Introductory Lecture and Objectives
Imagine a world in which the word “I” has been outlawed for hundreds of years, where people have numbers for names, in which it is a sin to have a friend, and where faceless councils dictate that all humans must spend their days in toiling for the “good of our brothers”—a world in which technological progress erodes and is eventually abandoned.
This is the world of Anthem, a political allegory written by Ayn Rand in 1937. The hero, Equality 7-2521, struggles to fight against an oppressive regime and to recapture the one word that will affirm his individuality. We readers can be forgiven for feeling frustrated on his behalf. In a culture so dominated by our own individual whims, we take the primacy of the individual for granted.
Born Alissa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1905, Ayn Rand (as she renamed herself in the United States) never took individual free will for granted. As a twelve-year-old in February 1917, she watched in jubilation as Russian revolutionaries overthrew Tsar Nicholas II; just eight months later, on October 25, 1917, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, overran her native St. Petersburg and plunged the country into a bloody civil war. When the communists emerged victorious, Rand watched as her father’s pharmacy business was confiscated. Rand and her family underwent periods of near starvation and witnessed the emerging brutalities of a totalitarian police state.
“It is a sin to write this,” begins Equality 7-2521’s diary, in which he gives us the account of his journey toward self-discovery. In that tantalizing opening line, one can imagine young Ayn Rand curled up in her bed writing of her “sins” against the official Bolshevik party line. Rand burned her own diary when she turned thirteen. It contained her negative views on popular ideas and maxims of the communist party—like “live for the state” or “live for others.” She knew that even for a child, keeping a written record of ideas that clashed with the soon-to-be ruling ideology could put her in mortal peril.
Rand would be the only member of her family to make it out of what became Soviet Russia. Because her job was making propaganda films, she obtained permission in 1926 to study filmmaking in the United States, and after leaving Russia, she never returned. Rand had fixated on Western life, and the inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” written into America’s Declaration of Independence particularly appealed to her.
Rand made her way to Hollywood, where famed director Cecil B. DeMille cast her as an extra in one of his epic films. Her connection to DeMille helped her gain entry into the world of screenwriting and editing. She eventually began to write novels, which received an impressive amount of attention but mixed reviews. While she was struggling with the plot of what would become her most famous novel, The Fountainhead, Rand wrote Anthem in just one week. Inspired by a futuristic story in a popular magazine, she thought, “I can do that,” and wrote the book, seeking nothing more than to publish it in The Saturday Evening Post.
Readers often see Anthem as a sketch of The Fountainhead, which features red-haired Howard Roark, the fiercely independent architect whose bold, modernistic designs are rejected by the tradition-bound society. More than a sketch of The Fountainhead, however, Anthem offers an introduction to the ideas Rand would later develop into a complete philosophy called Objectivism, which she described as a “philosophy for living on earth.” She called Anthem “my manifesto, my profession of faith, the essence of my entire philosophy.” She lectured and wrote on her philosophies until her death in 1982.
Always outspoken about her view of life, Ayn Rand is someone about whom people inevitably hold strong opinions. Conservatives love her anti-government, pro-entrepreneurial stance and her moral rationale for capitalism. Liberals hate her for denouncing altruism and espousing selfishness as a virtue. Literary critics bemoan her prose as preachy and her characters as cardboard creations. A 2002 Library Journal review branded Anthem as “a long-forgotten exercise in paranoia.”
How then does one explain that Anthem sells 100,000 copies a year and inspires the more than 8,000 essays submitted to the Ayn Rand Institute contest each year? One explanation is that young people who are just beginning to make their way in the world are always captivated by the struggle between the desires of the individual and the pressing demands of society. The novel’s popularity also can be attributed to its fascinating dystopian vision of the future, its tender love story, its confirmation of the human spirit, and its classic theme of good vs. evil, although in Anthem, what is considered evil is something to cheer. Political and philosophical considerations aside, Anthem continues to engage readers as it takes them into a nightmare world and then delivers them, along with the protagonist, to a mountaintop where humanity is affirmed and hope is reborn.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain how Anthem functions as an allegory of the battle between collectivism and individualism.
2. Describe the life cycle of members of the City, birth to death.
3. Describe both the literal and the spiritual journey Equality 7-2521 takes from being a member of collective society to a proud individual.
4. Identify the forces in society that have prevented innovation and scientific progress.
5. Explain how the author illustrates the power of language in shaping society.
6. Explain how the characters Liberty 5-3000, International 4-8818, and the Transgressor of the Unspeakable Word contribute to Equality 7-2521’s quest for personal identity.
7. Contrast Equality 7-2521’s experience in the Uncharted Forest with his experience in the City.