I entered the Ayn Rand Institute's annual essay contest on Ayn Rand's book "Anthem" for 9th and 10th graders in March of 2007. The grand prize was $2000! I, unfortunately, only won some Canadian 2nd place prize of $100. Oh well. What do you think of my essay below? Keep in mind I'm only 16 years old.
Assignment: When Equality sees his own face for the first time, he thinks to himself that “we could trust this being who looked upon us from the stream, and that we had nothing to fear with this being.” (Chapter VIII) What is the full meaning of this incident and its importance to Equality’s development and to the theme of the story? Explain.
Ayn Rand’s novelette Anthem depicts a dystopic society in which the value of the individual is subjugate to the will of the collective. The protagonist, Equality 7-2521, and his nameless brothers inhabit a world where all expressions of individualism have been eradicated by the state. The society functions by placing the interests of the group ahead of personal liberties, and enforcing this ideal in all aspects of life. Through the abolishment of the singular, personal pronoun “I”, the state seeks even to remove all meaning and comprehension of single identity from the minds of the people.
Conformity is the most important aspect of the collectivists. The populace is taught that their lives only have value insofar as their service to the group. From birth, children never see their own parents, for they are to love all humans equally. Friendships are banned, for it is a sin to prefer the company of some over others, and the two genders are not permitted to contact each other except at the Time of Mating where sex has been ingrained as a dirty, shameful act. Names are based after vague concepts such as “Union”, “International”, and “”Liberty” with a number attached. All of these policies are designed to force the individual to realize a faceless anonymity, and that he, himself, is nothing.
The opening line, “It is a sin to write this”, illustrates one aspect of the society’s values- its taboo on written documentation. The collectivist dictatorship in Anthem has banished the past from recorded archives, and has sequestered those who remember it in the House of the Useless and Ancient Ones. In doing so, they can effectively control and define the past, for anything that the state says must be true as there is no evidence to counter it. By being able to write history, the collectivists can erase their mistakes and the successes of their opposition. Their hold on the hegemony of the people becomes ever stronger.
Written texts, then, cause numerous problems for the government. Independence in the society must be sacrificed by the unity of the people. Texts are written as a product of a single mind rather than a collaboration of people, which is unacceptable to the values of the society. In a society where all citizens are “educated” to conform, Equality 7-2521, the protagonist, records a journal of his transgressions. Through a series of epiphanies, Equality realizes that the society that he has accepted from birth cannot coexist with his own sense of morality- that the purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of his own happiness. Since the beginning, Equality has been rebuked for being different than others- in school, he grew to be too tall, and the teachers declared that there was evil in his bones. He was too curious, and because of his inquisitive nature, he was assigned to the job of street sweeper. The state must carefully control all intellectuals who do not cohere with their collectivist system, and by placing them in menial tasks, their motivation for change is destroyed.
Equality’s record of his personal actions and emotions causes numerous problems for the regime. By protecting his notes from the state, he becomes a transgressor of individual thought. If the will of the collective is the only government, then the thoughts of one can only be malignant- and must be destroyed. The only manuscripts in existence are strictly controlled by the state via the House of the Clerks, so that they may be censored and approved for their content.
The World Council of Scholars, the commanding scientific body of the novel, repudiates the value of Equality’s light bulb and declares it to be evil not because of a lack of pragmatism or validity, but because they fear that it will bring about a wave of change that the society could not accept. They have no ambition or interest in advancement- in fact, they are simply a group of lumbering charlatans who merely pose a facade to science. Equality’s invention was said to be unacceptable as it would weaken the sole purpose of humanity- to toil in the interest of the whole. Logical, scientific reasoning is overruled by blinding faith, and individual thinking is crushed by the will of the people.
Equality reveals his willingness to betray the doctrines of the society which he now realizes are flawed. He realizes that objective knowledge is not a product of the human mind but rather a measurement of reality. He seeks only to serve himself in his own pursuit of happiness. In using his newly discovered light bulb, he shatters the belief that scientific advancements must be halted for the good of the people. As creativity and thought are destroyed in the face of anonymity and unity, mankind recedes into a new dark age where the main goal is not even the improvement of humanity’s standard of living , but simply to bind them together in an unescapable, oppressing unity. Equality eventually realizes that his “sins” and transgressions are not crimes against humanity, which his brothers would have him believe, but simply actions that were in his own interests and not those of the state and brothers. When he finds the house in the Uncharted Forest, he discovers a world completely foreign to him- one that had marvels of technology never seen before, colorful clothing with an unknown freedom of expression, and a woman completely devoted to him. His thoughts of the good of the people were replaced with a cause for only his own survival, joy, and love. This was the relic of a society where the satisfaction of man’s self was paramount- and it was the environment with which he wished to surround his own, superlative ego.