An American Anthem

I recently assigned Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem to my freshman English students as a reading assignment. I’ve read this piece numerous times over the years, but this was the first time I had read it through someone else’s eyes – my students’. It also resonated with me differently this time because of the current entitlement crisis as represented by the Occupy movement.

Those who have not read Anthem, or are unfamiliar with Ayn Rand, might not know that the prevailing goal in her writing is to show the superiority of individualism to collectivism. In Anthem, she paints the picture of a society in which government provides everything for all and no individuals or traits of individuality are allowed to exist. Vocations and breeding partners are chosen by the government. Humans are not even permitted to have names. Instead, they are classified into groups and then given a number. The protagonist, for example, is referred to as Equality 7-2521. The words used to reference characters in the story are all collective in nature (“we,” “us” and “our”), even when it is clear to the reader that a speaker is simply referring to him or herself.

This notion is strangely reminiscent of the ways in which Americans have begun to categorize themselves. Take the popular practice of hyphenating cultural identities as an example. We are not individuals or even Americans in this country anymore. We are “African-Americans” or “Mexican-Americans.” Beyond our collective cultural labels, we are grouped according to our socio-economic status: “middle America,” “millionaires and billionaires,” or “the less fortunate.” One can quickly begin to see that the distinction between the fictional, government-imposed label “Equality 7-2521” and the self-imposed OWS label “We are the 99%!” is minor. In fact, it’s much more offensive that Americans would impose such collective ideals upon themselves.

The Occupy crowd argues that the government should provide health insurance, free college tuition, homes, and a job for everyone. This is precisely how it happens in Rand’s Anthem. Equality 7-2521 is relegated to the vocation of street sweeper. Though he is quite brilliant in math, he accepts this lesser position and views it as an unintentional consequence for his near-obsession with the illegal activity of knowledge acquisition. You see, he reads. Voraciously. Through the course of his reading activity, he eventually comes across the forbidden word “I,” and this is where Rand’s plot takes a hopeful turn. Upon recognition that he is an individual, his eyes open to possibilities, his mind to new perspectives. At one point, he finally “sees himself” when he looks into a pond and notices his reflection. As a result of these discoveries, he begins to rebel.

Those who are active in the Occupy movement already seem to have rebellious tendencies, so perhaps we can assume that they are just an ignorant bunch. Like Equality 7-2521 – who eventually assigns himself the name of Prometheus – perhaps each individual of the entitlement mindset should undertake the challenge of reading his or her way to self-discovery. Maybe each should also take a look in the mirror and decide whether or not he likes the reflection he sees. He should read Rand’s prediction of what life would be like if the government was the end all, be all. Considering she escaped the Bolshevik Revolution in Soviet Russia, Rand’s words bear the weight of experience and should not be discounted. She wrote Anthem – and subsequent novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged – because she saw signs decades ago that America was headed down the same Socialist path.

Perhaps the best lesson in reading this 100-page fictional story can be found in its nod to ancient myth. The mythological character on which Rand’s Prometheus is based is best known for stealing fire from Zeus and offering it to humankind so that humans could rely on themselves instead of the powerful overseer. It would be great to see these same principles applied to those who classify themselves as “less fortunate” or who think they are “entitled” to have someone else provide for them. These Occupiers need to see themselves as empowered and not entitled. Rand paints the dismal picture of what the world would look like if we relinquished all individual power and allowed ourselves to be grouped into categories, to be controlled by our government. She shows us what thinking of ourselves as part of the 99% really looks like, and it ain’t pretty.

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One Comment

  1. I ABSOLUTELY loved Ayn Rand’s Anthem. We actually read it at the ninth grade level in high school. I too am surprised that it is approved. I also really liked your connection to what is going on today, Lauri. I never really thought of it that way. Your connection makes me want to read the book again! I am very interested in your students responses. I hope that they are a lot better than the high school level responses that I heard among my classmates. Sadly, they didn’t seem to care about the deeper message of the book.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Abigail. Unfortunately, many high school students lack interest in broad, whole-world issues. I, myself, could have cared less about history when I was in high school, and as an adult, I really adore it and wish I would’ve paid more attention when someone was teaching me about it. My college students seem to be more interested in what’s going on in the world, maybe because they feel like they are more a part of it. I’m sure autonomy has something to do with that. The more effected they will be by something, the more interested in it they will become. I just wish more young people would be engaged like you. I’m curious – what were some of the reactions you heard from your peers when reading this novella? They weren’t even drawn to the love story subplot?

      1. If anything, they thought it was funny how Equality went from “collective caveman” to “enlightened individual.” They didn’t seem to quite care about the underlying message in the pronouns such as we, our, and us. They just wrote it off as weird. We also had to create our own extreme socialist societies and many of them did not take the assignment too seriously. The only other person who really saw the book for what it was was my best friend. I guess you could say it’s one of the reasons I am friends with her. The lack of maturity in the rest of the group, however, was completely disheartening. As for the love story, they thought that it, too, was strange. They didn’t really seem to grasp the big picture: that the love subplot is different and awkward because it is new and unfamiliar territory in context of the book.

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