Anthem by Ayn Rand

Anna Gooler

Image from http://www.barnesandnoble.com/
Image from http://www.barnesandnoble.com/

Anthem, first published in England in 1938, tells the story of Equality 7-2521, a man struggling in a dystopian society where individualism is essentially abolished. This short novel is an introduction to the more complex philosophy that Ayn Rand depicts in her later works such as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

In 1946, Anthem was republished in America. Rand made a few changes to adapt the language and reflected, "I have lifted its face, but not its spine or spirit" (Baker). The current book sold includes the manuscript of Rand's changes to the 1938 edition after the 1946 edition.
Contents
Summary
About Ayn Rand
Themes
Scholarly Opinion
Personal Reflection
Bibliography




Summary



Merely by writing, Equality 7-2521 is breaking the rules of the totalitarian, collectivist society in which he lives. Still, he writes about his life, what he thinks about, and how he feels about the restrictions of this society where nobody is an individual; each person refers to him/herself as "we." After his initial education, he finds that he can understand and interpret the teaching better than his peers, and he hopes to be sent to the Home of Scholars when he is fifteen. However, his superior knowledge is discouraged because it sets him apart from his Brothers, so he is sent to be a Street Sweeper.


Early in the book, Equality 7-2521 finds a hole in the ground leading to a tunnel full of artifacts from before the holocaust. There, he experiments with the items he finds and discovers how to make a current run through wires: electricity. He creates a light bulb, hence the cover of the book, and plans to present it to the Council of Scholars.

Equality 7-2521 has also developed interest in a woman, Liberty 5-300, who he discovers working in a field near the street he is sweeping. He knows that it is forbidden to speak to women or favor any person over another, but they converse anyway. After meeting several times, he gives her a special name, Golden One, and finds that she has dubbed him the Unconquered.

One night, Equality 7-2521 stays in his secret tunnel too long and is caught. He is taken to the Palace of Corrective Detention and is beaten, but he does not tell what he has discovered. Soon, he is able to escape and runs to the Uncharted Forest, a forbidden place that holds memories of the Unmentionable Times. After a while, he decides to take his light bulb to the Council of Scholars. Despite his insistence that he has done this for his Brothers, the Council members see his ambition as pride and threaten him. However, he is able to escape and runs back to the Uncharted Forest. There, he lives in bliss, doing whatever he pleases.

Liberty 5-3000 soon shows up, admitting that she followed him. Together they explore the forest and come upon a house left from the Unmentionable Times, complete with light bulbs in every room and a large selection of books. Equality 7-2521 reads as many books as he can and realizes the meaning of the word "I." When he teaches Liberty 5-3000 the word, she responds with "I love you" (98). He also decides that they both need names: he becomes Prometheus, the light bearer, and she becomes Gaea, the mother of earth. In the end, Gaea is pregnant and together she and Prometheus plan to bring more people to their recreated society of the Unmentionable Times.

About Ayn Rand


Image from http://open.salon.com/blog/ted_burke/most_read
Image from http://open.salon.com/blog/ted_burke/most_read

There is no doubt that Ayn Rand, born Alice Rosenbaum in 1905, was an influential writer and philosopher. In 1991, a survey by the Library of Congress concluded that her most famous work, Atlas Shrugged, was "the second most influential book in America" after the Bible (Valiunas).

By the time she was nine years old, Rand knew that she was going to be a writer, and she wrote many short stories and outlines for plays and novels while she lived in Russia. She moved to the United States when she was twenty-one and began to write fiction in English right away, which makes it interesting to look back at her earlier unpublished stories to see how her understanding of the language developed. One of her first stories, "The Husband I Bought," involves characters who reappear in her novels such as We the Living and The Fountainhead (Baker). Similarly, Rand repeats themes from Anthem in her more philosophically complex works; The Fountainhead contains the line,
"To say 'I love you' one must know first how to say the 'I'" (Playboy).

Rand was born Jewish, but soon found her own path religiously; "Today, I decided to be an atheist," she wrote in her diary at the age of fifteen (Valiunas). She felt it was impossible to be inferior to another being, and therefore did not believe in God. However, she had trouble finding a philosophy that fit her ideals. She felt that "reason is man's only means of perceiving reality and his only guide to action," and thus eventually developed a new philosophy called Objectivism (Playboy). This philosophy continued to develop the themes in the majority of Rand's works.

When she first arrived in America, Rand spent time with relatives, and then went to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter. She landed a few non-writing jobs here and there, and soon met her husband-to-be, Frank O'Connor. They were married in 1929, and were together until his death in 1979. Rand died in New York City in 1982 (Ayn Rand Novels).


Themes



As a novella and a young adult book, Anthem primarily focuses on one theme: the aspect of individualism in Objectivism. The book is a simple introduction to Ayn Rand's philosophy and presents it in a way that is relatable.

In 1962, Rand composed a basic definition of Objectivism. She concluded that "reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man's feelings, wishes, hopes or fears," and therefore "reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses) is man's only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival." Finally, "man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life" (Ayn Rand Novels).

It is fitting, then, that the dystopian society in Anthem is based on the idea that individualism is evil, that there can only be "the great WE." Of course, as a dystopia, this is not the message that Rand actually meant to present. Rather, she wanted to express that no matter the status of a person, the individual mind is valuable to everyone. This theme connects particularly with young adults because of struggles with ageism; condescending elders do not want to listen to the opinions of the naive. This is reflected in the book when Equality 7-2521 takes his light-bulb invention to the Council of Scholars, symbolizing the antithesis of Objectivism because the individual's mind is not valued at all. In this collectivist society, individualism in punishable by law.

To counter the society, Rand makes Equality 7-2521 the epitome of Objectivism, especially when he becomes Prometheus. He has taken control of his own life and discovered the worth of his own individual values. He symbolizes the many great people that Rand admired for their individual thought.

Scholarly Opinion



Being a philosopher, Ayn Rand and her literature encountered many critics.

Stephen Cox of the Department of Literature at the University of California, San Diego, believes that there are three general theories people use to explain Rand's success. The first of these is that people agree with her philosophical theory. This makes sense; people enjoy reading things that prove points they agree with. The second theory, popular among conservatives, is that people simply enjoy "the fornicating bits" in Rand's literature (Cox). However, Cox argues that if people are really after sex scenes, they will choose other authors who provide more detail. He believes most in the third theory: people enjoy Rand's individualist ideas.

Cox also feels that Rand let her philosophical theory interfere with her creativity as a writer: "One of the most important, and most troublesome, elements of Rand's theory of literature is her insistence on morally idealized characters."

Laura Miller of the New York Times feels that it is simply the nature of the first-person-plural narrative to be "both a risky proposition and a striking effect, if a writer can pull it off." She believes that those who venture to write in the form tend to take it too far, often trying to write about things of which they haven't much knowledge. She asserts that "in clumsy hands, it may seem merely a stunt or, in the case of Ayn Rand's Anthem, a novella about a collectivist dystopia, drearily tendentious" (Miller).

In general, most reviews of the book are rather positive, but scholars who analyze it deeper tend to find issues with conflicting aspects of the book.

Personal Reflection



Anthem is successful in many ways: it is an enjoyable, easy read that relates to young adults while still providing a feel-good lesson in the end. However, it seems a bit two-dimensional to me. Equality 7-2521 changes circumstances so rapidly that the situation doesn't feel realistic or plausible. This may be a result of Ayn Rand's "romantic realism," a somewhat oxymoronic style in which she portrays the character "as they might and ought to be" (Playboy). The "might" aspect is the realistic part - the way a man might actually behave, and the "ought to" aspect is the romantic part - the way an ideal man ought to act.

Stephen Cox is correct in terms of theory taking over the narrator's character; Equality 7-2521 too quickly whisks away Liberty 5-3000 in an act of Rand's theoretically ideal man. However, it is not so much Rand's creativity that is lacking in this case, but rather the realism that is supposed to accompany the romance. The end of the book leaves no expectation of any trouble in the future, as if everything in life is fixed now that the couple has escaped the collectivist society. This turns the book into a happily-ever-after fairy tale simply to get the point of individualism across.

Some critics, such as Mimi R. Gladstein, claim that Rand was a feminist: "Atlas Shrugged [...] is not generally considered to be philosophically feminist. [...] But close analysis of the book's themes and theories will prove that it should be. [...] the novel has a protagonist who is a good example of a woman who is active, assertive, successful, and still retains the love and sexual admiration of three heroic men" (Gladstein). I haven't read Atlas Shrugged or any of Rand's other works, but I certainly do not see any trace of feminism in Anthem. In fact, I was rather surprised to find that I was offended by a few incidents in the book. At the end, when Prometheus and Gaea have found their new home, he always seems to be the dominant character. He has led the way through the forest, he is the one reading the books, and he decides their new names.

Perhaps this is simply because the male character is the narrator. The reader follows him throughout the book, so maybe he is supposed to be the one portrayed as dominant. However, when the woman-in-the-kitchen stereotype shows up, I begin to take offense. When Prometheus declares that the couple will keep the house they found as their own, Gaea replies simply, "Your will be done" (92). She is also portrayed as the stereotypical woman, excited about clothes and mirrors: "We found garments, and the Golden One gasped at the sight of them" (91) and "no words of ours could take the Golden One away from the big glass which is not glass. They stood before it and they looked and looked upon their own body" (92).

Maybe I have read too much into these instances, and I know that the book was written in 1937, but I find it interesting that Rand included these hints of stereotyping. Perhaps she just considered these qualities of women to be biological, because it seems that after living in a society void of fancy clothes and mirrors, women should not be particularly partial to them.

So, if Cox is correct that Rand's theory overtook her writing of Anthem, what was it for? She reasoned that the primary purpose of her writing was "the projection of an ideal man" (Playboy). I agree with Cox that creativity would have made Anthem more interesting; I don't think it's necessary for a piece of literature to be didactic in order for it to be successful. In fact, I believe that creativity is essential, and I am interested in the aspect of Surrealism of art for art's sake. I think that if Rand had been more creative with the themes in Anthem, the book would have been more thought-provoking. Instead, she made her point a bit too obvious, leaving little room for interpretation. Perhaps this was her intention, or maybe it was supposed to benefit her more as a way to organize her thoughts (she wrote Anthem while taking a break from writing The Fountainhead, which has similar but more complicated themes.) In any case, I wish she would have tried a little harder, although I understand that at an earlier time in history, the idea that individuals should be valued was much less wide-spread. Nowadays, children are constantly reminded in school to be themselves and be unique.

Despite my critiques of the book, I do not despise it. I actually enjoyed reading Anthem, and I would recommend it to middle-school-aged readers. Rand certainly makes important points and I appreciate the general warning Anthem portrays: we must be careful that our society doesn't reinforce conformity and that we continue to value individuals. I'm sure that for many young adults, the book provides hope for a future where individuals are not ignored or discriminated against at all.

Bibliography



Ayn Rand Novels. 2009. Ayn Rand Inst. 3 May 2009
<http://aynrandnovels.com/>.

Baker, James T. “Ayn Rand as Creative Writer.” Short Story Criticism 116 (1987): 29-64. Literature Resource Center. Gale. 20 Mar. 2009
<http://infotrac.galegroup.com/‌itweb/‌?db=LitRC>

Cox, Stephen. “Ayn Rand: Theory versus Creative Life.” Journal of Libertarian Studies 8.1 (1986): 19-29. 6 Mar. 2009
<http://www.mises.org/‌journals/‌jls/‌8_1/‌8_1_2.pdf>.

Gladstein, Mimi R. “Ayn Rand and Feminism: An Unlikely Alliance.” College English 39.6 (1978): 680-685. 6 Mar. 2009
< http://www.jstor.org/‌stable/‌375869 >.

Gould, Karen J. “Ayn Rand: Overview.” Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers. Literature Resource Center. Gale. 20 Mar. 2009
<http://infotrac.galegroup.com/‌itweb/‌?db=LitRC>.


Miller, Laura. "We the Characters." New York Times 18 Apr. 2004. 4 May 2009
<http://www.dlackey.org/weblog/docs/firstpersonplural.pdf>.

Rand, Ayn. Anthem. 1961. New York: Penguin Group, 1995.

Rand, Ayn. Interview with Playboy. Who Was Ayn Rand? 1964. 5 Mar. 2009
<http://www.ellensplace.net/‌ar_pboy.html>.

Valiunas, Algis. “Who Needs Ayn Rand?” Commentary 120.2 (2005): 59. 5 Mar. 2009
<http://find.galegroup.com.proxy2.library.uiuc.edu/‌>.