The Fountainhead: Indecent Proposal

The Fountainhead, part 3, chapter 3

Gail Wynand greets Dominique in his office. Impressed, he tells her that she does justice to her statue: “As a rule seeing the models of art works tends to make one atheistic. But this time it’s a close one between that sculptor and God.”

Dominique is astonished, just for an instant, to hear that Wynand has her statue. She’d been searching for it for two years, without success, and she had no idea that Ellsworth Toohey had it the whole time. In return, Wynand doesn’t know the backstory of the statue, so she tells him. He remembers it only vaguely, because he was away on a round-the-world trip on his yacht:

“Wait, the Stoddard Temple. I remember: a sacrilegious church or some such object that gave the Bible brigade a howling spree.”

“Yes.”

“There was…” He stopped. His voice sounded hard and reluctant — like hers. “There was the statue of a naked woman involved.”

That’s when he finds out that her name was Dominique Francon and that it’s the story that cost her her job with the Banner – and more, that he gave the order to fire her.

Since Wynand appreciates great art, he feels a fleeting stab of guilt when she tells him that the temple was even better than the statue, and that his paper was responsible for destroying it. Still, he asks wryly, “Didn’t you know better than to attempt sincerity on the Banner?”

Dominique says that she enjoyed writing for the Banner, but that’s old history now. She didn’t come to ask Wynand for her job back, but to discuss his Stoneridge real-estate project. He’s expecting an elaborate speech aimed at persuading him, but she takes a different tack:

“I should like you to give that commission to my husband. I understand, of course, that there’s no reason why you should do so — unless I agree to sleep with you in exchange. If you consider that a sufficient reason — I am willing to do it.”

He looked at her silently, allowing no hint of personal reaction in his face. She sat looking up at him, faintly astonished by his scrutiny, as if her words had deserved no special attention. He could not force on himself, though he was seeking it fiercely, any other impression of her face than the incongruous one of undisturbed purity.

He said:

“That is what I was to suggest. But not so crudely and not on our first meeting.”

“I have saved you time and lies.”

Wynand asks Dominique if she loves her husband, to make such a sacrifice for his sake, and she says, “I despise him.” She also doesn’t hold his architectural work in any high esteem. He asks if she’s attracted to him, and she says she’s not.

By process of elimination, Wynand figures out her real motive for offering to sleep with him. This wouldn’t work in any other novel, but Randian characters only have two or three possible motives for anything they do, so it’s easy to narrow down the possibilities:

“As a matter of fact,” he said, “your chief motive is I, after all. The desire to give yourself to me.” He saw the glance she could not control and added: “No, don’t enjoy the thought that I have fallen into so gross an error. I didn’t mean it in the usual sense. But in its exact opposite… You don’t want Stoneridge. You want to sell yourself for the lowest motive to the lowest person you can find.”

“I didn’t expect you to understand that,” she said simply.

“You want — men do that sometimes, not women — to express through the sexual act your utter contempt for me.”

“No, Mr. Wynand. For myself.”

Can we take a moment to notice the class privilege here? Dominique wants to degrade herself, but the only way she can think of to do it is to sleep with a wealthy, powerful, unprincipled man who’s different from the wealthy, powerful, unprincipled man she married. Without being sexist or vulgar, it shouldn’t be hard to imagine worse reasons she could come up with for having sex or worse people to have it with, if self-degradation is really what she’s after.

Wynand observes that some people go “to very great lengths in order to convince themselves of their self-respect” and thus inadvertently prove that they don’t have any. In the same way, he says, going on “a quest for self-contempt” as Dominique is doing is proof that you don’t really hate yourself, however much you may pretend to the contrary:

“Do you see the meaning of a quest for self-contempt?”

“That I lack it?”

“And that you’ll never achieve it.”

This is an almost Calvinist view of human psychology. Dominique is an Objectivist heroine at heart, and it’s impossible for her to be anything else, no matter how she tries. Similarly, Rand’s notes for this novel describe Peter Keating and Ellsworth Toohey, respectively, as “the man who could never be and doesn’t know it” and “the man who could never be – and knows it”. They were always destined to be mediocrities and villains. (This makes for an awkward fit with Rand’s belief in free will, such that her acolytes feel compelled to offer lengthy rationalizations for it.)

Rand thinks it’s impossible to convince yourself of self-contempt, but of course, you can. Religious cults and other toxic ideologies rely on this as a brainwashing strategy. Even seemingly normal, mentally healthy people can be broken down psychologically through stressors like hunger, pain, isolation, sleep deprivation and forced confession, which induce a vulnerable and suggestible state from which they can be built back up in the image of a new ideology.

That’s also why psychologists say that self-talk is so important. Whether positive, as in “I can overcome the challenges I face and become a better person,” or negative, as in “I’m a failure and I can never do anything right,” research suggests that your inner monologue shapes your thoughts and your self-image in measurable ways. The old adage of “fake it till you make it” (or “act as if” in CBT) really does work, on average if not in every single case.

Wynand says that he doesn’t care who builds Stoneridge. He’s never found an architect whose work he likes, and he was stuck, unable to think of a reason for choosing one over another. Dominique’s offer to prostitute herself for Peter’s sake is the best reason he’s come across, so he accepts her offer. He says they’ll go on a cruise together, on his yacht, and when they return she’ll bring the contract for Stoneridge to her husband:

“Shall I tell you the difference between you and your statue? …It’s startling to see the same elements used in two compositions with opposite themes. Everything about you in that statue is the theme of exaltation. But your own theme is suffering.”

“Suffering? I’m not conscious of having shown that.”

“You haven’t. That’s what I meant. No happy person can be quite so impervious to pain.”

There’s an implicit but disturbing lesson here on the role of women in Objectivist philosophy. The Fountainhead declares that you shouldn’t do what’s popular or what others expect of you, that you should devote your life to the thing that you love and are most passionate about. In principle, that’s a moral I could agree with. But I have to ask: How does it apply to Dominique?

This novel seems to take for granted that the only thing she has to offer is her body. Even though she liked her newspaper job and was good at it, she never wanted to make a career out of it, and the novel seemingly endorses that absence of ambition. Marrying Peter Keating was a misguided attempt to destroy herself, but her error wasn’t forsaking her journalistic career to be a subservient housewife, it was that she became a subservient housewife to the wrong person.

This whole subplot about the statue reinforces that moral. It suggests that the most meaningful thing she’s done in her life was allowing herself to be sculpted in a posture of worship directed at Howard Roark. It’s Rand’s version of the virgin/whore dichotomy: Dominique can be joyful and uplifted when she’s having sex with Roark, or nihilistic and depressed when she’s having sex with anyone else, but apparently those are the only two options.

Considering the high value Rand placed on independence, you might think The Fountainhead would at least hold out the possibility that Dominique could find fulfillment by pursuing her own dreams, by setting goals that have nothing to do with romantic relationships. However, that’s not to be. For a book written by a woman, it offers a surprisingly grim moral for women: it seems that all Dominique can aspire to do with her life is choose the man at whose feet she kneels.

Other posts in this series:

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