Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Primacy of the Individual
Equality 7-2521 realizes the significance of his existence only when he comes to understand that one is the center of one’s universe, and that one’s perception gives the world its meaning. He struggles throughout Anthem with his growing desire to spend time alone, to write for his own benefit only, and to create at his own leisure and for his own purposes. Only after his break with society, however, does Equality 7-2521 feel his own strength and ability. Alone, Equality 7-2521 thrives, even in the forest, where he initially expects to be destroyed by beasts. In society, all the brothers are drained of their energy and sapped of their creativity until they become shapeless, faceless blobs made inarticulate by fear of rejection by the group. By contrast, those characters capable of thinking on their own exhibit strength, fearlessness, and self-assurance. In his final epiphany, Equality 7-2521 declares his will the only edict he will obey and his happiness his only goal.
Rand writes Anthem as a warning to those who believe that collectivist societies, like the one whose birth she witnessed in Russia early in the twentieth century, can ever be successful. She warns that losing sight of the individual and his or her needs will lead to the destruction of all progress and all forward movement. Nevertheless, she believes that the individual can never really be dominated—he or she will always resurface because freedom is part of the human makeup. Rand believes that no matter how hard society tries and how many people it kills in the name of collectivism, the individual will still rise up and declare him- or herself his or her own purpose.
The Value of Martyrdom
Martyrdom sets Equality 7-2521 apart from the rest of society because, in Rand’s view, the willingness to die for an ideal marks a hero and distinguishes him or her from the rest of society. Indeed, when society martyrs a hero, the hero feels nothing but joy at the discovery of his or her ideal. Thus, when he is burned at the stake in front of Equality 7-2521, the Transgressor of the Unspeakable Word shows no fear or pain, only tremendous elation in his knowledge of the word that the rest of society has forgotten. Likewise, when Equality 7-2521 is beaten in the Palace of Corrective Detention for refusing to tell his Home Council where he has been, he feels no pain, only joy that he has not revealed the secret of the lightbulb. He even consents to stay locked in his cell until it is time to break out and go to the World Council of Scholars. In both cases, what matters to the martyr is not the pain but the ideal, and the ideal is worth dying for, as Equality 7-2521 observes in his meditations in Chapter XII.
The Impotence of the Collective
The World Council of Scholars embodies one of the chief evils of collectivism—the inability of a collective government to come to a conclusion and take action on behalf of the society it governs. Because consensus is impossible and individual thinking forbidden, the council falls into inaction; since the council is the ruling body of the society, society stops advancing. The World Council of Scholars exemplifies the fear that controls group thinking. Because the council members cannot all agree on technological advances, even a simple innovation such as the candle takes a huge amount of time and haggling to gain approval. Moreover, because consensus-building is difficult and dangerous in a society in which discord is viewed as a sin, the individuals on the council begin to fear any change as a threat to themselves. For this reason, the council recoils from Equality 7-2521’s lightbulb. Rand shows that when absolute agreement is necessary for change, progress is all but impossible.
Original Creation as a Component of Identity
For Rand, a man’s value rests in the originality of his mind as expressed in his work, and the value of his work resides in his personal investment in it, as in Equality 7-2521’s invention of the lightbulb. Equality 7-2521 discovers in his tunnel that the work of an individual’s hands is an extension of the individual’s very self, and that the value of the product of this work lies not in the product’s benefit for society but in its own existence as the fruit of the individual’s imagination. For this reason, Equality 7-2521 prefers to be beaten into unconsciousness and then nearly starved to death than to reveal the light he has invented. Furthermore, when the World Council of Scholars rejects his light as useless, he tells the council members to do what they will with his body, if only they will accept the light. Last, when Equality 7-2521 and the Golden One finally reach the house, his proprietary sense over the building, which he refashions into a home for him and the Golden One, is so strong that he is willing to defend it even to the death. In each of these cases, Equality 7-2521 defends his work and his property as extensions of himself because they spring from him.