The Fountainhead: Villain Protagonist

Masks

The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 15

Peter Keating is in the grip of an all-consuming fear. He’s convinced that he’s going to lose the Cosmo-Slotnick design competition, that Guy Francon will never forgive him for it, and that it will be the end of his career.

His only hope, he thinks, is to become a partner in the firm before the results are announced. He sets his sights on the person who’s standing in his way: Lucius N. Heyer, Guy Francon’s longtime partner. Heyer is “a withered aristocrat”, elderly, ailing and half-paralyzed by a stroke, and hasn’t done any actual work for the firm for a long time. But for reasons unknown, he refuses to retire. Keating is certain that if he can force Heyer out, Francon will promote him to partner, and then it won’t matter what happens with the competition.

Digging through old files, he finds what he’s looking for. It’s a letter from a contractor, fifteen years old, which hints that Heyer chose them to erect a building in exchange for a kickback. (Remember, bribery is only bad when people other than Objectivist Heroes do it.)

With the letter in hand and a steely willpower born of desperation, Keating goes to see Heyer at his apartment:

He found Heyer alone in his study. It was a small, dim room and the air in it seemed heavy, as if it had not been disturbed for years. The dark mahogany paneling, the tapestries, the priceless pieces of old furniture were kept faultlessly clean, but the room smelt, somehow, of indigence and of decay. There was a single lamp burning on a small table in a corner, and five delicate, precious cups of ancient porcelain on the table. Heyer sat hunched, examining the cups in the dim light, with a vague, pointless enjoyment.

Coldly, Keating lays out the evidence, then makes his demand:

“And so, unless you inform Francon of your retirement tomorrow morning,” he concluded, holding the letter by a corner between two fingers, “this goes to the A.G.A.”

He waited. Heyer sat still, with his pale, bulging eyes blank and his mouth open in a perfect circle. Keating shuddered and wondered whether he was speaking to an idiot.

His worst fears are realized: Heyer is already senile, his mind as well as his body damaged by the stroke. He has the innocent stubbornness of a child. He barely grasps when and where he is, let alone that he’s being extorted:

“I don’t want to. I’m not going to. I’m a famous architect. I’ve always been a famous architect. I wish people would stop bothering me. They all want me to retire. I’ll tell you a secret.” He leaned forward; he whispered slyly: “You may not know it, but I know, he can’t deceive me; Guy wants me to retire. He thinks he’s outwitting me, but I can see through him. That’s a good one on Guy.” He giggled softly.

Keating repeats his threat louder and more vehemently, saying that Heyer’s name will be in the papers, that people will denounce him on the street, that he’ll be thrown in jail. Slowly, he starts to get it:

“You won’t do that please you won’t,” Heyer mumbled in one long whine without pauses. “You’re a nice boy you’re a very nice boy you won’t do it will you?”

Keating repeats his threat a third time, this time screaming, goaded by rage and disgust. Heyer gurgles and chokes, his body trembling, and seems unable to speak:

Heyer stopped trembling. A shadow cut diagonally across his face. Keating saw one eye that did not blink, and half a mouth, open, the darkness flowing in through the hole, into the face, as if it were drowning.

“Answer me!” Keating screamed, frightened suddenly. “Why don’t you answer me?”

The half-face swayed and he saw the head lurch forward; it fell down on the table, and went on, and rolled to the floor, as it cut off; two of the cups fell after it, cracking softly to pieces on the carpet.

Heyer has had a second, fatal stroke. He’s dead before he hits the carpet.

Keating has the presence of mind to call for help. When asked, he claims that Heyer had invited him over to confide in him about his upcoming retirement, only to die unexpectedly in the middle of the conversation. It’s an explanation that everyone is only too glad to accept, since Heyer had been a burden on the firm for a long time.

He goes about the next few days in a daze, outwardly calm but inwardly bearing the crushing guilt of being “almost a murderer”. He asks himself if this was what he had wanted to happen, but can’t come up with an answer.

A few days after Heyer’s death Francon called him to his office.

“Sit down, Peter,” he said with a brighter smile than usual. “Well, I have some good news for you, kid. They read Lucius’s will this morning. He had no relatives left, you know. Well, I was surprised, I didn’t give him enough credit, I guess, but it seems he could make a nice gesture on occasion. He’s left everything to you … Pretty grand, isn’t it? Now you won’t have to worry about investment when we make arrangements for … What’s the matter, Peter? … Peter, my boy, are you sick?”

Whether in a “senseless spurt of affection” for the up-and-coming new boy at the office that Peter Keating once was, or as some enigmatic gesture of contempt for Guy Francon, Lucius Heyer willed him a fortune.

Keating left the office early, that day, not hearing the congratulations… He had no dinner that night, but he drank himself into a ferocious lucidity, at his favorite speak-easy.

…The useless questions never came back to him again. He had no time for them in the days that followed. He had won the Cosmo-Slotnick competition.

I quoted so much of this because, in my opinion, it’s one of the best scenes in the novel. It’s vividly written, suspenseful, and has a dramatic and satisfying payoff. You can almost smell the sweat of Peter’s desperation, the musty gloom of Lucius Heyer’s apartment. The denouement – Peter dazed with guilt, while everyone heaps sympathy and praise on his shoulders – is a razor-sharp flourish of irony.

Not coincidentally, this scene also doesn’t include Howard Roark at all.

Roark is the nominal hero of The Fountainhead, but he drags it down every time he’s on the page. That’s because he’s not really a character at all, not in the literary sense. He doesn’t learn, grow or change; he barely even reacts. He’s like a boulder dropped into the stream of the narrative, damming its flow and making it stagnant in every scene he’s in.

Unlike the inhuman automaton Roark, Peter Keating acts like a real person, and he has an honest-to-goodness character arc. He’s the classic villain protagonist. The higher he rises in the world’s esteem, the more he forsakes his ethics and his soul, losing everything in the pursuit of an ultimately hollow success. The same ambition which carried him so high ends up becoming the instrument of his downfall. If the novel were just about him, it might have been a great work of literature.

Scenes and plotlines like this show that Ayn Rand had the potential to be a great writer. What tripped her up was her need to turn every story she told into a clumsy lecture on her philosophy. It’s like trying to run a marathon while shackled to a ball and chain. It’s not impossible to write good message fiction, but it takes a deft touch, leaving the lesson implicit rather than spelling it out on every page, and it seems she didn’t trust her readers enough for that.

Image credit: Garry Knight, released under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

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