W. S. Gifford, the president of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company, called London on January 7, 1927 to speak with Sir Evelyn P. Murray, the secretary of the General Post Office of Great Britain. It was the first transatlantic telephone call ever made.

Gifford predicted that better telecommunication would foster benevolence and trade: “No one can foresee the ultimate significance of this latest achievement of science and organization,” he said. “It will certainly facilitate business. It will be a social convenience and comfort, and through the closer bonds which it establishes, it will promote better understanding and strengthen the ties of friendship.”

The importance of the telephone to benevolence and trade was not lost on Ayn Rand, and she used it as a plot device in her novels more than once. The end of Part One of The Fountainhead  is a good example.

Architect Howard Roark is waiting in his New York office for the telephone to ring. He has not worked since building the Heller house, and he is running out of money. He has submitted a design for the Manhattan Bank Company building. If he gets the commission, he can stay in business.

Instead of hearing about the commission, however, Roark hears from his frenemy, the poseur Peter Keating. Roark and Keating studied architecture together at the Stanton Institute of Technology. Even though his projects were copies of classic designs, Keating nevertheless relied on Roark’s help while at Stanton. For his own projects, Roark turned in unique, contemporary designs of his own creation. At graduation, Keating was given the Prix de Paris, academic honors, and named “the most popular man on campus.” Roark was expelled. Since then, Keating has obsessed about Roark’s career.  For Roark, Keating is out of sight out of mind, which is why Roark promptly forgets about Keating and the appointment he has made to come by the office. Rand writes,

Roark sat at the desk in his office, waiting. The telephone had rung once, that morning, but it had been only Peter Keating asking for an appointment. He had forgotten now that Keating was coming. He was waiting for the telephone. He had become dependent on that telephone in the last few weeks. He was to hear at any moment about his drawings for the Manhattan Bank Company.

Rand makes it clear that the telephone has become a requisite for trade:

He [Roark] sat, slumped across the desk, his face on his arm, his fingers on the stand of the telephone. He thought dimly that he should not sit like that; but he felt very tired today. He thought that he should take his hand off that phone; but he did not move it. Well, yes, he depended on that phone, he could smash it, but he would still depend on it; he and every breath in him and every bit of him.

While Roark is going through a bad time, he does not see the world as a bad place. Yes, Roark is waiting for the telephone to ring, but that is the patient act of an optimist. He is waiting because he still can. He has enough cash on hand to cover costs. A trader, he knows that his architectural designs are a value that clients will eventually pay for. As a genius architect, he also knows his worth.  His competence gives rise to confidence that he has the ability to get through this difficult time.

Peter Keating is Roark’s foil, and when he arrives at Roark’s office, Rand uses the contrast between the two men’s characters to advantage. Keating comes effectively to bribe Roark to keep quiet about ghost-designing the Cosmo-Slotnick building, for which Keating has just won a prestigious and  lucrative award. Full of himself and flush with cash, Keating tries, unsuccessfully, to take Roark down a notch.

Keating’s view of the universe is much closer to that of social Darwinism, and he wants to denigrate Roark and his principles.  He yells at Roark, exasperated, “How do you expect to get along in the world? You have to live with people, you know. There are only two ways. You can join them or you can fight them. But you don’t seem to be doing either.”  His hatred rising, Keating then tries to humiliate Roark, to break him, sneering, “And people don’t want you. They don’t want you! Aren’t you afraid?”

Roark replies, “No.” He goes on to say that he has fourteen dollars and fifty-seven cents left, and with that he can hold on a little longer for the telephone to ring. For Roark, this isn’t rock bottom. It is just the facts. His confidence is intact. He knows that Keating is a mediocre architect with no concept of trade. The benevolent give and take of value for value is lost on him.

Keating will go on to become a partner in Guy Francon’s prestigious architectural firm. Roark, for now, will fare less well.

When the telephone finally does ring, “late on a Monday afternoon,”  Roark is summoned to meet with the board of the Manhattan Bank Company in the office of the chairman. They offer him the commission, and he turns it down. In his 2011 article, “The Anatomy of Cooperation,” Robert Bidinotto writes in depth about Roark’s refusal to alter his design for the bank building to appease the board. For Roark, it is a matter of principle.

What happens next is just as interesting, and it follows from Roark’s principles. Roark step by step closes the office. It is a short paragraph, one that Rand writes in a dignified manner wholly devoid of melodrama:

He walked back to his office. He gathered his drawing instruments and the few things he had there. It made one package and he carried it under his arm. He locked the door and gave the key to the rental agent. He told the agent that he was closing his office. He walked home and left the package there. Then he went to Mike Donnigan’s house.

Again, it would be a mistake to read this scene tragically. Roark doesn’t close up the office in anger. He doesn’t shake his fist at a cruel world. He doesn’t succumb to bitterness and write a screed in the Banner attacking his persecutors. He doesn’t close the office to spite the board of directors of the Manhattan Bank Company or to capitulate to Peter Keating. He certainly doesn’t close the office because he is a failure. He closes the office because he can’t pay the rent.

The facts of survival require the trade of value for value, and at that moment, Roark can’t afford to rent the office any longer. He can’t afford to pay the phone company either.  He walks to his friend Mike Donnigan’s house.

When he gets to Donnigan’s, Roark asks him for help finding a job in the building trades. Donnigan goes on a tirade of sorts, but Roark stops him: “Shut up. I need a job, Mike. Can you help me?”  Donnigan sends Roark to work in Guy Francon’s granite quarry in Connecticut. There, Roark will meet Dominique Francon and hear from Roger Enright. Those two people will very much want what Roark has to offer.

Marilyn Moore

About The Author:

Marilyn Moore joins The Atlas Society after a number of years teaching literature and writing at the college level. She has a PhD in English literature, and she considers Ayn Rand a great American writer, comparing Rand’s novels to those of Henry James and Theodore Dreiser. As contributing editor, Marilyn is looking forward to keeping you in the loop on Ayn Rand-related news and events.

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