Problematic Heroes: Howard Roark

Written by Guadalupe Rodriguez

Note: this post contains spoilers from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

In the midst of the #MeToo era, I’d like to re-examine one of my old time literary heroes, Howard Roark. Roark is a character in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead that champions individualism as well as criticizes collectivist values, because he deems them the murder of individual achievement. Throughout the novel, Roark faces notable adversity brought on by a collectivist group that is set to bring him down. His unique and innovative architecture style is rejected not only by firms, but even by large building firms who refuse to build his work. The novel focuses on the fact that Roark gets most of his work done by small construction firms and singular buyers, who are not afraid of public backlash, and buy Roark’s work because they believe in it. The novel champions individualism by ending with Roark’s triumph. However, despite this seemingly happy ending, there are dark moments in Roark’s character. Roark’s individualism and innovation represent the best of humanity, but how can the best face of humanity be a rapist?

The darkest and most problematic moment in this novel is the rape of Dominique Francon, the daughter of one of the owners of the biggest architecture firms in the novel. Dominique is described as a beautiful young woman who is always in control. She’s also a pessimist who believes no man can achieve greatness—that is, until she meets Howard Roark. Because of her pessimism and being the control freak that she, she initially vows to destroy Roark.

One sex scene remains controversial: Roark raping Dominique Francon when he comes fix her broken marble. However, there’s a twist: Dominique seemingly enjoys the encounter, to the surprise of the readers. According to one interpretation on Sparknotes:

Rand shapes characters that are symbols, not real people. Thus the coupling of Roark and Dominique is the coupling of symbols, not the coupling of people, and the rape is more an abstract meditation on violence and frigidity than the hideous violation of a woman by a man. Roark’s rape of Dominique dramatizes the violence and force of their mental union. Although Roark is the rapist, he is also the victim, for he cannot resist Dominique and becomes a slave to his passions. Dominique resists not just Roark, but her own attraction to Roark. By fighting him, Dominique tries to rid herself of her desires. Neither character utters a word during the rape, a silence that suggests the oneness of their minds and contrasts with the physicality of the encounter.

The first time I read this was when I  was seventeen. I was confused by the scene overall and it was with the guidance of a teacher that I came to understand Rand’s philosophical meaning behind this sexual encounter. Still, is this an interesting interpretation of a nonconsensual sex scene, or is this a creepy scene that has simply become outdated in the times where rape culture has become pervasive?

Well, that’s up to the reader.

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