One of the most striking features of Anthem is its use of language, especially the absence of the word “I.” Characters refer to themselves using the first person plural “we” and not the first person singular “I.” This use of language is often confusing, but must be understood if the book’s meaning is to be clear. The use of the plural rather than the singular self-reference, goes to the heart of the book’s meaning.
The collectivist society in which Equality 7-2521 lives is similar to the Nazi and Communist states of the twentieth century. The rulers of this society do not permit any individual to think freely; all must subordinate themselves to the state. “Collectivism,” Ayn Rand notes, “means the subjugation of the individual to the group — whether to a race, class or state does not matter.” Under such conditions, a person is not regarded as an autonomous individual with a life of his or her own, but as a fragment of a group whose sole purpose is to serve its needs.
The rulers of Equality 7-2521’s society seek to discourage even the realization of individuality; they attempt to inculcate an “ant colony” mentality in which human beings emulate the self-sacrificial existence of insects serving the overall good of the whole. The authorities wish to expunge from human nature all thoughts of individuality and, as a consequence, all elements of a personal life in action. No one has a personal name; instead each is tagged with generalized concepts of collectivism such as Equality, International, Solidarity, and so on. This attempt to extirpate all elements of individuality similarly explains why each person has a number attached to this collectivist label. Because the state considers individuality unreal, no person is unique or outstanding, human beings are interchangeable parts of a greater whole.
As a further means toward the obliteration of individuality, the state has forbidden friendship and romantic love. These elements of individuality are considered examples of the Transgression of Preference, the act of singling one person out of the mass of humankind for purposes of establishing a close relationship.
But the state’s main weapon against individualism is the crude but effective form of thought control that it practices. The state has forbidden humans from speaking or even thinking of the word “I.” Society has mandated, under punishment of death, that all first-person references are with the plural “we,” even when the reference is to a single person. Over a period of centuries, the rulers have managed to extirpate all knowledge of the word “I” from the language. All that remains is a vague memory that there is such a thing as an Unspeakable Word — but no one has an inkling that it is the word “I.”
Despite the primitive backwardness of this collectivist society, the power of its suppressive methods must be recognized. The dictators have succeeded in subjugating the populace in ways that go beyond the stifling policies of such murderous tyrants as Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot. These real-life collectivist rulers forced millions of human beings to surrender their individuality in practice. The dictatorial regimes of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Communist China, and Communist Cambodia forced their citizens, in action, to serve the state. Individuals had no right to their own lives, and their actions were brutally controlled; they were slaves of Nazism or Communism.
But even these bloody dictatorships were not able to so alter the very terms in which humans think as to eradicate the vocabulary of individuality. The fictitious state of the novel has succeeded in expunging all concepts of independent personhood, wiping out human beings’ means to even think as individuals. This act is the most thorough form of thought control ever devised. The deluded citizens have only one self-concept available to them — splintered fragments of the group. Everyone thinks of themselves as merely nameless, faceless, individuality-less chunks of an amorphous mass.
The state succeeds in eliminating all thoughts of independent existence for many years, perhaps centuries. The Saint of the Pyre is the only man who re-discovers the existence and meaning of the word “I” — and he is condemned to death. The other members of society do not even wonder about what is missing from their lives. Equality 7-2521, however, says that the sight of the Saint being burned has stayed with him, “it haunts us and follows us, and it gives us no rest.” More than the injustice of a hero tortured to death haunts Equality 7-2521; it is a desire to know the Unspeakable Word at all costs. “What — even if we have to burn for it — is the Unspeakable Word?”
He is alone with these tormenting thoughts until the Golden One joins him on the quest to discover this lost word. Attempting to express her feelings, she realizes the inadequacy of the vocabulary available to her. “No . . . We are one . . . alone . . . and only . . . and we love you who are one . . . alone . . . and only.” Two threads intertwine here. They know of the Unspeakable Word. They also recognize that they are unable to properly express themselves in the first person. In short order, they come to realize that the two issues are the same.
Despite the suppressive methods of the Councils, some members of this society retain individuality. Equality 7-2521 wonders ceaselessly about the lost word. He maintains the secret of the tunnel and uses it for his forbidden research. He decides that the Golden One is not to be touched by the Councils’ policies of state-controlled breeding. He is a man who stands tall. But he does not have to stand alone. Others in this society have not surrendered their minds to the rulers.
International 4-8818, like Equality 7-2521, commits the Transgression of Preference; he selects Equality 7-2521 as his friend from the mass of humanity. Upon hearing Equality 7-2521’s astounding words that they will not report the tunnel, International 4-8818 covers his ears, for never has he heard such words. But he chooses to risk death with his friend rather than obey the councils. “Rather shall we be evil with you than be good with all our brothers.” He covers for Equality 7-2521 during the years in which he conducts his illicit research and never betrays him.
Liberty 5-3000, the Golden One, similarly refuses to surrender her independence to the state. She, too, defies the decrees of the councils to achieve her ends. She notices Equality 7-2521, though she is supposed to take no heed of men. She names him in her mind The Unconquered. She speaks to him against all the rules. She abandons the city and the only life she has ever known, venturing alone into the Uncharted Forest to find him. In the end, it is she who, unaided, comes closest to re-discovering the Unspeakable Word when, in the forest, she gropes for the words with which to accurately express her feelings. She is an individualist like Equality 7-2521 and International 4-8818.
Despite the policies of the councils, a few members of this society retain their independence while the majority surrender their souls to the state. Why is it that a few resist while the majority acquiesces? What sets apart from the crowd of followers such heroic individualists as Equality 7-2521, International 4-8818, and the Golden One?
The answer the author gives is that some exceptional individuals refuse to give up their minds to authority. Equality 7-2521 and his allies understand, even without the words, that human beings are by nature rational animals and that thinking is an individualistic activity. “I think” is the essence of their being.