First released in 1938, Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem differs substantially from most of her earlier works in its length; while novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead weigh in at 1,200 and 700 pages, respectively, Anthem is presented in a relatively palatable 70 pages. Initially conceived as a play, the primary motivation in the work was presenting the author’s relatively new philosophy. Consequently, with each breath Anthem contributes itself to presenting the author’s opinions in the most dramatic fashion possible. The novella admittedly sacrifices the depth of ideas that are presented in Rand’s longer works, but as a novella Anthem strives to catch 75 percent of the ideas in 10 percent of the pages.
The novella is posed as a series of journals written by a man named Equality 7-2521, in which he depicts a society that has systemically staunched individuality. Within the journals, the prose replaces the word “I” with “we” to imply that the society in the novel has wholly replaced the concept of individuality with that of community. Equality’s journals depict a sense of self-flagellating remorse as he chastises himself for enjoying some people over others; in the words of the protagonist, “it is a transgression, the great Transgression of Preference, to love any among men better than the others, since we must love all men.”
The backbone of the plot comes in the form of Equality’s drive for knowledge; throughout his early years of schooling, Equality was reprimanded for his desire to understand the sciences. While Equality prays that he will be allowed to research for the good of the community, he is ultimately assigned to be a street sweeper as penance for his belief that he might be smarter than his peers. However, the protagonist ultimately engages in his research in secret, which allows him to rediscover technology that has been lost since the formation of the society in the novel. Although he initially intends to share for the good of the people, Equality is chastised for his nonconformity.
Rand’s unique writing style lends itself to a nuanced brutality; her diction never shies away from raw, self-reflective acknowledgement in the depth of the protagonist and a pointed, aware criticism of the society within the novel. Each page is littered with a series of evils and sins that have been indoctrinated within Equality; his self-loathing is detailed in screaming color with his wildly frequent declarations of apology to the society. Furthermore, the dialogue also reflects the distinctly strained communication that results from a group of people who have lost the word “I”; the mechanics of the book are as clever as the philosophies.
While Rand is often criticized for her polarized stances on social issues, she manages to drive her points about the importance of individuality home with a reckless fierceness in the space of only a few dozen pages. The story manages to develop in a markedly authentic way, and despite its depth, it rarely ever feels rushed. The author has managed to create a digestible and original insight into the idea of humanity.