We by Yevgeny Zamyatin


Written by Vaishnavi Giridaran
Note: This was written based on Mirra Ginsburg's translation of We. While the thematic and critical elements are the same from version to version, names and titles are often slightly different.

Written in the early twentieth century, We (sometimes known as My), by Russian author, Yevgeny Zamyatin, can be counted among the first of the dystopian warning novel genre. Zamyatin wrote the novel in Russian 1921 and the first English translation was released and has been appreciated by the West since 1924. But only in 1988 was this novel published in the original Russian words of Zamyatin in his home country. A politically charged novel, We, offers its readers a glimpse into two worlds: Zamyatin's wanrings and premonitions for Russia and the inspiration of better known novels such as 1984 and Brave New World that treated neatly within the path cleared by We's footsteps.

About Zamyatin


Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin was born in the Russian town Lebedeyan in 1884. Remembered primarily as an unrelenting critic of government, Zamyatin was both multitalented and multifaceted. Zamyatin pursued the socially respectable career of naval engineering through his years of education, but chose to associate with the Bolshevik Party and in 1905, he was arrested and exiled for his suspicious and revolutionary activities. He spent the rest of his exile also living in Finland and illegally in St. Petersburg. He graduated from college only to be imprisoned and exiled again in 1911 for the questionable viewpoints expressed in his fiction work ("Yevgeny Zamyatin").

He received amnesty in two years and went to England as a naval architect responsible for taking care of the construction of Russian icebreakers.Zamyatin also made time during his stay to write satire about the English. Zamyatin returrned to Russia and continued to publish his work, but was unable to stay out of trouble. He wrote a controversial short story about the racism and barbarian behaviors of the military that caught the government's eye. He was tried but managed to escape serious consequences.

Still eager to write, Zamyatin took on the pseudonym of M. Platonov and wrote short essays for Socialist newspapers, edited journals, and taught writing classes.By now, Zamyatin has made a complete switch to a career as a writer. Zamyatin was eager for revolutions, but was critical about their execution and was arrested in 1919 and 1921. He accused the government of stifling free speech and expression and over the course of the 1920's, the government branded him as a heretic and banned most of his works. Zamyatin finished his first and only full novel, We, in 1921, but because of his strained relations with government officials, We was banned even before completion as officials discovered excerpts.

As he was forced out of positions and ran out of options, Stalin granted him exile in 1931, when Zamyatin moved to Paris. Even in his last days, he continued to write, but passed away in 1937 from a heart attack while living in poverty. Unfortunately, Zamyatin garnered his most praise and recognition posthumously and never had the chance to see he novel, We, published in his country in its original glory (Beehler 50-3).

Character and Plot Overview



Major Characters


  • D-503 : D is the narrator of this novel and the builder of the spaceship, Integral, which is to be launched a short while after D begins to write. He writes this novel as an explanation of his society to any extraterrestrial life that is encountered. D is mathematician and understands his world around him through mathematic rationalizations.As the novel goes on, D-503 becomes more and more unreliable as a narrator.
  • O-90 : Towards the start of the novel, O is D's primary love interest and friends although he sees her childish and less intellectually stimulating as I-330.
  • I-330 : I-330 is a mysterious and beautiful woman that seduces D. D falls in love with her quickly and discovers her revolutionary ideas and association with the rebel group, Mephi. She leads him to question his life, his society, and his existence.
  • The Benefactor : The Benefactor is the leader of One State who is viewed by his citizens as both a leader and a god.

Minor Characters
  • R-13 : R is D's friend and one of the poets in One State. He, O, and D share a close friendship until D becomes involved with I-330, at which point he becomes estranged with all aspects of his previous life.
  • S - S is the doctor that tells D that he has a soul. D often associates his face to scissors.
  • U - U is a woman that sometimes brings letter to D, but grows to fancy him and wishes to help him out of his delirium. She betrays D and I-330 when the government is desperately searching for the Mephi and because they capture I-330, D seriously contemplates killing U, an act which is unthinkably barbaric in this society.

Plot

We is written as a series of journal entries by the main character, D-503, who is an important mathematician in One State. One State is getting ready to launch the spaceship and D-503, its builder, is excited to present his daily thoughts to any alien life forms that he may meet. One State is a futuristic world that has emerged after countless revolutions and D initially believes that the revolution that established the current government will be the last for mankind. The place is isolated from nature by means of a giant Green Wall and no outside or unwelcome forces act on One State. We are told that there was a Two Hundred Years War, which devastated large populations and the current government was able to survive because it picked up the pieces after the war ended.

The government began by eliminating hunger and ended up eventually eliminating love and desire. The members of One State live in glass enclosures where everyone can watch each other as no citizen has anything to hide. The people of One State are known as Numbers and their "name", which consists of a letter and a number corresponds with their residence. Their lives are ruled by the Table of Hours which keeps track of what everyone will do, where and for how long ion order to keep the society running along a perfect plan. The Numbers are allowed to "lower their shades" during prescribed and pre-approved Sexual days when they are entitled to have sexual relations with anyone they wish as long as they notify the government. No Number is denied the opportunity to be with any other Number as a means eliminating jealousy and competition.

Happily going on with his life, D-503's life is shook up when he meets a woman, I-330, who ignores the order that has been painstakingly established in One State. In One State, everyone's life is planned and scheduled right down to the very minute and sex is allowed but regulated. They have worked to eliminate desire and hunger and the energy once channeled towards religion is now contributing to patriotism. The numbers look to the Benefactor as a God like figure and there are gatherings to "vote" and celebrate which unify the people. D-503 sings his praises about this system until his meeting with I-330 begins challenging everything he understood.

D-503 descends into confusion and mathematical delirium as he tries frantically to get rid of the "soul" that he has developed. He no longer blends into the community and gets sucked into a revolutionary movement called the Mephi thorugh I-330. The Mephi hope to hijack the Integral and readers find that I-330 only seduced D-503 so that she could use him to get to the Integral. But, D becomes too obsessed to realize and his mental state follows a downward spiral which catches the attention of the government and leads him to a situation all too familiar to readers of traditional dystopias such as 1984 .

Historial Context


We sends clear messages about the Zamyatin's opinon of totalitarian government and the effects of such a government on a population. It is naturally assumed that Zamyatin drew inspiration from the way Russia was progressing and as a political critic and writer, fulfilled a duty by writing his own premonition of the government's results. While Russia's revolutions should be taken into account, readers should remember to separate the history from the novel and think of it only as an interesting supplement. As Zamyatin was writing, Russia was also going through a period of scientific and technological advancement, which provided the ominous foundation for the techonology governed One State in We. Technologically advanced dystopias written afterwards drew inspiration form We and this novel became linked, also, to the genre of science fiction (Hutchings).

Themes


Zamyatin's novel is analyzed far less than the books that it has inspired and oftentimes analyses of We are heavily based on comparisons with other novels.

The Individual and the State

D-503, over the course of the novel, battles with his development of a soul. His entries and thought processes have been examined from human psychological viewpoints to get a deeper understanding of his anguish. As D comes to term with the fact that he has a soul, rather than view himself as a revolutionary or rebel, he splits his personality in two: the first is the rational objective mathematician who is documenting the activities of the second, a man completely intoxicated with the ideas of I-330 and willing to risk anything to be with her. He considers himself disembodied from the other D because when he looks in the mirror, he sees a D that he doesn't identify as himself (McCarthy). At the same time, he cannot say that he is the old D because the is acknowledging One State's surveillance (should be subconscious) and having feelings for I-330, so he is consciously stuck in limbo.

After encounters with I-330, D even beings to feel that he is physically disembodied. During his sexual encounters with both I and O, he feels as though his hands (which he compares to paws) are not really his own. While D is separated into two personalities, D is also describes that he is severed from the single entity community that is One State. As D develops a soul and loses the ties that bound him to his old community, he, in a way, becomes dependent on I-330 and seeks to integrate himself into her, when in reality, he is only a tool to both One State and I-330. They simply use different ways to deceive him (Dennis).

Sex

Sex in We, Brave New World, and 1984 functions as an outlet through which the protagonist develops revolutionary political leanings. In each case, there is a rebellious character who becomes an object of lust for the previously meek protagonist. Breaking their society's sexual norms, this protagonist gives up their old values and conditioning to fulfill this desire. This passion awakens ideas of protest in the protagonist, who never had anything to love or fight for before meeting this new character. While this may or may not lead to some type of lov eor bond, the relationship itself awkens a new part of the protagonist. I-330 plays the same role as Lenina or Julia, shedding the same light on the saying "there's always a woman..." (Horan).

Surveillance

While Zamyatin did not imagine anything as chilling and nightmarish as Orwell's telescreen , the scenario in We must have proved to be sufficient inspiration for 1984. One State is a society that ,like most dystopias, is built based upon the power of surveillance. The member of One State all live in transparent glass buildings and their actions are always visible except on each person's designated Sexual Days, when, for a short period of time, they are permitted to lower their shades. The guardians are a subset of the number responsible for serving as a spies and police to make sure that nothing goes wrong in One State and each number is expected to report suspicious activity to a guardian.

In a way, this is a self enforcing system because it is very difficult for rebellion to grow. Every number is watched by every other number and even the guardians themselves are under scrutiny: as one scholar chooses to put it: "One State is nothing less than a penal colony where all serve equally as prisoners and prison wardens". The system works even better because the citizens find it difficult to find one entity that is the source of their oppression because the whole society functions as a surveillance unit (Amey).

Imagery

The Unknown X

D-503,an avid mathematical philosopher, understands his world through mathematics and explains his ideas to his readers through mathematical metaphors. The book is integrated by the recurring idea of 'X': a mathematician's metaphor for describing unknown and dynamic factors in his life. As D-503 figures out new things, other factors complicate his life, which he describes as effectively adding more X's to his equation. As a rational thinker, it is clear why D finds appeal organizing his thoughts into solvable equations, but as the novel progresses, the X changes into a second motif. As D develops a soul and exhibits delusional tendencies, the X becomes a symbol of truths that D has realized, yet cannot quite express. The confusion in D's mind itself becomes an X. D almost recognizes this when he writes:
"It's not that this X is within me (that cannot be), but simply that I fear an X may remain within you, my unknown readers."
While D may not have realized that inside him, at the time, were the beginnings of soul and imagination, it is likely that he may have had a suspicion. The X, which originally symbolized D's mathematical and rational thought patterns, now represents his growing confusion and doubt about society and his place in it.

The X image can also be used as a more literal and visual metaphor. Often, when describing I-330, D becomes confused and obsessed with certain features. He says: "I saw her eyebrows raised towards her temples at an acute angle, like the sharp horns of an X".

Cobwebs

Before D sinks into delirium and self-doubt, he associates his confusion with "cloudy, cobwebby...cross pawed X". The sub-motif of cobwebs recur later in the novel in some of D's more eccentric and dense entries. D often invokes the idea of cobwebs to represent situations beyond his control. The cobwebs function as both a metaphor for One State and the Mephi. D uses the idea of cobwebs to descibe the Benefactor's fingers and limbs and more broadly, to describe the hold that One State exerts over him. He also attributes cobweb images to I-330 and the Mephi's attempt to ensnare and control him for their purposes. Essentially, the cobwebs begin to symbolize the slavery that rules D's life as he begins to realize that he is only a pawn for both One State and the Mephi, both highlighting his entrapment and vulnerability. Unfortunately, all of these realizations are somewhat subconscious; D is never able to face them as he becomes completely deluded.

The Cross and Christianity

The last and most interesting of Zamyatin's imagery is the cross, which makes it appearances much later than other recurring images. In accordance with D's other recurring associations, the cross imagery arises from I-330, when D first uses it to describe her expression as she wonders about sharing the Mephi with D. Afterwards the cross imagery comes up continually in conjunction with I-330 and the Mephi, as Zamyatin spells out biblical associations for readers. I-330 (after being compared with the cross) questions whether D will remember her and be loyal to her before she decides to tell him about the Mephi. D's position can be compared to Peter the disciple as both of their loyalties face a test. The Christian references come full speed at this point as D compares the Day of Unanimity to Easter and looks upon I-330 on that day with descriptions of crosses. When the guardians capture some of the Mephi, the find twelve (like the apostles) and when the Benefactor intimidates D, there are allusions between D and Jesus.

In the end, however, it is I-330 who faces the crucifixion as the novel ends. D's journey ends closer to the strayed disciple. But it is argued that, unlike Peter's denial or Judas's betrayal, everything that happens to D is beyond his own control and is merely his bad luck. D's last reference to the cross relates to how the ancients used it to mark death: in a way this last reference is an ending because after the Great Operation, D no longer realizes his situation (Barratt).

The Scythian

In dystopian literature, readers often notice that the main characters are generally similar and the book follows a general theme in plot development. These themes started with Zamyatin and his idea of the Scythian:" a romantic revolutionary". He believed that every revolutionary must always aim for more than he can possibly achieve in his own life time; an idea which also figured a role in his life as a writer. He also challenged some of his comtemporaries' views on the scythian. His persistence with perpetual revolution left him unhappy towards the changes happening in Russian. Zamyatin wrote in an essay:
"This is the tragedy and the biter, racking happiness of the true Scythian: he can never rest on laurels, he will never be with the practical victors, with those who rejoice and sing 'Glory Be,'"
The over ambitious protagonist can also be found in dystopian and science fiction written decades after We (Borenstein).

Comparisons and Influence


We has certainly influenced many other novels as it was one of the first in both the genres of dystopian fiction and science fiction. There are clear connections between We and its successors, 1984 and Brave New World. These topics are more suited for exploration by the less seasoned reader. Unfortunately, many of the scholarly articles that consider We dismiss the simple comparisons between these novels and intend to carve their own path by seeking novel connections. Thus it becomes difficult for most readers to look too closely at such works because they are written by and for experts.

George Orwell, author of 1984, admitted to being influenced by Zamyatin's work because he wrote a review of the novel in French several years prior to teh publication on 1984. Upon questioning, he quickly admitted that he was quite familiar with We. However, Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, never admitted to being influence by We. He claimed that he had never heard of the novel until he was questioned about its similarites with his own novel. While Huxley's story is plausible and there is no proof that he was, in fact, influence by We, a subset of scholars in this genre agree that it is extremely likely that Huxley came across this book and was influenced when writing Brave New World as there is a long gap of time between the publication of 1984 and Brave New World (Hutchings).

Dostoeyevsky was Zamyatin's main philisophical influence in his writings. Dostoyevsky's "The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor" and "The Brothers Karmazov" explore the idea that it is impossible to achieve both complete freedom and happiness. This argument is manifested in We, through the two main opposing parties: the Mephi, who want total freedom for everyone but cannot promise happiness and One State, which offers happiness but no freedom. D is torn between these two extremes as a way of echoing Dostoyevsky's insight about totalitarian government systems. The ideas of rationality and finiteness prevalent in dystopias (such as "2+2=4" and D's preoccupation with i) also stems from Dostoyevskian ideas. Dostoyveksky's ideas have been the origin of nearly all dystopias; Zamyatin was the first to weave them into a story of warning (the modern dystopias) and all following works in the genre have been derivative of We (Barratt).

Personal Reflection


Caution: This includes a spoiler.

We
has met with a lot of critical acclaim as one of the pioneering novels in the growing genre of dystopian literature. While We garners nearly unanimous praise, it is still a lesser known book than others in the same genre. The opportunity to study this novel in detail is invaluble because there are not many American or English scholars that tackle this novel in depth. There is much work about the book in Russian and other languages, indicating that this book really has an international audience. Its fan base is generally made up of those who are very familiar with both dystopias and science fiction. The scholars, commentators and readers of We are part of a small, elite set.

We came before many of the better known derivative works, Brave New World and 1984. While scholars do not feel it is necessary to explain this idiosyncracy, as an average reader, I believe We 's relative under-recognition is due to its inaccessibility. We is difficult novel to read and an even more difficult novel to understand. Many of Zamyatin's messages and brilliant imagery and connections are hidden. While this may be regarded as the mark of a good writer, I feel that it works against We for a more average reader. Scholars and close readers are able to analyze the novel down to every last sentence, but to a reader who is looking for a book to pass the time, We hardly provides the entertainment and action that is desired. We's successors were able to incorporate Zamyatin's ingenious themes into a novel with greater attention to plot, so both the average reader and the critics were pleased.

In the first reading of this novel, even scholars will miss some Zamyatin's points and read straight past one of his esoteric allusions. As a reader who has only read this novel once, I can say that one of the main ideas that gets through to the reader is D's changing relationship with One State as he proceeds to develop a soul. D spends much time details the norms in One State and speaking volumes about the constancy of One State. Even in the beginnings of his confusion, he still insists,
"...in my last moment, I shall piously and gratefully kiss the punishing hand of the Benefactor. Suffering punishment is my right in relation to the One State and I shall not yield this right." (Zamyatin 114)
D realizes that his doings could get him in legal trouble, but he still appreciates One State and remains true to his conditioning.

As he develops a soul and by extension, imagination, D begins to contemplate the differences between "we" and "I", which gave him a way to split himself into the old D, the loyal member of One State, and the new D, the number that has developed a soul and has become a pawn of the Mephi. He actually makes a connection to Christianity (a major theme in the novel that may go unnoticed to a non-Christian or even first time reader) when he says "...this was only understood by the Christians, our only predecessors (however imperfect): humility is a virtue and pride is a vice; "We" is from God, "I" from the devil." (Zamyatin 128). Despite D's effort to understand his problems, he eventually succumbs to I-330's charm as she plans to wreak havoc on One State. D has no response to any of I-330's quips and he essentially becomes brainwashed by her without realizing.

Towards the end of the novel, D is helpless. While part of him may protest against his treachery towards One State, D states that he does not know what he wants (Zamyatin 162) and his only connection to reality is I-330. It takes the Great Operation to undo the damage caused by D's encounter with I-330, but One State is able to prevail, showing that victory lies in the hands to the side that is more effective in its brainwashing efforts.

We is a convincing dystopian warning and it is easy to see why the Russian government was quick to ban the book when the heard about its message. I appreciated We as a dystopian novel as well as an exploration of the human psyche.

References



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