ANTHEM is a dystopian fiction novella by Ayn Rand, written in 1937 and first published in 1938 in England. It takes place at some unspecified future date when mankind has entered another dark age. Technological advancement is now carefully planned and the concept of individuality has been eliminated.
Equality 7-2521, writing by candlelight in a tunnel under the earth, tells the story of his life up to that point. He exclusively uses plural pronoun(s) (“we”, “our”, “they”) to refer to himself and others. He was raised like all children in his society, away from his parents in collective homes. Later, he realized that he was born with a “curse”, that makes him learn quickly and ask many questions. He excelled at the Science of Things and dreamed of becoming a Scholar. However, a Council of Vocations assigns all people to their Life Mandate, and he was assigned to be a Street Sweeper.
3.5 stars, rounded to 4.
I’m in a dystopian mood, and I am forever looking for brilliant classic short stories and novellas to read, so when I came across ‘Anthem’ last night while researching for a piece of coursework and noticed it was free on Kindle (and only 50 pages) I was all too keen to procrastinate and read it. I ultimately enjoyed the story, but had many conflicting emotions about the novella as I read it; while all the aspects of a great dystopian story are there, I am not 100% sure that Rand executes it as well as I hoped.
- I loved the plot. It is a typical yet satisfying dystopian, discussing individualism in a world where everything is collectivised. The story of finding the ‘Unspeakable Word’ is one that intrigued me, despite its unambiguity.
- It is obvious reading this that Rand is anti-communist. I love reading dystopian novels which are based around the principles of communism (both pro- and anti-) as well as being fascinated by how authors’ political views come through in their work, so this was a must-read for me.
- Despite confusion, which I will discuss later, I loved the narrative device of using ‘we’ as a replacement for ‘I’.
- Without any spoilers, I found Part Eleven to be quite brilliant. I found so many new stand-out quotes in this chapter, and I found it rather empowering at times.
- The novella feels timeless. Whilst we know it is set in the future, it could just have easily been set in the early days of Communism, in the 1930s (when it was written) or indeed in certain instances in modern day. Its message is universal, and long-relevant.
- I am a fan of variants on the Prometheus tale, which glimpsed through a little bit here. Generally, the scientific enlightenment vs. tradition conflict was strong.
- The ‘we’ narrative can become impossible to follow, especially during conversation with the Golden One. I was often forgetting that ‘we’ more often than not meant the protagonist alone. A brilliant idea that maybe doesn’t work as well in practice.
- The protagonist is unbelievably arrogant. Unsurprising that it is this character who feels a pull towards the concept of individualism, as there is something extremely selfish about him and his views, and he appears to have a complete disdain for other people (except the Golden One)
- While I adore the plot, this novella is only 50 pages, and it was overly ambitious to try and work it all in. I happily would have continued it had it been longer, and used the full scope the plot allowed for.
- Whilst very enjoyable, it is nothing you will not be able to find in other favoured dystopians (although admittedly in some cases such as ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by Orwell, you are likely to see these ideas in that novel as this story is believed to have been an influence on Orwell). There are also close parallels with a personal favourite of mine, ‘We’ by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which predates this novella. There is not all that much in here that I loved that was not present in ‘We’, except for the eccentric narrative.
- With such a strong penultimate chapter in the form of Part Eleven, the concluding Part Twelve did not feel as powerful. It would have been better to either incorporate the story of discovering the forbidden word before or at the beginning of Part Eleven, or just finishing the novella after Part Eleven. Part Eleven had a natural end point, and I actually thought after reading it that that was the end of the novella.
Would I Recommend? – Given how short it is, and how quick it is to read, yes. Even if its execution is not stellar, it is an entertaining enough novella, and if you read a lot of dystopia, this would be a good one to pick up when you need a quick read.