Your Daily Dystopian History Lesson From Yevgeny Zamyatin: A Review of We
by Sally Feller
You know what’s nearly impossible? Trying to discuss any dystopian, or anti-Utopian, work without bringing other examples into the review: Brave New World, 1984, and the classic “Sally Feller ‘V for Vendetta’ Review.” The more chaotic our world is, the more common the dystopian themes are in our media. Movies like V for Vendetta, The Island, Aeon Flux and The Matrix all deal with the same ideas Zamyatin discusses in his breakthrough novel, We.
A teacher’s assistant for a literary classics course, I attempted to help freshman and sophomore engineering students grasp the concepts in We, and like to think that I managed fairly well.
Zamyatin, a disillusioned Bolshevik, completed his novel around 1920, but couldn’t get it published in the Russian market due to censorship from Lenin and later, Stalin. Consequently, English was actually the first language We was ever published in and the version I am reviewing, Mirra Ginsburg’s translation, is the most popular. The Kirkus Reviews says “As the first major anti-utopian fantasy…We has its own peculiar wryness and grace, sharper than the pamphleteering of 1984 or the philosophical schema of Brave New World, its celebrated descendants.” Now, obviously this quote was used to sell the book and is therefore about as slanted as you can get, but it holds a lot of truth. We appreciate Huxley’s Brave New World as the original dystopian work that has inspired imitators for decades since, but Zamyatin had written of a similar society nearly twelve years earlier.
While I would like to leave the history lesson here and spare you further pain, I can’t. One of the primary themes in We is the loss of history. Entire time periods are wiped out and altered by the “Thought Police” to maintain order and peace in the “One State.” But, let me start at the beginning.
D-503 is our main protagonist and builder of the “Integral,” a vaguely-described shuttle. The novel is, essentially, the diary of D-503, a mathematician and perfect citizen. The first entry is a “word for word” copy of an article written in the One State Gazette. The article is about D-503’s Integral: “You will subjugate the unknown beings on other planets, who may still be living in the primitive condition of freedom, to the beneficient yoke of freedom.” The article goes on to order the poets and artists of the One State to write work extolling the beauty and glory of the One State to send on the first trip of the Integral to “cosmic space.”
Almost immediately after D-503 records the paper’s “proclamation” he meets an intriguing woman, I-330, who bothers him because “…there was a certain strange, irritating X, which I could not capture, could not define in figures.” These are the first signs of doubt from D-503.
D-503 has dreams that disturb him. They bring up illogical images and thoughts that he feels are dangerous and need to be hidden. D-503 eventually gives in to the dreams, but only if they lead to progress, such as figures and formulas that will help him build the Integral. His doubts begin to take hold of him quickly, but it takes D-503 a bit longer to make the mental leaps required to overthrow his old ideas and have his own sort of revolution.
I-330 gains importance in the book and in D-503’s thoughts. As in many other dystopian works, the protagonist’s doubts are jump-started by a seductress; a woman who lives outside the boundaries controlled by the government. I-330 is a fabulous character of this sort. She’s brilliant, manipulative, sly, mysterious; a perfect framework for the many similar characters in later dystopian works.
The big ideas--freedom, love, free will—are integral in We, as they in any good dystopian work. D-503 demonstrates our tendency to consciously choose to act irrationally: we smoke, we drink, we do whatever yields the quickest and best results. There is, of course, a “charismatic” leader, The Benefactor. He wants to conquer nature and run the world rationally with science and figures, though he is, as is always the case, corrupt.
I realize this portrayal makes We sound as if it’s the same as any other dystopian work, but this would be misleading. The framework is the same, but the style is different. Rather than spelling out his philosophies to you, Zamyatin is more prone to present the reader with complex problems, and allow them to come to their own conclusions. The format of We allows the reader to see the One State through D-503’s eyes and his only, making it more accessible to the reader. Even Zamyatin’s decision to write the novel as a series of diary entries helps us understand the torment in D-503’s mind as he tries to grasp the new world I-330 introduces him to. If you’re a fan of these anti-Utopian stories and would like to check out the beginnings of the genre, pick this up. Since it’s 1970s publishing date in America, the book can be found at most bookstores.
June 19th, 2006