Anthem (novella)

Anthem is a dystopian fiction novella by Ayn Rand, first published in 1938. It takes place at some unspecified future date when mankind has entered another dark age as a result of the evils of irrationality and collectivism and the weaknesses of 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 (for example, the word "I" has disappeared from the language). As is common in her work, Rand draws a clear distinction between the "socialist/communal" values of equality and brotherhood and the "productive/capitalist" values of achievement and individuality.

Many of the novella's core themes, such as the struggle between individualism and collectivism, are echoed in Rand's later books, such as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. However, the style of "Anthem" is unique among Rand's work, more narrative-centered and economical, lacking the intense didactic expressions of philosophical abstraction that occur in later works. It is probably her most accessible work.

Plot summary

Equality 7-2521, writing in a tunnel under the earth, 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 is immediately obvious. 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 (which is not revealed at this time). 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, the Council of Vocations assigned him to the Home of the Street Sweepers.

Equality is assigned to work as a street sweeper, and accepts it willingly 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 epilepsy.

However, he 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 of Anthem'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." Also, Liberty 5-3000 names Equality "The Unconquered."

Continuing his scientific work, he rediscovers electricity and the light bulb. He decides to take his inventions to the World Council of Scholars, so that they will recognize his talent and allow him to work with them. He is still motivated by a socially instilled need to aid his fellow citizens. However, his absence from the Home of the Street Sweepers is noticed, and he is arrested and then sent to the Palace of Corrective Detention, from which he easily escapes after being tortured.

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 forest 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. 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 think of 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 that the Unspeakable Word, the one that carries the penalty of death, is "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 Equality on a rock. Whilst some are confused why he hadn't rather written "I" on the rock instead, it is conceivable that "Ego", being the Latin word meaning "I", was written by Rand who perhaps wanted the ancient Latin root of the word "I" to be dictated instead.

Influences on Anthem

Rand describes an unnamed short story, which she read in the Saturday Evening Post circa 1937, that influenced her to write Anthem:
It didn't have any particular theme, only the fact that some kind of war had destroyed civilization, and that there is a last survivor in the ruins of New York who rebuilds something. No particular plot. It was just an adventure story, but what interested me was the fact that it was the first time I saw a fantastic story in print--rather than the folks-next-door sort of serials. What impressed me was the fact that they would publish such a story. And I thought that if they didn't mind fantasy, I would like to try Anthem. ... So I wrote Anthem that summer of 1937.
The story in question was almost certainly Stephen Vincent Benét's "By the Waters of Babylon," which was published in the Post in 1937.

Anthem bears notable similarities to Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel We, which also influenced George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Like Zamyatin, Rand had some experience of the Soviet system.

We was first published in 1924 in the United States in an English translation. Though it was not published in Russian until 1952 (and not in Russia until 1988), it was privately circulated in Russia in the early 1920's. It is possible that Rand read it either in Russia or after moving to the United States, but there is no direct evidence that she did so.

Below is a list of the similarities and differences between the two stories:


  • The narrator speaks in the first-person plural, rather than the first-person singular, i.e., "We" rather than "I", at least to begin with. (In We, however, the author does use these early on and these words appear to be known to the general population, unlike Anthem)
  • People have numbers, rather than names. Although this particular Hive/Ultra-Communist set up has been much copied since in science fiction, it was not so common when Zamyatin was writing.
  • Both novels take the form of a secret journal or diary.
  • The narrator is a male who is influenced positively by a female character, in the course of an illegal romance.
  • The society raises children away from their parents, and the right to bear children (and whom one can bear them with) is determined by the State.
  • Sexuality is highly regulated; both works feature scheduled, involuntary sexual intercourse with unchosen mates. We's system is, however, less restrictive and more frequent; where in Anthem partners are assigned by "the Council of Eugenics" for one night out of a year (and sexual thoughts on any other day are illegal), the denizens of We instead have "the right of access to any other Number," i.e. person, "as sexual product", where the needed frequency is calculated by the "content of the sexual hormones" of the individual. Thus while it is possible in We for two willing people to choose each other, it is also possible to be unwillingly chosen by someone else.


  • Anthem's society has more complete control over its subjects.
  • Anthem's society is in serious technical and scientific decay, while in We, the society is not.
  • Anthem's protagonist is not eventually conquered and reintegrated into society at the end of the novel, as the protagonist of We is.
  • Anthem is serious, and permissibly believable, whereas We is more satirical and near whimsical in nature.

Copyright status

Anthem entered the public domain in the United States at the end of 1966, due to the failure to renew its copyright after 28 years as then required by US law. The book's copyright status in other countries is dependent on their adoption and interpretation of the rule of the shorter term for this title; however, under the usual life plus 50 years rules of the Berne Convention, its copyright would remain in effect until 2033.

Influence on popular culture

Like "Anthem", the 1971 science fiction novel A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg is set in a culture where the first person singular is forbidden - a similarity acknowledged by Silverberg himself, who however noted that the two books are otherwise very different in underlying philosophy.

THX 1138

George Lucas's 1971 film, THX 1138, is said to have been partially inspired by "Anthem". THX 1138 depicts a dystopian futuristic society in which conformity and collectivism are mandatory and love and emotion are forbidden. Similarly, Lucas gathered inspiration from other dystopian futuristic novels like George Orwell's "1984", Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World", and Yevgeny Zamyatin's "We".


The title track on the 1976 concept album 2112, by progressive rock band Rush, has a story that very strongly parallels Anthem (although, understandably, the protagonist of 2112 discovers a guitar instead of a light bulb). The liner notes of the album acknowledge "the genus [sic] of Ayn Rand."

Neil Peart, drummer/songwriter for Rush, said that 2112 was based on Anthem and inspired by it; though he did say that he didn't notice that they were so alike until afterwards, and so thought that it was necessary to provide a reference. Through his musical success in pop culture, Neil Peart has become one of the biggest popularizers of Rand's ideas--though this was not the purpose of 2112 or his song "Anthem" from their earlier album Fly by Night.



  • Gimpelevich, Zina (1997). "‘We’ and ‘I’ in Zamyatin's We and Rand's Anthem". Germano-Slavica 10 (1): 13–23.
  • Mayhew, Robert (2005). Essays on Ayn Rand's Anthem. Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Rand, Ayn; Leonard Peikoff (introduction and appendix) (1999). Anthem. Plume.

See also

External links

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