Anthem is a look into the future results of the socioeconomic trends of the beginning of the 20th century -- a distant future-world where mankind has entered another dark age. This is a dark age for the ego, as well as technology. It describes a dark age born from mankind choosing social values of equality and brotherhood as replacements for the productive values of achievement and individuality.
The protagonist, Prometheus (also named Equality 7-2521 and The Unconquered at various stages in the story) lives within this dystopia. He is the only individual left, as everyone else in his society has surrendered their life to the state. Anthem narrates the events in his life that led to his escape from society and repossession of his freedom.
Equality 7-2521, writing in a tunnel under the earth, explains his background, the society around him, and his Transgression. His exclusive use of first-person plural (we and they) to refer to himself and others is immediately obvious. He recounts his early life. He was raised in the Home of the Infants, then transferred to the Home of the Students, where he began his schooling. At the latter, he realised that he was born with a curse: he is eager to think and question, and unwilling to give up his self for others. He excelled in math and science, and dreamed of becoming a Scholar. However, the Council of Vocations assigned him to the Home of the Street Sweepers.
Equality decides that diligently working as a street sweeper will repent for his Transgression. He works with International 4-8818 and Union 5-3992. International is exceptionally tall, and a great artist. Union, "they of the half-brain," suffers from epilepsy.
However, he remains curious. One day, he finds the entrance to a tunnel in his assigned work area, and explores it, despite his colleague's protests that an action unauthorized by a council is forbidden. Equality realises that the tunnel is left over from the Unmentionable Times, and is curious about it. Every day, he enters the tunnel and undertakes scientific experiments.
Working outside the City one day, by a field, Equality meets and falls in love with a woman, Liberty 5-3000, whom he names "The Golden One".
Continuing his scientific work, he rediscovers electricity and the lightbulb. He decides to take his inventions to the World Council of Scholars, so that they will recognise his talent and allow him to work with them. However, his absence from the Home of the Street Sweepers is noticed, and he is arrested and sent to jail, from which he easily escapes.
The day after his escape, he walks in on the World Council of Scholars, and presents his finding to them. They are horrified, and reject it because it was not collectively created or authorized by a Council. When they try to destroy his invention, he takes it and flees into the forest outside the City.
After living in the forest for several days, Equality stumbles upon the Golden One, who has followed him from the City. They embrace, and struggle to express their feelings to each other, as they have no knowledge of the word "I". They find and enter a house in the mountains, and decide to live in it.
Whilst reading books from the house's library, Equality and Liberty discover the word "I", and understand the word's sacred value and the individuality it expresses. They give themselves new names from the books: Equality becomes Prometheus, and Liberty becomes Gaia. As the book closes, Prometheus talks about the past, wonders how men could give up their individuality, and charts a future in which they will regain it.
Anthem and We
Anthem bears notable similarities to Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel We which also influenced Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Like Zamyatin, but unlike Huxley or Orwell, Rand had some experience of the Soviet system, and was a native Russian language speaker. Both were also one time residents of St Petersburg/Leningrad.
We was published before Anthem, in 1920, and Rand would have been able to read it before it was translated into English. In fact she left Russia six years after "We" was published (Rand boasted that she had beaten both Orwell and Huxley into print with Anthem) Anthem was first published in English in Britain, in 1937, just after Zamyatin died in Paris. Anthem was written seventeen years after We.
- The narrator speaks in the first-person plural, rather than the first-person singular, i.e. "We" rather than "I", at least to begin with.
- People have numbers, rather than names. Although this particular Hive/Ultra-Communist set up has been much copied since in science fiction, it was not so common when Zamyatin was writing.
- Both novels take the form of a secret journal or diary.
- The narrator is a male, who is influenced positively by a female character.
- The society raises children away from their parents, but the hero sends his pregnant lover out to the forest to bear the child.
- Anthem takes place in a regressing society, We involves the setting off of a space craft to new worlds.
- Rand's characters win, but We's undergo medical treatment.
- Anthem's society has fuller control over its subjects.
- Anthem is serious, whereas, We is more satirical.
According to the introductory text of the Project Gutenberg edition, Anthem is in the public domain in the United States due to a failure of the rights-holders to renew its copyright at some point in the past. It is still under copyright in countries party to the Berne Convention, and will be until 2033. It is the only one of Ayn Rand's novels to be in the public domain in the United States, because she began her writing career after 1922.
The concept piece 2112 by progressive rock band Rush has a story that very strongly parallels "Anthem" (although, perhaps naturally, the protagonist of 2112 discovers a guitar instead of a light bulb). The liner notes of the album acknowledge "the genius of Ayn Rand" as a source of inspiration.
Neil Peart, lyricist for Rush said that 2112 wasn't based directly on Anthem, but inspired by it; he said that he didn't notice that they were so alike until afterwards, and so thought that it was necessary to give references. Through his success as a lyricist and drummer in pop culture, Neil Peart has become one of the biggest popularizers of Rand's ideas, although that was not the purpose of 2112 or his song "Anthem" on their earlier album Fly by Night.
Even though it was a successful album and came out a few years before her death, there is no widely known record of Rand commenting on the album. In fact, there is no evidence that she was ever aware of its existence. She had gone on record saying that she doesn't like rock music.