The word ego is given such a negative connotation in today's society that we hardly recognize its importance any more. It is an insulting word, a word that we use to describe someone who is so wrapped up in himself that he can't stop to acknowledge others. The 1928 novel Anthem by Ayn Rand explores the importance of this word on such a deep level that it makes the reader pause and re-evaluate his understanding of his worth in society.
Anthem takes place in a fictitous future of our world where there is no identity and the modern luxuries of today have been forgotten. Since the Great Rebirth, technology and individuality hawe been abandoned, and nobody has any sort of personal identity. The main character has been assigned the name Equality 7-2521, and he is raised believing that he should work for the good of his brothers. Equality has always felt that he is different, however. From an early age, his teachers had told him that there is evil in his bones. He aspires to work with the scholars and invent things, but he wishes this with a guilty conscience, for he is told that it is a sin to wish something for himself other than his Life Mandate.
Equality is told that "men have no cause to exist save in toiling for other men"1 when he betrays his community. He finds a hole in the ground that still remains from the times before the Great Rebirth. In his hiding place, he experiments and invents. He soon makes a small box that makes its own light from the power of the skies. When he sees what he's accomplished, he's overcome with a great joy and declares with pride that he is giving a great blessing to his brothers.
Now, to the others in his society, he has done something that will give them less work, thus making their existence invalid. This, of course, raises an important question: Does essence precede existence? According to Sartre's Existentialist philosophy, this is incorrect; we define our existence by who we are. But in Rand's world, you exist because you have a purpose. That message is taken so far that those who are too old to perform their civil duties are placed in the Home of the Useless.
In our world, there are lots of people living in a free-thinking, individualist society. People can go to college and study to become whatever they like, or they can attend a technical school and become a skilled craftsman. Jobs are available in the artistic and entertainment communities as well. For those fortunate enough to live in upper-middle-class America, as well as any other nation with cable TV, an infinite number of job opportunities is available.
Unfortunately, in poverty-stricken countries that don't get The Weather Channel, especially those under a Communist system, people need to work to live. They all have a role they're expected to play in their community and they aren't given a choice as to what they can do. Often, people are born into farming families or are sent off to labor in factories. If they choose to do something else, they may not survive. Fortunately, not everyone is forced into careers or forced into thinking a certain way.
Nevertheless, Equality lives in one of these places where people exist to fill a specific niche. Soon after he is told by his society that his creation is evil, he sees what is wrong, but he blames it on himself. When he says that "the glass box in our arms is like a living heart that gives us strength. We have lied to ourselves. We have not built this box for the good of our brothers,"2 he is stating that he made it for himself. He had previously told himself that it was made for his community, but he has come to find the truth.
However, one of the more interesting things about this specific quotation is Equality's comparison of the box to a heart. In this passage, we learn that Equality's personal triumph, the creation of the box, is what motivates him. He feels more alive after he independently created something for himself. In putting this point into the story, Rand tells the reader that personal accomplishment is the livelihood of man, and what truly makes a person live is what he does for himself.
Equality's sense of individuality perhaps comes across best when he says that "the only things which taught us joy were the power we created in our wires, and the Golden One."3 While he still hasn't discovered the word "I" when he writes this sentence, he has come to terms with the fact that he is an individual, and that his joy is in his creation. Much like the previous quotation, this conveys the idea that a person's life is what he makes for himself. However, it adds another thing that the other did not.
Equality says that he found joy in the Golden One, the woman he desires. Unlike the first quote, which says that a man should work for himself, this quote reminds us that a person shouldn't think only for himself. A person's individuality is also defined by the way he treats others, and the people he loves. How someone acts in society is part of one's individuality, just as much as what he does for himself is.
In the novel Anthem, Rand explores the human mind. She shows the reader that people, without their individuality, are nothing. Anthem is a book about the importance of being yourself, a book about why we don't like to be told what to do, and a book that tells every follower that they have a leader inside of them, but most importantly, it is an inspirational novel that challenges the audience to explore their own ego and wonder if it's worse to have too large of an ego, or not enough of one.
All quotes taken from Ayn Rand's Anthem (1937).
1 - Chapter 7 - Quote Two
2 - Chapter 9 - Quote One
3 - Chapter 7 - Quote Three
Homework noded. I entered this into an essay contest.