Love and Empathy in ‘We’: Rebellion against the One State

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

By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.University of Connecticut

In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, there is a dystopic vision of the future, described by an enthusiastic citizen. The One State controls all aspects of the life of its citizens who are known by numbers. The ‘numbers’ eat petroleum-based cubes, sleep, wake and work in glass cubes, and need a coupon for sex. In a state where the ‘numbers’ reject art, creativity and freedom, what can bring about a revolution? Is love the answer?

Disciplined people in line
The dystopic world of We is inhabited by obedient people leading strictly ordered lives. (Image: Negro Elkha/Shutterstock)

The Introduction of Illicit Love

In the One State, procreation is absolutely controlled by the state, which makes decisions using the techniques of animal husbandry to devise excellent genetic matches for its numbers. And sex is a leisure activity, encouraged in appropriate moderation, and each number is seen as a commodity available to each other number. One need only apply for a pink coupon.

The novel’s momentum lies in the complicated response of the narrator D-503 to I-330, a female number who approaches him erotically. I-330 is completely different from any female number D-503 has ever known. She wants to see him at non-leisure times, and she even has one of her friends who is a doctor write a false medical excuse for them both.

Learn more about free will and dystopia.

Is It Really Love?

heart shape on a graph
D-503’s mathematically logical mind is unable to conceptualize love. (Image: elysart/ Shutterstock)

By having sex without a coupon, D-503 and I-330 commit a theft—a theft of their work time from the State. As D-503 writes in his journal, “There was no pink coupon, no accounting, no State, not even myself.” The word ‘myself’ is significant. In the context of the One State, with its million-headed body, the concept of a self is liberating. In fact, it is by connecting with another number through illicit sex that leads D-503 to see himself as an individual. Is the novel, then, really about love? Well, it’s hard to say. D-503 feels something for I-330 that he has never felt before. He doesn’t conceptualize it as love.

D-503 sees his own actions only with confusion, confusion about why he suddenly wants something more than to be part of the million-headed organism that provides peace and security. For D-503, what he feels for I-330—a new sense of self or a nascent sense of love or a surging desire for revolution—whatever it is, it terrifies him.

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

A Utopia Gone Wrong

And probably, the relationship isn’t about love for I-330 either, since she is involved in a revolution in which the revolutionaries plan to steal the Integral—the spaceship designed by the One State to expand its domain through space—and prevent it from its mission of spreading rationality throughout the universe.

When she sees D-503’s hairy hands, she thinks he might be recruitable. And certainly, as the Builder of the Integral, he is an ideal addition to their group. The link between sex and revolution is, therefore, very clearly laid out, and it’s a link that’s regularly developed in utopian as well as dystopian writing.

Which brings us to the very central issue of satire in this novel. The satire, obviously, is broad; pervasive. There’s no way we’re supposed to read about the delightful chewing of petroleum cubes and poems about mathematics without a derisive snort. D-503’s world is clearly a utopia gone wrong. It is utopia taken to the point of totalitarianism, with all the loss of self and loss of meaning that entails.

The Dulling of Empathy

Certainly, we could imagine readers of We being just as prone to act— politically and socially—as readers of utopia, perhaps not because the novel has made them think, as utopias often do, but because the novel has made them feel. At the same time, We, like most dystopias, breaks with the utopian convention of using a visitor as the main point of identification, providing instead an actual member of the society as the main point-of-view character.

So, what do we do with D-503’s journal and the satire that resides between his naïve representation of his world and our own more cynical, worldly perspective on what we would consider a dystopia? We are somewhat engaged with D-503’s plight, but our reactions aren’t quite so visceral. Maybe it’s the name: someone named D-503 is just less real than someone named Marx or Smith. The turning of people into numbers has an impact.  

robotic office workers' army
The narrator of We is dehumanized by the mere fact that he is known by a number not a name. (Image: Tatiana Shepeleva/Shutterstock)

As  readers  of  We,  we  find  our  empathy dulled by the fact that D-503 does seem like a cog in the machine,  an interchangeable number with whom we can’t fully identify. The joke, then, is partly on us. By immersing ourselves in an extreme totalitarian society, we lose some of our compassion, some of the power of identification that comes from a highly developed sense of self.

Learn more about totalitarian dystopia.

A Summary of We

Let us summarize a few key points about We. First, it shows that a dystopia, like most utopias, reflects a historical moment—here, we have a specific anxiety about totalitarianism, expressed by an author in Russia in the early 1900s. Second, it includes a mix of satire and earnestness, heavy on the satire. Third, it is didactic, although perhaps more subtly so than most utopias.

The ending of We is devastating. But, though things do not end well for our revolutionary lovers, we don’t necessarily weep. The whole project was always an intellectual exercise, an appeal to our cognition more than our emotion. With the satire so broad, the numbers never became quite real.

Common Questions about Love in We

Q. What is the central event that moves the action in We?

We’s momentum lies in the complicated response of the narrator D-503 to I-330, a female number who approaches him erotically.

Q. What is the effect of the act of illicit sex on D-503?

It is by connecting with another number through illicit sex that leads D-503 to see himself as an individual.

Q. Why is it difficult to empathize with the narrator in We?

As readers of We, we find our empathy dulled by the fact that D-503 seem like a cog in the machine, a ‘number’ with whom we can’t fully identify. By immersing ourselves in an extreme totalitarian society, we lose some of our compassion, some of the power of identification that comes from a highly developed sense of self.

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