The Fountainhead: Bodice-Ripper, Part 1

Corset

The Fountainhead, part 2, chapter 2

[Content note: This week’s post contains descriptions of a sexual assault.]

If you’ve read my Atlas Shrugged review, you know that Ayn Rand’s grasp of consent was questionable at best. Dagny Taggart is repeatedly abused by her various boyfriends, none of whom regard her wishes as relevant. Their mistreatment ranges from the minor to the major: grabbing her arm to make her go where he wants to, slapping her when she says something that displeases him, forcibly initiating sex without asking her, displaying violent jealousy, fighting over who has the right to be in her home without consulting her, deciding to hold her prisoner because she unknowingly trespassed.

As bad as all that is, it doesn’t measure up to the concentrated, violent misogyny in a single scene of The Fountainhead.

From her published remarks, Rand wants us to believe one thing is happening in this scene, but the words she wrote paint a picture of something else entirely. As often happens with her, you get the disorienting feeling that the text seems to be sending a message in spite of its author.

The last time they met, Dominique Francon and Howard Roark parted on bad terms: he snubbed her invitation, and she whipped him in the face and stormed off. The next scene takes place three days later:

Dominique sat at the dressing table in her bedroom. It was very late. There was no sound in the vast, empty house around her. The french windows of the bedroom were open on a terrace and there was no sound of leaves in the dark garden beyond.

…She did not hear the sound of steps in the garden. She heard them only when they rose up the stairs to the terrace.

…He came in. He wore his work clothes, the dirty shirt with rolled sleeves, the trousers smeared with stone dust. He stood looking at her. There was no laughing understanding in his face. His face was drawn, austere in cruelty, ascetic in passion, the cheeks sunken, the lips pulled down, set tight… She saw a vein of his neck rise, beating, and fall down again.

This horror-movie entrance sets the tone for the entire scene. Barging into someone’s house late at night, through their bedroom window, and glaring cruelly at them without a word is not the way to communicate amorous intent. What reason would Dominique have, upon catching sight of Roark, not to believe that he’d broken into her house to kill her?

In that frozen moment, while she’s staring at him, he grabs her and kisses her. She feels a “jolt of terror” and lashes out at him:

She tried to tear herself away from him. The effort broke against his arms that had not felt it. Her fists beat against his shoulders, against his face. He moved one hand, took her two wrists, pinned them behind her, under his arm, wrenching her shoulder blades. She twisted her head back. She felt his lips on her breast.

She pushes herself away and stumbles back against the dressing table, “her eyes wide, colorless, shapeless in terror”. But Roark is only toying with her. When she moves fractionally toward the door, with a half-formed thought of making a break for it, he takes a step to block her way. Then he seizes her again:

He lifted her without effort. She let her teeth sink into his hand and felt blood on the tip of her tongue. He pulled her head back and he forced her mouth open against his.

She fought like an animal. But she made no sound. She did not call for help. She heard the echoes of her blows in a gasp of his breath, and she knew that it was a gasp of pleasure. She reached for the lamp on the dressing table. He knocked the lamp out of her hand. The crystal burst to pieces in the darkness.

The only line in this scene that hints at what Rand believes is really going on is that Dominique doesn’t scream for help. But why would she? We were just told that she was alone late at night in a “vast, empty house”. She has a pair of elderly servants, but it’s not clear if they’re present during the night (the previous chapter said that they “lived some distance from the mansion, near the stables”). She has no reason to believe that anyone who’d be able to help her is in earshot.

The only thing she could do is fight back against him, and she does. And it’s not a token resistance, as often happens in the kind of romance novel Ayn Rand thought she was writing. Dominique fights as violently and desperately as she’s able. She bites him so hard she draws blood; she grabs at a lamp to use as a weapon. This is exactly what a rape victim is “supposed” to do, according to the victim-blamers who say that a rape is only “legitimate” if she does everything possible to resist, even if that risks enraging the rapist and making him more violent.

He had thrown her down on the bed and she felt the blood beating in her throat, in her eyes, the hatred, the helpless terror in her blood. She felt the hatred and his hands; his hands moving over her body, the hands that broke granite. She fought in a last convulsion. Then the sudden pain shot up, through her body, to her throat, and she screamed.

In spite of all evidence to the contrary, Ayn Rand wasn’t trying to write a rape scene, but a rape fantasy scene. According to the narration – although not according to any dialogue exchanged between the two of them – this was what Dominique had secretly wanted since the first time she saw Roark: “the act of a master taking shameful, contemptuous possession of her was the kind of rapture she had wanted”. Famously, Rand said that what happens in this chapter was “rape by engraved invitation”, as distinguished from true rape, which she considered a “dreadful crime”.

However, Roark has no justification for believing this!

The two of them didn’t negotiate this encounter beforehand; they didn’t talk about their fantasies or agree on a roleplaying scene with a safe word. In fact, the last time they met, Dominique struck him and stormed off in a rage. He had no reason to believe she wanted to see him again. The fact that he climbed through her window in the dead of night suggests that he knew she didn’t want him and that he plotted how to get at her when there’d be no one around to help her. And she does everything possible to stop him, first trying to run, then to fight.

Granted, Rand was writing within the confines of her time. Even more so in the 1940s than today, the prevailing double standard held that it was unladylike or slutty for a woman to openly express interest in sex. Women were expected to put up at least a show of reluctance or resistance. But the way this usually works in bodice-ripper romances is that, at some point, the heroine gives in and lets the hero know she’s enjoying it – or he says something like, “Tell me to go away if you want me to,” and she doesn’t.

That never happens here. Dominique displays no reaction other than fear, hate and pain the entire time. (For what it’s worth, nowhere, not even in the narration, does it say she experienced any sexual pleasure.) She may have secretly, deep in her heart of hearts, have wanted him to, but Roark has no reason for believing he was committing anything other than a violent rape. That he chose to continue despite her resistance is a telling glimpse of what kind of attitudes Rand considers admirable in a man. Even if she secretly enjoyed it, that doesn’t make his actions any more excusable.

If that doesn’t seal the deal in convincing you of Roark’s misogyny, this line should:

It was an act that could be performed in tenderness, as a seal of love, or in contempt, as a symbol of humiliation and conquest. It could be the act of a lover or the act of a soldier violating an enemy woman. He did it as an act of scorn. Not as love, but as defilement.

This is how Roark thinks a man should treat a woman he desires: not with love or tenderness, but with a humiliating act of violation and “defilement” (and this is another old sexist double standard: that sex defiles the woman, but not the man). What sort of lesson are Ayn Rand’s followers meant to take from this? If this is how you treat a woman you care about, how would you act towards one you didn’t?

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