The Fountainhead: The Sexy Lamp

The Fountainhead: The Sexy Lamp July 19, 2019

The Fountainhead, part 4, chapter 20

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Chapter 20, the final chapter of the book, is a short epilogue. But before we say goodbye to The Fountainhead, there are a few more things to point out.

On a spring day, eighteen months later, Dominique walked to the construction site of the Wynand Building.

…Machines were crawling over the torn earth, grading the future park. From its center, the skeleton of the Wynand Building rose, completed, to the sky. The top part of the frame still hung naked, an intercrossed cage of steel. Glass and masonry had followed its rise, covering the rest of the long streak slashed through space.

…She walked to the superintendent’s shed. She had come here often to call for Roark, to watch the progress of construction. But there was a new man in the shed who did not know her. She asked for Roark.

“Mr. Roark is way up on top by the water tank. Who’s calling, ma’am?”

“Mrs. Roark,” she answered.

This is Dominique’s happy ending. After marrying, and then divorcing, first Peter Keating and then Gail Wynand, she’s finally together with her true love: the man who started their relationship by violently assaulting her, and who’s now planning to neglect her for his work.

Seriously, what is their marriage going to look like? If Dominique plans to resume her journalistic career, we never hear about it, and the Banner no longer exists. You can safely assume they’re not going to have children, because Randian Heroes never do. We also know that Roark cares about his job above all else, including her, and devotes his entire waking life to work. He’s constantly traveling around the country and routinely sleeps at his desk.

It’s no wonder she’s visiting him at a job site – when else will they ever see each other? – but what’s she going to do with the rest of her time? Sit around the house all day eating bonbons and dusting the furniture? She ought to be driven out of her mind with boredom within a few months.

There’s nothing wrong with having multiple romantic partners. In Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart also traded up on boyfriends, going from Francisco d’Anconia to Hank Rearden to John Galt over the course of the novel. But at least she made choices and did things that affected the plot. Dominique never had any purpose other than to be a passive prize for the male characters to fight over.

She’s an early example of what feminist cultural critic Kelly Sue DeConnick dubbed the “Sexy Lamp” – the sexist cliche of a female character who serves as an inert object of desire and nothing else, and who could be replaced with, well, a sexy lamp without affecting the plot or changing the outcome of the story.

This is especially relevant because The Fountainhead was written to denounce “second-handers”, Ayn Rand’s term for people who put their self-esteem in others’ hands. But Dominique, the supposed heroine, fits this definition perfectly! She never has any grand achievements herself. Her sole purpose in life consists of worshipping the man who does produce the grand achievements, and her self-esteem depends entirely on receiving his validation and approval. As Rand biographer Anne C. Heller notes, “it is through him that Dominique will find her own real, passionate, active self, a somewhat second-handed strategy that is somehow all right for the novel’s heroine though not for the novel’s men.”

It didn’t have to be this way. I noted previously that Ellsworth Toohey, the novel’s villain, gets away scot-free to continue his sinister campaign for collectivism. Howard Roark never makes the slightest effort to stop him or to foil his evil schemes. But in an earlier draft, Rand had a different plan for how to wrap up this plot:

“It was to consist of a public crime followed by a dramatic trial and vindication: slinky heroine/architecture critic Dominique Francon would gun down leftist social commentator Ellsworth Toohey, having finally figured out what a philosophical bad guy he truly was. Hero/master builder Howard Roark would then step forward and take the murder rap for her, and later would go free after a campaign organized by his friends.” (source)

Although Rand decided against this, it reinforces a theme which is curiously consistent in her books: even though she claimed to believe in reason above all else, she also seemed to believe that socialists and other bad people can’t be defeated by rational arguments. They can only be silenced by force or killed.

However, if this had happened, Dominique wouldn’t be a sexy lamp. She would have taken an action that materially affected the outcome of the story, even if it was an evil one.

Sexy-lamp characters are a common cliche in the work of obliviously sexist male writers, but it’s all the more baffling to see one in The Fountainhead, which was written by a woman. The obvious explanation is that Rand bought into the sexist mindset of her time and reproduced its tropes uncritically, but I think it goes deeper than that.

We’ve seen how Rand’s gender-essentialist mindset held that all women, regardless of how intelligent or tough or competent they are, have an inherent need to look up to men and be subservient to them. She wrote that it was “metaphysically inappropriate” for a woman to hold power over men, that the psychological contradiction of bossing around her betters would destroy her mind.

This philosophical lens explains why Rand scripted Dominique’s ending as she did. She didn’t view it as a contradiction for the heroine to derive her life’s purpose from the approval of a man because, in her eyes, that’s how women are meant to act. It’s in their nature. It follows that the worst sin a man can commit – being a passive second-hander rather than a fearless creator – is, essentially, what happens when a man acts like a woman. It’s a deeply sexist moral, whether or not it was the one she consciously meant to convey.

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