The Fountainhead: Serpent’s Tooth

Snake

The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 10

Peter Keating is attending a party thrown by another architect, a pompous old windbag named Ralston Holcombe who designs state capitols and other monumental buildings. He secretly despises Holcombe and is only there for appearances’ sake. He’s glancing at his wristwatch, “calculating the time when it would be permissible to leave”, when he notices another guest across the room. It’s Dominique Francon:

She stood leaning against a column, a cocktail glass in her hand. She wore a suit of black velvet; the heavy cloth, which transmitted no light rays, held her anchored to reality by stopping the light that flowed too freely through the flesh of her hands, her neck, her face.

So… her skin is transparent? I can’t picture this scene in my head without imagining her as a glass frog, which you have to admit changes the tone somewhat.

Peter goes to find Guy Francon, asking him to make introductions. He does, but then excuses himself as soon as possible, as if he can’t stand to be around his own daughter. Dominique seems to be amused:

“I have waited to meet you for such a long time, Miss Francon.”

“This will be interesting,” said Dominique. “You will want to be nice to me, of course, and yet that won’t be diplomatic.”

“What do you mean, Miss Francon?”

“Father would prefer you to be horrible with me. Father and I don’t get along at all.”

Peter tries to brush this off, insisting that he can make up his own mind about her regardless of what her father thinks. Dominique is unimpressed:

“Don’t say that I’m beautiful and exquisite and like no one you’ve ever met before and that you’re very much afraid that you’re going to fall in love with me. You’ll say it eventually, but let’s postpone it. Apart from that, I think we’ll get along very nicely.”

“But you’re trying to make it very difficult for me, aren’t you?”

“Yes. Father should have warned you.”

“He did.”

“You should have listened.”

See, that was funny! Even though Rand hardly ever writes satire, lines like this almost make me convinced that she had a hidden talent for it.

It’s a common problem in fiction to make the heroes into humorless do-gooders, and this was especially pronounced in Rand’s case. The seriousness of their mission rules out all fun. Often, it’s only the bad guys who get to be clever and witty and complex, because they’re not bound by moral standards and can say whatever they’re thinking. That certainly seems to be the case here. By the time Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged, she was no longer willing to give herself that license, and we got villains who were as bland as the heroes.

Trying for a compliment, Peter tells Dominique he’s been reading her column. He remembers too late that one of her latest entries was an attack on his work. She’s undaunted, apparently taking it for sarcasm:

“Oh, yes,” she said. “The Ainsworth house. You designed it. I’m sorry. You just happened to be the victim of one of my rare attacks of honesty. I don’t have them often. As you know, if you’re read my stuff yesterday.”

“I’ve read it. And — well, I’ll follow your example and I’ll be perfectly frank. Don’t take it as a complaint — one must never complain against one’s critics. But really that capitol of Holcombe’s is much worse in all those very things that you blasted us for. Why did you give him such a glowing tribute yesterday? Or did you have to?”

“Don’t flatter me. Of course I didn’t have to. Do you think anyone on the paper pays enough attention to a column on home decoration to care what I say in it? Besides, I’m not even supposed to write about capitols. Only I’m getting tired of home decorations.”

“Then why did you praise Holcombe?”

“Because that capitol of his is so awful that to pan it would have been an anticlimax. So I thought it would be amusing to praise it to the sky. It was.”

I admit I’m having trouble picturing the typical reader of Dominique’s column. She could be the architectural version of a catty gossip columnist or a ferocious movie critic, affording her readers the entertainment of seeing which withering insults she’ll unleash on the latest crime against good taste.

But apparently, that’s not her idiom. More often, she praises places she hates, just for the sake of her own private amusement. So does her column appeal to bored housewives and dilettantes who don’t know any better? Or is it for jaded cynics who enjoy seeing garish buildings trashed in print? It seems anything that would appeal to one of those demographics would turn off the other.

Peter asks her if she knows Ellsworth Toohey. She replies in the affirmative, and even says she admires him, despite the fact that he has principles and she has none. She calls him “sheer perfection in his own way”:

“Sometimes, when I feel bitter against the world, I find consolation in thinking that it’s all right, that I’ll be avenged, that the world will get what’s coming to it — because there’s Ellsworth Toohey.”

“What do you want to be avenged for?” She looked at him, her eyelids lifted for a moment, so that her eyes did not seem rectangular, but soft and clear.

“That was very clever of you,” she said. “That was the first clever thing you’ve said.”

“Why?”

“Because you knew what to pick out of all the rubbish I uttered. So I’ll have to answer you. I’d like to be avenged for the fact that I have nothing to be avenged for.”

Peter tries to continue the conversation, but she abruptly seems to lose interest and drifts away to talk to someone else. Later that night, he meets Guy again, who offers to drive him home while making excuses for Dominique’s behavior and lamenting his failures as a father:

“I never know how to speak to her.” He sighed. “I’ve never learned to. I can’t understand what in blazes is the matter with her, but something is. She just won’t behave like a human being. You know, she’s been expelled from two finishing schools. How she ever got through college I can’t imagine, but I can tell you that I dreaded to open my mail for four solid years, waiting for word of the inevitable. Then I thought, well, once she’s on her own I’m through and I don’t have to worry about it, but she’s worse than ever.”

This is a small thing, but it’s so telling: Dominique has no backstory, no explanation for how she came to be this way. A good author, when introducing a character, will explain or at least hint at the life experiences that shaped them into who they are now, so that we the readers can understand them and sympathize with their choices. We have nothing like that in her case.

Granted, characters with no origin and no backstory are a common trope in Ayn Rand’s novels. Witness Howard Roark in this one, or John Galt in Atlas Shrugged. But at least Rand writes her solitary heroes to have no families or close friends, so it makes sense that no one has insight into them.

For her part, Dominique has a father. But even he has no idea why she is the way she is. The text mentions vaguely that her mother died at a young age, which could provide an interesting and plausible explanation of how her faith in humanity was shattered. (Imagine a scene where Dominique’s mother promises to always love and care for her only to break that promise by dying, which leads Dominique to decide she’ll never trust anyone ever again.)

But as far as I’m aware, the text never suggests this or any other explanation. It doesn’t even seem interested in posing the question. Dominique’s perverse nihilism is a given. Even the characters who want to “cure” her of it have no interest in finding out why she holds those views to begin with. This fits with Rand’s general style, where the characters aren’t really characters, but philosophical principles disguised as human beings.

Image credit: Orest via Wikimedia Commons, released under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

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