Equality 7-2521’s first day in the forest is astonishing to him. His first impulse is to leap to his feet as he has every day of his life, but then he realizes that no bell has rung. The forest has no Councils to tell him what to do, no authorities that must be instantly obeyed. He experiences joy when he realizes that no activity is denied him any longer.
For the first time in his 21 years, he is free. He walks with no destination, but not aimlessly; he enjoys the freedom of movement. He keeps walking and comes upon a stream. When he kneels to drink, he stops. For the first time, on the water before him, he sees the reflection of his face. He notices the taut lines of his body and the countenance that arouses no pity. In this regard, his face and body are unlike those of his brothers. Theirs are bowed and defeated, evoking in him a general sense of pity. But his features are straight and healthy, generating the feeling of pride. He realizes that he can trust this man he sees before him in the stream; he has nothing to fear.
For anyone, the first day of freedom is exhilarating. For Equality 7-2521, who has been subjugated in a slave society for 21 years, the right to pursue his own happiness is akin to the first bite of food to a starving man. For the first time, he can do as he pleases and is not subject to the commands of the Councils. He spends his first day of freedom discovering his body and its capabilities. He climbs a tree, hunts and cooks his own food, sees the image of his face for the first time. This pleasure is far more than that of someone enjoying the luxury of a hard-earned vacation; it is the exploration of a man released from a lifelong imprisonment, free now to discover himself. His time in the forest is a voyage. In one way, he journeys physically from one place to another — from the city to the home he eventually finds in the mountains. But in a more profound way, he travels a long path of self-discovery, and he learns quickly. He has been limited to sweeping the streets, but now he engages in hundreds of different activities and learns his own diverse abilities.
Ayn Rand believes in the heroic potential of humans. Although Equality 7-2521 has never hunted game or cooked a meal, he is a rational man and possesses the capacity to learn. Human beings have often reached difficult goals under arduous circumstances. They have circumnavigated the globe, traversed the polar ice caps, and climbed Mt. Everest. Individuals with less genius and will to live than Equality 7-2521 have survived emergencies and catastrophes. Equality 7-2521’s willingness to face all dangers and to learn new skills reminds us of the human potential. Long ago, Aristotle defined humankind as the rational animal, and Equality 7-2521 — inventor, independent thinker — is an example of how much a rational man is able to accomplish by use of his own mind.
That Equality 7-2521 sees his face for the first time is significant. He is not one of the faceless masses who blends into the multitudes of society. He is an exceptional man who stands forth from the crowd. He, by virtue of his independence, has created his own unique identity. Appropriately, he recognizes his differences from the other members of society. He thinks and acts differently; therefore he looks differently. Where others have allowed their souls to be conquered and stand with bowed spine, he has maintained his independence and walks erect. Upon seeing his reflection for the first time, he takes an important step on the path to self-discovery: he recognizes that his willingness to think — his inner difference — results in an outer difference as well. An individual’s appearance is not an utterly distinct matter from his inner reality. Equality 7-2521’s integrity — his refusal to surrender his mind to society — shows in his posture, his movements, and his eyes.
The Golden One recognizes these outer manifestations of his spirit and approves — she is drawn to him. The Councils also recognize them, but disapprove; they punish him. Now Equality 7-2521, too, sees the unmistakable differences between himself and others. His quiet shock at his own outer beauty drives home to him what he already knows: He is a man of great strength of character. He continues writing his thoughts, just as he did when alone in the tunnel. He has made progress, but there is still so much that he does not comprehend. He searches for the words to understand. This dedication to knowledge is what sets him apart.