Anthem a dystopian novella by Ayn Rand, originally published in 1938. It tells the story of a man’s struggle with individuality in a society where it is forbidden. The novella’s central theme is individualism, its relation to progress and humanity, framed as a modern version of the Prometheus myth. It also makes use of a limited vocabulary to illustrate how limited thought is when devoid of the possibility to think of the self. This essay will examine some of Anthem’s themes and its main character.
Anthemfollows Equality 7-2521, a man is living in a conservative collectivist society where individualism has been eliminated. Nothing bears a unique name except a practical descriptor of its function, such as “Home of the Scholars.” Even human beings’ names follow a pattern, consisting of a generic noun like Unity or Similarity, and a number. Technology has collapsed from presumably advanced levels to the point where the newest invention, a candle, had been made a hundred years ago. From an early age, the protagonist notices that he surpasses his peers: taller, smarter than most, and, when he finally sees his reflection for the first time, more beautiful.
Eventually, he finds a ruined tunnel left by the pre-collapse civilization, where he hides and performs various experiments. These experiments finally lead him to rediscover electricity, but when he presents his invention to the Council of Scholars, he is sentenced to death. The device is a transgression and must be destroyed because it was individual thought and research that led to it, and “what is not done collectively cannot be good” (Rand 111).
Equality 7-2521 has no difficulty escaping to the nearby Uncharted Forest with his love interest, where they find joy in their newly rediscovered individuality, and eventually settle down in an abandoned pre-collapse house. As the novella ends, the couple has taken on the names of Prometheus and Gaea. Prometheus plans to eventually return to the City from which they fled to recruit individuals like himself and rebuild an individualistic, independent society.
The central theme in Anthem is individuality, rediscovered as the protagonist is rejected by his society and has to learn to think and act for himself. As he does, he discovers that the world outside of the safe, if restrictive, City, is surprisingly friendly, food is plentiful, and no danger is evident. All one needs is the toil of one’s hands, a value that is prevalent in Rand’s later works.
Another theme is the way a limited language prevents people from expressing or even understanding their desires, similar to Orwell’s 1984. In Anthem’s case, it is the individualistic expression that has been abolished, and contrary to other dystopian fiction, this abolition has “resulted in physical and spiritual degradation” (Ashford 14-15). This degradation of language is used in the novella itself, as it only contains 1992 unique words (including plurals, etc.) in its length. There is a noted expansion of the protagonist’s vocabulary in later chapters, after he escapes, associating expression and, through emotion, humanity, with freedom and independence.
There is an allegory to the Prometheus myth, as Equality 7-2521 builds an electrical light (also a source of heat, making it a clear stand-in for fire) to present to the people of the City. This gift is rejected, and it is not God, but the people themselves that punish him. However, in being cast out, he steals another, figurative, fire — the fire of knowledge, individualism — for himself. The technical nature of the device is essential, as technological progress, as brought forth by remarkable individuals, is a significant theme in Rand’s work. “Creation by the individual mind is what makes the human world possible,” associating progress with humanity, as noted by Murnane (141). Anthem presents this association almost literally: the dehumanized, anonymous collective rejects it, and the individual has to bear the burden of discovery.
The only character that gets any definition is the protagonist, Equality 7-2521, later Unconquered and Prometheus. A fellow street sweeper is described as his friend, but nothing can be gleaned from his only action in the novella, refusing to betray the hero’s discovery of an abandoned tunnel. Even his love interest, Liberty 5-3000, gets little to no characterization: she follows him into exile, promises to follow him unconditionally, and die with him if necessary (Rand 129). Later she spends time in front of a mirror, suggesting pride in her appearance and possibly vanity. Therefore, Equality 7-2521 and his growth into Prometheus is the only character that shall be discussed.
At the start of the novella, he is compliant with society’s norms. He does not know the word “I” and only refers to humans, including himself, in the plural. He views his thoughts and actions and sinful — some of the first words the reader sees are, “It is a sin to think words no others think…” (Rand 10). When he is assigned his lifetime duty as a Street Sweeper, he believes he “had been guilty, but now we had a way to atone for it” (Rand 27). However, merely wishing to become a Scholar in the first place is enough to show that he has individuality and ego, but struggles to express them.
Spotting a young woman he likes, the protagonist still struggles to express his thoughts but gives her a unique name — The Golden One. It is a severe transgression since the name “includes the word “one,” a word implying the very individuality that is forbidden by the society” (Knapp 84). Furthermore, the name no longer follows a random pattern, but is directly inspired and describes its owner — precisely, her hair. Not only does this act express Equality 7-2521’s individuality, but acknowledges it in another being, signifying his growth.
In the final chapters, having fled the City and forced to fend for himself, the hero finally finds happiness. His vocabulary expands, culminating in finally learning the word “I” and unlocking a desire not just to be an individual but share his individuality with others. It is his true gift to bring back to society, not the reinvention of a light bulb, the much more literal reference to the myth of Prometheus.
The use of a limited vocabulary is striking, demonstrating how difficult such seemingly universal concepts as friendship can be hard to express in a society where “all men are our friends” (Rand 33). The protagonist openly struggles with explaining his friendship with another person, and Unity’s confession of love turns into “We are one… alone… and only… and we love you who are one… alone… and only” (Rand 137). These feelings, while directed at another person, rely heavily on the concept of self, which the City’s society attempts to eradicate.
Anthem’s themes and allegories are laid bare. Therefore, the novella is to be viewed as much more metaphorically, intended to be taken as a parable. Like many other dystopias, it serves as a cautionary tale but does so without referring to any particular geography or ideology besides the broad category of collectivism. A future like the one described can happen, according to Rand, anywhere and to any society that begins relying too heavily on the collective in favor of the individual.
Anthem is an interesting and important dystopian work and an early display of Ayn Rand’s individualistic ideology. Its themes of individualism and progress would continue to be central to Rand’s future work. While the struggle of the individual in an oppressive society is common to dystopian fiction, Equality 7-2521’s quest puts the search for individuality itself on the forefront, setting Anthem out. In the end, the modern Randian Prometheus’ gift to the people is neither light nor warmth, and it is Ego.
Ashford, David. “A New Concept of Egoism”. Johns Hopkins University Press, vol. 21, no. 4, 2014. pp. 977-995
Knapp, Shoshana Milgram. “Ayn Rand’s Anthem: Self-Naming, Individualism, and Anonymity”. A Journal of Onomastics vol. 64, no. 2, 2016, pp. 78-87
Murnane, Ben. Ayn Rand and the Posthuman: The Mind-Made Future. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016
Rand, Ayn, Anthem. Klaus Nordby, 2016, klausnordby.com/anthem/Anthem.pdf. Accessed 15 Aug. 2019