“It is a sin to write this,” begins an entry in Equality 7-2521’s journal. He always refers to himself using the second-person plural, “we,” and explains that his writing is sinful because it is for himself alone, and thinking on one’s own has been outlawed. Alone in a disused railway tunnel, Equality 7-2521 writes by the light of a candle stolen from the Home of the Street Sweepers.
In just the first few words of the novella, Rand clearly conveys that Equality 7-2521’s dystopian society is characterized by a lack of individuality and an overpowering sense of shame. By being unable to use the pronoun “I,” Equality 7-2521 has lost the ability to distinguish himself as an individual through language and has become assimilated into a faceless mass.
Equality 7-2521 explains that he is 21 years old, and his tall, strong body and his active, curious mind set him apart from other men. He calls these impulses a “curse,” because since the Great Rebirth, the World Council has commanded that “all men must be alike.” It is a punishable offense to speak of the Unmentionable Times before the Great Rebirth, in which technology flourished but people did not live by the Great Truth that “all men are one and that there is no will save the will of all men together.”
In this society, qualities that are almost universally valued, like strength and intelligence, are seen as shameful in the misguided pursuit of equality and fairness. Equality 7-2521’s allusion to the Unmentionable Times carries the disturbing implication that his society may have arisen after a progressive era similar to the 20th century, when Anthem was written.
Equality 7-2521 recounts his childhood in the Home of the Infants, where he was disciplined for fighting with his brethren. He was then educated for ten years at the Home of the Students, where he felt cursed for being more intelligent than his cohort. A lover of science, he hopes to be assigned to the Home of the Scholars, where the candle was invented fairly recently, to continue his learning. However, on his fifteenth birthday, the Council of Vocations assigns him the role of Street Sweeper. Equality 7-2521 is upset by this, but feels that this tedious job may be a way for him to atone for his sins against his brethren.
Equality 7-2521’s career arc illustrates the insulting inefficiencies of collectivist society. Instead of being allowed to flourish and exercise his own power, Equality 7-2521 is forced to work a tedious job that insults his intelligence and wastes his potential. Moreover, the recent invention of the candle underscores how technologically backwards this society is.
For four years, Equality 7-2521 performed the menial, routine tasks demanded of the Street Sweepers, until he committed a “crime” two years ago. Equality 7-2521 worked on a team with a weak, sickly Sweeper named Union 5-3992; and a strong, friendly Sweeper named International 4-8818. International 4-8818 is an aspiring artist with a good sense of humor, but his job as a Street Sweeper forbids him from drawing. International 4-8818 is someone Equality 7-2521 considers a “friend,” which is a transgression as it is forbidden to prefer some men to others. As Equality 7-2521 sweeps near the outskirts of the city, he comes across an iron grate obscured by weeds. Together with International 4-8818, he manages to pull up the grate, revealing a dark tunnel and some rungs to climb into it. Equality 7-2521 insists on descending, even though International 4-8818 tells him that doing so would be forbidden.
Not only is Equality 7-2521’s society backwards in terms of practical achievements, it is also emotionally stultifying. Friendship, one of the most basic human needs, is forbidden—ironically, in the name of camaraderie. International 4-8818’s career trajectory illustrates that the tragic waste of Equality 7-2521’s potential is hardly unique. However, despite these dismal living conditions, both Equality 7-2521 and International 4-8818 appear to have deeply internalized the values instilled in them by society—though International 4-8818 has done so to a greater degree, as he tries to shut down Equality 7-2521’s curiosity.
Once he descends the ladder, Equality 7-2521 finds himself in a large tunnel. He finds metal tracks on the ground and soon realizes that this space is a vestige of the Unmentionable Times and of the “secrets which we have lost.” Equality 7-2521 climbs back up the ladder, and International 4-8818 tells him that they must report their discovery to the City Council. Equality 7-2521 tells his friend that they will do no such thing, and that he will sacrifice his life to protect the space’s secrecy. International 4-8818 tearfully agrees to keep Equality 7-2521’s secret, saying that he would prefer to act evilly alongside his friend than to behave well alongside his other brothers.
The tunnel indicates that the people of the Unmentionable Times possessed railroad or subway technology that the Equality 7-2521’s regressive society has abandoned. This is yet another indication that Rand considers collectivism to be counterproductive and backwards. International 4-8818’s willingness to support Equality 7-2521’s transgression illustrates that natural human impulses to explore and defend their friends transcend the incorrect ideologies imposed by collectivism.
From then on, Equality 7-2521 sneaks away from the mandatory entertainment every night and spends time in his secret tunnel. There, he uses stolen tools and scientific supplies pilfered from the Home of the Scholars to study. He even consults stolen manuscripts, which are very valuable because they represent a year’s worth of handwriting work by a scribe. Equality 7-2521 alludes to some of the discoveries he has made in his clandestine laboratory, and reflects that he feels strange for being so unashamed of his evil behavior. His transgressions, he says, have brought him peace for the first time in twenty years.
Equality 7-2521’s secretive scientific experiments illustrate that his spark of creativity and intelligence can overcome even the most repressive social restrictions. However, the conflict between his socialized shame and his continued enjoyment of science shows that he has yet to break free of the oppression instilled in him since birth.