Study Guide

Anthem Summary

By Ayn Rand

Anthem Summary

Our narrator gets the ball rolling right away by informing us that it's a big sin for him to be doing what he's doing (that is, writing). In fact, it's a serious no-no in his society to do or think anything on his own at all. And it's absolutely forbidden to be alone, which he is. Our narrator is holed up in an underground tunnel, writing secretly by candlelight.

The narrator is a young man by the name of Equality 7-2521 (poor guy), and he seems eager to tell us a little bit about his past and the City he lives in. Apparently long ago something called the Great Rebirth happened. After that, all of humankind started to think of itself as one "great WE." In fact, Equality 7-2521 can only speak of himself as "We," and doesn't seem to know the word "I." The Great Rebirth also meant a reversion to the dark ages. The latest in hi-tech for Equality 7-2521's society is the candle (of which Equality 7-2521 is very proud).

In Equality 7-2521's world, everyone is told that the only reason for an individual to live is to serve his "fellow brothers." Everyone is equal to everyone else, which means that each person has to be the same as everyone else. Society is rigidly controlled to ensure that nobody has the opportunity to stand out as an individual, or even think of himself as one.

The problem is, our man Equality 7-2521 has stood out as since he was a kid. He couldn't help it. In school, he was just smarter than everyone else, which his teachers resented. Equality 7-2521 was also resented because of how interested he was in learning. All he really cared about was science and the pursuit of knowledge. When he grew up, what he wanted most of all was to be made a Scholar by the Council of Vocations (which assigns each individual in society a job, for life). But instead of being made a Scholar, Equality 7-2521 was punished by being made a Street Sweeper.

Equality 7-2521 tells us that his life as a Street Sweeper dragged on uneventfully for a few years until one fateful day two years ago. On that day, Equality 7-2521 and a fellow Street Sweeper came across a grate in the earth, and discovered that it led to a great underground tunnel (so far as we can tell, a subway) from the Unmentionable Times before the Great Rebirth. Equality 7-2521 made his companion promise not to say a word about their discovery, and decided to make the place his own hideout. (That's a major violation of the law right there.)

Since that day, Equality 7-2521 has been secretly sneaking into the tunnel every evening to be alone, free from the company of others. There, he can write, think, and perform all the scientific experiments he's always wanted to do (with the help of a lot of materials he's stolen from the Scholars of the City). That's the circumstance in which he's writing now.

The next time we hear from Equality 7-2521, he's just committed another major crime. He's fallen in love with a woman. A woman by the name of Liberty 5-3000, to be exact. Equality 7-2521 passed her one day in the fields outside the city while he was sweeping the streets, and since then he hasn't been able to stop thinking about her. Nobody is supposed to care more for any one person than another, yet that's exactly what Equality 7-2521 finds himself doing, and he feels happier than ever before. He and Liberty 5-3000 have started to look at each other every day, and Equality 7-2521 tells us excitedly about day they talked to each other for the first time. Equality 7-2521 also mentions that he finds himself wondering a lot about the Unspeakable Word, a forgotten word from the Unmentionable Times, which is so evil that merely saying it is punished with death.

More time passes, and we next hear from Equality 7-2521 that through his experiments he's discovered a new power: electricity (though he doesn't know the name for it). Some time after that, Equality 7-2521 creates a working electric light. He decides he has to share the miraculous fruits of his research with the Scholars of his society, who will be holding a World Council in his own City the next month. Perhaps the usefulness of Equality 7-2521's discovery will make up for all of his transgressions.

Unfortunately, the very night Equality 7-2521 makes his discovery he also forgets to sneak back into the City on time. When he returns to the Home of the Street Sweepers, he's caught and interrogated about where he's been. Refusing to say a word earns Equality 7-2521 a nasty trip to the Palace of Corrective Detention, where he's whipped for hours in an effort to force him to talk. He doesn't, so he's put into prison, where he stays for a month.

When the date for the World Council of Scholars arrives. Equality 7-2521 easily breaks out of prison, and goes to retrieve his electric light from the tunnel. The next day, Equality 7-2521 visits the Council, only to have the Scholars reject him and his invention in rage. Furious with him for having broken all the laws and worked alone, they want to put him to death, and destroy his invention. The exasperated Equality 7-2521 seizes his light and flees the City before the Scholars can do anything, running into Uncharted Forest that lies outside the city. No one will follow him there.

Well actually, somebody does follow Equality 7-2521, but it's Liberty 5-3000, who's decided to run away from the City to be with him. He's overjoyed to see her, and together they go off to explore the Forest. Eventually, they come upon a house from the Unmentionable Times, filled with all kinds of exciting gizmos and books. In one of those books Equality 7-2521 discovers the word "I," the Unspeakable Word his society has banned. This rocks Equality 7-2521 and Liberty 5-3000's world, as they've been struggling to find the right word to talk about themselves as individuals since they left the City. They also decide to rename themselves after Greek gods.

Well settled into his house, Equality 7-2521 (now "Prometheus") writes about all the new realizations that he's had now since he escaped the City. He's learned that his own individual happiness is the only reason he needs for living, and that the human ego is the most sacred thing in the universe. He's learned that freedom is the most precious gift a human being can possess. He's learned Liberty 5-3000 just can't get enough of the mirror. And he's decided that he's going to return to his society one day and fight to win back freedom for all those who want it. And on his banner shall be what he now recognizes as the sacred word: EGO.