Anthem Summary

Ayn Rand

Anthem

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Anthem Summary

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Like many dystopian stories, the characters inAyn Rand’s novella,Anthem(1937), suffer a loss of individuality and self-identity. The world has entered a new dark age, and science and study are strictly controlled. As the story opens,the protagonist, known as Equality 7-2521,is in a tunnel lit only by candlelight, writing his life story. When he refers to himself, he uses plural pronouns, such as “we.” Children in this dystopian society are raised separately from their parents, in collective homes. Equality was raised this way, only he believes he was cursed. He has the ability to learn quickly, which makes him an anomaly. After doing exceptionally well at the science of things, he decides he wants to become a scholar—but he is denied that dream and assigned the life mandate of street sweeper instead by the Council of Vocations.

Despite having his dream shattered, Equality takes on his new assignment and considers it penance. He knows he has committed a transgression of preference. He works with two other street sweepers—Union 5-3992 and International 4-8818. The latter is Equality’s sole friend. Together, they discover the entrance to a tunnel while sweeping streets. Equality wants to explore it, but International is hesitant, knowing it is forbidden. After entering the tunnel, Equality discovers that there are metal tracks running the length of the tunnel. He determines that the tunnel is from the past, known as the Unmentionable Times. Knowing no one else will use the tunnel, Equality decides it is the perfect place to conduct secret scientific experiments. It is also where he journals his life.

One day, while doing his job, Equality meets someone new. Her name is Liberty 5-3000,a seventeen-year-old assigned to work as a peasant on the farms. Equality thinks of her all the time and hopes she will be assigned to him during the time of mating, an annual ceremony. Because of her golden hair, he gives her a new name in his own mind: The Golden One. When he speaks to her, he reveals this name and the fact that he thinks of her all the time. He is pleased to learn that she not only thinks of him too, but has given him a nickname. She thinks of him as “The Unconquered.”

In the course of his experiments, Equality discovers electricity, which had been forgotten since its use before this second dark age. He discovers it by finding a glass box with wires in the tunnel that lights up when he sends electricity through it. Thinking this discovery will please the World Council of Scholars, and perhaps lead to his being allowed to join them as ascholar, he decides to take the box to them. However, before he’s able to, he loses track of time in the tunnel and misses his shift sweeping streets. His absence is noticed and he is whipped. Equality is then held in the Palace of Corrective Detention.

Despite being detained, he is not guarded. No one has ever tried to escape the Palace of Corrective Detention, but Equality decides he will escape on the night before the World Council of Scholars meets. He takes the box to them, but they are not impressed. They call him a wretch, a gutter cleaner, and accuse him of conducting research without their authorization. They tell him they must destroy his discovery because it will hamper their plans and those of the Department of Candles. Rather than allow this, Equality takes the box and flees, ending up in the Uncharted Forest, a forbidden area outside of the city.

There, he laments that he has let the society down by abandoning it. He also misses The Golden One, though these feelings are not enough to draw him back into the city. He knows he would not be safe there, but here, he can live freely. No one will pursue him here—except someone does. The Golden One joins him on his second day in the forest. Though they love one another, they do not know how to tell each other, because they do not know how to express themselves. While in the forest, they find shelter in a house from the Unmentionable Times. The house is in the mountains, and it is full of books. There, Equality learns about the word “I” and teaches The Golden One how to use it. The pair takes on new names they found in the books. The Golden One becomes known as Gaea, and Equality becomes known as Prometheus. They learn how to express themselves as individuals.

At the end of the story, Gaea and Prometheus are expecting their first baby. They talk about the past—the Unmentionable Times—and are confused by how people could give up their sense of individual existence. They plan to create a future in which all humans have regained their individuality.