It’s difficult to think of a more polarizing author of the twentieth century. Some see Ayn Rand as the enabler of the asshole, while others see her as the liberator of the individual. Some see her as a mediocre writer, while others are willing to ignore the fact that she is.
But what you can’t dispute is her importance. She was the most prominent author to counter both communist sentiment at a time when it was gaining a full head of steam in the West. Even in recent months, Atlas Shrugged is enjoying renewed popularity as people perceive an American swing toward socialism.
Anthem was an early novella that Rand struggled to publish, and after the success of The Fountainhead she’d revisited the manuscript. Her revisions were mostly superficial, and in the end she was quite proud of it, drastically different in style as it was from her more well-known works.
Its hero, Equality 7-2521, is a young man who lives in a future where “I” is a forbidden — and forgotten — word. Instead, everyone is referred to in the collective we, they, and them. The heavily structured society divides the population into assigned jobs, seemingly regardless of a citizen’s actual skill and inclinations toward a trade.
Equality 7-2521 dreams of being sent to the House of Scholars, but because of his pesky questioning nature, he is condemned to the post of Street Sweeper for the rest of his life. Or at least for a few decades: the future also has retirement communities. But instead of Florida they call it the Home of the Useless, and instead of septuagenarians it houses citizens who are barely over 40, and who expire only a few years thereafter. All work and no medical advances make Jack a dead 50-year-old.
In this regard, Anthem’s nightmare opposes Brave New World’s, which argues the dangers of a society marked by too much progress. By contrast, Anthem’s is a world of people proud of their sailboats, togas, and sundials with no hope or desire to develop anything better. Reason being, innovation is made nearly impossible because the individual is not to be acknowledged, never mind his/her ideas. Or as the Judges say, “‘What is not done collectively cannot be good'”.
So what gets done collectively? Well, there’s a grand painting depicting the “twenty illustrious men who invented the candle.”
But while the hamstrung progress of mankind is laughable, the psychological effects of a “we”-obsessed community are more serious. The brainwashed citizens seem to tolerate their lack of identity well enough, until we find that many of them cry and wail in their sleep at night.
Equality 7-2521 laments (quite repeatedly) that his passion for learning is damnable in the eyes of his society, yet he feels it is a natural joy. He’s as heavily indoctrinated as the next guy, which is why he writhes under so much guilt, but there’s an extraordinary fire within him that remains undisturbed. Like most dystopian novels, Anthem imagines that no society can brainwash successfully enough to avoid producing a dissenting Seer.
The other undisturbed fire, we find, is romantic love. Our hero meets a beautiful girl from the Home of the Peasants, and they give each other adorable pet names like The Golden One and The Unconquered. Now he really needs that forbidden word; “we love you” isn’t the sincerest sounding thing to say to your darling.
Unlike most dystopian novels, however, this one ends happily. With conscience as the catalyst and ingenuity as the engine, The Unconquered demonstrates a method of defeating the oppressive society: Screw you all, because I’m taking my light bulb and my submissive blonde bimbo and starting my own paradise.