In a leningrad University classroom in the early 1920s, as the professor drones on about orthodox Marxist theory, a young woman with an intense gaze is writing furiously in her notebook. The woman is Alisa Rosenbaum, later to be famous as Ayn Rand, and her jottings do not concern the relationship between dialectical materialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat; they are notes for a play to be called Ego, about the rediscovery of individuality in a totalitarian society based on the worship of the collective.
Over a decade later, having escaped to the United States, Rand would complete the story — now a novella rather than a play — and publish it in 1938 under the title Anthem.
The book’s most striking feature, both stylistically and in the substance of the story, is the absence of the first-person singular. The idea of a totalitarian state suppressing subversive ideas by banning or distorting the language needed to express or even formulate it has been made generally familiar by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its fictional language, “Newspeak”; but Rand’s treatment precedes Orwell’s by more than a decade (and may possibly have influenced it).-
In Rand’s dystopia, the first-person singular pronoun — the word “I” — has been abolished in order to prevent people from thinking of themselves as individuals with identities distinct from that of the collective. The struggle of Equality 7-2521 .. to discover his own individuality is mirrored in his, and the text’s, struggle to move from “we” to “I.” (And Liberty 5-3000’s groping after singular pronouns in her declaration “We are one… alone… and only… and we love you who are one… alone… and only,” while it anticipates the statement in The Fountainhead that “To say ‘I love you’ one must first know how to say the ‘I,’” ..)