What is ironic in Ayn Rand's Anthem?
One example of irony in Anthem is the ongoing dramatic irony in which the reader knows that Equality 7-2521 is an individual person, yet refers to himself as "we." Dramatic irony occurs when the reader/audience knows something the character(s) does not. This dramatic irony in this case ends when Equality 7-2521 discovers the word "I" and the concept of the individual, notably in Chapter 11.
There is an extra-textual irony here as it applies to Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, also known as the "virtue of selfishness." In Anthem, she proposes a dystopia. The cause of oppression in this world is a radical devotion to collective community, radical to the point of the obliteration of the concept of an individual. Thus, individual freedom is lost. This is truly a nightmare scenario and is hyperbolic to prove Rand's point - that too much emphasis on the collective good decreases emphasis on individual well being. Her philosophy and rhetoric in this and other works is radical and suggests that by focusing so much on individual freedom, that actual selfishness is a saving grace for the human race.
Certainly, attention to individual and communal freedoms is the proper balance for an ideally free society. But with Rand's work here, suggesting that selfishness (a radicalized version of devotion to individual freedom) is the supreme virtue - this is ironic given many religious and philosophical morals of ethical behavior, usually based on selflessness, generosity, and thinking of others.
Anthem is a Utopia/Dystopia novel. This genre is inherently ironic in that what the leaders see as "perfect," at least one character sees as imperfect and prison-like. In Rand's novella, the World Council of Scholars is part of the governing body of the World Society. They believe that they have solved all of the world's problems that were present in the "Unmentionable Times." The way that they have done this is by taking away all individuality and replacing it with an overpowering sense of and need for community. For instance, each person in the society must refer to themselves as "We" rather than "I."
When Equality 7-2521 brings his discovery of light and electricity to the World Council of Scholars, he is told that it is illegal and that it will ruin the plans of the World Council of Scholars,
"and without the Plans of the World Council the sun cannot rise. It took fifty years to secure the approval of all the Councils for the Candle, and to decide upon the number needed, and to re-fit the Plans so as to make candles instead of torches."
This one section is loaded with irony. These men are the "scholars," the best and brightest of the Society, and yet, they can't see the value of electricity.
Rand's use of the utopia/dystopia genre illustrates her many points through the use of irony.
In Chapter 2, Equality 7-2521 is sweeping the streets when he sees Liberty 5-300 working the land. Equality 7-2521 is instantly attracted to Liberty 5-300 and cannot stop looking at her. Equality 7-2521 begins looking forward to seeing Liberty 5-300 and eventually smiles at her and gives her the name the Golden One. Equality 7-2521 comments,
We do not wonder at this new sin of ours. . . We do not know why we think of them. We do not know why, when we think of them, we feel of a sudden that the earth is good and that it is not a burden to live (Rand 12).
This scene would be considered an example of dramatic irony because the audience is aware that Equality 7-2521 is experiencing love. In Equality 7-2521's society, it is forbidden to distinguish another person above someone else and the concept of love does not exist. Equality 7-2521 is confused at his feelings while the audience understands that he is simply in love and attracted to Liberty 5-300.
An example of irony in Rand's Anthem would be after Equality speaks to Liberty for the first time and he sings his way back home. The leader of the home reprimands Equality for singing without reason and outside of the social meeting where singing is only permitted. Equality responds by saying that he is singing because he is happy, but the leader of the home didn't really listen. Instead, the leader told Equality that he was happy because, "How else can men be when they live for their brothers?" (43). So, the leader is saying that their way of life is the best for everyone, but when Equality looks around that night, he sees that most men walk hunched over, never looking at anyone's eyes. He discovers that their life there isn't happy, but full of fear; and, where fear is, there cannot be happiness.