Equality 7-2521 is caught. On the night he completes his invention, he neglects to watch the hourglass that tells him the time. When he remembers to look at it, it is too late. When the members of the Home Council question him regarding his whereabouts, he answers: “We will not tell you.” The Council sends him to the Palace of Corrective Detention, commanding that he be lashed until he confesses. He escapes from the Palace of Corrective Detention and steals quickly into his tunnel. When he lights his candle, he finds everything as he left it. The glass box is intact, and when he beholds it, he feels that the scars on his back are unimportant.
A collectivist society is brutally repressive in its treatment of those who think independently. Just like it burned at the stake the Saint of the Pyre for discovering and uttering the Unspeakable Word, so it lashes Equality 7-2521 for his unexplained absence. In a Nazi or Communist society such as this, obedience is considered the fundamental virtue. Individualists, like Equality 7-2521, who act on their own thinking, are regarded as dangerous troublemakers and treated like criminals.
Equality 7-2521 knows that if the state discovers the full extent of his “crimes” — his illicit scientific research and invention of an electric light — he will be executed and his creation destroyed. He has performed actions that are major violations of the lock-step conformity required by society. He has placed the satisfaction of his own goals above the necessity of compliance to society — and this is unforgivable. The legal authorities will not understand the significance of the light nor will they care. They will see only the refusal to conform. Equality 7-2521’s only hope lies with the Scholars. They are the men of wisdom. The Scholars, he believes, are honest seekers after truth, who will both understand and care about the electric light. They will intercede on his behalf — and he and the light will be saved.
Equality 7-2521’s unyielding allegiance to his invention and his mind — his refusal to betray his secret activities — illustrates the integrity of the creative geniuses persecuted by society. Ayn Rand shows the blatant falsehood of the collectivists’ claim to love humankind. If the Nazis and Communists were sincere, they would neither ban independent thinking nor punish the thinkers.
The ease with which Equality 7-2521 escapes from prison illustrates two points. The first is that the technological decline is so thorough that even the locks on the doors are rusted and aged, unable to withstand applied pressure. The more important point is that the collectivist state has succeeded in so thoroughly inculcating obedience that it has no need to post guards in either the prison or on the city streets. Under the brainwashing they have received from birth, citizens do not regard themselves as individuals; they have no right to think, and their only reason to live is to obey and serve. It does not occur to them to think, to question, to challenge authority. The state has no need to maintain systematic vigilance, for an independent thinker such as Equality 7-2521 has not appeared in anyone’s memory. The authorities are surprised by the one unexplained absence that they know of. When they discover the full extent of Equality 7-2521’s illicit actions, they will be flabbergasted. Nobody has ever heard of such a thing.
City Theater the large tent in which are performed plays for the social recreation of the workers. The plays are about the virtues of toil and the need to sacrifice oneself for one’s brothers.
Palace of Corrective Detention the prison to which Equality 7-2521 is taken after he is discovered absent from the theater. The prison, as virtually everything in this backwards society, is delapidated, posing no difficulty to Equality 7-2521’s escape when the time is right.
World Council of Scholars the society of thinkers and scientists made up supposedly of the world’s greatest minds. But since the political rulers value only obedience, the best thinkers (like Equality 7-2521) are excluded, leaving the World Council filled with a group of unthinking conformists.