Who are the Old Ones in Anthem by Ayn Rand?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Ayn Rand's novella Anthem paints a desolate picture of life in some kind of future society. This dystopian work suggests that there is not only no perfect place, but that the most perfect place will one day become this place. In this world, men and women are known only by numbers, and this story is told by Equality 7-2521.

In chapter one of the novella, Equality 7-2521 sets the scene for us. America is now a place where nothing creative or different or individual is allowed--in fact, those things are all punishable offenses in this world. Life is compartmentalized and institutionalized, and no one is allowed to make any decisions for himself. The good of all, the collective, is paramount.

A child is born in the Home of Infants and then he attends the Home of Students, where thinking and excelling is not allowed. No one can be better than anyone else, and the collective "we" is always used instead of the liberating pronoun "I." Once the Council of Vocations determines where each person will work, a horrible life ensues. Equality 7-2521, for example, is assigned to the House of the Street Sweepers, where he is expected to work diligently at this thankless and tedious job, without thinking or creating or enjoying anything. 

Thus must all men live until they are forty. At forty, they are worn out. At forty, they are sent to the Home of the Useless, where the Old Ones live. The Old Ones do not work, for the State takes care of them. They sit in the sun in summer and they sit by the fire in winter. They do not speak often, for they are weary. The Old Ones know that they are soon to die. When a miracle happens and some live to be forty-five, they are the Ancient Ones, and children stare at them when passing by the Home of the Useless. Such is to be our life, as that of all our brothers and of the brothers who came before us.

The Old Ones, then, are the men and women who have lived meaningless lives doing meaningless work until they are so exhausted, at the age of forty, that they must be sent to a home where they are made even more useless. Only one positive thing happens in the Home of the Useless:

They [the Old Ones] whisper many strange things, of the towers which rose to the sky, in those Unmentionable Times, and of the wagons which moved without horses, and of the lights which burned without flame. 

The Old Ones remember. They remember a time when things were different and better, when skyscrapers existed and electricity lit them. Though Equality 7-2521 does not say it, it is clear that the crisis which caused such drastic changes (the Unmentionable Times) could not have been that long ago or these Old Ones would not remember. Even worse, unless something changes, a day is coming when the new group of Old Ones will remember nothing but the debilitating and unsatisfying lives because that is all they have known.

The Old Ones are those who have outlived their usefulness and are waiting to die; however, they are also the memory keepers, reminders that things were not always this way. 

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