It is a sin to write this. It is a sin to think words no others think and to put them down upon a paper no others are to see. It is base and evil. It is as if we were speaking alone to no ears but our own. And we know well that there is no transgression blacker than to do or think alone (1.1)
Equality 7-2521 begins Anthem by telling us he's doing something wrong. The first thing we learn about him is that he's breaking an important law. And that makes us feel right away as if we're in a very tightly controlled world, a world in which one is not free to do what one wants. We also learn something else very important right away: in Equality 7-2521's world, one isn't free to be alone. And how can you be free at all if you can never be alone?
It is only our brothers in the Home of the Artists who are permitted to draw pictures, so International 4-8818 4-8818 were sent to the Home of the Street Sweepers, like ourselves. (1.36)
What Equality 7-2521 tells us here about International 4-8818 further goes to show how controlled their society is. Essentially, no one is allowed to do anything unless society tells them to do it. That is practically the definition of unfreedom, because it means that you can only do what you're told to do. In this case, it also means that International 4-8818 isn't free to be himself. He seems to be an artist by nature, but society doesn't even allow him to be one in his free time.
And they answered: "Since the Council does not know of this hole, there can be no law permitting to enter it. And everything which is not permitted by law is forbidden." (1.44)
International 4-8818 is stating the basic operating principle of his society here: if it's not permitted, then it's forbidden. Every action has to be sanctioned by society. There's no room for individual free choice at all.
But here, in our tunnel, we feel it no longer. The air is pure under the ground. There is no odor of men. And these three hours give us strength for our hours above the ground. (2.44)
The kind of freedom Equality 7-2521 craves most is freedom from others, freedom from the "odor of men." Being around other people all the time is oppressive. What's particularly ironic about this is that Equality 7-2521 is alone in a dark, underground space writing this – just the kind of place you might normally associate with confinement. But for him, the tunnel means freedom. He can be alone. And he's become addicted to it: he needs it now to get through the rest of the day.
All is not well with our brothers. There are Fraternity 2-5503, a quiet boy with wise, kind eyes, who cry suddenly, without reason, in the midst of day or night, and their body shakes with sobs they cannot explain. There are Solidarity 9-6347, who are a bright youth, without fear in the day; but they scream in their sleep, and they scream: "Help us! Help us! Help us!" into the night, in a voice which chills our bones, but the Doctors cannot cure Solidarity 9-6347. (2.46)
Equality 7-2521's not the only one who feels oppressed by his society: even his fellow Street Sweepers appear to be traumatized by it. What Solidarity 9-6347 seems to be calling out for in his sleep is to be set free from the yoke of society. (Equality 7-2521 will make something of this later.)
We opened our eyes, lying on our stomach on the brick floor of a cell. We looked upon two hands lying far before us on the bricks, and we moved them, and we knew that they were our hands. (6.21)
Equality 7-2521's "imprisonment" in society just got literal: he's now physically been put in prison.
Our body is healthy and strength returns to it speedily. We lunged against the door and it gave way. We stole through the dark passages, and through the dark streets, and down into our tunnel. (6.26)
When he escapes from prison, Equality 7-2521 is escaping from more than just physical confinement. He's also escaping from his society, at least in his mind. As he says shortly before this, one reason it's so easy to escape from prison is because it's expected no one would have the will to actively disobey society again and do it. But Equality 7-2521 is now willing to do just that. He no longer feels himself bound to obey society. He's already gone a long way towards escaping from it completely and arriving at freedom.
We awoke when a ray of sunlight fell across our face. We wanted to leap to our feet, as we have had to leap every morning of our life, but we remembered suddenly that no bell had rung and that there was no bell to ring anywhere. (8.2)
Equality 7-2521's first morning of freedom is blissful. It comes as something of a shock to him that he no longer has to wait for "the bell" – for societal permission. He can do whatever he wants now. He's completely free.
But what is freedom? Freedom from what? There is nothing to take a man's freedom away from him, save other men. To be free, a man must be free of his brothers. That is freedom. That and nothing else. (12.15)
Equality 7-2521 gives us his definition of freedom here: freedom is freedom from other men. It's the individual's ability to be alone, to do what he wants (as opposed to what other men want), to enjoy what he possesses on his own (and not share). Because other men threaten to take all of that away, freedom from them is the most basic and important kind of freedom there is.
At first, man was enslaved by the gods. But he broke their chains. Then he was enslaved by the kings. But he broke their chains. He was enslaved by his birth, by his kin, by his race. But he broke their chains. He declared to all his brothers that a man has rights which neither god nor king nor other men can take away from him, no matter what their number, for his is the right of man, and there is no right on earth above this right. (12.16)
Equality 7-2521 sees the history of humankind as the history of the progressive liberation of the individual from servitude. After long periods of being enslaved to one higher power or another, the individual finally became fully free to pursue his/her own happiness as an end in itself. This passage seems addressed to us, the readers: we live in that free world, more or less. But Anthem is set after the freedom we know has been lost again; it's a warning to us about how easy it might be for that to happen.