Dystopic Utopia in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s ‘We’

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: GREAT UTOPIAN AND DYSTOPIAN WORKS OF LITERATURE

By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.University of Connecticut

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We is a world of the future which most of the members, certainly its narrator, perceive as utopic. But the dissonance emerges in its absolute mathematical logic, which organizes the society; the world that we read about is a horrifying one for most readers. So, what is it that makes the world a utopia for the narrator, but is a dystopic vision for the modern reader?

Man sitting in a glass jar, working on a laptop.
The world imagined in We is met without complaint by the citizens, and is even considered utopic by them, but appears severely dystopic to us. (Image: Ollyy/Shutterstock)

The Setting and Context of We

We is set far in the future. One thousand years before the time of the novel, all the petty conflicts on Earth were subdued, and today everyone lives in complete safety and rationality in the One State, headed by the aptly named Benefactor. In this society, everyone’s needs are fully met. Each citizen, identified by a number, has food—petroleum-based cubes; shelter—a glass room of his or her own; and a well-organized life with the perfect balance between productivity and leisure.

Each number has the right to have a guest over to meet their sexual needs, at state-approved times upon issue of what is delicately called the pink coupon. To our narrator, named D-503, his society clearly represents the pinnacle of human achievement. It is utopia.

D-503 is an interesting guy. In most ways, he’s just like everybody else in the One State. He follows the Table of Hours to a tee, which means he gets up at the same time as everyone else. He eats breakfast at the same time as everyone else, using the recommended 50 chews per petroleum cube so that he is a perfectly balanced component to the perfectly oiled machine that makes up the One State populace.

Learn more about Yevgeny Zamyatin and dystopian uniformity.

The Narrator in We

Here’s what he says: “At the same hour, in million-headed unison, we start work; and in million-headed unison we end it.” D-503 also makes use of his two leisure hours each day—between 16 and 17, and again between 21 and 22—to do completely normal, state-approved activities like taking a stroll.

It sounds ridiculous, and hilarious, in a kind of sad way. But for D-503, the beauty of the State is clearly to be found in its boundaries, its clear limits. He likes the petroleum cubes and the unforgiving schedule, and even the exercises all the numbers do in the evening.

Many windows in a building of the brutalist architecture style.
The severe boundaries of life in the One State is accepted without reservation by the narrator of We. (Image: Juli Scalzi/Shutterstock)

There’s only one thing about D-503 that’s different. D-503 has hairy hands. It  bothers  him, but he muddles through. He doesn’t particularly want to be an individual, so he doesn’t give much thought to individual freedom; he’s just happy to be part of the million-headed body.

This is a transcript from the video series
Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of LiteratureWatch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Art and Nature in We

But what about art? D-503 doesn’t miss it a bit. He writes in his journal about 10 female numbers, lips parted with excitement, flowers swaying in the wind, which might seem kind of poetic, except he follows it up with a footnote:

Personally, I see nothing beautiful in flowers, or in anything belonging to the primitive world long exiled beyond the Green Wall. Only the rational and useful is beautiful: machines, boots, formulas, food, and so on.

Although the One State covers most of the Earth, there is a section beyond this perfect society, beyond the Green Wall. D-503 has never been particularly curious about it, and thinks of it only as a place where unattractive things—like flowers rather than machines—are found.

The Mathematics of Creativity in We

And, what about creativity? Well, it’s not that numbers of the One State aren’t creative, according to D-503. It’s just different now. In the old days, people were “able to create only by whipping themselves up to fits of inspiration—an unknown form of epilepsy.” In his society, creativity is much more controlled, which leads to better poetry. D-503 shares the first four lines of a contemporary poem called “Happiness”:

Two times two—eternal lovers;
Inseparable in passion four
Most flaming lovers in the world,
Eternally welded, two times two.

But the best part is D-503’s analysis of the poem. “The rest,” he says, “is in the same vein: on the wisdom and the eternal happiness of the multiplication tables.” To D-503, this poem is about math, not about love.

Learn more about Utopian science fiction.

A Beneficent Yoke of Rationality

Teenager with the head inside a birdcage
For the narrator of We, lack of freedom of the individual is seen as the only way to prevent crime. (Image: Valery Sidelnykov/ Shutterstock)

D-503 provides similarly un-nuanced reflections on freedom. When he learns that some numbers in the One State are plotting a liberation from the beneficent yoke of rationality, he is appalled by this criminal behavior.

Art, creativity, freedom—all have been carefully thought through in the One State, and D-503, at least, is confident that his society is on the right side of all these issues. But for the modern reader, the idea of the One State is a terrifying dystopia, not the enlightened utopia that the narrator thinks he lives in.

Utopia or Dystopia?

To the readers, it all sounds awful. It’s better than war and famine, of course, but still pretty horrifying. And, when put forth in earnest, kind of funny.

We can see that whether utopia and dystopia are complete opposites or simply terms we sometimes place in false opposition, they certainly share a strong potential for satire. The satire in We comes from the fact that all of the absurdities, all of its incongruities, are set into a single logical system that’s just crazy enough to be conceivable not as a comic projection, but as a possible horrifying, sinister, and kind of realistic future.

Common Questions about the Dystopic Utopia of We

Q. How are the needs of the people met in the novel We?

In the book We, each citizen, identified by a number, has food—petroleum-based cubes; shelter—a glass room of his or her own. Each ‘number’ can meet their sexual needs at state-approved times.

Q. How do the people of the One State in We partake of exercise?

In the afternoon between 4 and 5, and again between 9 and 10, the Music Plant played the ‘March of the One State’. During this time the ‘numbers’ of the One State would walk in even ranks, four abreast, stepping in time to the music, in pale blue uniforms, with golden badges on their breasts, bearing the State Number.

Q. What is the source of satire in the novel We?

The satire in We comes from the fact that all of the absurdities, all of its incongruities, are set into a single logical system that’s just crazy enough to be conceivable as a possible, horrifying, and realistic future.

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