Study Guide

Anthem Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Ayn Rand

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Biblical and Mythological Overtones

Anthem has this mythic and ancient feel about it, and at times it even reads as if it were a work of scripture. A large part of that is because of the style in which it's written. (See "Writing Style" for more on this.) But it also helps that Rand makes use of a healthy amount religious language, and a few mythological and Biblical allusions.

The religious language isn't hard to find. In the very first sentence, we come across the word "sin" (1.1). Many of the other words used throughout the story to describe that which is forbidden in Equality 7-2521's society also have a religious resonance: Transgression, Evil Ones, Unspeakable Word, Unmentionable Times. It's often been noted that totalitarian societies adopt some of the trappings of organized religion, and effectively become religion for the population. Ayn Rand may be capturing that idea here.

But on the other hand, there's a noticeable absence of any positive religious words like "sacred," "divine" in circulation within Equality 7-2521's society. The only time Equality 7-2521 uses any such language while he is still in the City is when he describes the Transgressor as a Saint. It is once he leaves the City and discovers the word "I" that he starts to use positive religious language. And then it just doesn't stop: Spirit, temple, temple of spirit, sacred, and holy.

In the last chapters, there also seems to be a bit of mythic and religious allusion going on too. The most obvious case is the choice of new names by Equality 7-2521 and Liberty 5-3000 in the last chapter: they pick names from the Greek myths associated with gods of creation and (in Prometheus' case) light. But besides that, there are also a passages from Equality 7-2521's anthem to ego which sound a lot like verses from the New Testament of the Bible.

Check out, for instance, this passage on Equality 7-2521's three treasures:

I guard my treasures: my thought, my will, my freedom. And the greatest of these is freedom. (11.11)

This reminds us of a passage from Saint Paul on the three theological virtues:

And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13: 13)

All of Equality 7-2521's proclamations about what he is – "I am the meaning…. I am the warrant and the sanction" (11.4) – also strike the ears rather like Jesus' famous "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). The resemblance might not be precise enough to call these allusions per se, but at the very least Rand's language is similar enough to be suggestive of scripture.

All of this makes sense, given that Rand is trying to claim a special kind of sacredness for the human ego. Equality 7-2521's society has no understanding or appreciation of the sacred ego, and tries only to destroy it. It only draws on religious language to make prohibitions, because it only has the oppressive guilt element of religion down. Once Equality 7-2521 leaves his society behind, he is able to discover what is truly sacred for himself, and preach about it to us.

Light and Water

There's a lot of light symbolism in Anthem, which helps to add to the mythic/religious feel of the story. The most important instance of it centers around Equality 7-2521's invention of a light bulb. Think of the scene. Equality 7-2521 creates the electric light by himself, in an underground tunnel, where it is the lone light shining in the darkness: "…in that moment nothing existed save our two hands over a wire glowing in a black abyss."(5.5). And doesn't it seem to represent Equality 7-2521's own position? He's the lone source of thought and individuality in the dark mass of his fearful and oppressive society, and the only source of hope, too.

His action of bringing forth the light "from the night of ages" (5.1) suggests his wider role as a light-bringer to his society. Originally he takes on this role for himself literally. He wants to share his invention with the others, to improve their quality of life. But towards the end of the novella, he adopts it in a higher figurative sense as well. He swears that he will be the one who will spread hope and freedom to those who suffer under the burden of collectivism. And he adopts the name of Prometheus, the god from Greek mythology who brought fire from the gods to men.

Light imagery also plays a role in Equality 7-2521's interactions with Liberty 5-3000 (just think of her shining name, the Golden One). But more important is water imagery, which characterizes Equality 7-2521's meetings with Liberty 5-3000 in both Chapter 2 and Chapter 4. See how they come together in this passage from Chapter 2:

And the drops of water falling from their hands, as they raised the water to their lips, were like sparks of fire in the sun. Then the Golden One saw us, and they did not move, kneeling there, looking at us, and circles of light played upon their white tunic, from the sun on the water of the moat, and one sparkling drop fell from a finger of their hand held as frozen in the air. (2.15)

Water is suggestive of birth and rebirth, of new beginnings and the "washing away" of the old. Think baptism. Light and Water complement each other. You could think of Liberty 5-3000 playing water-bearer (she does literally, in Chapter 4) to Equality 7-2521's light-bearer.

The Uncharted Forest

Can you think of a more perfect name for the place where our hero goes to leave his society behind and find himself?

The Uncharted Forest is in part a symbol of the unknown. It embodies all those mysteries in the world that Equality 7-2521 says he wants to learn about over and over again in the opening of the novella. And importantly, Equality 7-2521 can only start to figure out those mysteries on his own. His society has never entered the forest, and has forbidden anyone else to do so, which means he can only learn about it by going in alone. And what great things he discovers there: relics from the Unmentionable Times and the first-person singular.

The forest is also a symbol of nature. Equality 7-2521's society refuses to enter it, just as it refuses to actually learn about nature through the pursuit of science. Equality 7-2521, on the other hand, does enter it, just as he also is driven by science to inquire into reality with an open mind. And once within the forest, he starts to live more naturally, right down to hunting with a bow and arrow. Rand did see her own philosophy as thoroughly grounded in nature. She thought that egoism was just the natural way to be. (The corollary here is that collectivism is unnatural.) So it makes sense that Equality 7-2521 should find himself, and discover egoism, in a natural spot that his unnatural society hasn't touched.

Images of Self-Reliance

Self-reliance was a big deal for Ayn Rand, and Anthem is chock full of classic images of self-reliance. Equality 7-2521's scientific researches are individual, and he discovers electricity all by himself with materials he's made or stolen. Once Equality 7-2521 and Liberty 5-3000 find the house, our two heroes do start growing their own food. Not quite as cool as the old bow and arrow days, but still, on the self-reliance scale, not too shabby.