We

we

We‘ is a dystopian novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin completed in 1921. It was written in response to the author’s personal experiences during the Russian revolution of 1905, the Russian revolution of 1917, his life in the Newcastle suburb of Jesmond, and his work in the Tyne shipyards during the First World War. It was on Tyneside that he observed the rationalization of labor on a large scale. Zamyatin was a trained marine engineer, hence his dispatch to Newcastle to oversee ice-breaker construction for the Imperial Russian navy. The novel was first published in 1924 by E.P. Dutton in New York in an English translation.

‘We’ is set in the future. D-503 lives in the One State, an urban nation constructed almost entirely of glass, which allows the secret police/spies to inform on and supervise the public more easily. The structure of the state is analogous to the prison design concept developed by Jeremy Bentham commonly referred to as the Panopticon. Furthermore, life is organized to promote maximum productive efficiency along the lines of the system advocated by the hugely influential F.W. Taylor. People march in step with each other and wear identical clothing. There is no way of referring to people save by their given numbers. Males have odd numbers prefixed by consonants, females have even numbers prefixed by vowels.

The dystopian society depicted in ‘We’ is presided over by the Benefactor and is surrounded by a giant Green Wall to separate the citizens from primitive untamed nature. Every hour in one’s life is directed by ‘The Table,’ a precursor to ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’s’ telescreen. The action is set at some time after the Two Hundred Years War which has wiped out all but ‘0.2% of the earth’s population.’ The War was over a rare substance never mentioned in the book but it could be about petroleum, as all knowledge of the war comes from biblical metaphors; the substance was called ‘bread’ as the ‘Christians gladiated over it’—as in countries fighting conventional wars. However, it is also revealed that the war only ended after the use of weapons of mass destruction, so that the One State is surrounded with a post-apocalyptic landscape.

D-503, a State mathematician, is the chief engineer in a project to build the Integral, a spaceship that will bring the ‘great flywheel of logic’ to other planets and help the One State conquer the solar system, having already conquered the world. D-503’s girlfriend is O-90. His friend R-13, a State poet, is employed to write songs in praise of the State.

D-503 meets I-330, a woman who dresses erotically and teases and entices him instead of sleeping with him in an impersonal fashion. D-503 becomes obsessed with I-330. D-503 and I-330 visit a public execution, and also visit the Ancient House, notable for being the only opaque building in the One State, except for windows. Objects of aesthetic and historical importance, dug up from around the city, are stored there.

He begins to have dreams at night, which disturbs him, as dreams are irrational and thought to be a symptom of mental illness. Slowly, I-330 reveals to D-503 that she is involved with the Mephi, a group plotting to bring down the state. She takes him through secret tunnels to the world outside the Green Wall surrounding the city-state, showing him the inhabitants of the outside world: humans whose bodies are covered with fur.

At the novel’s end, D-503 is subjected to the ‘Great Operation’ (similar to a lobotomy), that has recently been mandated for the whole population of the One State. This operation removes the imagination by striking a certain region of the brain with x-rays. After this operation, D-503 watches the torture and execution of I-330 with equanimity. Meanwhile the Mephi revolt gathers strength; part of the Green Wall has been destroyed, birds begin to populate the city, and people start to commit acts of social rebellion. The novel ends with the issue in doubt. A repeated mantra in the novel is that there is no final revolution.

The Benefactor is the equivalent of Big Brother, but unlike his Orwellian equivalent, is actually confirmed to exist when D-503 has an encounter with him. D-503 incidentally gives his age here as 32, the age Zamyatin was in Newcastle. An ‘election’ is held every year on Unanimity Day, but the Benefactor is unanimously re-elected each year. The vote is also public, so that everyone knows who is voting.

The Integral, the One State’s space ship, has been designed by D-503 to bring the message of the One State to the rest of the universe. This is often seen as analogous to the ideal of a Global Communist State held by early Marxists, but it can be more broadly read as a critique of the tendency of all modernizing, industrial societies toward empire and colonization under the guise of civilizing development for ‘primitive peoples.’ This was, fundamentally, a materialist view that reduces the world to physical laws and processes that can be understood and manipulated for utilitarian purposes. It was a world view that Zamyatin despised, and ‘We’ dramatizes the conflict between nature/spirit and artifice/order.

The role of the poet/writer, as Zamyatin saw it, was to be the heretical voice (or ‘I’) that always insisted on imagination, especially when established institutions seek conformity and concerted effort (‘We’) toward a defined goal. Zamyatin was disturbed by the way in which the Party viewed literature as a useful tool for realizing its goals, and he witnessed particularly troubling compromises from fellow writers who increasingly toed the party line through institutions like the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) or the Writers Union, from which he resigned in 1929. References to official efforts to co-opt literary talent cannot be missed in ‘We.’ The story begins with D-503 deciding to answer the One State’s call for all with literary talent to ‘compose tracts, odes, manifestos, poems, or other works extolling the beauty and grandeur of the One State.’ These contributions would be loaded on the Integral as its first cargo, exporting efficiency and un-freedom to the populations of the universe. D-503, before he becomes afflicted with a soul, records his ‘Reflections on Poetry’ in which he praises the ‘majestic’ Institute of State Poets and Writers.

Along with Jack London’s ‘The Iron Heel,’ ‘We’ is generally considered to be the grandfather of the satirical futuristic dystopia genre. It takes the totalitarian and conformative aspects of modern industrial society to an extreme conclusion, depicting a state that believes that free will is the cause of unhappiness, and that citizens’ lives should be controlled with mathematical precision based on the system of industrial efficiency created by Frederick Winslow Taylor.

Christopher Collins finds the many intriguing literary aspects of ‘We’ more interesting and relevant today than the political aspects: ‘An examination of myth and symbol reveals that the work may be better understood as an internal drama of a conflicted modern man rather than as a representation of external reality in a failed utopia. The city is laid out as a mandala, populated with archetypes and subject to an archetypal conflict. One wonders if Zamyatin were familiar with the theories of his contemporary C. G. Jung or whether it is a case here of the common European zeitgeist.’

Much of the city scape and expressed ideas in the world of We are taken almost directly from the works of H. G. Wells, the (then) very popular apostle of scientific socialist utopia whose works Zamyatin had edited in Russian.

In the use of color and other imagery Zamyatin shows he had breathed the same subjectivist air as had Kandinsky and other European Expressionist painters.

George Orwell averred that Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ (1932) must be partly derived from ‘We.’ However, in a 1962 letter to Christopher Collins, Huxley says that he wrote ‘Brave New World’ as a reaction to H.G. Wells’ utopias long before he had heard of ‘We.’ According to ‘We’ translator Natasha Randall, Orwell believed that Huxley was lying. Kurt Vonnegut said that in writing ‘Player Piano’ (1952) he ‘cheerfully ripped off the plot of ‘Brave New World,’ whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s ‘We.”

George Orwell began ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (1949) some eight months after he read ‘We’ in a French translation and wrote a review of it. Orwell is reported as ‘saying that he was taking it as the model for his next novel.’ Brown writes that for Orwell and certain others, ”We’ appears to have been the crucial literary experience.’

Jerome K. Jerome has been cited as an influence on Zamyatin’s novel. Jerome’s short essay ‘The New Utopia’ (1891) describes a regimented future city, indeed world, of nightmarish egalitarianism, where men and women are barely distinguishable in their grey uniforms and all have short black hair, natural or dyed. No one has names: women wear even numbers on their tunics, men wear odd, just as in ‘We.’ Equality is taken to such lengths that people with well-developed physique are liable to have lopped limbs. In Zamyatin, similarly, the equalization of noses is earnestly proposed. Jerome has anyone with an over-active imagination subjected to a levelling-down operation—something of central importance in ‘We.’ Even more significant is the appreciation on the part of both Jerome and Zamyatin that individual, and by extension, familial love, is a disruptive and humanizing force.

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