The Fountainhead: Fallen Woman

The Fountainhead: Fallen Woman March 1, 2019

The Fountainhead, part 4, chapter 10

As I’ve said before, Peter Keating and Gail Wynand are the best characters in The Fountainhead, because they have actual, compelling character arcs. Where Howard Roark and Ellsworth Toohey are inert – immovable masses reflecting opposing philosophical principles – and therefore boring, both Keating and Wynand react, learn and change. Both their stories are tragedies, as they’re ultimately doomed by their respective errors, but so are many of the world’s great works of literature.

However, there’s one other character in The Fountainhead who has a true arc: who grows and changes in a positive way, who overcomes adversity, and who arguably achieves their own happy ending.

That’s not what Ayn Rand intended. What she intended was that this character’s fate would be a worse tragedy than the rest. But it’s often the case in Rand’s work that what she shows us and what she tells us are at odds.

Peter Keating is trudging through the dark, foggy streets of New York. He’s been treading a circuit back and forth from his office to Roark’s place, collecting Roark’s sketches for Cortlandt Homes so that he can bring them back to his own office and pass them to his staff as if they were his. But on one of these trips, he glimpses a familiar face in the crowd:

“Katie,” he said.

…Her smile was pleasant; not as an effort over bitterness, and not as welcome; just pleasant.

“Why, Peter Keating,” she said. “Hello, Peter.”

It’s Peter’s former fiancee, Catherine Halsey: the woman he ghosted on the eve of their wedding to marry Dominique instead. He hasn’t seen her in at least six years. We’re told that she’s no longer a social worker at the Stoddard home, but has taken an important civil-service job in Washington and is in New York on a business trip.

To Peter’s surprise, Katie doesn’t seem angry at him. She’s pleasant, calm, civil. She suggests that they go out to a diner and catch up over lunch, and Peter dumbfoundedly agrees.

Over tea and sandwiches, they make small talk. Or rather, Katie does, while Peter sits in frozen silence. She talks about her work and how it’s “women who’re taking charge, of all productive work now, and women will build a better world” (this is intended to sound sinister because, in Ayn Rand’s ontology, women are supposed to be subservient and let men make the decisions).

All the while, Peter is stewing in his own guilt. Finally, he bursts out with what’s troubling him:

“Katie, you’re very tactful and kind … but drop the act,” he said, knowing in dread that it was not an act…. “What did you feel — that day — when I didn’t come — and then you heard I was married?” He did not know what instinct drove him, through numbness, to be brutal as the only means left to him. “Katie, you suffered then?”

“Yes, of course I suffered. All young people do in such situations. It seems foolish afterward. I cried, and I screamed some dreadful things at Uncle Ellsworth, and he had to call a doctor to give me a sedative, and then weeks afterward I fainted on the street one day without any reason, which was really disgraceful. All the conventional things, I suppose, everybody goes through them, like measles. Why should I have expected to be exempt? — as Uncle Ellsworth said.” He thought that he had not known there was something worse than a living memory of pain: a dead one. “And of course we knew it was for the best. I can’t imagine myself married to you.”

Katie says that everything worked out in the end; she now knows she’s “unsuited to domesticity”. Nevertheless, she praises him for coming clean to her and says she appreciates that he feels remorse for his behavior. Peter is shocked by how indifferently she’s able to discuss it, as if it happened to someone else.

“Katie … for six years … I thought of how I’d ask your forgiveness some day. And now I have the chance, but I won’t ask it. It seems … it seems beside the point. I know it’s horrible to say that, but that’s how it seems to me. It was the worst thing I ever did in my life — but not because I hurt you. I did hurt you, Katie, and maybe more than you know yourself. But that’s not my worst guilt … Katie, I wanted to marry you. It was the only thing I ever really wanted. And that’s the sin that can’t be forgiven — that I hadn’t done what I wanted… Katie, why do they always teach us that it’s easy and evil to do what we want and that we need discipline to restrain ourselves? It’s the hardest thing in the world — to do what we want. And it takes the greatest kind of courage. I mean, what we really want. As I wanted to marry you. Not as I want to sleep with some woman or get drunk or get my name in the papers. Those things — they’re not even desires — they’re things people do to escape from desires — because it’s such a big responsibility, really to want something.”

This long speech goes to show that “want” and “desire” are terms of art in Ayn Rand’s worldview. As with other words, she used them not in their ordinary, widely understood sense, but in a specific and unusual sense known only to her and to her most fervent followers.

The theme of The Fountainhead, as presented here, is that everyone should do whatever they really want. It’s not hard to imagine how this would lead to absurd or dangerous results, but Rand tries to head that criticism off by insisting that she’s the only one who’s qualified to tell you what you “really” want.

Specifically, if you think you want to be famous or powerful, or go to fancy parties or have lots of casual sex, you don’t. Those don’t count as true desires, just as Howard Roark told his customers that their deepest hopes and dreams were incorrect. The only goals or desires you’re allowed to have are the ones Ayn Rand tells you you should have, whether you know you want them or not.

I can agree with Rand to this extent: it takes courage to chase an unconventional dream. Most people live their lives in well-worn ruts, doing what’s safe and conventional, never questioning the standard template for how life is supposed to be lived. It takes courage to walk a different path, to rely on your own judgment even when the world is telling you you’re wrong or your dreams are impossible.

But where I part company with Rand is her absurd claim that doing what others want is the worst sin there is. There are times in everyone’s life where you might have to defer your own dreams because of a more pressing moral duty – such as when other people are depending on you, like if you’re raising young children or caring for elderly parents. If you’ve accepted that kind of responsibility, it’s not a good deed to, say, quit a stable job to chase your dream of becoming a starving artist.

As Peter pours his heart out to Katie, her lack of anger or jealousy gives him a creeping dread. He starts to conclude that she’s dead inside, that everything human has been burned out of her:

He thought: It’s not an act — one can’t put on an act like that — unless it’s an act inside, for oneself, and then there is no limit, no way out, no reality…

He thought that he had believed it was a simple sequence, the past and the present, and if there was loss in the past one was compensated by pain in the present, and pain gave it a form of immortality — but he had not known that one could destroy like this, kill retroactively — so that to her it had never existed.

Rand’s intention is that we should be reading this scene, as Peter does, with deepening horror. We’re meant to see it as the ruin of Katie’s soul laid bare. Apparently, Rand believes she should be angry and bitter over Peter’s betrayal, and the fact that she isn’t is a sign that nothing of her self is left.

But if you set aside the Objectivist glasses and look at this scene another way, you can see something very different. Based on what it tells us, Katie has found a purpose in life. She’s doing a job that she believes to be important and that she seems to enjoy doing. What’s more, she’s grown as a person. When she was with Peter, she was a doormat – craving his approval, afraid to ask anything of him, meekly accepting his neglect because she didn’t think she deserved better. Now she’s independent, decisive, self-reliant. She’s gained wisdom and emotional maturity, and she’s capable of letting the past go and moving on. She even says that they can be friends and promises to get in touch the next time she’s in town.

By Ayn Rand’s own standard, it’s hard to see what the problem is supposed to be with this. After all, we just read that the greatest crime is failing to be true to yourself, letting other people’s opinions sway you rather than pursuing what you truly want. But Katie hasn’t fallen into that trap! She says it herself: she realized that being married to Peter was never what she wanted, and she’s pursuing a goal that’s personally meaningful to her.

The answer is that, as with Howard Roark’s customers, we’re supposed to think that Katie’s dream is wrong. She’s working for the government, which means she’s part of the socialist plague overtaking society. Also, she’s proudly single and doesn’t define herself or her worth in relation to a man (something that’s notably not true of Dominique, the novel’s heroine). Both these morals reinforce the central irony of The Fountainhead, which is that for a novel that exalts individuality, it scorns people whose purposes aren’t exactly what the author thinks they should want.

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