Anthem is a dystopian novella which describes a future society characterized by irrationality and collectivism. Dystopian fiction can be broadly defined as the creation of an utterly horrible or degraded society that is generally headed to an irreversible oblivion. Dystopia is defined as a society characterized by a focus on mass poverty, squalor, suffering, or oppression, that society has most often brought upon itself. (according to : "Apocalyptic Literature". Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd. 1993.) Collectivism emphasizes on the interdependence of human race on each other and supremacy of collective will rather than individual thoughts or ideas. To give a loose example of collectivism, let us take the example of representative democracy. In any parliamentary democracy, that party is selected to govern a country which has got majority votes. For all those who did not vote for that party, even they have to accept the government thus selected. So the individual support or opposition is not given importance but collective will of people decides the government.
Anthem was written by Ayn Rand before her masterpieces 'The Fountainhead' and 'Atlas Shrugged'. Anthem was not a commercial success compared to her later works which established Ayn Rand as one of the leading flag bearers of objectivism and capitalism. Written in the background of communist Russia in which she grew and later left, this novella portrays her intense dislike for the collectivism and communism. This pattern can be seen in her other works too. In particular, this work was assumed too much reactionary by leftist intellectuals. Anthem is a miniature version of Rand’s philosophy.
The whole story of Anthem revolves around two characters, Equality 7-2521 and Liberty 5-3000. The two were raised in government(or whatever the existing regime may be called) homes and after their education, they were assigned by Council of Vocations to different jobs, Equality 7-2521 to Home of the Street Sweepers. One fine day, he finds a secret entrance to a subway tunnel and in that tunnel, he starts doing scientific experiments. He discovers electricity which did not exist in the society in which Anthem was set up. When he shows his work, Council disapproves of it because they think that it may endanger the equilibrium. Dejected, Equality 7-2521 leaves for the Uncharted Forests and is followed by Liberty 5-3000. There they discover the true potential of an individual and live with what they call freedom.
The set up of society in Anthem is simplistic compared to other dystopian novels such as '1984' by George Orwell. One can easily think that author tried to draw a parallel with communist regimes and exaggerate things a little bit to give her message loud and clear, that individualism, not collectivism, is the only feasible social system. The use of words like "I", "Me", "Ego" were punishable by death. In fact, doing anything not in knowledge of The Council was a sin. All things like the type of education and jobs were decided by a council, which took decisions based on the larger interest of society, again questionable because there were no fixed criteria to decide that.
The main characters were voices of rebellion against the system. It is not clear how far they could take the opposition but what author successfully showed is the desire of a person to live life in his own way. The way author describes the discovery of electricity in her work is a good description of how something new is looked down with scepticism in the society. The author did a nice job in keeping the story short and to the point.
Overall not a book to start and finish. It is recommended for those who like to know the philosophical school of thoughts and those who want to know about life in closed and isolated countries.
Quotes from Anthem:
- "I know not if this earth on which I stand is the core of the universe or if it is but a speck of dust lost in eternity. I know not and I care not. For I know what happiness is possible to me on earth. And my happiness needs no higher aim to vindicate it. My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose."
- "The secrets of this earth are not for all men to see, but only for those who will seek them (page. 52)."
- "I stand here on the summit of the mountain. I lift my head and I spread my arms. This, my body and spirit, this is the end of the quest. I wished to know the meaning of all things. I am the meaning. I wished to find a warrant for being. I need no warrant for being and no word of sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction. Neither am I the means to any end others may wish to accomplish. I am not a tool for their use. I am not a servant of their needs. I am not a sacrifice on their altars."
- "I am neither foe nor friend to my brothers, but such as each of them shall deserve of me. And to earn my love, my brothers must do more than to have been born. I do not grant my love without reason, nor to any chance passer-by who may wish to claim it. I honor men with my love. But honor is a thing to be earned."