Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Primacy of the Individual
Equality 7-2521 realizes the significance of his existence only when he comes to understand that one is the center of one’s universe, and that one’s perception gives the world its meaning. He struggles throughout Anthem with his growing desire to spend time alone, to write for his own benefit only, and to create at his own leisure and for his own purposes. Only after his break with society, however, does Equality 7-2521 feel his own strength and ability. Alone, Equality 7-2521 thrives, even in the forest, where he initially expects to be destroyed by beasts. In society, all the brothers are drained of their energy and sapped of their creativity until they become shapeless, faceless blobs made inarticulate by fear of rejection by the group. By contrast, those characters capable of thinking on their own exhibit strength, fearlessness, and self-assurance. In his final epiphany, Equality 7-2521 declares his will the only edict he will obey and his happiness his only goal.
Rand writes Anthem as a warning to those who believe that collectivist societies, like the one whose birth she witnessed in Russia early in the twentieth century, can ever be successful. She warns that losing sight of the individual and his or her needs will lead to the destruction of all progress and all forward movement. Nevertheless, she believes that the individual can never really be dominated—he or she will always resurface because freedom is part of the human makeup. Rand believes that no matter how hard society tries and how many people it kills in the name of collectivism, the individual will still rise up and declare him- or herself his or her own purpose.
The Value of Martyrdom
Martyrdom sets Equality 7-2521 apart from the rest of society because, in Rand’s view, the willingness to die for an ideal marks a hero and distinguishes him or her from the rest of society. Indeed, when society martyrs a hero, the hero feels nothing but joy at the discovery of his or her ideal. Thus, when he is burned at the stake in front of Equality 7-2521, the Transgressor of the Unspeakable Word shows no fear or pain, only tremendous elation in his knowledge of the word that the rest of society has forgotten. Likewise, when Equality 7-2521 is beaten in the Palace of Corrective Detention for refusing to tell his Home Council where he has been, he feels no pain, only joy that he has not revealed the secret of the lightbulb. He even consents to stay locked in his cell until it is time to break out and go to the World Council of Scholars. In both cases, what matters to the martyr is not the pain but the ideal, and the ideal is worth dying for, as Equality 7-2521 observes in his meditations in Chapter XII.
The Impotence of the Collective
The World Council of Scholars embodies one of the chief evils of collectivism—the inability of a collective government to come to a conclusion and take action on behalf of the society it governs. Because consensus is impossible and individual thinking forbidden, the council falls into inaction; since the council is the ruling body of the society, society stops advancing. The World Council of Scholars exemplifies the fear that controls group thinking. Because the council members cannot all agree on technological advances, even a simple innovation such as the candle takes a huge amount of time and haggling to gain approval. Moreover, because consensus-building is difficult and dangerous in a society in which discord is viewed as a sin, the individuals on the council begin to fear any change as a threat to themselves. For this reason, the council recoils from Equality 7-2521’s lightbulb. Rand shows that when absolute agreement is necessary for change, progress is all but impossible.
Original Creation as a Component of Identity
For Rand, a man’s value rests in the originality of his mind as expressed in his work, and the value of his work resides in his personal investment in it, as in Equality 7-2521’s invention of the lightbulb. Equality 7-2521 discovers in his tunnel that the work of an individual’s hands is an extension of the individual’s very self, and that the value of the product of this work lies not in the product’s benefit for society but in its own existence as the fruit of the individual’s imagination. For this reason, Equality 7-2521 prefers to be beaten into unconsciousness and then nearly starved to death than to reveal the light he has invented. Furthermore, when the World Council of Scholars rejects his light as useless, he tells the council members to do what they will with his body, if only they will accept the light. Last, when Equality 7-2521 and the Golden One finally reach the house, his proprietary sense over the building, which he refashions into a home for him and the Golden One, is so strong that he is willing to defend it even to the death. In each of these cases, Equality 7-2521 defends his work and his property as extensions of himself because they spring from him.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Fear in Anthem characterizes those social lepers who do not have enough sense of themselves to understand that each individual is the center of his or her universe. Rand’s heroes, on the other hand, never fear anything. In Rand’s belief system, the only thing man has to fear is his fellows, who will weigh him down and sap his strength if given the opportunity. The Golden One appeals to Equality 7-2521 because she is unafraid, and she is attracted to him for the same reason. By contrast, those in the Home of the Street Sweepers are so afraid that they do not speak to each other at dinner or in the sleeping hall. More generally, those in a society characterized by fear never seek to make any progress or improve their own lives. They do not show signs of individuality—they never exhibit vanity, pride, lust, or preference for some people over others—because they value physical safety over expressions of self.
In the society in Anthem, naming is a form of identifying one’s possessions as one’s own. For this reason, Equality 7-2521 names the Golden One on two separate occasions, names himself, and searches relentlessly for the word “I.” Rand alludes to the power of naming granted to Adam in the Bible, where he is made master of the animals and they answer to the names he gives them. Likewise, Rand’s heroes rename those things that are dear to them. By contrast, those in society are given numbers and social concepts as identifying tags, as yet another way of stealing their individuality from them. For those in this society, possession is not a possibility because all things are owned by the collective, including their own bodies and identities. Thus, when Equality 7-2521 renames the Golden One and himself, he is declaring war on this philosophy and reclaiming himself and her as individuals.
Like fear, shapelessness in Anthem connotes evil because it illustrates a lack of willingness or ability to believe in something and to stand behind it. For Rand, the physical world mirrors the internal, personal world, and physical shapelessness goes hand in hand with fear and collectivity. Thus, the members of the World Council of Scholars are all shapeless, as are the members of the Council of Vocations. The entire society around Equality 7-2521 is shapeless and gray, demonstrating its stagnation and worthlessness. By contrast, the Golden One is hard, with sharply defined lines and an overwhelming physical beauty. Similarly, International 4-8818 stands out among his peers because he is taller and more shapely than they are. Finally, Equality 7-2521 is reprimanded by his teachers at an early age for growing to more than six feet tall. The teachers, in keeping with the rigid norms of their society, try to enforce a uniformity that leads to shapelessness. That Equality 7-2521 does not fit in with this uniformity points him out as a true individual.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Light represents truth in Anthem. Thus, Liberty 5-3000 becomes the Golden One, and Equality 7-2521 becomes Prometheus, the bringer of light. Equality 7-2521’s contribution to the world is his invention of the lightbulb, and the house he and the Golden One find in the forest has windows to let in the light. By contrast, the city is dingy and dark, and the only colors are gray, white, and brown. The whole society lives by candlelight, and the society’s leaders fear the light when Equality 7-2521 brings it to them. Light illuminates human dignity and human error for Rand, both of which the society in Anthem tries to sweep under the rug. In the vast gray haze of this society, all things are indistinct. Only when light is brought to bear can those with exceptional qualities be differentiated from the crowd. Thus, Equality 7-2521’s lightbulb makes him a harbinger of tremendous social unrest at the same time that it helps him see himself as the unique individual he really is.
For Equality 7-2521, the state of nature affords him the chance to live alone and sustained by the work of his own hands, an opportunity he is denied in society. Unlike society, which constrains what an individual can claim as his own, the forest welcomes Equality 7-2521 and provides him what he needs. The forest is also a connection between the past and the future. In the forest, Equality 7-2521 and the Golden One find a home—one of the only remnants of the Unmentionable Times in the story. This home suits them, and in it they discover their own natural states. The forest thus provides them with a place to effect their own rebirth.
In the society in Anthem, manuscripts carry history and are sacred vessels for self-expression. The manuscripts that Equality 7-2521 steals from the Home of the Scholars are very important to him because they are his only means of recording his private thoughts. Because he is accustomed to believing that no thought is valid unless it is shared by the entire community, his willingness to record his thoughts, to see them as valuable, represents his first significant break with society. The books he finds in his new forest home are also important to him because they teach him the history of the old world’s destruction and, most important, teach him the word “I.” This discovery concludes Equality 7-2521’s search for individual expression and allows him to think of himself as separate from the rest of his peers. It also teaches him a deeply personal kind of pleasure, both in the form of reading, which is itself a solitary activity in his life, and in writing, which allows him to speak so that only he can hear. Equality 7-2521’s obsession with his manuscripts, then, reflects a deep-seated need to escape the prying eyes of the society around him and to realize his full potential as an individual.
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