The Complexities of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We.”

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“There is no final revolution.” – I-330, We

When it comes to classic dystopian novels, it’s hard to compete with the brutal combination of George Orwell’s 1984 and Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World.  Orwell’s novel – which I’ll admit to being biased toward—is overwhelmingly bleak, painting a very human portrait of what would happen if human beings lost their humanity.  It shows a world that has been destroyed by fear.  Huxley, on the other hand, portrays a world destroyed by our obsession with meaningless triviality.  The two books are opposing sides of the same coin.

Both novels, however, owe an enormous debt to a novel that is mentioned all-too-rarely: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s sci-fi masterpiece, We.   And it’s a shame, because We is a very powerful novel in its own right, and it deserves far greater recognition.

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Orwell was very open about We’s inspiration on 1984, whereas Huxley claimed to have never read it—a statement that Orwell disagreed with, believing that Huxley was lying.  Regardless of who was lying about what, the parallels between We and both of these classics is impossible not to see.  We predated both novels by several decades, seeing publication in 1924.

So, what’s the plot?

We takes place in a world of glass—glass walls, glass sidewalks, glass buildings.  A fully transparent world, where everyone follows the exact same schedule—even down to impersonal, scheduled sexual encounters—and everyone has been carefully trained to despise individuality and loathe imagination, instead aspiring to become merely a cog in the great machine of the One State.  Everyone lives in cities, separated from the outside world by the Green Wall. The world is ruled by logic and mathematics, and free will is a thing of the past.   Now, this society of glass is attempting its greatest achievement yet: the Integral, a spaceship that will be used to conquer other worlds.

In this strange world, we are introduced to a character named D-503 – the head engineer of the Integral, a diehard supporter of the One State, and a man whose entire world is about to be turned upside down when he accidentally falls headfirst into a sexual relationship with a rebellious woman named I-330.

Yes, this probably sounds a bit familiar, but remember, We did it first.

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The first thing that separates the novel We from its dystopian children is that it’s far more science fiction oriented; whereas the sci-fi elements of novels like 1984 and Brave New World are relegated to the background, We displays them far more openly, and the concept itself is far less realistic.  Another notable difference between We and most other dystopian novels is that the protagonist, D-503, isn’t particularly sympathetic.  In contrast to Winston, who betrays his party early and often, D-503 is constantly looking for a way to undermine his own betrayal and return things to how they were before he met I-330.   Finally, the third primary difference is tone.  Yamyatin’s novel isn’t quite as serious nor gritty  as Orwell’s—if anything, it’s really more a satire, and it’s a satire of the best kind.

It’s amazing that this novel was written as early as it was; inside its pages, Zamyatin mounts a decimating attack on Soviet Totalitarianism, utterly goring the very concept.  For that alone, it’s an incredibly important novel to read.

However, due to this more satirical nature, We doesn’t have quite the same sense of fierce, torturous horror as 1984, though several sequences toward the end come close; this isn’t a flaw, simply a difference in style.  1984 was crafted to make the reader scared, angry and furious – to force the reader into action, to open their eyes.  We’s goal is similar, but different.  Yamyatin wants to make the reader shocked, he wants to make the leader scoff mockingly, and then, finally…he wants to make the reader think.

Unlike the many dystopian novels it inspired, We isn’t anywhere near as despairing – but it isn’t entirely hopeful either, and this dualism is exactly what makes it interesting.  As I-330’s quote at the beginning of this blog states, the central theme of We is that “There is no final revolution.”  We doesn’t paint a picture of a world that will forever become worse and worse, but it also doesn’t imply that humanity will always overcome all evils and be prosperous.

No, the statement that We makes is far more complicated, and far more realistic.  We shows us that the only constant in life—and civilization—is change.  The irrational nature of “the square root of negative one” – a recurring motif within the narrative – demonstrates that  that there will always be things that break the rules, things that can’t be controlled, can’t be understood.  Governments will always be overthrown.  Systems will always be replaced.

Yevgeny’s novel has a remarkably complex message –and that message firmly cements the book as one of the most unique and important sci-fi novels of all time.

-Nicholas Conley

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10 thoughts on “The Complexities of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We.”

  1. Great thing that you wrote about this book! I recently readit and was pleasantly surprised. In an unpleasant way, because of the massage.
    I guess you understand what I mean.
    The reason I might like this a bit more than 1984 is because D really tries to keep things normal and steady – the way he knows his life. However unrealistic other parts may have been, I do believe this is really realistic. The need to change and at the same time the need for everything to stay the same way.

    Next to that, I somehow found that letters, D and I, fit the characters very well. This probably sounds weird but it felt like the perfect sounds for those two…

    • I know what you mean; D is very smooth, round, almost circular – but not quite, there’s still some edges there, a bit like his “ape-like hands” don’t quite match up with the rest of his being. I, on the other hand, is sharp, edge, simple – very much to the point.

      And yes, D’s reactions to the the events of the book are extremely understandable, and consistent with the complexity of the novel itself. D isn’t quite another cog in the machine (as much as he might like to be), but he isn’t quite a revolutionary either. He has the potential to BE one, certainly, but in the end, his need to maintain normalcy – the fact that he values safety over liberty – truly is his undoing; as a being who has been programmed since birth to embrace his mathematical society, it makes sense that he would immediately try to reject anything that went against it.

      • I just saw I worote ‘massage’ instead of ‘message’… But you got my point :).
        The weird thing about those letters fitting the characters, is that it’s a translation, and the Russian letter ‘i’ doesn’t like I. The sound still fits, but the symbol doesn’t cover her as much as the Latin I does, I believe.

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