Always speaking from a first-person plural point of view, the narrator introduces himself as Equality 7-2521. He explains that the act of keeping a secret journal without the permission of the Council of Vocations is against the law and a sin because his thoughts are not shared, but personal. However, he has committed an even greater crime. He is writing alone in a tunnel with a stolen candle, although the laws require that no one can ever be alone, and he describes himself as twenty-one years old and six feet tall. His height has made him stand out from his peers, hinting at his evil tendency to think unlike others in spite of the efforts of the World Council to unite all men and reject individuality. The Council's creed of unity has been written on their palace since the Great Rebirth ended the selfish Unmentionable Times, the study of which is forbidden and will also send Equality 7-2521 to the Palace of Corrective Detention.
Equality 7-2521 recalls the life that led him to his worst crime, beginning with his early years in the Home of Infants. The narrative switches temporal registers, and we learn of this childhood -- one spent largely in a sleeping hall of one hundred beds, one peppered with fights with other children and frequent chastisement. From the ages of five to fifteen, Equality 7-2521 lives at the Home of the Students and there recites a creed every night with the other students before going to bed. The creed declares that the individual is nothing when compared to the group and the State.
Equality 7-2521 does not enjoy his schooling because he is too intelligent for the subject matter and thus stands out from his classmates. He tries unsuccessfully to act like the slow-witted Union 5-3992 and is often punished for his differences. However, he believes in the Teachers because they have been appointed by the just and powerful Council, and he feels guilty because he wants a specific job after the end of his schooling, although he should accept the wisdom of the Council of Vocations.
He has always preferred science and, to the Teachers' dismay, asks too many questions about the subject. The Council of Scholars states that the world is flat and at the center of the galaxy, and the schools teach how to bleed men to cure them; Equality 7-2521 wants to know more and dares to wish for a work assignment to the Home of the Scholars. The Home of the Scholars is the source of all inventions, such as glass and the candle, the latter of which had only been discovered a hundred years ago, and Equality 7-2521 wants to join their investigations. When the Council of Vocations announces their assigned vocations, Equality 7-2521 hopes to be made a Scholar even more than a Leader, an honorable profession which leads to election to the City, State, and World Councils. Instead, he is given the profession of Street Sweeper, and he decides to atone for his sin of desire by proudly working his new job.
As a Street Sweeper, Equality 7-2521 lives by a strict daily schedule, and, before their daily visits to the City Theatre to watch plays about work and duty, the Street Sweepers meet with other men at a Social Meeting in the City Hall, where the Leaders give speeches and the men sing hymns about equality and collectivism. Equality 7-2521 lives in this manner for four years, knowing that at age forty, he will be sent to the retirement Home of the Useless as an Old One or, if he lives past forty-five, an Ancient One. He works in a three-person brigade with Union 5-3992 and International 4-8818, the latter of whom is too full of laughter and thus was assigned to the Street Sweepers instead of the Artists. International 4-8818 is the friend of Equality 7-2521, although they are by law not allowed to admit it.
Two years prior to the writing of his journal, Equality 7-2521 is working beside International 4-8818 because Union 5-3992 is sick with convulsions, and the two discover the iron grill entrance to a tunnel among the weeds next to the City Theatre. Equality 7-2521 decides to explore it, although International 4-8818 opts to stay because he suspects that it is against the law. As Equality 7-2521 investigates the darkness, he realizes that the tunnel must be from the technologically advanced Unmentionable Times. He knows that the Unmentionable Times were horrible, but he still wishes to know more about them.
When Equality 7-2521 returns to the surface, International 4-8818 asks him to report their discovery to the City Council for a reward, but Equality 7-2521 insists on keeping it for himself, knowing that International 4-8818 will not betray his friend (which, after all, would likely earn Equality 7-2521 a death sentence). Afterward, Equality 7-2521 begins to sneak away to the tunnel instead of watching the plays at the City Theatre. With stolen objects and other local materials, he conducts experiments at night, and, with the help of stolen manuscripts, he learns many new things and feels no regret for his curiosity and his transgressions of the law.
Anthem's setting is that of an unclearly defined dystopian society which exists after what Equality 7-2521 calls the Great Rebirth and the end of the Unmentionable Times, an era that appears to be our own. The first paragraph establishes the sinister nature of the society, as the narrator castigates himself for breaking the law by daring to keep a journal. The mention of a Council of Vocations that controls when man can and cannot write also immediately indicates the oppression and jurisdiction over thought in Equality 7-2521's world. Throughout the first chapter, Equality 7-2521 offers no specifics of location that might place him in a particular continent or region, lending a universal feel to the dangers of his society, a sense that is further emphasized by the presence of a "World Council". At the same time, Rand's story has a clear connection to the contemporary political situation, as she wrote the novel partly as a parable to warn about the dangers of Russian Communism and the collectivist philosophy which many major thinkers had at one point in time believed to be a boon for human society.
Although Equality 7-2521 himself expresses guilt rather than awareness of the injustices of his government, he consistently receives punishment from his society for his exceptional qualities, which range from his above-average height of six feet to his intelligence and curiosity regarding the sciences. Because he cannot conform and because he dares to think as an individual rather than as one of the crowd, the Council of Vocations takes away his freedom of choice and makes him a Street Sweeper rather than a Scholar (or, for that matter, any position in which he might make full use of his abilities). The House of Street Sweepers appears to act as a repository for two categories of men -- those such as Union 5-3992 who are too weak or dull for any other job, and those such as Equality 7-2521 and International 4-8818 who are too talented to risk having a more powerful niche in society.
Equality 7-2521 shows only a nascent awareness of his ill treatment at the hands of his collectivist community, indicating that society has successfully enforced conformity in the mental as well as the physical and governmental spheres. As in many dystopian novels of the period -- such as 1984 -- and as in the Soviet Union itself, language becomes a major vehicle through which the society enforces mental compliance. In particular, although Equality 7-2521 narrates Anthem from a first-person point of view, he uses the unorthodox first-person plural form "we" rather than the singular "I." Rand suggests that the collectivist use of language represents an entire viewpoint which is ironically more sinful than all of Equality 7-2521's purported crimes. In addition, Rand names the various Councils in a manner reminiscent of the Councils and Ministries of the Soviet Union.
Because of the brainwashing that characterizes the world of Anthem, the conflict in the novel has a dual nature. In one sense, Equality 7-2521 is an innovator in an emerging conflict with the stagnant status quo of his society, as he begins to defy the authorities by exploring the tunnel and by keeping it for himself so that he might conduct experiments underground; this conflict appears in turn poised to become more significant as the novel continues. At the same time, Equality 7-2521 is in conflict with himself, as his individualist nature collides with the culture of compliance that has raised him for over twenty years. The antagonist is in both cases an aspect of collectivism, but Equality 7-2521 faces physical obstacles in the first case and mental ones in the second case. Interestingly, the conventions of good and evil are reversed not only in the societal definitions of sin but also in the portrayal of black and white. Whereas white is normally the color of innocence and purity, here it appears most prominently in the oppressive sleeping halls, while black is associated with the freedom of the dark tunnel.
Rand thus far presents Equality 7-2521 as the only truly outstanding individual in his city, but International 4-8818 serves as an example of a worthy man who does not quite have the qualities necessary to engage in a struggle with the oppression of collectivism. As Equality 7-2521's foil, he shares some of the protagonist's creativity and skill, but whereas Equality 7-2521 has a serious nature and prefers the sciences, International 4-8818 has "laughter in his eyes" and apparently has some skill as an artist. Both have suffered because the Council of Vocations deemed them too capable for their true vocations, but International 4-8818 is afraid of punishment and refuses to explore the tunnel with Equality 7-2521. Nevertheless, his loyalty and ability to maintain a friendship in defiance of the law make him a valuable, if not entirely admirable, character.