It’s incredible, the number of thematic similarities between Ayn Rand’s Anthem (1938) and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), as well as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). While there’s no direct evidence that Ayn Rand plagiarized those earlier works, she owes an undeniable debt to their dystopian future societies where the individual has been completely sublimated to the needs of the state. Moreover, I believe that We and Brave New World are superior works, both as literature and as novels of ideas. Finally, if we are discussing the greatest dystopian novels of the 20th century, we cannot ignore the most powerful condemnation of totalitarianism, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).
Since I had already read We, Brave New World, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, Anthem felt like a much shorter and less nuanced version of those books. In Anthem, the protagonist is named Equality 7-2521, and individual thought and preferences are forbidden. The World Council decides all things, and people are permitted to use only the terms “we,” “our,” and “they,” instead of “I,” “myself,” “he,” “she,” etc. Children are raised by the state (just like in We and Brave New World), and although Equality is quick to learn and aspires to be a Scholar, he is assigned the menial task of Street Sweeper. He tells this story in the form of a diary. While sweeping, he discovers a hidden tunnel that reveals knowledge of the Unmentionable Times of the past, when men had freedom, individuality, and initiative. He falls in love with a girl named Liberty 5-3000, and they create forbidden nicknames for each other: “The Golden One” and “The Unconquered”.
Equality discovers a glass a box in the tunnel, and when, after much tinkering, he rediscovers the power of electricity, he naively decides to bring this to the attention of the World Council of Scholars for the benefit of mankind. They, however, are outraged that a lowly street sweeper would have the presumption to suggest an improvement to society. He is thrown in the Palace of Corrective Detention (just like Orwell’s later Ministry of Love), but escapes easily into the Uncharted Forest outside the City. Equality and Liberty reunite and find a house in the mountains. They read a numbers of books from the ancient times and discover just how much of man’s knowledge has been lost and suppressed by the oppressive World Council. The book ends with a heavy-handed speech about individual freedom, self-interest, invention, and reason.
Let me briefly summarize Zamyatin’s We. It is a totalitarian society gone mad, where happiness is defined as the absence of free will, and emotions are considering mental illness. Society is completely regimented with mathematical precision by the government (headed by the iron-fisted Well-Doer), public executions of any aberrant Numbers are carried out by the Well-Doer under the Machine (all individuals only have letters and numbers to distinguish them), and nature is suppressed outside a Wall that encloses a perfectly organized geometrical glass city where citizens live like clockwork, regimented by the Tables of Hours down to their waking, working, exercise, eating, even copulation. The story also takes the form of a diary written by D-503, builder of the Integral spaceship, which is intended to go forth and subject other planets to the benign dictatorship of the One Ship. He gets involved with a dangerous subversive named I-330, who drinks alcohol, smokes, and flirts with D-503. They start to meet in secret in a cottage outside the city, carrying on a passionate affair. I-330 drags D-503 unwillingly into a plot to overthrow and destroy the United State. However, D-503 is caught and lobotomized by the state. He informs on I-330 and her conspirators, who are also captured and sentenced to death. However, the seeds of revolution have been planted by their valiant efforts, and the future of the One State is questionable. In the novel, the forest outside the glass city also represents freedom from oppression and state control.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether Anthem was directly influenced by We or Brave New World. All four dystopian works have overlapping themes that were profoundly influential in depicting the evils of totalitarian and fascist regimes between the two World Wars. But, judging Anthem strictly in terms of its depiction of a future totalitarian state, I think it is far too slim and dogmatic to measure up to We, Brave New World, or Nineteen Eighty-Four. It mainly serves as a short and accessible vehicle for Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, which celebrates individual self-interest, reason, knowledge, and capitalism. Those ideas are more fully expressed in her later mega-novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), which are beyond the scope of this review. I wouldn’t dream of reading the full versions (32hrs and 55hrs on audiobook), but I might be willing to try the abridged versions (8hrs and 11hrs) just to be “educated” in Rand’s philosophy.