Summary and Analysis
In the morning, Equality 7-2521 slips through the streets carrying his glass box. He enters unquestioned the Home of the Scholars, walking through the empty corridors into the great hall where the Scholars sit assembled. When he greets them, Collective 0-0009, the oldest and wisest, responds with a question regarding his identity. Equality 7-2521 informs them that he is a Street Sweeper, and they are first astonished and then outraged. Equality 7-2521 interrupts by pointing out that he is unimportant. He has something to show them of great significance to society.
He places the glass box on the table and connects the wires. When the wires begin to glow red, terror strikes the members of the Council. They leap from the table and run to the farthest wall, where they huddle together. The Scholars are furious that he defies all the Councils by believing he can provide greater benefit to his fellow man than cleaning the streets. They berate him for holding thoughts that are individual in opposition to those held by his brothers. They threaten him with torture and execution.
Equality 7-2521 pleads with them. He states that they are right regarding him. He is a miserable wretch who has broken all the laws, and who deserves only punishment. But the light, he questions. What will they do with the light? They smile and ask him if his brothers agree that the light is a great advance. When he admits that they do not, they point out that what is not believed by all men cannot be true. When they reiterate that he has worked on the invention alone, he concedes that he has. They remind him that what is not shared by all cannot be good. Other scholars argue that if the light is everything Equality 7-2521 claims, then it would ruin the Department of Candles; and since the candle is a benefit that has been approved by all men, its manufacture cannot be ended to satisfy the whim of one. It took 50 years to secure approval for the candle from all the Councils, to determine the number needed and to adjust from torches. The Plans of the World Councils cannot be changed again so soon. The World Council of Scholars decides in unison that the light must be destroyed.
Before they can touch the light, Equality 7-2521 seizes it and leaps through the window. He flees blindly, running through the streets of the city with no destination, knowing merely that he must get away. Suddenly, he finds himself on the soft earth, surrounded by trees taller than he's ever seen, and realizes that he is in the Uncharted Forest. Alone in the Forest, he believes he is doomed, that he will be devoured by ravenous beasts. He draws strength only from the box in his arms, realizing that he made it not for the sake of his brothers but for its own sake. His only regret is that he will not see the Golden One again. He thinks that because he is damned, it is best for her that she forgets him and everything about him.
Equality 7-2521's innocent confidence that the Scholars will understand and support his invention of the light is misplaced. Equality 7-2521's commitment to research, to science, and to the independent mind causes him to admire humans, to respect the "rational animal." He still expects humans to be rational. He is a Humanist, one who holds that human life and well-being is the highest value on earth. Despite the horrors of life in his society, he still believes that the authorities are committed to human life. He thinks that the collectivists are sincere in their claims to love humankind. Because the benefit to society that is represented by the electric light is very clear, he expects the Scholars to recognize and support it. He does not yet understand the evil of the collectivists. His interview with the Scholars is a turning point in his thinking.
Ayn Rand shows that the collectivist authorities do not care about the light or the benefits it will bring; they desire neither inventions nor prosperity. What they do desire is obedience. Earlier, as Equality 7-2521 worked on harnessing electricity, he had realized that the Scholars do not know the things he knows. But at that time, he still believed that they cared. He believed that when laid before them, they would recognize the great benefit the light represents. Now he sees them reject the light. Clearly, the scholars know that the light is real, not a fantasy; it works. They know the power is harnessed and under control, not a raging threat. They recognize the light's potential. They all but concede that it will put the candle out of business. Rather, they do not want the light. They do not want the light because they fear its source: the independent mind. They fundamentally repudiate a man who thinks for himself and who refuses to conform to society.
To maintain the dictatorship, everyone must unquestioningly obey the Councils. Those who refuse to obey are a threat. Independent thinkers are a danger to this repressive society.
More important than the technological upheaval is the political one. Independent thinkers ask questions of humanity, as well as of nature. They want to understand the moral basis of a tyrant's regime as fully as they seek to comprehend the power of electricity. Great minds are not turned off when they leave the laboratory. They continue to ask questions and to seek truth. They question the moral legitimacy of the state.
Equality 7-2521 already has disturbing questions. He wonders about the Unspeakable Word, the lost secrets of the Unmentionable Times, why his brothers cry out in the night, and more. If the collectivists permit him to act on his own thinking, he will be more than an individual troublemaker; he will be an example to others. Other individuals who seek to think for themselves — such as the Golden One, who breaks the laws by speaking to Equality 7-2521, and International 4-8818, who draws on walls in defiance of the rules — will be encouraged to do so. If Equality 7-2521 is permitted to escape harsh punishment for his "crimes," much less be accepted as a great inventor, then the iron grip that the collectivists hold on society will be gravely undermined. The authorities recognize this, and cannot permit it to happen. Worse for them, in this scene Equality 7-2521 begins to recognize it, too.
He does not yet know what is the proper political system for men, nor does he explicitly understand the deeper causes of the collectivists' evil. But he knows that they reject the light, and that there is no place for him in such a society. He fully expects to die in the forest. But even that is preferable to life as an unthinking slave in the city.