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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.