In this review, the author delves into the plot summary and themes of Yevgeny Zamyatin We, the book that inspired Orwell’s 1984.
While most people are familiar with George Orwell’s landmark dystopian novel 1984, which has led to terms like “Orwellian” and “Big Brother” becoming part of popular cultural language, far fewer are aware of the book that preceded and inspired Orwell’s masterpiece. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, written and published in the early 1920s, describes a totalitarian regime much like Orwell’s 1984 but differs from its successor in significant ways.
Notable for being a foundational work in the establishment of dystopian fiction as a genre and for being the first book to be banned by the USSR, We gives us an account of a futuristic society called the One State whose architecture is made almost entirely out of glass and whose inhabitants have no names and instead are referred to by alphanumeric codes (such as the protagonist D-503). It describes possible horrors underlying the dream of “final revolutions” – ambitions of creating utopian societies governed entirely by logic and rationality, where all problems have been eradicated by imposing a view of human subjects as machinelike, free of (irrational) subjective desires.
Just like the fantasy of finding a final number, an impossibility given numbers are infinite, the novel seems to suggest that the dream of a “final revolution” may be equally fantastical.
Plot Summary of We
We is set in the distant future when, following the “Two Hundred Years’ War” which wiped out nearly all population on Earth, the fictional One State has conquered the world. The state is now engaged in building the spaceship Integral, which will travel to other planets in order to colonize and bring them under the dominion of the One State.
The story is told from the perspective of D-503, the chief engineer of the project, who maintains a journal where he describes to us the design and ambitions of the One State. We learn that their society is governed by open mass surveillance, made possible by the glass architecture that eliminates the very question of privacy. The only exception is when people have sex – which itself must be sanctioned through the exchange of a fixed number of pink slips allotted to each citizen – when they are allowed to lower the curtains for the permitted amount of time as dictated by the slips. Everyone’s lives are thoroughly planned and accounted for, with each and every single item of their daily routine playing out like clockwork.
Initially, at the start of the novel, we find D-503 to be living in perfect harmony with the order of the One State, singing praises of its leader (referred to only as the “Benefactor”). He talks about how they have essentially solved the problem of happiness through the merit of sheer mathematical calculation, which accounts for (and, thus, caters to) all possible scenarios in advance, pre-emptively taking care of possibilities that might lead to misfortune. Soon, however, D-503’s life is upended when he meets the woman I-330, who seems to secretly rebel against the confines of the One State. Instead of using her pink slip to schedule a “sex hour” with D-503, I-330 openly flirts with him and secretly indulges in the vices of smoking and drinking alcohol (which have been outlawed by the Benefactor). While initially repelled, D-503 slowly starts becoming fascinated by I-330, and – for the first time in his life – he begins to have dreams, which are thought to signify mental illness in the One State.
As D-503 gradually gravitates towards this woman, he discovers she is secretly allied to a rebel organization called the Mephi, which is working to bring down this carefully planned oppressive society. Through his journal entries, we find D-503 struggling to balance his former commitments to the One State with his newly awakened desires. His erstwhile state of happiness, deriving from blissful ignorance, is shaken up by I-330. The resulting contradiction turns his world upside down. As the Mephi gather strength, hoping to bring about their revolution before the launch of the spaceship Integral, D-503 is forced to make a choice in this race against the clock: help I-330 and her cause to bring down the One State, which he himself so revered, or betray the only woman for whom he ever felt something akin to ‘love’ and go back to his old life. But, ultimately, more important than the choice he makes is the fact that he is confronted with the reality of choosing itself – an absolutely radical event in his life, which hitherto had been all calculated and accounted for without the problem of choice ever coming up in the first place.
Themes and Analysis of We
“Ordinarily . . . we constantly live in full sight of all, constantly bathed in light and surrounded by our glass walls that seem to be woven of coruscating air. We have nothing to conceal from one another. Besides, this lack of concealment lightens the onerous and exalted work of the Guardians. Otherwise, who can tell what things may happen?”
In Zamyatin’s dystopian world that serves as the setting for his novel We, transparency and hypervisibility are the order of the day. All structures within the fictional world are made of glass, with the sole exception of a derelict old building called The House of Antiquity, which serves as a museum (and which, precisely because of the opacity of its architecture, also becomes the base of operations for the rebellious faction). Thus, all citizens live and work under the constant scrutiny of their fellow citizens, in addition to that of the Guardians. The immense political power wielded by the One State in the novel derives precisely from the unremitting surveillance facilitated by such transparent architecture, which enables the formation of docile subjects. While at first glance, this setup may recall Orwell’s Big Brother always watching his citizens, there’s a crucial difference between the two: while in 1984, one was being (potentially) monitored panopticon-style only by state authorities (in a unidirectional power setup), in We, everybody lives in full visibility of everyone else with the watcher and the watched keeping each other mutually in check.
This structural feature of the One State is also responsible for We’s biggest difference from 1984, namely, the subjective disposition of the protagonist towards the totalitarian regime. While in Orwell’s book, we find Winston Smith feeling disgruntled from the start from having to live in such a repressive society, D-503, in contrast, is highly appreciative of the logic-driven structure of the One State and sings praises of the Benefactor out of his own volition. This difference is crucial for the way we must rethink utopias and dystopias in general: the real dystopia, Zamyatin seems to be saying, arises not when the subject feels oppressed by state structure, against which they dream of rebelling, but when the state manages to assimilate the subject into its folds in a manner that completely masks all oppression.
Indeed, a dystopia is at its most dystopian when it manages to convince us that it is the very opposite – when we wholeheartedly embrace our oppression because we’ve never had a chance to know otherwise. In the One State, there are annual elections whose outcome is obviously predetermined: everyone gathers together to unanimously vote for the Benefactor. This is a seemingly needless exercise but one which nevertheless emphasizes the key difference of this world again from that of 1984’s, in that its dystopic quality derives not from it being a dictatorship outright but from the façade of democracy that everyone willingly subscribes to so as to hide its true totalitarian nature.
D-503 happily celebrates the absence of lack in his life in the One State, not realizing that it is lack itself that forms the basis of subjectivity, a counter-intuitive proposition championed by the field of psychoanalysis, which was burgeoning around the time Zamyatin wrote his book. It takes the arrival of I-330 in his life for D-503 to realize his lack, and therein arises his subjectivity. Instead of thinking like a machine, like a cog built to fit the wheel, as he has done all his life, he gets a glimpse of his individuality for the first time. For the first time, he is confronted by personal desire, otherwise used to catering to the desires permitted by the state structure.
Why You Should Read We
While Orwell’s book came long after the regimes of Hitler and Stalin, which became natural reference points for the novel, We remain distinctive for being written before the world saw either of these dictatorships in practice. As such, it is a prescient study not so much of actually-existing societies but of the fundamental questions that arise in any society’s ambition to rationalize itself in pursuing the utopian dream of overcoming all contradictions. Even if the societies we inhabit resemble nothing like that of the One State, the themes of disappearing privacy in a world of hypervisibility serve as a fitting metaphor for the contemporary Internet age – where the sociocultural imperative to remain connected to each other – is always just a text message away, and to increasingly share erstwhile-private details of personal lives in public forums can have normalizing effects on individual/collective development similar to that caused by prolonged state surveillance, only in more subliminal and obscure ways. More fundamentally, We implore us to rethink the ways we conceive of oppression at the hands of the state, reminding us that the height of subjugation is not where individuals are seen rebelling against the regime but, paradoxically, where they seem to fit in so perfectly so as to embrace their oppression with open arms.