We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

A review of the literary science-fiction novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin and translated by Clarence Brown.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin and translated by Clarence Brown is set in OneState, a future totalitarian society where the survivors of a two hundred year war live their concise and timetabled lives under the absolute rule of the mighty Benefactor. D-503 is the engineer of the Integral, a spacecraft designed to search for life in the universe and enlighten them in the ways of the mathematically infallible happiness of OneState.

To place the beneficial yoke of reason round the necks of the unknown beings who inhabit other planets—still living, it may be, in the primitive state known as freedom.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, translated by Clarence Brown

The story is told through the written entries of D-503, which he intends to be delivered into space on the Integral to inform extra-terrestrial life of the perfect society of OneState, and is therefore directed at the reader.

We soon learn that D-503, and the thousands of other ‘numbers’ living in OneState, have been brought up, generation after generation, to believe they are merely expendable cogs within the great community machine that is their ‘utopian’ society. For D-503, because he is an engineer, he has a built-in need to analyse everything he sees and everyone he encounters, fitting them into formulas and equations, breaking them down into elements in order to understand them, because that is simply the only way he knows of to process information.

The millions of ‘numbers’ in OneState all live to the same ‘table of hours’, allowing them in their entirety to get up from bed at the very same time each day, eat at the same time, work at the same time, exercise at the same time, and go to bed at the same time. But two hours a day the ‘numbers’ are allowed to have a taste of independence in a personal hour both before dinner and before bed, where they can either stay in their homes or walk the immaculate streets with thousands of other bald headed, blue uniformed numbers, marching to the beat of the OneState anthem. They have sexual partners ‘assigned’ to them, and have to buy tickets in order to have sex with them—or to have sex with any other number they choose—in advance of ‘sex day,’ the day when ‘numbers’ are allowed to lower the blinds in their all-glass apartments during personal hour.

Very early on in the novel we notice that D-503 has a tendency to let his mind wander in a way that the Benefactor and the Guardians of OneState would not approve of or tolerate. He has a side of him, a ‘primitive’ side he absolutely loathes, that increasingly questions every part of his totalitarian existence. He also has a sense of pride in being the head builder of the INTEGRAL, something he knows shouldn’t matter since he is just another bolt in a society machine. But there are a few human impulses that even this severe way of living could not entirely dissolve—curiosity, desire, and jealousy—three emotions that most of the ‘numbers’ can’t comprehend, but which all play fundamental roles in the evolution of the plot of We.

While reading this intriguing story I often felt an un-nerving feeling that something even more disturbing than the possibility of this oppressive future for the human race was somehow lingering in the pages. The narrative of D-503 is unsettling, not only because of how this story is told in a collection of notes and observations intended to be read by an alien race, but also because he is very much of two minds; one for the brilliance of OneState, and one very much against it due to a growing longing for a life he instinctively feels he should have. D-503 has inner conflict and turmoil over his own reasoning and conclusions, constantly wondering whether it is the primitive or the evolved side of him that is making the decisions, and ultimately questioning which side of himself he should listen to. This confusion and lack of clear answers has an immersive effect and helps fortify a relationship between the reader and the characters, a technique that gets stronger as the text goes on.

We brings to the forefront our natural desire, as a society, to be safe. The life depicted in the fictional society of OneState is actual quite a plausible possibility for our future. We are already heavily monitored in the developed world, and as technology continues to advance, will we be able to draw the line when our lives become too restricted? Or will we be content with our limitations, as it brings with it happiness in predictability and security?

We was written around 1920, first published in 1924, and translated into several languages, but wasn’t to be published in Zamyatin’s home country of Russia until 1988. Zamyatin’s oppressive fiction and ideas of absolute freedom made him a highly inconvenient citizen of both the Tsarist and the communist despotisms, who both had him exiled.

The story of We remains relevant nearly a century after it was first written, due to its exploration of the essence of human nature, and how easily our ideals and lives can be moulded by those with power, into a state where we are not only aware of the existence of our social restrictions but believe we are happier with them.

We is considered to be the origin of the modern dystopia, with George Orwell recognising his debt to Zamyatin for his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

We isn’t the type of book I would usually read, being that it was first written in Russian and is almost a hundred years old. But if you’re are a fan of dystopian fiction and are interested in discovering the stories that paved the way for popular dystopian novels such as the Delirium Trilogy by Lauren Oliver, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and even films such as The Matrix, then you might be quite taken by this critically acclaimed dystopian novel.

Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.

Join the Discussion

Please ensure all comments abide by the Thanet Writers Comments Policy

1 Comment

  • 2

    Thanks, I had never heard of ‘We’ or the author before, but it sounds still relevant today. North Korea comes to mind first, but there are other countries whose citizens are brought up to live in a very orderly fashion. Perhaps we would not want to sacrifice our freedom of expression for a secure, clean, tidy state where we knew exactly what was expected of us.

Add a Comment