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Anthem Themes

by Ayn Rand

Major Themes

Dangers of collectivism

Ayn Rand wrote Anthem approximately two decades after the events of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the ills and misdoings of the Soviet government under Josef Stalin greatly influenced Rand's understanding of the value of collectivism. The USSR had originated from the idea that Communism, an extreme version of socialism, would help the common people by collectivizing many aspects of life. Such collectivist principles assumed that when everyone serves each other according to his ability, then everyone in the society will mutually benefit. However, in Russia, the Communists' rise to power had been bloody and entangled with totalitarian policies in the name of socialism. While many contemporary philosophers claimed the Great Depression's relatively mild impact on the Soviet Union as proof of Communism's efficacy, and others assumed that Soviet Communism had become repressive due to the failings of its leaders, Rand concluded that collectivism had inherent flaws, which she sought to illuminate in Anthem.

In Equality 7-2521's society, collectivism has defeated more capitalist societies in the Great Rebirth, and as a result, every aspect of society is integrated into a rigid state system. The school system indoctrinates the state's children with the philosophy that instead of living to satisfy their own desires, they must live exclusively for their brothers, paralleling the Soviet use of "comrade" for fellow citizens. The society is highly dystopian, and Ayn Rand suggests that groups of people never make decisions that are as far-sighted and progressive as those of individuals. Consequently, the society has regressed to the technology of the pre-Enlightenment era, repeating the Dark Age, and men such as Equality 7-2521 who could benefit their society are encouraged to waste their talents. The central thrust of the novella involves Equality 7-2521's search for a philosophy alternative to collectivism and to its emphasis on the group and the state. Eventually Equality 7-2521 rejects all tenants of collectivism. At the same time, as critics have mentioned, a reader of Anthem may usefully recall that Rand uses a very extreme form of collectivism to make her point, and that the solution to Anthem's society may be a moderate rather than an entirely individualist society.

Egoism

Otherwise known as individualism, egoism is the philosophy Equality 7-2521 discovers along with the word "I" as the alternative to the damagingly radical altruism of Anthem. He learns that although his society has taught him that to be alone is evil and to work for others is good, he must actually work for himself and take pride in his self in order to achieve happiness. Whereas he initially fools himself into believing that he is evil because he is different from his peers, he concludes at the end of the novel that his individuality and his exceptional mental and physical traits actually make him superior and capable. He retains vestiges of his original indoctrination in collectivism until his final break from society at his meeting with the World Council of Scholars, after which he realizes that his reasoning that his glass box is important because of its potential to help his society is merely a justification. In reality, he protects the glass box because, as his creation, it is an extension of his body, and he takes pride in it for its own sake rather than for its use to serve others.

Rand does not specifically use the word "egoism" in Anthem, unlike in some of her other works, but Equality 7-2521's actions embody the idea of egoism. Rand dubs it egoism rather than egotism because egotism gives a negative connotation to self-interest, whereas egoism is the celebration of self and the source of happiness. As Equality 7-2521 notes, his society pretends that everyone will be happy in serving their fellow man, but this imposition of a false utopia leads only to fear and slavery for those who are strong and capable. He cites those in history who threw off such chains as role models for the future, and egoism has associations with a number of Enlightenment ideas, especially the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" which form much of the theoretical basis to the American Constitution.

Freedom versus fear

The contrast between individualism, which leads to freedom, and collectivism, which leads to fear, becomes particularly clear after the Council of the Home reprimands Equality 7-2521 for singing. One of the council members informs him, "Indeed you are happy. How else can men be when they live for their brothers?" In response, Equality 7-2521 realizes that the answer to the council member's question is not as obvious as the authorities have implied. He sees a great deal of contrary evidence among the other Street Sweepers, many of whom presumably received such a lowly job assignment precisely because of their dangerously superior abilities -- and have thus suffered at the hands of collectivism. In particular, he cites Fraternity 2-5503 and Solidarity 9-6347 as men who are afraid of something that they cannot name because they do not have the concepts necessary to express their fear.

Equality 7-2521 is the only person in his society besides Liberty 5-3000 and, to a lesser extent, International 4-8818 who knows how to defeat his fear and be happy. In Equality 7-2521's case, he finds peace and happiness in his scientific work and his pursuit of knowledge and morality. Later, as he discovers happiness even more purely in the Uncharted Forest, his changing emotional states lead him to realize that solitude provides happiness because it also provides freedom. In his tunnel, he has the freedom to think as he wishes, and after he escapes the City, he joyously finds that no one is constraining him and preventing him from fulfilling his deepest desires. Rand suggests that fear is associated with the slavery of collectivism, because in order to shackle the able and the worthy, society must also chain them mentally with fear.

The human spirit

Prometheus and Gaea represent the pinnacles of the human spirit, just as the Unmentionable Times represent the height of human achievement prior to the fall of the Great Rebirth. After learning the Unspeakable Word, Prometheus tells the story of human history as a repeated escape from the tyranny of gods and kings and birthright, which prior to the Great Rebirth paralleled the continual advance of technology, driven by productive individuals. The protagonist's journey from Equality 7-2521 to Prometheus shows that despite the setbacks caused by collectivism, recovery from the Dark Ages is inevitable because of the curiosity and creativity of the rational man. Equality 7-2521 and the Saint of the pyre are both men of great integrity who willingly sacrifice for the sake of freedom and knowledge, and Anthem ends on a highly positive note, as the narrator expects to gather like-minded friends to defy the stagnation of their society.

Despite the positive ending of Anthem, however, not all humans are portrayed as embodying the best of the human spirit. In contrast to men such as Equality 7-2521 are Union 5-3992 and the men of the World Council of Scholars, who stay within the collectivist system because they feel safer by taking advantage of those who are capable. Rand suggests that although men should all have the same freedoms under the law, not all men are born with equal attributes, and the early inculcation of collectivist beliefs can inculcate men who are already weak into the existing system. Nevertheless, the triumphant ending of Anthem indicates that humanity by and large still has outstanding individuals with the will and the ability to bring progress.

Reason versus irrationality

In his experiments in the tunnel, Equality 7-2521 essentially rediscovers the scientific method as he conducts research on electricity and eventually manages to invent an electric light. His rational approach in the tunnel extends to other areas of his life, as he begins to keep a journal in which he ceaselessly questions the tenets of his society and tries to rebuild a philosophical foundation for individualism that disappeared after the Unmentionable Times. He reasons in particular that his society's views regarding the advantages of serving humanity and the state cannot be correct, precisely because none of his obedient coworkers experience happiness more often than fear, and he constantly tries to interpret his own emotional reactions in order to discover an articulate solution to what he instinctively feels is a problem. In this sense and in the sense that only logical thinking can bring technological progress, Equality 7-2521 embodies the benefits of the rationality praised by Objectivism.

In contrast to the activities of Equality 7-2521, the authorities of Anthem's collectivist society demonstrate the dangers of illogical reasoning. In the purely scientific area, they propagate the unquestioned belief that the earth is flat and at the center of the galaxy, while bleeding men with leeches is an effective medical treatment. Despite the obvious logical lapses engendered by their scientific views, the Council of Scholars chooses not to question its understanding of the universe, and thus cannot progress away from the collectivist Dark Age. Furthermore, the authorities believe that they can justify collectivism simply by insisting that men are happier while serving others, and even when faced with the triumph of reason when faced with the glass box, the World Council of Scholars choose to reject it based on fear and excuses rather than following the rational path. By juxtaposing Equality 7-2521 with the pettiness of the Council, Rand demonstrates the problems with wishful rather than clear-sighted thinking.

Love and friendship

Along with the pursuit of scientific knowledge and eventually the search for the Unspeakable Word, the development of Equality 7-2521's relationship with the Golden One constitutes one of the major threads of Anthem's plot. At first, Equality 7-2521 reviles the activities at the Palace of Mating because he has no choice in the assignment of his sexual partners, and he believes that his preference for the Golden One is a sin because he is elevating her above all her sisters. However, as he develops in his understanding of the importance of self, he comes to believe that preference and freedom of choice are the basis for happiness, and that the authorities' teaching that men should love all other humans equally merely perpetuates the servitude of collectivism. His friendship with International 4-8818 is the forerunner of his relationship with the Golden One, and alludes to similar themes although the bond is less tight.

For Ayn Rand, love and friendship are not simply an irrational attachment to another human being. Instead, they are the result of the mutual recognition of like-minded individuals, where Equality 7-2521, for example, sees that the Golden One has and fulfills his ideals. For Equality 7-2521, love of another person is the extension of the love of self because he loves her for the same qualities that he loves in himself -- such as fearlessness, integrity, and pride. In the society of his birth, however, people do not learn to love others because collectivism rejects the love of self, and Equality 7-2521's attachment to the Golden One indicates his readiness to move away from such collectivist doctrine.

Thought and language

As an author who chose to propagate the ideals of Objectivism through a work of fiction, Rand recognized the power that words can have on the populace, and she develops the relationship between thought and language throughout Anthem. Like her contemporary George Orwell, who also warns of the dystopian possibilities of Communism in Animal Farm and 1984, Rand has her society twist language to serve the purposes of the state. Where 1984 underlines doublethink via such slogans as "War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength," Anthem's society has completely eliminated the word "I." Consequently, those born within the society grow up without a complete concept of individuality, and whatever remnants of self-awareness remain are discouraged as a sin by the government. These models of twisted language often reflect the Soviet use of propaganda as exemplified by Agitprop, a Communisty Party department strictly devoted to indoctrinating Communist ideals in the Soviet Union.

Even Equality 7-2521, who of all the characters in the book best understands the value of the self, cannot fully comprehend his own philosophy until he ceases to refer to himself as "We" and rediscovers singular pronouns in his language. He and the Golden One also have particular troubles as they repeatedly stumble into confusion because they cannot declare their affection for each other with simplicity and directness. The Golden One's first words to him after he tells her of his discovery of "I" are "I love you," and the statement is not just an affirmation of their love but a declaration of victory in their fight against the teachings of their childhood.

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