“Many men in the Homes of the Scholars have had strange new ideas in the past . . . but when the majority of their brother Scholars voted against them, they abandoned their ideas, as all men must.”
Equality 7-2521 writes from the forest to which he has fled that he has abandoned hope and believes he will sleep on the grass for a few days until the beasts come to eat his body. He feels that he has aged a lifetime in this day. He recounts the events of the day: he is able to walk right into the meeting of the World Council of Scholars because there are no guards to stop him. The first thing he notices is the sky shining in the windows and a painting on the wall, depicting the twenty men who invented the candle. The shapeless forms of the scholars are huddled around a long table. As he enters, the scholars turn to him, but they do not know what to think. He addresses them in a loud voice and in greeting.
Collective 0-0009, the oldest and wisest of the scholars, asks Equality 7-2521 who he is, and Equality 7-2521 gives him his name and tells him he is a street sweeper. The scholars are angry and scared that a street sweeper should have interrupted their meeting. Equality 7-2521 stops their murmurs by telling them he has brought them the greatest gift ever presented to mankind, and they listen to him while he tells them the story of the invention of the lightbulb, the tunnel, and his incarceration in the Palace of Corrective Detention. The scholars hear out his story, but when he lights the lightbulb, they become terrified and huddle against the walls, trembling together. Equality 7-2521 laughs at them and tells them that he has tamed the sky for them and has presented to them the key of the earth.
Collective 0-0009 lambasts Equality 7-2521 for breaking all the laws of their society and even boasting of doing so. The other scholars begin slinging insults and threats at Equality 7-2521, telling him they will have him burned at the stake or lashed to death. Equality 7-2521 tells them he does not care what they do with his body but that he wants them only to protect the light. The scholars tell him that what is not achieved collectively cannot be good and what is not thought by all men cannot be true. They tell him that there have often been scholars who thought they had brilliants ideas, but when their brothers voted against them, they abandoned their work. They worry that the light will ruin the Department of Candles, which was only recently established and took great labor to be ratified, and that it will ruin the plans of the World Council, without which not even the sun can rise. One scholar concludes that if the light lightens the toil of men, it is evil because toil is the end for which men exist. The scholars conclude that the light will be destroyed.
Equality 7-2521 cannot abide the destruction of the lightbulb, so he grabs his invention and flees the council. He runs blindly until he collapses and discovers he is in the Uncharted Forest, where he supposes he will die alone. He realizes, however, that he had been lying to himself, that he did not create the light for his brothers but rather for its own sake. He does not regret building the light and pursuing his scientific discoveries, though he wishes he could see the Golden One again.
“[I]f this should lighten the toil of men . . . then it is a great evil, for men have no cause to exist save in toiling for other men.”
In Collective 0-0009, Rand exposes the mastermind behind the demise of the old world. Until we meet Collective 0-0009, we might suppose that the failings of Equality 7-2521’s society are grounded in the failings of individuals who do not realize their potential or are stupid, weak, and helpless. Rand’s view of the collectivist society, however, holds that it systematically rejects progress and perpetuates hurtful cycles of working for others. Thus the failure of technology stems not from the failure of scientists to develop technologies or the failure of the average citizen to take advantage of those technologies, but rather the failure of the World Council of Scholars to come to a consensus about how to utilize the new technologies. Additionally, the Council is afraid of the lightbulb, even though Equality 7-2521 promises to harness its power for them. Their ingrained fear of new things becomes public policy and makes a system of the repression of progress.
This distinction—that society at large rather than certain individuals are holding humankind back—is very important to the political criticism that Anthem makes. Rand is arguing against a position that holds that socialism and collectivism are fundamentally useful and good propositions but were simply executed poorly in Russia. This position holds that Communism in Russia was a failure in large part because of the corruption, vanity, and cruelty of men like Josef Stalin, who lined their own pockets and carried out personal vendettas rather than truly pursue the good of the people. Rand, on the other hand, believes that collectivism is evil and doomed to fail no matter how it is executed, and the individual who fights for his own well-being over that of his brothers is the only effective solution to the problems inherent in collectivism.
Equality 7-2521’s conflict with the World Council of Scholars forms the central event of Anthem and comes closest to being the climax of the story, because it is the point at which there is no turning back for Equality 7-2521. His smaller transgressions—preferring International 4-8818, falling in love with the Golden One and speaking to her as a lover, seeking the solitude of the tunnel, and creating the lightbulb—could potentially be forgiven and have not cut Equality 7-2521 off irreparably from his society. Once the World Council rejects the lightbulb, however, all hope of reconciliation vanishes, and Equality 7-2521’s path clears. Even though Equality 7-2521 himself does not see the path before him, it is inevitable that he break with society and seek his own way in the Uncharted Forest.
Rand claims that Anthem does not have traditional structure and that it does not have a meaningful plot. For her, the novella revolves entirely around the internal conflict inside Equality 7-2521’s mind. This conflict resolves itself in the final chapters of the novella and provides the jumping-off point for the most philosophical part of the story, the actual anthem of the title. Here, however, despite Rand’s claims about the novella’s lack of formal structure, it is possible to identify a likely candidate for the climax of the story. The conflict with the World Council becomes inevitable in this chapter, and this conflict, and the resulting exile of Equality 7-2521, helps cause Equality 7-2521’s crucial realization that he is an individual and that his individuality is more important than his place in society.
Equality 7-2521’s realization that he actually created light for his own good and for its own sake conflicts with his earlier belief that he should present the lightbulb for the good of his brothers. Rand wants us to see this changed point of view as a kind of self-actualization. She believes that Equality 7-2521 has been deluding himself about his motivations and that he can realize his true feelings only now that he is free of social constraints and returned to a state of nature. This contention is troublesome, however, for it threatens the infallibility of the individual, whom Rand cherishes so much. Her statement that Equality 7-2521 has always known the truth but has not realized this truth is tantamount to second-guessing him, which is in tension with her belief that what the individual thinks and believes is sacred and should be followed at all costs.