As a vehicle for exploring her philosophy of Objectivism, Ayn Rand imbues her dystopian novella Anthem with allegorical qualities that allow her to challenge the political landscape of her era. She may create the fictional world in which Equality 7-2521 struggles to assert his individualism, but the notion that a government would prioritize the collective over the individual comes from her personal experiences growing up in Communist Russia. As a result, the narrative arc of Anthem acts as a representation of Rand’s vision for overcoming the harm that collectivism inevitably causes. Equality 7-2521 senses that he is different from his brothers, and despite the fact that such thoughts are illegal according to the World Council, he continues to find ways to satisfy his innate desire for self-actualization. The tension between Equality 7-2521 and the oppressive structure of his life in the city is the central conflict of Anthem’s fictional narrative. Lying underneath this allegory, however, is the conflict between the rise of totalitarian governments, which aim to sacrifice individual freedom for the common good, and Rand’s Objectivism. Exploring both layers of the text reveals just how strongly Rand believed in the need for individualism as she creates a very bleak and threatening image of the alternative. 

Rand begins her allegory by establishing the laws and norms of Equality 7-2521’s dystopian world, and the jarring degree to which the World Council forces sameness onto each citizen allows her to highlight the potential dangers of real-world political systems. Perhaps the most extreme aspect of Equality 7-2521’s world is the fact that the word “I” is illegal, of which Rand constantly reminds the reader by only using plural pronouns for a majority of the narrative. By making this unnatural-sounding linguistic choice, Rand is able to emphasize right from the beginning that collectivism itself is unnatural. Equality 7-2521, who serves as the novel’s narrator, spends a majority of the first chapter describing his highly regimented upbringing as well as his evil “curse” that tempts him to think about himself in individual terms. This background information is crucial as it heightens the stakes of Equality 7-2521’s choice to turn an old, abandoned tunnel from the Unmentionable Times into a personal hideaway, a moment which serves as the novel’s inciting incident. While Equality 7-2521 explains that he has had illegal, individualistic thoughts, his discovery of the tunnel marks the first time that he has ever acted in a way that puts his own desires ahead of the collective’s.   

As if Equality 7-2521’s use of the tunnel as a secret hideaway was not enough, he steals objects from all over the city to study them, and this behavior further develops his sense of individualism. Unlike the education of his youth, performing these experiments allows Equality 7-2521 to satisfy his own curiosities and advances his cognitive abilities beyond those of his fellow Street Sweepers. This personal development, which marks the rising action of the novel, manifests itself in his invention of a lightbulb. Equality 7-2521 may initially see this invention as a means of convincing his community to accept him despite his crimes, but the lightbulb ultimately serves as a symbol of his undeniable uniqueness. He even goes so far as to say that the lightbulb’s “wire is a part of [his] body,” a metaphorical image which inextricably links his scientific development to his personal enlightenment. As Equality 7-2521 becomes increasingly focused on protecting his invention, he fails to follow his government-organized schedule and is caught by the Council of the Home. Officials torture him at the Palace of Corrective Detention in an attempt to get him to divulge his secrets, but Equality 7-2521 refuses. This choice to protect his lightbulb highlights just how precious individualism truly is.

When Equality 7-2521 finally presents his invention to the World Council of Scholars, he experiences firsthand that challenging the collectivist culture of his world is impossible to do from within. Escaping into the unknown, he realizes, is the only way to truly discover who he is as an individual. Equality 7-2521’s long-awaited arrival at the Council meeting serves as the climax of the novel as he comes face to face with those who have the power to uphold mankind’s new, regimented way of life. The fact that Equality 7-2521 does not succeed in making his case reflects the totalitarian tendencies of collectivist governments and reinforces Rand’s argument about the harm they cause. The falling action of the novel follows Equality 7-2521’s journey after he flees into the Uncharted Forest, a place rumored to kill those who enter that instead offers him the opportunity to build an individual life. The wild, unstructured nature of the forest makes it an ideal symbol for freedom, and Equality 7-2521 discovers a sense of joy and purpose that his previous life never provided him. With his love, the Golden One, by his side, Equality 7-2521 vows to celebrate individualism, fight against the smothering “we,” and ensure the survival of “the sacred word: EGO.” The novel’s final chapters, which feature the introduction of the pronoun “I,” turn into Rand’s political manifesto and outline the tenants of her philosophy, Objectivism. With this conclusion, Rand suggests that the only way to truly empower the individual is to relieve them of all external pressures to think and act on behalf of others.