The narrative begins with Equality 7-2521, the speaker and protagonist, apologetically describing his "sinful" actions in writing such an account of his own activities, since thinking and acting apart from others is strictly forbidden by the Council of Vocations. After reading a few lines, the reader soon realizes that Equality 7-2521 means himself when he uses the pronoun "we." It seems that he has no capacity to speak the word "I," as if his language has forgotten the word, which of course it has.
Equality 7-2521 lives in a world where the state, the collective, dominates every last detail of society, even down to individual thinking (which rarely exists in this world since the government strictly enforces its idealistic collectivism), much like Huxley's Brave New World. Though the outward form of the society mimics democracy (including meaningless elections, much like Rand's Communist Russia), the actual form is anything but republican. Only Equality 7-2521, as well as a few others encountered later by the reader, has the fortitude to oppose his world, discovering his own world of "self." Early on, Equality 7-2521 alludes to his alienation from the others, saying that he was "born with a curse."
Gradually, he drifts into a history lesson of sorts, explaining the basic tenets of his state-run education. It seems the World Council, the massive organization which controls society in general, has a monopoly on all "truth," and ever since the Great Rebirth, has dominated all human culture. The Great Rebirth seems to be the major, formal step in human de-evolution, as the word "I" was replaced with the words "we" and "us," and men unselfishly chose to live for their brothers, not themselves: this is Rand's ultimate nightmare, since it denies the egoistic nature of man. This was apparently the time when innovation and productivity ended, and government collectivism seemed to make slaves of its citizens, making them ignorant and helpless robots dependent on the state.
Equality 7-2521 also describes his life growing up apart from any kind of human family, but like everyone else, institutionalized and indoctrinated from birth. Like all of Rand's heroes, he is exceptionally bright, soon growing bored with his lessons. As a result of this boredom and desire to explore "the science of things," as well as his "great Transgression of Preference," (preferring some areas of study over others), Equality 7-2521 is punished more than most his age.
Soon the time comes when Equality 7-2521 has completed his education and now must stand before the Council of Vocations to be assigned a permanent life occupation. Though he wishes to be assigned to the House of Scholars, he is instead told that he will be a lowly Street Sweeper. He willingly resigns himself to such an occupation, repeating to himself the state motto, "the will of our brothers be done," showing Rand's conscious decision to mimic (in order to later discredit) the Lord's Prayer.
Eventually, now working as a Street Sweeper, Equality 7-2521 begins to become friends (again committing the Sin of Preference) with a coworker, International 4-8818, someone who smiles continuously. One day the two are cleaning up near the outskirts of town when Equality 7-2521 comes across a metal grate which covers the entrance to an underground tunnel. Equality 7-2521 eagerly descends down the hole, realizing that he is entering a structure from the Unmentionable Times, replete with technological devices from that era, including the secret of electricity, which has been lost in modern times. After awhile he climbs back into his world, making sure that International 4-8818 doesn't speak to anyone about their discovery, knowing that it is a sin to keep things hidden from the collective, but also knowing that those who touch the things from the Unmentionable Times are said to be damned.
Each night for three hours, instead of attending the City Theatre, which promotes the propaganda of collectivism, Equality 7-2521 retreats to his special underground hovel, where he illegally studies the science of things alone. Though he knows his society forbids his activities, Equality 7-2521 also realizes that for the first time in his life, he feels satisfaction and peace.