moment he imagines that the associate is rolling out a red carpet, bowing to her, and fanning her all at the same time.
The narrator next describes the Frink National Bank Building, an architectural monument to classical design down to its marble exterior, which has turned a moldy green in the New York City air, and then turns to the Dana Building, devoid of ornament or column, which few people ever noticed, though the people who worked inside it claimed that it was the most perfectly designed building in the world. This building was the brainchild of Henry Cameron, who had ruled the New York architecture scene in the 1880s. He had been able to pick and choose his commissions, and no one had dared disagree with his designs. This all changed in 1893 with the opening of the Columbian Exposition of Chicago. The Columbian Exposition housed a city of classical replicas from Greece and Rome, and it proved so popular that from that day forth all anyone wanted in an architectural design was as many columns and friezes as could be squeezed onto an exterior.
Thus, Henry Cameron was ruined. As his clients disappeared, he was forced to move his office again and again, looking for cheaper rent. He had chosen this last location because it was the only building that he could afford where he could glimpse the Dana Building from the window.
Henry Cameron's difficulties had been exacerbated by his arrogant, dictatorial manner even toward customers. As his commissions decreased, he began to drink, and he eventually ruined his reputation completely. Roark enters this office and tells a downtrodden-looking man that he wants to see Cameron about a job. Surprised, the man walks into Cameron's office and repeats the request.
Roark eventually notices a picture of a skyscraper on the wall. After Roark repeats his request for a job, Cameron rants at him, accusing Roark of trying to make a fool of him. Finally Roark takes some of his drawings out and puts them on Cameron's desk. Cameron continues to rant, but now he asks Roark more pointed questions about his goals. Finally it seems that he will send Roark away until, out of the blue, he tells Roark to show up at 9:00 the next day, working at fifteen dollars a week.
In his office, Francon shows Keating an extremely favorable review of a recent building designed by the firm. The review was written by Ellsworth Toohey for a magazine called New Frontiers, which had made an uncontested claim to represent the "intellectual vanguard" of the country. Toohey had made a name for himself as a generally vicious reviewer. As Peter reads the review, it becomes apparent that the building Toohey praises is the one that Peter critiqued on his first day of work, and the design element Toohey favors most is the very one suggested by Peter. As Peter watches Francon smile over the article, he thinks about the information he has gathered about the firm and Francon. He is particularly interested in the fact that Francon married his wife for her money and that she subsequently died, leaving her fortune to her nineteen-year-old daughter. Peter has also learned that Francon's partner seems to do little for the firm besides provide old money connections.
Peter has also made a great deal of progress in establishing himself with the rest of the firm. The other draftsmen love him, and he is especially good friends with Tim Davis, the tall, blond boy he noticed on his first day. Davis is extremely upset because he must stay late, so Peter offers to secretly take his place.
When Peter leaves that night, he is extremely happy. He realizes that he wishes he had someone to celebrate his success with, and then he remembers Catherine Halsey, the girl he wired the night of his graduation but has not thought about since then. On a whim, Peter hops on a bus to Greenwich Village to see her.
Peter had seen a lot of Catherine when he was in school, but his relationship with her had never progressed beyond occasional dates and kisses. She was neither beautiful nor vivacious, but he has been drawn to her--and she never minds when he neglects her for weeks. Catherine moved to New York after her mother died to live with her uncle. Peter does not think twice about dropping by unannounced--he knows she will not mind.
When Keating arrives she is as expected, and he feels happier than he has in a long time. They talk about old times, and then Peter turns the conversation to his new life in the city. She admits that she is "crazy about" him. Peter begins to tell her how wonderful it is to be at Francon & Heyer, but somehow he winds up telling her that Francon does not design anything anymore--and that Peter is going to make Tim Davis obsolete and take his job. He tries to stop himself from saying these things, but somehow he cannot.
Peter asks Catherine about her life in New York, and she tells him that her uncle has been immensely kind to her since she came to live with him. Her uncle is terribly brilliant but poor because he does not care about money. She also thinks she should not go to college, which greatly upsets Peter. Peter eventually realizes that her uncle is Ellsworth Toohey. He tells Catherine that she cannot introduce him to her uncle because he desperately wants to meet him and he would never use Catherine like that. She is a little confused by his reaction, but he tells her that he will need to use many people and wants to make sure he will never use her among them. Catherine makes dinner for Peter, and when he leaves he tells her he will come again the next day.
One evening, Henry Cameron tells Roark to come to see him. When Roark goes into Cameron's office, the other draftsmen decide that Cameron must be firing Roark, whom none of them likes very much. In fact, Cameron tells Roark that he is fired, being too good to throw his life away in this manner. Roark listens to him impassively and firmly disagrees. Cameron fervently tries to persuade Roark to give up his ideal of architecture, to compromise--to work for someone successful.
When nothing seems to be working, Cameron describes the many humiliations he has had to endure in exquisite detail. When Cameron is finished, he says, "That's your future, Howard Roark. Now, do you want it?" Roark replies, simply, "Yes." Cameron is overwhelmed, even confused. After a time he tells Cameron to go home because he has been working too hard. He says that tomorrow he will show Roark how to improve the plans for the house.
A year has gone by since Peter Keating's graduation from the Institute, and he is now seen as the "crown prince without portfolio" of Francon & Heyer. Even Heyer, who barely recognizes many of the employees, has taken a liking to Peter since they spent a long evening discussing old porcelain. Peter had learned of Heyer's hobby and spent an evening at the library reading up on it before he knew he would be seeing him. Peter had also begun to do most of Tim Davis's work--so much so, in fact, that draftsmen often brought him projects that had been assigned to Tim. Tim had begun showing up late for work. Soon Tim loses his job, and Peter is promoted. Peter commiserates with Tim and even finds him another job. He takes great pleasure in the fact that he had "influenced the course of a human being, had thrown him off one path and pushed him into another."
Peter had not gone to see Catherine the day after his first New York visit. He sees her occasionally, but he stops speaking to her about his career. He tries to speak to Roark, but his efforts fail. He visits him twice, and both times he goes away confident that he is much more successful than Roark, but something about Roark's confidence is still very troubling.
On the morning after a night of heavy drinking Peter wakes up at Francon's apartment. They were at a party together the previous night. Peter tells Francon about a meeting he has arranged with a prospective client, but his hangover prevents him from remembering why she is important. Francon explains that she belongs to an important family, and as he goes into greater detail, Peter considers how he will deal with Stengel. Peter knows that Stengel has been planning to leave Francon and set up shop on his own.
Two days later, Peter escorts Mrs. Dunlap, the possible client, through an art exhibit. When they talk about her new home, Peter frankly tells her that Stengel does all the real designing at the firm and that Stengel wants to start his own shop but needs financial backers. Peter suggests she have lunch with Stengel, and she agrees. When Peter tells Stengel, he looks at him derisively but agrees to the lunch. Stengel leaves the firm based on that commission, and Francon is furious, but he does not learn of Peter's role in Stengel's betrayal. He immediately appoints Peter to be chief designer.
The first time Keating must actually design something, he stares at the blank paper in horror. He hears voices in his head--Guy Francon, Ellsworth Toohey--and forces himself to begin drawing. After days of labor, totally uncertain of his success or failure, he telephones Henry Cameron and asks to speak to Roark. He takes the drawings to Roark's rooms and asks for help. Roark transforms the plans in a few moments, but he refuses to help with the facade, saying only that Peter should strip it of ornamentation as much as possible. Peter feels grateful as they shake hands but "hurt and angry" as he departs. When he shows the redone drawings to Francon, he is extremely pleased, commenting, "it's just what I had in mind."
Some time later, in his office, Cameron sits before his desk, at which a letter is informing him that his plans for the Security Trust Company have not been accepted. For three months Cameron has been counting on this commission, telling the landlord he could not pay the rent, letting go of a draftsman, and keeping Roark and himself in the office until dawn. During these last two years, Roark has learned to accept Cameron's sporadic disappearances. Eventually he would show up at the office, having finally become so drunk that he was not ashamed. Roark had also become used to telling his landlady that he could not pay the rent. One night Peter Keating had come to his rooms and insisted on giving him fifty dollars. Roark had taken it gratefully, but he tried to give it back when Keating attempted to convince him to leave Cameron and come to work at Francon's company.
Roark remembers the night when Cameron walked into the drafting room holding the letter. He also is surprised to see a copy of the New York Banner, a trashy but popular paper, on Cameron's desk. Cameron explains that he sees a kind of symbolism in this newspaper. If this is what people like to read, then the rejection of their kind of architecture can come as no surprise. He tells Roark that he is giving up, sorry only that he could not last long enough to see Roark set up on his own. Roark assures Cameron that he will live to see him succeed, and Cameron tells Roark that he believes Roark will face all of their enemies and figure out "what the answer is to be."
Architecture is the foundational metaphor of the novel. Each time a person or place is brought into the reader's focus, the narrator strips it down to its structure--its architecture--though other metaphors might be used to establish this structure. For example, when the narrator introduces important characters, the text provides a vivid, stripped-down description of each one's face, and this description provides immediate insight into the substance of the character. For example, Roark's face is
like a law of nature . . . It had high cheekbones over gaunt, hollow cheeks; gray eyes, cold and steady; a contemptuous mouth, shut tight, the mouth of an executioner or a saint.
This description contrasts sharply with Peter Keating's introduction:
his eyes were dark, alert, intelligent. His mouth, a small upturned crescent faultlessly traced, was gentle and generous, and warm with the faint promise of a smile . . . He held his head in the manner of one who takes his beauty for granted, but knows that others do not.
With these descriptions, Rand begins to establish a moral "geometry" for the novel. Peter Keating's appearance of generosity and warmth, for instance, masks conceit and selfishness. In other words, the appearance of good qualities is not to be trusted; the shape of the face is betrayed by the foundational principles around which it is constituted. Likewise, Roark may look cold and hard, but he is honest to his very bones.
Even so, Roark is clearly supposed to be unlikable as a protagonist. Rand does not try to evoke much sympathy for him, for Roark too often works against his own interests. Rather, Rand portrays Roark as a true hero whom most people will misunderstand, since he is superior to ordinary human beings. In the first chapter of The Fountainhead, Roark encounters the first of numerous obstacles, being expelled from the Stanton Institute of Technology. He has been expelled not because of any poor conduct or criminal act, but simply because he has remained true to his principles. When Roark goes to see the dean, he refuses to be cowed by the man's arrogant manner or bullying arguments. Instead, Roark in his own arrogant way (but without rudeness) stands up to the dean.
Similarly, when Peter Keating asks Roark for advice, Roark honestly tells Peter that he should never ask another man for advice. With this declaration he reveals his independence from others. His theory of architecture further reveals his independence from social convention: "I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one." If other, weaker architects follow in his footsteps, their doing so apparently would prove their inability to think and act for themselves.
Roark's status as a hero is confirmed, however, by his relationship to Henry Cameron. Roark recognizes Cameron's worth despite Cameron's low social status and lack of worldly success. He goes to work for Cameron rather than for a more successful firm not because Roark is a martyr to virtue, but because Roark receives true joy from working in this manner and with this man. Roark might even be excused from accusations of hubris in light of his dedication to Cameron. When Cameron confesses the extent of his suffering and despair, Roark both acknowledges Cameron's pain and believably argues that he is willing to risk it. Roark says: "I shall consider it an honor I shall not have deserved."
Cameron ultimately proclaims not only that Roark represents a heroic ideal but also that Roark will actually try to reclaim their society from the degradation of the current form of architecture. He sets Roark up in opposition not just to the kind of buildings constructed by Guy Francon, but also to a way of life defined in Gail Wynand's Banner--in which, as the dean says, "each man collaborates with all the others and subordinates himself to the standards of the majority." Roark's standards are his own and are to be accepted or denied by the free assent of others.
Rand also constantly provides descriptions of buildings, clearly defining the moral content of each kind of architecture through Howard Roark's eyes. Roark tells the dean:
Here are my rules: what can be done with one substance must never be done with another. No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike. No two buildings have the same purpose. The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape. Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it's made by one central idea.
That is, in a diverse world, each thing should be considered different from each other thing, even if one might be able to see patterns among similar things. Even to one who knows nothing about architecture, Roark's theory of building seems right, especially when contrasted with the narrator's descriptions of less thoughtfully designed buildings like the one which houses Guy Francon's office:
[The door] was a miniature Doric portico, every inch of it scaled down to the exact proportions decreed by the artists who had worn flowing Grecian tunics: Between the marble perfection of the columns a revolving door sparkled with nickel-plate, reflecting the streaks of automobiles flying past. Keating walked . . . through the lustrous lobby, to an elevator of gilt and red lacquer that brought him . . . to a mahogany door.
In comparison with the clarity and integrity of Roark's ideas, this mixing of styles, substances, and eras appears muddled and ugly because it is inappropriate to the goals of those who are to use and enjoy the building. The architectural corruption of so many buildings represents, more broadly, the spiritual corruption of this world, in which thoughts and actions are so often inappropriate to people's actual goals.
This first section of the novel also introduces the theme of free will. The ideal of freedom from coercion is a central principle of the novel. It takes form as the ability to make independent choices. Roark never asks people for advice, not because there is no one he respects but because he believes that each person is best fitted for making decisions for himself. If each person's experience and goals are different, there is a natural limit to the advice that anyone can offer. Roark looks down on Peter Keating in that Peter cannot make a decision for himself. Moreover, the negatively portrayed characters in the novel are all easily manipulated by each other. Mrs. Keating manipulates Peter into working for Francon by telling him that Shlinker will be chosen to replace him. Peter manipulates Guy Francon into altering the plans of a building by implying that Stengel needs to be taken down a notch. Peter also manipulates Heyer by pretending to share a passion for porcelain.
This contrast between those who are free leaders and those who are weak followers becomes figured in the relationship between creator and client. The dean tells Roark that he will need to design buildings to please his clients. This idea relegates architecture to an inferior position as something instrumental for others rather than something instrumental for oneself or (what would be even better) something beautiful for oneself. Great painters are not supposed to paint to please their clients, Roark would insist. Roark corrects the dean, explaining that if he is to have clients, he will engage them so as to build as he sees fit--he and his clients will freely agree to a certain design. The dean considers this an abomination, indicating the different views of architecture and the profession of architect. The dean's view is the more popular one; on his first day in Guy Francon's office, Peter sees a client being shown into an office, and he imagines that the associate is "bowing to the ground . . . waving a fan over her head." In Roark's eyes, this improper relationship between artist and audience enacts the corruption of Francon's outlook.
The idea of an overall social and moral corruption around Roark begins to escalate even in the first few chapters. Peter Keating and Guy Francon engage in bouts of excessive drinking, suggesting an obsession with decadence and a lack of respect for themselves or others--note that there is a moral center even in individualism. Like Francon, Peter Keating is not truly an architect; he succeeds in the firm because of his ability to manipulate people and to feed egos, as well as his sharp sense of whom to align himself with. It becomes clearer that Peter does not take pleasure in destroying other people's lives but in controlling them. He tells Catherine about taking over Tim Davis's work at the office and expresses jubilation over the fact that Tim will soon be made irrelevant. He is a social villain in the novel because if the best thing is to be free, the worst thing to do to another is to try to take away one's freedom. Fulfilling one's potential is limited, from a social perspective, from inhibiting others' ability to fulfill their own potential. But it remains unclear whether a fully free individualist could choose not to be bound by that social ethic. Anyway, Keating demonstrates that there is some good in him--and that he might be able to save himself--when he refuses to use Catherine for the sake of an introduction to her uncle.