At some unspecified future date, Mankind has entered another dark age as a result of what Rand saw as the weaknesses of socialistic thinking and economics. Anthem is a dystopic science fiction story. Technological advancement is now carefully planned (when it is allowed to occur, if at all) and the concept of individuality has been eliminated (for example, the word “I” has disappeared from the language). As is common in her work, Rand draws a clear distinction between the “socialist/communal” values of equality and brotherhood and the “productive/capitalist” values of achievement and individuality. The story also parallels Stalinist Russia, which was currently going on at the time as the story was published.
Equality 7-2521, a 21-year-old man writing by candlelight in a tunnel under the earth, tells the story of his life up to that point. He exclusively uses plural pronouns ("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. He believes he has a "curse" that makes him learn quickly and ask many questions. He excels at the Science of Things and dreams of becoming a Scholar, but when the Council of Vocations assigns his Life Mandate, he is assigned to be a Street Sweeper.
Equality 7-2521 accepts his street sweeping assignment as penance for his Transgression of Preference in secretly desiring to be a Scholar. He works with Union 5-3992 and International 4-8818, who is Equality's only friend (which is another Transgression of Preference). Despite International's protests that any exploration unauthorized by a Council is forbidden, Equality explores a tunnel and finds metal tracks. Equality believes the tunnel is from the Unmentionable Times of the distant past. He begins sneaking away from his community to use the tunnel as a laboratory for scientific experiments. He is using stolen paper to write his journal.
While cleaning a road at the edge of the City, Equality meets Liberty 5-3000, a 17-year-old Peasant girl who works in the fields. He commits another transgression by thinking constantly of her, instead of waiting to be assigned a woman at the annual Time of Mating. She has dark eyes and golden hair, and he names her "The Golden One". When he speaks to her, he discovers that she also thinks of him. He reveals his secret name for her, and Liberty tells Equality she has named him "The Unconquered".
Continuing his scientific work, Equality rediscovers electricity. In the ruins of the tunnel, he finds a glass box with wires that gives off light when he passes electricity through it. He decides to take his discovery to the World Council of Scholars; he thinks such a great gift to mankind will outweigh his transgressions and lead to him being made a Scholar. However, one night his absence from the Home of the Street Sweepers is noticed. He is whipped and held in the Palace of Corrective Detention. The night before the World Council of Scholars is set to meet, he easily escapes; there are no guards because no one has ever attempted escape before. The next day he presents his work to the World Council of Scholars. Horrified that he has done unauthorized research, they assail him as a "wretch" and a "gutter cleaner" and say he must be punished. They want to destroy his discovery so it will not disrupt the plans of the World Council and the Department of Candles. Equality seizes the box, cursing the council before fleeing into the forest that lies outside the City.
In the forest, Equality sees himself as damned for having left his fellow men, but he enjoys his freedom. No one will pursue him into this forbidden place. He only misses Liberty. On his second day of living in the forest, Liberty appears; she followed him into the forest and vows to stay with him forever. They live together in the forest and try to express their love for one another, but they lack the words to speak of love as individuals.
They find a house from the Unmentionable Times in the mountains and decide to live in it. While reading books from the house's library, Equality discovers the word "I" and tells Liberty about it. Having rediscovered individuality, they give themselves new names from the books: Equality becomes "Prometheus" and Liberty becomes "Gaea". Months later, Gaea is pregnant with Prometheus' child. Prometheus wonders how men in the past could have given up their individuality; he plans a future in which they will regain it.
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