H.'s Reviews > Atlas Shrugged & The Fountainhead

Atlas Shrugged & The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
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's review
Jan 13, 2017

really liked it
bookshelves: vintage-sf

The recent financial crisis and government action-heavy response have resulted in a resurgence of interest in Ayn Rand. Given its focus on the economy, Atlas Shrugged has understandably received most of the attention. However, Rand’s novel on art, The Fountainhead, remains relevant today as well.

The Fountainhead follows two architects, Howard Roark and Peter Keating, over the course of their early careers (the novel spans approximately two decades). Dominique Francon serves as the love interest and stand-in for the author. Roark, Keating, Gail Wynand, and Ellsworth Toohey (the other two main male characters) are each intended to represent an archetype. Roark is the man who is, Keating is the man who could not be and did not know it, Wynand is the man who could have been and did not know it, and Toohey is the man who could not be and knew it.

Atlas Shrugged follows its protagonist, railroad executive Dagny Taggart, and other industrialists and entrepreneurs as they react to and struggle for success in business notwithstanding a government exerting more and more control over the economy and industry. The politicians do not do it alone, there are heavily assisted by rent-seeking crony capitalists and their lobbyists. This famously culminates in the entrepreneurs going on “strike.” Where Rand uses archetypes in The Fountainhead to explore her ideas about art and architecture, in Atlas Shrugged she uses science fiction tropes to explore her ideas about business and economics.

Rand’s work shines when it stays character-driven and suffers when event-driven. The courtroom scenes in The Fountainhead and the rescue attempt at the end of Atlas Shrugged are almost ludicrously bad. On the hand, the building of the John Galt Line and the tunnel disaster in Atlas Shrugged are masterful. Her prose is quite beautiful, if a bit on the ornate side. While her idealized protagonists (Roark, Galt) tend to be rather flat and dull, her less-than-perfect protagonists (Wynand, Reardan) are much more interesting, and her antagonists can be downright terrifying (Toohey, most of the crony capitalists, lobbyists, and politicians from Atlas Shrugged). For a female writer, Rand’s female characters are curiously unsympathetic (Francon may be the most unsympathetic protagonist I have ever encountered).

Both are books about ideas, and I appreciate that. They are certainly preferable to reading actual philosophy tracts. The philosophy is not always well interwoven into the story, however, most famously in Galt’s seventy page monologue near the end of Atlas Shrugged.
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