Anthem takes place in the future, but this 1937 work is a commentary on Ayn Rand's contemporary world of the first third of the twentieth century. It reflects her opinion of the Soviet society that emerged after the communist revolution in Russia toppled the czarist regime.
Rand hated the conformity and collectivism she experienced in the U.S.S.R. Like many dystopian works, her book acts as a cautionary tale about what the world could become. She envisions a future in which people are assigned numbers rather than names in an attempt to rob them of their individuality. Her central character, a talented young man, is punished rather than rewarded for his superiority. He is forced to become a street sweeper, but intelligent as he is, he uses this to his advantage. He makes discoveries about a former civilization that had innovations such as electricity that have been lost.
Rand's point is that a society that stops valuing the individual is setting itself on a downward spiral. Elite people of superior ability must be recognized and rewarded. Otherwise, she argues, society as a whole will suffer.
Although the novel, Anthem by Ayn Rand, was written in 1937, the novel takes place in the future. We are not told the exact year or setting, but a Great War occurred that changed everything about the previous society. A war between powers was mentioned, as well as “The Great Rebirth” when all knowledge and books were burned. The lack of knowledge threw the society into a time equivalent to the Dark Ages where there was very little advancement. Equality and his fellow brothers were taught backwards ideas in school, like the Earth is flat. The society only had candles to see by and no books to learn from. There were no advanced technologies or machines to help the citizens work or live comfortably.
What Equality discovers in the tunnel under the city reveals that society once had electricity, cars, and skyscrapers. It was a different civilization that believed in individuality and human rights. Because of the war, in which nations upholding democracy lost, the society in Anthem regressed and established its collective government that valued the group over the individual.