Anthem is a dystopian fiction novella by Ayn Rand, written in 1937 and first published in 1938 in England. It takes place at some unspecified future date when mankind has entered another dark age characterized by irrationality, collectivism, and socialistic thinking and economics. Technological advancement is now carefully planned (when it is allowed to occur at all) and the concept of individuality has been eliminated.
Equality 7-2521 is described as “six feet tall, 21 year old male”. According to The New Ayn Rand Companion, Equality 7-2521 experiments with electricity to become a literal and figurative bringer of light, similar to Prometheus. He is named “The Unconquered” by Liberty 5-3000, and also named himself Prometheus.
Liberty 5-3000 is the love interest of Equality 7-2521. She is described as being “brave and single-minded. Her eyes are dark and project a hard, glowing, and fearless quality. She knows no guilt” (Gladstein, 1995, p. 52). She is named “The Golden One” and Gaea by Equality 7-2521.
Equality 7-2521, writing in a tunnel under the earth, later revealed to be an ancient subway tunnel, explains his background, the society around him, and his emigration. His exclusive use of plural pronouns (“we”, “our”, “they”) to refer to himself and others tells a tale of complete socialization and governmental control. The idea of the World Council was to eliminate all individualist ideas. It was so stressed, that people were burned at the stake for saying an Unspeakable Word (“I”, “Me”, “Myself”, and “Ego”). He recounts his early life. He was raised, like all children in the world of Anthem, away from his parents in the Home of the Infants, then transferred to the Home of the Students, where he began his schooling. Later, he realized that he was born with a “curse”: He is eager to think and question, and unwilling to give up himself for others, which violates the principles upon which Anthem’s society is founded. He excelled in math and science, and dreamed of becoming a Scholar. However, a Council of Vocations assigned all people to their jobs, and he was assigned to the Home of the Street Sweepers.
Equality accepts his profession willingly in order to repent for his transgression (his desire to learn). He works with International 4-8818 and Union 5-3992. International is exceptionally tall, a great artist (which is his transgression, as only people chosen to be artists may draw), and Equality’s only friend (having a friend also being a crime because, in Anthem’s society, one is not supposed to prefer one of one’s brothers over the rest). Union, “they of the half-brain,” suffers from some sort of neurological seizures.
However, Equality remains curious. One day, he finds the entrance to a subway tunnel in his assigned work area and explores it, despite International 4-8818’s protests that an action unauthorized by a Council is forbidden. Equality realizes that the tunnel is left over from the Unmentionable Times, before the creation ofAnthem’s society, and is curious about it. During the daily three hour-long play, he leaves the rest of the community at the theater and enters the tunnel and undertakes scientific experiments.
Working outside the City one day, by a field, Equality meets and falls in love with a woman, Liberty 5-3000, whom he names “The Golden One.” Liberty 5-3000 names Equality “The Unconquered”.
Continuing his scientific work, Equality rediscovers electricity (which he, until the book nears its conclusion, calls the “power of the sky”) and the light bulb. He makes a decision to take his inventions to the World Council of Scholars when they arrive in his town in a few days’ time, so that they will recognize his talent and allow him to work with them, as well as to make what he sees as a valuable contribution to his fellow men. However, one night he loses track of time in the underground tunnel and his absence from the Home of the Street Sweepers is noticed. When he refuses to say where he has been, he is arrested and sent to the Palace of Corrective Detention. He easily escapes after being tortured, as the doors are rusty since no one had ever attempted escape before.
The day after his escape, he walks in on the World Council of Scholars and presents his work to them. Horrified, they reject it because it was not authorized by a Council and threatens to upset the equilibrium of their world. When they try to destroy his invention, he takes it and flees into the Uncharted Forest which lies outside the City.
Upon entering the Uncharted Forest, Equality begins to realize that he is free, that he no longer must wake up every morning with his brothers to sweep the streets. Since it was illegal for men of the City to enter or even think of the Forest, he was not pursued once he crossed its threshold. He can “rise, or run, or leap, or fall down again.” Now that he sees this, he is not stricken with the sense that he will die at the fangs of the beasts of the forest as a result of his transgressions. He develops a new understanding of the world and his place in it.
On his second day of living in the forest, Equality stumbles upon the Golden One, Liberty 5-3000, who has followed him from the City. They embrace, struggling to express their feelings for each other as they do not know how to verbally express themselves as individuals. They find and enter a house from the Unmentionable Times in the mountains, perfectly preserved for hundreds of years by thick overgrowth, and decide to live in it.
While reading books from the house’s library, Equality and Liberty discover the word “I”. Recognizing its sacred value and the individuality it expresses, they give themselves new names from the books: Equality becomes “Prometheus” and Liberty becomes “Gaea”. As the book closes, Prometheus talks about the past, wonders how men could give up their individuality, and charts a future in which they will regain it.
The last word of the book, “EGO”, is inscribed by Prometheus on a rock and hung over his front door.
Rand, as a teenager living in Soviet Russia, initially conceived Anthem as a play. After migrating to the United States, Rand didn’t think of writing Anthem, but reconsidered after reading a short story in The Saturday Evening Post set in the future. (The story in question was probably “By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét, which was published as “The Place of the Gods” in the July 31, 1937 edition.) Seeing that mainstream magazines would publish a “fantastic” story, she decided to try submitting Anthem to them. She wrote the story in the summer of 1937, while taking a break from research she was doing for her next novel, The Fountainhead.
Rand’s working title was Ego. Leonard Peikoff explains the meaning behind this title: “[Rand] is (implicitly) upholding the central principles of her philosophy and of her heroes: reason, values, volition, individualism.” Thinking that the original title was too blunt, unemotional, and would give away too much of the theme, Rand changed the title to Anthem. “The present novel, in Miss Rand’s mind, was from the outset an ode to man’s ego. It was not difficult, therefore, to change the working title: to move from ‘ego’ to ‘ode’ or ‘anthem’, leaving the object celebrated by the ode to be discovered by the reader.”
There are similarities between Anthem and the 1921 novel, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, another author who had lived in communist Russia. These include:
- A novel taking the form of a secret diary or journal.
- People having numbers instead of names.
- Children separated from their parents and brought up by the State
- Individualism disposed of in favor of collective will.
- A male who discovers individuality through his relationship with a female character.
- A forest as a ‘free’ place outside the dystopian city.
- The main character is a man.
- This character discovers a link to the past, when men were free, in a tunnel under the Earth.
There are also a number of differences between the two stories. For example, the society of We is in no scientific or technological decay, featuring X-rays, airplanes, microphones, and so on. In contrast, the people of Anthem believe that the world is flat and the sun revolves around it, and that bleeding people is a decent form of medicine. The similarities have led to speculation about whether Rand’s story was directly influenced by Zamyatin’s. However, there is little evidence that Rand was influenced by or even read Zamyatin’s work, and she never mentioned it in discussions of her life in Russia.
Initially, Rand planned on publishing Anthem as a magazine story or serial, but her agent encouraged her to publish it as a book. She submitted it simultaneously toMacmillan Publishers in America and Cassell in England. Both had handled her previous novel, We the Living. According to Leonard Peikoff, “Cassell accepted it immediately… Macmillan turned it down; their comment was: the author does not understand socialism.” Another American publisher also turned it down, and Rand’s agent was unable to sell it as a magazine serial. Cassell published it in England under the title Ego.
After the success of Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, a revised edition of Anthem was published in the US in 1946 by Pamphleteers, Inc., a small libertarian-oriented publishing house owned by Rand’s friends Leonard Read and William C. Mullendore. The original English edition (Cassell 1938) entered the public domain in the United States in 1966, due to the failure to renew its copyright after 28 years as then required by US law. A 50th Anniversary Edition was published in 1995, including an appendix which reproduces the entire original British edition with Rand’s handwritten editorial changes.