Discussion Topic

Irony and Contradictions in Ayn Rand's Anthem

Summary:

Irony and contradictions in Anthem include the society's emphasis on collectivism while the protagonist, Equality 7-2521, discovers the importance of individualism. The society's rejection of technological advancements contrasts with Equality 7-2521's invention of the light bulb, highlighting the conflict between progress and regression.

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What are examples of verbal irony in Anthem by Ayn Rand?

Verbal irony is when a speaker says something that's the opposite of what is intended. It can be intentional, as when a friend who hates my hat says, "Nice hat!" It can also be intentional on the author's part, but not necessarily on the part of a character.

Verbal irony happens in large and small ways throughout Rand's novel. Some of the common ways are in the language. This is a book about individuality, but early on, the narrator uses the plural pronoun "we," as in "But this is not the only sin upon us. We have committed a greater crime, and for this crime there is no name." To act as an individual but refer to oneself as "we" is ironic.

This sort of irony continues throughout the book. For example, the way the thinker is individualized is in part unequal, but says, "Our name is Equality 7-2521." That's ironic because this narrator isn't an equal.

The verbal irony extends to thematic issues. Early in the book the narrator says, "All men are good and wise. It is only we, Equality 7-2521, we alone who were born with a curse. For we are not like our brothers."

But in Rand's world, it is Equality 7-2521 who is good and wise. Being unlike his brothers is precisely one way he is good and wise. What he calls a curse is a fundamental gift.

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What is the irony in Ayn Rand's Anthem?

Situational irony occurs when events turn out the opposite of the way they were expected.

The central irony that run through this dystopian society is that its most important organizing principle, equality, brings the opposite of the happiness it was supposed to shower on its population. The principle of equality has not animated society and brought it to new heights. Instead, the society has gone backward in every way.

The most obvious devolution is technological. To move forward technologically, the society would have had to single out scientific geniuses, and this it refuses to do. Therefore, there is no innovation, and even the knowledge of old technologies, such as electrical lighting, has been lost, so that people now use candles for light.

Ironically, when Equality 7-2521 tries to show people in authority the power of electric lights, he is punished, not rewarded.

Social relationships have also gone backward. Because it would single out another person as special, nobody in the society is allowed to experience the joys of romantic love or even special friendship. Equality as a principle is supposed to make people feel better about themselves, but it leaves them profoundly isolated.

Rand depicts a society that has completely misunderstood and misapplied notions of equality. Ironically, rather than the equality principle being used to help all people—including those in groups once oppressed—to find and develop to their utmost potential, it is used to used to level everyone to a dull and oppressive common denominator that destroys their spirits and is ruining their society.

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What is the irony in Ayn Rand's Anthem?

It is extremely ironic, especially in an age when we champion innovation and ingenuity, that Equality 7-2521—who is clearly incredibly bright and creative—is forced to become a street sweeper, a profession that does not make use of or even require his level or kind of intelligence. He is assigned to manual labor, of course, so that he will not have the opportunity to differentiate himself from his "brothers," and so he will do nothing to stand out and be unique. The move is designed to keep him in his place, and prevent him from excelling or outshining others—to force him into equality with his peers. We would likely expect, however, that a person with such aptitude would be employed in such a way that he or she could have the most benefit for society, as that is likely what contemporary communities would do; alas, this is partly what makes this community a dystopia: the fact that it requires citizens to ignore their talents, talents which could be used to improve the lives of everyone but would also differentiate individuals from one another.

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What is the irony in Ayn Rand's Anthem?

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.

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What is the irony 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. 

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What is the irony in Ayn Rand's Anthem?

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.

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What is the irony in Ayn Rand's Anthem?

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.

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How does "Anthem" contradict Ayn Rand's philosophy?

Rand's novel purports to be about radical individualism but, in the end, it is about the importance of community—a glaring contradiction.

Equality 7-2521 and the Golden One escape the oppressive chains of their "we" society. In the process they rename themselves Prometheus and Gaea and, with Gaea's pregnancy, start a family. (A family, we might note, is a community.)

"Prometheus" states very baldly that:

To be free, a man must be free of his brothers. That is freedom. That and nothing else.

If that is so, this ideology is profoundly compromised and contradicted by his conviction that he must gather a group around him. As he states, rather pompously:

I shall call to me all the men and the women whose spirit has not been killed within them and who suffer under the yoke of their brothers. They will follow me and I shall lead them to my fortress. And here, in this uncharted wilderness, I and they, my chosen friends, my fellow-builders, shall write the first chapter in the new history of man.

Later, at the very end of the novel, he states:

For the coming of that day I shall fight, I and my sons and my chosen friends.

This doesn't sound very individualistic. It sounds like creating a new kind of conformity. A reader can only imagine that this hand-picked elite chosen by Prometheus will only include people who think like him, and that people who challenge his views will be excluded. This sounds very much like the lock-step society he and Gaea just escaped, the only difference being that he will be in charge.

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