Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We is not as well known as George Orwell’s 1984, but it served as inspiration for Orwell’s novel. Both concern totalitarian societies ruled by iron-handed leaders. For We, this is “One State” ruled by the “Benefactor.” For 1984, it is “Oceania” ruled by “Big Brother.” In both, the citizen is under the ever-watchful eye of the state. In 1984, this is because of pervasive video technology. In We, it is because all buildings are made of transparent glass. And in both novels, the protagonist becomes momentarily free because of love for a woman, only to be dragged back into line by the state at the end.
Zamyatin was Russian, and he wrote We in the early years of the Soviet Union, though it was first published in England in 1924. In fact, Soviet authorities didn’t allow it to be published there officially until 1988. To an extent, therefore, it can be read as a critique of Soviet totalitarianism. Soviet authorities harassed Zamyatin sufficiently that he requested permission to leave the country and went into exile in 1931. He died in 1935.
And yet, as translator Clarence Brown makes clear in his Introduction, the setting could just as well be England’s industrialized north, where Zamyatin had spent two years building ice-breaker ships during World War I. In both England and the USSR, the time-and-motion studies of Frederick Winslow Taylor were in vogue. Taylor taught that industrial workers use of time and their bodily movements on the shop floor should be calculated precisely for the most efficient production. In that sense, human workers were just parts in an industrial machine, a theme that pervades We. Indeed, the novel explicitly mentions “Taylorism.” Every activity of the day is rigidly outlined in the “Table of Hours.” The depersonalization of human beings is so thorough that the novel refers to them as “Numbers.” The narrator and protagonist of the story is D-503, for example.
Of course, persons—as opposed to Numbers—are bound by what C. S. Lewis called “the tether and pang of the particular.” They long for love and personal intimacy. They form families. They make babies. Not for nothing, then, marriage is proscribed by OneState. Sexual access to any other Numbers is guaranteed by the state. One simply has to apply for a ticket. Reproduction is carefully controlled. What upsets this control in D-503’s case is his love for I-330, which surprises even him. And he is further surprised by O-90’s love for him, so strong that she desires to have his baby without OneState’s permission. Love, marriage, and family, it seems, are always a threat to totalitarians because it creates an identity and allegiance that supersedes the state’s authority.
Moreover, OneState is opposed to independent thinking by individuals. This is why I-330 is such an intriguing character. She dresses as she wants, plays music that she likes, and leads an organization (“Mephi”) that desires freedom from OneState. This kind of independent thinking is why OneState eventually forces all Numbers to undergo lobotomies to remove their “imagination.”
In the end, OneState wins, at least in D-503’s case, just as Winston Smith returns to—or is returned to—the fold in 1984. While I think 1984 reads better, I enjoyed We too. Or perhaps enjoyed isn’t the right word. I learned from it. The human person is not a machine and cannot be perfected through scientific management by all-powerful experts. The tether and pang of the particular is too strong.
Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, trans. Clarence Brown (New York: Penguin, 1993).
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