1st Edition Cover of We New York, 1924
Introduction to We
- Man ceased to be an ape, vanquished the ape, on the day when the first book was written. The ape has not forgotten it to this day: try to give it a book- it will immediately spoil it, tear it up, befoul it. -Zamyatin, 23 December 1928. (Ginsburg 131)
Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin's We (Мы) is hailed as the first dystopian novel, instrumental in the formation of the genre and vital in any study of dystopian fiction, science fiction, or early Soviet works (Sterling, 2006). Although it takes place nearly one thousand years in the future, the totalitarian One State, in which every action is public and people have numerical designations instead of names, mirrors the aspects of Bolshevik rule that drove Zamyatin into self-imposed exile. The experience of reading the novel, told through the journal of a high-ranking One State engineer, is at once fascinating and horrifying, and provides modern readers with a window into the far future and the not-so-distant past.
The Novel's Title
First Edition cover translated by Gregory Zilboorg New York, 1924
The title We refers to D-503's self-identification as part of the society's consciousness. The novel immediately contradicts this title, however, beginning with the word "I." The citizens of the One State view themselves as united, indivisible cogs making up the society, "...D-503 repeatedly asserts that his "I" has value only when it is a synecdoche for "we": and "I" that protests its independence is no more viable than I severed finger" (Borenstein 667). The title is initially eponymous, because D-503 views his self as part of the We. D-503 is obsessed with numbers as a fraction of a whole. People are referred to as "cyphers," and are each assigned a number and letter, emphasizing them not as named individuals but as components of the whole.
Over the course of the novel, D-503 begins to understand himself as an independent individual: "...as a part of the larger group, D-503 might seem minute and insignificant, but his relative smallness makes him appear indivisible" (Borenstein 674). Two things contribute to this burgeoning self-awareness: falling in love with I-330, and beginning to write. By these actions, D-503 begins to realize that he is an indivisible whole within himself. In falling in love, "...D-503 leaves the larger, social sphere for incorporation within a smaller, intimate 'nation of two' (Borenstein 673). In order to comprehend their unique relationship, he must psychologically divide them from everyone else: "we walked off together as a twosome- a onesome..." (Zamyatin 87).
As the society, the We, begins to fragment, the course of the novel also begins to become more complex. D-503's sentences become more descriptive as he observes the complexities of other people, the environment, and himself. At the end of the novel, however, after he receives the operation, his sentences have become even more simplified than they were at the onset: "And I hope we will win. More than that- I know we will win. Because reason should win" (Zamyatin 203). It is only through the destruction of his mind that he is truly able to become part of the We.
"In the name of the Benefactor, let it be known to all citizens of the One State:
All those who are able are required to create treatises, epics, manifestos, odes, or any other composition addressing the beauty and majesty of the One State. (Zamyatin, 3-4)"
We takes place in the far-future One State, a totalitarian society one thousand years after a cataclysm which killed the majority of the world's population. It is told from the point of view of D-503, an engineer and mathematician. Through his journal, initially undertaken in response to the State order to create writings glorifying their society, we learn about the totalitarian One State and the secret rebellion plotting to take it down.
As the Builder of the Integral, the massive spaceship intended to conquer and subjugate alien societies under the totalitarian and mathematically perfect rule of the One State, D-503 is an esteemed member of the One State. He is initially completely subsumed in the ideology of the One State, and thrills in the uniformity and emotionless repetition of the life in the Metropolis. His only regret is that his hairy, atavistic arms remind him of humanity's more primitive roots. In the One State, such physical characteristics appear to be one of the few remaining ties to the life of the people who lived before the One State, the "Ancients." The One State's citizens are shielded from nature inside the Green Wall and privacy - except for during State-sanctioned "sex visits" - is a thing of the past. D-503's regular companions include his lover O-90, who laments being too short to be allowed children, and his friend R-13, a State poet and also O-90's lover.
D-503's blissfully regulated world is shaken when he meets I-330, a femme fatale whom he finds simultaneously repulsive and irresistible. I-330's influence over D-503's life increases as she takes him to the Ancient House, gradually reveals her use of illicit substances such as alcohol and tobacco, and tells D-503 that she can have a corrupt doctor excuse him from work. D-503 is horrified, but finds himself incapable of turning I-330 over to the authorities.
D-503 becomes increasingly smitten and begins to have dreams at night, a crime in the One State. Upon visiting a doctor, he is told that his affliction is that he has developed a "soul." I-330 ultimately reveals the existence of human beings living beyond the Green Wall and of the MEPHI, an underground resistance movement whose aim is to destroy the Green Wall and the totalitarian One State government. D-503 increasingly questions the mathematical perfection and soullessness of the One State. After he fulfills O-90's request for an illegal pregnancy, he has I-330 smuggle her beyond the wall.
The rebels spark a revolution, destroying parts of the Green Wall and allowing birds to re-enter the city. D-503 is arrested and his imagination removed using x-rays, after which he tells the Benefactor and Guardianship Agency all that he knows about MEPHI. I-330 is brought before D-503 and the Benefactor and tortured for information; she gives none, which perplexes D-503. The novel ends with D-503 saying that all MEPHI agents in captivity will be executed. The battle for the city goes on, but D-503 is confident that the One State will win, "Because reason should win" (Zamyatin 203).
Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1927
- I am D-503. I am the builder of the Integral. I am only one of the mathematicians of the one state. My pen, more accustomed to mathematical figures, is not up to the task of creating unison and rhyme. I will just attempt to record what I see, what I think- or, more exactly, what we think. (Yes, that's right: we. And let that also be the title of these records: We.) (Zamyatin 4)
The protagonist and narrator of the novel. A fairly high member of the society, he is working to build the spaceship the Integral. As the novel wears on, and he begins to fall in love with I-330 and understand himself as an independent individual.
- What an obnoxious, taunting tone. I definitely felt: now I hate her again. But, why "now"? I had hated her the whole time. (Zamyatin 50)
- Silence, a pulse. I am a crystal, and I am dissolving in her, in I-330. I feel it clearly, totally: a melting, the melting of the polished facets that confine me in space. I am disappearing, dissolving in her knees, in her. I am becoming even smaller and simultaneously even wider, even bigger, ever unbounded. Because she is not she, but the universe. (Zamyatin 115)
D-503's lover. She opens his mind to his soul and convinces him to aid the rebellion against the One State. She is described by her "sting-smile of white, sharp teeth" and "her eyes lowered, like blinds" (Zamyatin 25).
- Sweet O! It always seemed to me that she looks like her name: she is about ten centimeters below the Maternal Norm, which make her lines all rounded, and a pink O- her mouth- is able to receive my every word. Also: there are the round, chubby creases on her wrists- such as you see on the wrists of children.(Zamyatin 6)
The sexual partner of R-13 and D-503. She is desperate to have a child, but is legally too short to reproduce. D-503 harbors protective feelings for her, and views her as a childlike innocent.
- ...the poet with the African lips, a person everyone knows. (Zamyatin 20)
D-503's childhood friend, with whom he shares O-90. He is a poet who creates works to be read at executions.
- "Her name was U... but then again, I'd better not give her digits in case I write something bad about her. Though, in reality, she is a very respectable elderly lady. The only think you might dislike about her was that her cheeks droop somewhat-like fish gills..." (Zamyatin 45).
A monitor for the One State, she is infatuated with D-503 and watches closely as he begins to step out of line.
- S... Why do I hear his flat, puddle-squelching footsteps behind me all day, every day... like a shadow? It's up ahead, behind me, beside me, this gray-blue, two-dimensional shadow: everyone walks through it, steps on it, but it is nevertheless invariably here, nearby- fastened to me with an invisible umbilical cord. (Zamyatin 77).
A member of the Bureau of Guardians, the secret police, who follows D-503. D-503 calls him a "twice-bent, S-shaped man" (Zamyatin 14).
- The Benefactor, the Machine, the Cube, the Gas Bell Jar, the Guardians- all these are good, all these are majestic, wonderful, noble, sublime, crystal-clean. Because they guard our non-freedom- that is, our happiness (Zamyatin 55).
The leader of the one state, often elevated to superhuman status. Towards the conclusion of the novel, when the Benefactor meets with D-503, the reader and D-503 begin to recognize him as a human being.
We cover art, Penguin Classics
The City: The city in We is a remarkable piece of engineering. Built of transparent super-glass, it enables maximum industrial efficiency while at the same time safely separating its inhabitants from the disordered, liberating influences of nature and enabling easy surveillance.
- "The 'city' when it does occur in Zamyatin's writings is a monster of mechanical efficiency...And always, in those impossible, dream-like cities, there are characters who rebel against them and try to find their way to the free air 'outside the wall'" (Brown 22).
The rift between urban and rural that pervades so many Russian novels is taken to a new height in We. The Green Wall separates Ciphers from nature - all except for weather and the occasional drift of "yellow honey-dust from a flower of some kind" (Zamyatin, 5) - while residents of the city no longer dependent on the countryside even for food. Zamyatin describes a future world in which all roads were destroyed, and a wild jungle grew up in between:
- "Our ancestors conquered hunger at a heavy cost: I am talking about the Two-Hundred-Year War, the war between the city and the countryside" (Zamyatin 20).
The result is the One State's capital, a teeming hyper-metropolis inspired by the heavy industry, urban reforms, dehumanizing and undignified conditions, and starvation that Zamyatin himself experienced in Revolutionary-era Petrograd.
Individual v. The Collective: "My whole being was beating and pulsing in the (fortunately, opaque) under which I had hidden my records" (Zamyatin 146).
The title of Zamyatin's 1921 work makes clear from the start that We is a novel at least partially about the collective. In We, Zamyatin makes clear that true collectivism - that absolute lack of independence or even the importance of the individual weighed against the collective - is capable of achieving astounding feats of engineering. It is equally clear, however, that that is not worth the costs to humanity: it is bad enough to give up privacy, but true collectivism, or at least the Bolshevik collectivism of the 1920's and onward, also require the sacrifice of imagination and the soul. The challenge of the individual versus the collective also surfaces as the tension between the happiness and freedom.
- The [ancient] State (humaneness) forbade killing to death any one person but didn't forbid the half-killing of millions. (Zamyatin, 13)
This stands in sharp contrast to the One State, which takes the collective to such an extreme that no cipher bats an eye when several workers are accidentally slain by a test-firing of the Integral's engines; as is pointed out, they are only an infinitesimally minute fraction of the population, almost too nominal to be worth calculating (if anything were too nominal to be worth calculating).
Surveillance and Freedom: "And there is nothing happier than digits, living according to the well-constructed, eternal laws of the multiplication table." (Zamyatin 59)
Written in an era before the invention of the television, Zamyatin had no way of anticipating the staying power of 1984's Telescreens. Nonetheless, his One State was not without its ever-present State spies, the Guardianship Agency, aided in their task by the glass walls of the city. Surveillance, of course, helps the Benefactor to stay in power and easily identify - and publicly execute - any radical elements or Ciphers who just don't seem to fit in. But the dual themes of surveillance and freedom run deeper than that: they are explicitly linked to happiness.
- "Those two in paradise stood before a choice: happiness without freedom or freedom without happiness; a third choice wasn't given." (Zamyatin 55)
In the struggle between happiness and freedom, the founders of the One State chose happiness, and willingly force this choice on everyone within their (considerable) reach. The only way to prevent the sins of Humanity, it is explained, is to remove all temptation, all ability to sin. The One State seeks to return its Ciphers to the biblical Garden of Eden, where paradise can be found even if man no longer knows of good and evil. In this regard, D-503 serves as Adam (R-13 even refers to him as such), and I-330 as Eve (Gregg, 1965). Alternatively, from the point of view of the reader, the One State is seen not as paradise but as something far worse; in this regard, I-330's self-sacrificing attempts to save Humanity can be interpreted with I-330 as a Christ figure (Fogley).
The Written Word: "A Declaration. The Wisest of Lines. An Epic." (Keywords for Record One, We)
The written word is a thing of great potency in Zamyatin's We. The One State is aware of this, instructing all citizens to create works glorifying their society so that they can use this propaganda to subjugate alien races: as D-503 explains, force will be used, but only if the word has failed. This is also the policy for within the City, where State propagandists like D-503's friend R-13 create poetry and other works that glorify the State and read such works at public executions. In the contemporary Soviet Union, Zamyatin grew ever more disheartened by the use of propaganda and literary censorship by the nascent Bolshevik government, a practice which eventually drove Zamyatin to flee the country.
Nature: "D-503's atavistic hair lends to him a possibility of irrational adventure that should not exist for the good citizen of a well-ordered state. (Brown 24)"
The One State presents Nature as a force that was conquered long ago. And while it is true that human beings no longer depend on food from the Earth, it is clear from the mere existence of the Green Wall that the One State can only enforce order and obedience on its ciphers (if that) and not on the wider world, and that the existence of the totalitarian regime is dependent on its ability to separate its citizens from nature both internally and externally. This proves most challenging with regards to love and sexuality.
- "So it's natural that having subjugated Hunger... the One State began an offensive against the other master of the world-against love." (Zamyatin 21)
The sub-theme of sexual desire is important in Zamyatin's work. As Thomas Horan explains in Revolutions from the Waste Downwards: Desire as Rebellion in Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, George Orwell's 1984, and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, D-503's physical attraction to I-330 serves as "an aspect of the self that can never be fully appropriated, and therefore as a potential force for political and spiritual regeneration from within the totalitarian state" (Horan, 2007). Horan goes on to argue that this same technique is applied in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984. Sexual desire, even more so than love, is most fundamental biological force on this Earth; and though the One State can travel into space, they can never conquer desire.
Zamyatin, born in 1884, was heavily influenced by the turn-of-the-century Russian revolutions and push for industrialization. His is a history of controversial and critical writings, leading to a series of arrests and exiles: first by the Tsarists in 1905, 1911, and 1914; then by the Soviets in 1919 and 1922; and ultimately in 1931 through self-imposed retreat from Bolshevik censorship (Sterling, 2006)
Zamyatin studied engineering in St. Petersburg between his exiles of 1905 and 1911. In 1911, he was sent into internal exile until 1914 when one critical work, "In the Backwoods," nearly let to the arrest (again) of Zamyatin and his publisher. That year, Zamyatin was sent to England to as a naval engineer, tasked with overseeing the construction of Russian icebreakers (Sterling, 2006). It was in the British shipyards that Zamyatin experienced firsthand the dehumanizing effects of heavy industry and the labor-productivity reforms championed by Frederick Winslow Taylor, both of which can be seen mirrored and exaggerated in We.
Zamyatin returned to Russia just before October Revolution of 1917. Although in support of the Bolshevik cause both before and after the Revolution, he quickly became disillusioned with the Bolshevik's attempts at censorship over the creative and literary arts. It was during this time, in 1920-1921, that Zamyatin wrote We (Rudy, 1959).
Unsurprisingly, We was denied publication in Russia and received the dubious honor of being the first book to be banned by Goskomizdat (Госкомиздат), the Bolshevik censorship bureau. Nonetheless, manuscripts were illicitly distributed in Russia and smuggled out of the country, and were quickly translated into English, French, and Czech (Spartacus Educational; Sterling, 2006). In 1922, Zamyatin and a group of writers inspired by him founded The Serapion Brothers, a group dedicated to the pursuance of writing without enforced political ideology (Spartacus Educational; Sterling, 2006; Brown, 1976). This did not help Zaymatin's standing among State critics and censors, and criticism of We and Zamyatin's other work resulted in a general ban of his writings, a punishment that Zamyatin described as a writer's death sentence (Rudy, 1959).
In 1931, Zamyatin wrote a letter to Joseph Stalin to ask that he and his wife be allowed to leave the country; they were, perhaps due to the influence of Maxim Gorky. Zamyatin moved to Paris, where he died in poverty in early 1937 (Sterling, 2006; Rudy, 1959).
We was first published in English in 1924 by the New York publisher E.P. Dutton, translated by Gregory Zilboorg. Three years later, under the title My, it was published in Prague by Štorch-Marien, after being translated into Czech by Václav Koenig. A French edition (translated by Cauvet-Duhamel under the title Nous Autres) was published in Paris in 1929 by Gallimard; at the same time, a Russian edition was re-translated from Czech and published outside of the USSR (Rudy, 1959; Sterling, 2006). In 1952, roughly a decade and a half after Zamyatin's death, a Russian edition was printed by the Chekhova publishing company in New York. We was not printed in the Soviet Union until 1988 (Randall, 2006).
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Soviet Science Fiction
We helped to found the dystopian genre. This genre serves to criticize progress for progress's sake by depicting extreme future societies in which modern ideas have been fully realized. The genre depicts dire warnings about the future in the hope of changing the present. Although many types of dystopian novels now exist, Thomas Horan has retroactively categorized We in a unique set of dystopian works. He calls these works, which also include Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984, "projected political fiction". Each of these works projects contemporary trends onto a disturbing futurescape, by which, according to Horan, it can achieve:
- ...one of two not always mutually exclusive purposes: either it serves as a warning to the author's contemporaries to help them avert an impending governmental disaster, or it predicts what the seemingly unavoidable future will look like. (Horan, 2007).
In the case of Zamyatin's We, the projections were of collectivist, dehumanizing labor reforms and the government surveillance that was increasingly used to ensure their unquestioned functioning. As Brown writes:
- ...the more complex and highly organized a society becomes, the less free are its individual members. [We, 1984, and Brave New World] all ... assume the direction of modern European society is toward larger and more complex organization, and that the regimented world of Ford, Taylor, or the proletarian extremists will result at last in the disappearance of the individual being in favor of the mass (Brown 39).
Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World are other early, and highly influential, tomes of the genre. We helped to inspire these two famous works.
- "The first thing anyone would notice about We is the fact--never pointed out, I believe--that Aldous Huxley's Brave New World must be partly derived from it." -George Orwell, in a review of We written 3 years before writing 1984 (Orwell, 1946)
These works show that traditional human values must not be shattered by authoritarianism. According to the translator Natasha Randall, "[Zamyatin] believed in constant revolution, eternally making energy and avoiding entropy" (Gathman). Dystopian authors depict modern values as utopian by showing the evil of their perfect consummation.
- All three works assume that certain indispensable human values- respect for the individual person, love, honor, and even poetry- are 'somehow'... preserved on the lower and less well-organized levels of life while they disappear from the higher. (Brown, 40)
In addition to influencing later - and, generally, more well-known works - We draws upon past literary traditions. Perhaps his strongest foreign literary inspiration was the British author H.G. Wells, now best known for his science fiction but during his lifetime also an outspoken socialist and social critic; Zamyatin had close contact with Wells' works while working as a translator in Russia following the Revolution (Sterling, 2006).
In 1981, We was adapted as Wir for German television. It was directed by Vojtech Jasný. <<http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0164234/>>
1. Why is it important to note that the novel is written from D-503's perspective? What motivates him to begin writing?
2. What is the significance of the novel's structure? Is it important that the novel is written in journal form, and what is the significance of the keywords at the beginning of every Record?
3. D-503 describes others by unique physical attributes, such as the wrinkle in O-90's wrist, I-330's eyes, and R-13's lips. Why is D-503 so concerned with others' appearances?
4. What causes D-503's hesitation to turn I-330 in to the authorities when she first breaks the law? Is this a minor plot device or a sign of something more important?
5. How does Zamyatin portray women in the novel? In the context of the early Soviet period, would you interpret his viewpoint as sexist? Feminist?
6. What is the place of the divine in this novel? How do D-503, I-330 and the One State present God?
7. What is the role of nature in We? How does this compare to other works from the era? From today?
8. What makes We a dystopian novel? What similarities and differences exist between We and other dystopian novels, such as Brave New World, 1984, and Farenheit 451?
9. Is We a work of social commentary? If so, what are the messages that Zamyatin is attempting to portray?
10. What aspects of the One State, if any, are visible in today's society? Were these themes more or less relevant in early Soviet society?
11. Why does the novel conclude with D-503's Operation and I-330's death, despite the destruction of the wall?
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