The Dystopian Novel with a Happy Ending

Created with Canva; In honor of the Ukrainians who are fighting the fight against the collective WE.

I know not if this earth on which I stand is the core of the universe or if it is but a spec of dust lost in eternity. I know not and I care not. For I know what happiness is possible to me on earth.

Anthem p. 95

Ayn Rand

Anthem was first published in the United Kingdom in 1938, although Rand herself admits to beginning it in the 1920s. It appeared over a decade after We—Yevgeny Zamyatin’s seminal work. They could almost be the same work. Almost

Anthem does not end with the main character being defeated and giving in to the collective ideals of his dystopic society. It doesn’t end with any attempts at love or connection being crushed to earth. Instead, it ends with the ultimate discovery and a new resolution for humanity and for the world. 

In short, it doesn’t end with dread, but with inspiration. 

What makes Anthem different from its predecessor? Where Zamyatin ends with a whimper, not unlike T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, Rand ends with a lion’s roar. 

And the roar is EGO. 

The Terror of WE and the Freedom of ME

We strive to be like all our brother men, for all men must be alike.

Anthem, p. 19

Ayn Rand

This is the premise of ALL modern dystopias: the premise that “we” is greater than “me.” And “me” has to submit to whatever “we” think is best. Of course, as is usually the case, the “we” is a committee of people who don’t know, care, or appreciate any of the individuals in their society. They decide and the decision stands. This should not be a comfort. It should be frightening.

This is the society in Anthem. Babies are born without parents and raised in groups. A committee decides what they are to do with their lives—not taking into consideration their gifts or talents. When they are 40, they are now useless to society and die by 45. Any connection one human being has to another has been destroyed because it means an individual holds the value of one person over the collective. 

No one true love. No soulmates. No life partners. No family, friends, relatives, pets, or any of the things which actually make human company bearable. 

It’s just the collective and collective identity. 

This should sound utterly repressive. Because it is. It’s the most repressive societies of the world put together and robbed of charity. It’s not merely the lack of permissiveness and possessiveness, it’s the lack of personality. 

And it’s taken its toll. There are people in Anthem who cry into the night for help that will never come and people who cry endlessly. Connection is lost because no one person can speak something that isn’t in agreement with everyone else. 

It is, in fact, what happens after being Twitter mobbed and de-platformed in the 21st century. 

Prometheus Triumphant

When Equality 7-2521 creates a light, his first instinct is to give it to his “brothers” in society because he knows it will improve everyone’s life. It will bring light to a society that still lives on candles. When the Council of Scholars turn against him and insist that his invention is evil, they cite the ruin of the candle-makers as a reason to not use the light. 

“Should it be what they claim of it,” said Harmony 9-2642, “then it would bring ruin to the Department of Candles. The Candle is a great boon to mankind, as approved by all men. Therefore, it cannot be destroyed by the whim of one.”

Anthem p. 73

Ayn Rand

Does this sound familiar? For those of you “elder” millennials, you might remember when the same was said for the music industry and the publishing industry when iTunes came out and the Kindle e-reader. Can you imagine what would have happened if the governments of the world had outlawed either advancement? 

In reality, both advancements opened up the market for more artists and writers to express themselves than ever before. Oh, and candle makers are still a thing. Just look at Etsy for proof of that! 

I have read of a man who lived many thousands of years ago, and of all the names in these books, his is the one I wish to bear. He took the light of the gods and be brought it to men, and he taught men to be gods. And he suffered for his deed as all bearers of light must suffer. His name was Prometheus.
Anthem pp. 98-99

Ayn Rand

We all know the story of Prometheus at this point. If not, then go revisit my earlier post on Frankenstein for a refresher. In every iteration we’ve seen of the old god so far, he’s been defeated. The original Prometheus was chained to a rock and left in torment. The “modern” Prometheus had his creation haunt him to an early grave. The sci-fi Prometheus grew into something unmanageable and horrific. 

But Ayn Rand gives us another ending. Equality 7-2521 names himself Prometheus. And he succeeds where the old god fails. Because he escaped his chains and the daily torment for a life of freedom, connection, and of hope. 

“Social gains,” “social aims,” “social objectives” have become the daily bromides of our language. The necessity of a social justification for all activities and all existence is now taken for granted. There is no proposal outrageous enough, but what its author can get a respectful hearing and approbation if he claims that in some undefiled way it is for “the common good.”

Author’s Forward to Anthem p. xv

Ayn Rand

We have the same rights to live, to breathe, to seek a life that is full of meaning, and we have the right to live in a way that agrees with our principles and beliefs as long as it does not encroach upon the same basic rights as other people. 

For those of you out there who were raised in very strict authoritarian households, you know exactly what is at stake. You know, because it was the parental or pastoral prerogative to control your every move, every meal, and even what you said or believed. I know, because that was my upbringing. 

No one wants to have decisions made about their lives. Why? Because no one should have that kind of power over another human being unless that power is first granted. That is the whole point of Anthem. Choices were not allowed. The only choice was blind obedience, and it’s not even really a choice because it’s forced on everyone. 

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The Most Blessed Words Ever Uttered

Moses said to God: Lo, I shall go to the children of Israel, and say to them: The god of your fathers hath sent me to you. If they should say to me: What is his name? what shall I say to them? God said to Moses: I AM WHO I AM. He said: Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: HE WHO IS, hath sent me to you.

Exodus 3:13-14 (Douay-Rheims Version)

Take care, Madame,” said Monte Cristo. “That is not how God should be worshipped. He wants us to understand and debate His power: that is why He gave us free will.”

The Count of Monte Cristo p. 1194

Alexadre Dumas

Ego translated from Latin means I AM. So when Prometheus proclaims the sacred word EGO at the end of Anthem, it is the ultimate profession of existence. When God speaks to Moses in the burning bush, he proclaims his existence. God exists separate from any entity or society. He isn’t part of a pantheon or a collective will. He is will and action. 

In short, He is everything that human beings want to be: action, creation, and existence. This is why the sacred word is EGO. I AM. Because it is the simplest yet most complete expression of uniqueness. The fact that it existed in a sacred text long before Ayn Rand wrote it makes it that much more blessed. 

And if you have ever felt like your personality, opinion, or life preferences didn’t matter, then Moses and the Burning Bush should be freeing. Because the Divine Essence declared I AM and he wanted it to be known. 

He didn’t want humanity crumped in a corner and trampled upon, subject to a collective will that would only crush them. If he’d wanted that, he would have left the Hebrews in Egypt and been done with it. 

So why should any of us give up that freedom willingly? Should we go out with a whimper? Should we go gentle into that good night? 

NO. 

I AM should never become a WE ARE. If you read your Bible, then you know that “WE ARE” is what a demon proclaims when Jesus casts it out. And choosing a demon only works in a romance novel, and then only if he’s appropriately ripped and has a tender heart. It doesn’t work in real life. 

And if you read H. P. Lovecraft, it doesn’t always work in fiction either. 

What Rand’s Virtuous Selfishness Does Not Mean

Give not that which is holy to dogs; neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest perhaps they trample them under their feed, and turning upon you, they tear you.

Matthew 7: 6

I shall call to me my friend who has no name save International 4-8818, and all those like him, Fraternity 2-5503, who cries without reason, and Solidarity 9-6347 who calls for help in the night, and a few others. I shall call to me all the men and the women whose spirit has not been killed within them and who suffer under the yoke of their brothers.

Anthem p. 101

Ayn Rand

Anthem proclaims the virtues of selfishness, but it also shows you want it doesn’t mean. When Prometheus gains his name, he decides to go back to the city at one point and free his brothers. Not the ones who cast him out, but the ones he knew were suffering. He does, in fact, follow the words of Jesus by doing so. 

The image of pearls before swine turning on the person who gifted them wealth is perhaps the perfect analogy of what happened to Equality 7-2521 when he presented his light to the Home of the Scholars. He gave them his pearls, and they tried to trample him. 

Selfishness, in Rand’s estimation, doesn’t mean that you deprive other people deliberately. It means that you consider your own interests when you give, act, and help other people. Equality 7-2521 doesn’t intend to hoard his newfound knowledge or wealth all for himself and keep it from other people. 

He’s merely ensuring that the people who need it, who are worthy of it, will be the ones to share in his endeavors. It’s protecting his boundaries and his energy from those who would cast him back into chains. 

And, oh yeah, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do in the first place? 

Sing Your Anthem

The world doesn’t improve without lively discussion. Which means you have to have an opinion, take a stand, and be counted as a human being. You are not a mineral. You are not a rock. You are a human being. 

We haven’t always gotten it right as a species, but we will get nowhere without freedom of ideas and freedom of expression. 

Texts Used

Literary

Anthem is now in the public domain. You can find it nearly everywhere. I, however, will use the 2016 New American Library edition from Penguin Books. Not only does this have Leonard Peikoff’s Introduction to the 50th Anniversary American Edition, but Ayn Rand’s own Foreward to the 1946 Edition.

There is also a graphic novel and a sequel to Anthem. Two graphic novels are available on Amazon, and I chose the one adapted by Jennifer Grossman and Dan Parsons. Dan Parsons also illustrated it quite beautifully. Both are associated with the Atlas Foundation, which is connected to Ayn Rand’s own estate and her ideals. It’s my first graphic novel and it will not be my last. 

The sequel is simply called I and is available from Amazon and elsewhere. 

The Count of Monte Cristo is also in the public domain, but I have used the very handy and eloquent Robin Buss Translation from Penguin Classics. 

Sacred

Uncharacteristically, I am quoting from the Christian bible for this post. While I strive to minimize religion on my blog, for obvious reasons, there are some points where it becomes necessary to bring religion into things. Mostly because, as G. K. Chesterton points out in Orthodoxy, religion is one of the great bastions against insanity. Especially the idea that you can stop all thoughts. 

My go-to reference for anything to do with the Christian Bible is the Douay-Rheims Version. Why Douay-Rheims and not, say the King James or NIV? Because the Douay-Rheims has, in my opinion, the best credentials of all the “versions” of the Christian Bible out there since it’s mainly derived from St. Jerome’s Vulgate. And St. Jerome was contemporary with most of the thinkers who make even secular reading lists. 

St. Jerome translated the Vulgate from the Septuagint—the work of Jewish scholars in Alexandria. It was the most reliable source available for all the accepted books of the Christian Bible and the only source for centuries. Since I trust St. Jerome far more than I trust anyone who came later, I use the English version of his translation for nearly everything. If that means the extremely Protestant or Evangelical-minded Christians of you out there decide to throw stones at me, good. Bring it on. I’ll be in an excellent company of great thinkers.

Arguably, I’d be in better company since a good percentage of Christians over the past 2,000 years used the Vulgate too and most of them actually used their brains for something more worthwhile than parroting insipid lyrics and bumper-sticker theology. Like St. Patrick, St. Catherine of Sienna, and Bede the Venerable. To name a few I’ve mentioned on this blog.

And if you intend to throw stones at me for preferring the “Catholic” bible, then I aimed this post at you just as much—if not more—than those out there who still think collectivism is the future.

Because Anthem isn’t just a war cry against collectivism, it’s a cry against all attitudes which demand blind obedience over reason and blind acceptance over lively debate.

Oh, and there’s a small matter of not knowing history in Anthem too….

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4 thoughts on “The Dystopian Novel with a Happy Ending

  1. I remember reading Anthem back in high school, in the form of a packet of printed papers stapled together. I guess that’s what public domain + low budgeting for schools gets you! I remember being puzzled about the importance of the word “ego”, particularly at the ending. You have a very interesting take on it.

    Have you read any of her other works like The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged? I haven’t read the latter, but I found the former to present a more in-depth picture of her particular philosophy.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Shannon, I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. Thank you for reading!

      Etymology has always been one of my interests and when I think of the word ego–Moses and the Burning Bush is the first connection I make. The second is Rene Descartes–Cogito ergo sum. While EGO isn’t in there, it is implied. Oh, and on my final point on the word, I think it is worth mentioning that the Christian God only refers to himself in the plural, as far as I can tell, in Genesis.

      I have read about halfway through Atlas Shrugged and I have a special edition of The Fountainhead on my bookshelf. The Fountainhead also has the honor of being turned into a very excellent movie with Gary Cooper—definitely a must-watch! Atlas Shrugged is perfect if you are among millions of people disgruntled by the current climate in the working world. It’s a long read, but it’s worth every word. Ideal is interesting too, if either Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged are too long.

      That being said, I think Anthem is Ayn Rand’s best work out of all of them. The New American Library edition I have is worth the investment just so you get Leonard Peikoff’s forward and a copy of Rand’s original manuscript in the back (with all the edits she made for the American edition).

      Like

      1. Wow, I didn’t know there was a copy with her original manuscript out there! As an aspiring writer myself, that sounds like something really cool to see. Thanks for giving your thoughts!

        Liked by 1 person

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