Life Under the Bell Jar: Surveillance and the New World Order in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We”

“There are books of the same chemical composition as dynamite.  The only difference is that a piece of dynamite explodes only once, while a book explodes a thousand times”  – Yevgeny Zamyatin

In this second post on dystopian literature, I’m going to be introducing you to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s influential Russian novel, We.

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel, We, exemplifies the type of book that explodes a thousand times and continues to have repercussions.  As one of the earliest and most influential examples of modern dystopian fiction, it is appropriate that we begin the semester with this novel.  As you read other, more familiar dystopian novels and as you familiarize yourself with dystopian films, you will begin to see how Zamyatin’s novel has shaped the genre as a whole.  I will briefly enumerate some of the places where Zamyatin’s influence on later dystopian fiction can be seen at the end of this post, but first I want to provide a very brief introduction Zamyatin himself.

Yevgeny Zamyatin 1844-1937

Like his protagonist, D-503,Yevgeny Zamyatin was, by training, a naval engineer.  More importantly, Zamyatin was a revolutionary and an author.  As a fiercely independent author, who refused to compromise his artistic principles, Zamyatin faced censorship first from the Czarist government and then, after the Revolution, from the Bolsheviks.

In We, Zamyatin predicted the social repression of Stalin’s Soviet Union.  Unlike D-503, who becomes a machine of the One State, Zamyatin was permitted to leave the Soviet Union.  He died in exile in France.  We, which was initially banned in the Soviet Union, was finally published there in 1988.


We, set in an unidentified future, describes life within the One State. The One State consists of a single city entirely enclosed by the Green Wall.  Inside the city, citizens live and work in glass buildings, which makes possible constant surveillance.  Instead of having a name, each citizen is identified by a letter followed by numbers.  Alphanumeric codes beginning with consonants identify males, while alphanumeric codes beginning with vowels identify females.

Life in the One State is regulated right down to the number of chewing What is Taylorismmovements each citizen must make before swallowing food (Zamyatin 1972, 102).  Citizens live their lives in accordance to the schedule established by the Table of Hours.  The long term consequence of the absence of personal time is that citizens cease to see themselves as individuals and instead view themselves as cogs in the machinery of the One State.  As the protagonist, D-503, explains:

Every morning, with six-wheeled precision, at the same hour and the same moment, we—millions of us—get up as one.  At the same hour, in million-headed unison, we start work:  and in million-headed unison we end it.  And, fused into a single million-handed body, at the same second, designated by the Table, we lift our spoons to our mouths (Zamyatin 1972, 12).

Conformity in the One State is strengthened by the absence of goods that might help citizens personalize their lives.  Everyone wears unifs, or uniforms, and everyone apparently has access to the same frugal material goods.  Food is a synthetically produced petroleum product.  (Note that the use of petroleum as the source of food suggests how very machinelike the citizens have become).  Of course, the conformity of the citizens means that the State produces few artists or thinkers.  A few poets, like R-13, are maintained to create propaganda for state occasions (which, ironically fits with the role assigned to poets in Plato’s Republic, and, with the limited role writers and artists were expected to play in the Soviet Union) but it is evident that very little creativity actually goes into the poetry they produce.  Indeed, music in the One State is composed according to mathematical formulas and is produced by a machine called a musicometer (Zamyatin 1972, 16-17).

Along with giving up possession of material goods, the citizens of the One State have also, for the most part, given up any claim on each other.  Families no longer exist.  Indeed, the Lex Sexualis mandates that “Each number has a right to any other number, as to a sexual commodity” (Zamyatin 1972, 21).  D-503 describes the organization of sexual activity as follows:

You are carefully examined in the laboratories of the Sexual Department; the exact content of sexual hormones in you blood is determined, and you are provided with an appropriate Table of sexual days.  After that, you declare that on your sexual days you wish to use number so-and-so, and you receive your book of coupons (pink).  And that is all.  (Zamyatin 1972, 22).

Along with regulating sexual activity, the One State also determined who could have children through Maternal and Paternal Norms (Zamyatin 1972, 14).  The purpose of these laws, of course, was to ensure that children met standards established by the state.  Even when two numbers did meet the Maternal and Paternal Norms,  the resulting child belonged, not to them, but to the state.  The One State’s policy of separating children from their biologic parents and raising them ensured that each citizen would, from birth have the same experiences and upbringing.  Obviously this would permit the state to inculcate shared values and perceptions.  Beyond  that, the state’s assumption of the role of parent assured that loyalty was primarily directed toward the state.  The fact that D-503 sees himself in a familial relationship with R-13 and 0-90 suggests, however, that the state has been unsuccessful in eliminating vestigial ideas of family.

I want to digress here to note that control of the family, or even the elimination of the family, is a major concern in many dystopian narratives.  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, for example, takes the abolition of the family one step further than Zamyatin’s We.  In Brave New World, children are not even biologically conceived.  Instead, infants are “constructed” in enormous factories, and, instead of being born, they are decanted.  So far removed has the society of Brave New World become from reproduction and family that the words “mother” and “father” are considered vulgar and obscene.  Sex, in Brave New World, has been reduced to a merely recreational activity, and, in order to discourage attachments that might pose a threat to the state, monogamy is treated like an aberrant behavior.    Similarly, in George Orwell’s 1984, family structures have been significantly reduced.  Instead, in both 1984 and in the movie Equilibrium, the state becomes the titular family member:  in 1984, Big Brother and in Equilibrium, father.  Significantly, female familial titles are frequently absent in dystopian fiction.  This absence signals that dystopian fiction is frequently (although not always) patriarchal in nature.  The patriarchal fantasy is realized as a male society in which females are marginalized.  Often times, however, as in the cases of 1984’s Winston Smith, Brave New World’s John Savage and We’s D-503, the lack of family becomes an obsession for the main character.  Thus, when D-503 realizes that he may have been tricked both by the One State and the rebels, he thinks to himself,

If I had a mother, like the ancients: mine—yes, precisely—my mother.  To Whom I would be—not the Builder of the Integral, and not number D-503, and not a molecule of the One State, but a simple human being—a piece of herself, trampled, crushed, discarded… (Zamyatin 1972, 216)

This wistful statement indicates D-503’s desire to be more than a pawn.  Instead, he longs to be unconditionally loved for himself.  In most dystopian societies, however, individuals are not viewed as inherently valuable.  Any value assigned to them stems from their function within the State.

In light of the degree of enforced conformity, it is unsurprising that the citizens of the One State view freedom as evil.  As D-503 explains,

Freedom and crime are as linked as indivisibly as… well, as the motion of the aero and its speed:  when its speed equals zero, it does not move; when man’s freedom equals zero, he commits no crimes.  That is clear.  The only means of ridding man of his crime is ridding him of freedom.  (Zamyatin 1972, 35)

The only possible way, of course, of removing freedom is to transform humans into machines.  To accomplish this, humans must lose their souls.  For many citizens of the One State, the dehumanizing effects of constant surveillance combined with the required collectivism prevent a soul, or individual identity from ever developing.  D-503, however, is apparently naturally resistant to this form of dehumanization.  His subconscious resistance is marked in the very first lines of We, where he promises to tell his readers what he thinks, and then, embarrassed by this reference to himself, corrects himself to say that he writes what the society in its entirety thinks.  As the narrative progresses, D-503’s sense of his individuality grows.  Eventually, seeking help for what he assumes is an illness, he is informed by a doctor that he, in fact, has an incurable soul.  The doctor’s claim that possession of a soul is incurable is in fact only partially true.  Initially the only means of removing a soul is by killing the patient.  Later, the doctors of the One State discover that by surgically removing imagination, citizens can be perfected to the status of machines (Zamyatin 1972, 180).  D-503 describes those who undergo the operation, noting that “These are not people—they are humanoid tractors” (Zamyatin 1972, 189).  Significantly, while D-503 acknowledges that these “humanoid tractors” have achieved machinelike perfection, he and the other citizens of the One State are unwilling to undergo the surgery.  As he explains, “I saw it clearly:  everyone was saved but there was no salvation for me.  I did not want salvation….” (Zamyatin 1972, 186).  In the end though, D-503 is forcibly “saved” by the state.  The language in his final entry is an appropriate reflection of an individual devoid of imagination and emotion.

In my next post I will be discussing the methods, particularly that of surveillance, used by the One State to end freedom.  I will also be focusing on the use of religious imagery in We.


It should be obvious from what I’ve written that subsequent dystopian fiction and cinema is heavily indebted to We.  I’m going to enumerate just a few of the things that subsequent authors and movie producers have borrowed from Zamyatin’s work:

  • 1984’s Big Brother is modeled on The Benefactor.
  • Zamyatin’s conception of a walled-in society is mimicked in the movies Logan’s Run and The Truman Show.
  • The concept that the State, not parents, own children is also evident in the novels Brave New World and Walden Two, and, to a lesser extent, in The Handmaid’s Tale.
  • Social engineering, or the conditioning of humans, is the major theme of Walden Two and Brave New World.
  • Eugenics plays a role in the novel, Brave New World, and in the movie, Gattaca.
  • The use of numbers in place of personal names is evident in George Lucas’s movie THX 1138.
  • Margaret Atwood’s use of journals in The Handmaid’s Tale to narrate her protagonist’s story, and George Orwell’s use of journals in 1984 mirror Zamyatin’s use of journals  in We.
  • George Orwell copies the love affair between D-503 and I-330 in 1984.
  • Surveillance is one of the major themes in many dystopian movies and novels including 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Truman Show and Equilibrium.
  • The replacement of human emotion with cold rationality is a theme in Equilibrium (where the state medicates everyone to prevent them from feeling anything) and in Alphaville, where illogical behavior is punishable by death.
  • D-503’s equation of freedom with crime resonates with the ideas of other characters in science fiction.  The Judge Dredd comic strip, for example, focuses on a futurist society where armed “judges” are authorized to act as police, judges, juries and executioners.  One of the judges, Judge Death, studies criminals to identify what they all share in common.  He eventually realizes that the only commonality among criminals is that they are all alive.  From this he concludes that total justice can only be achieved by completely exterminating all life everywhere.


    Judge DeathJudge Death as depicted in Judge Dredd Megazine #207

Source:  Wikipedia








Work Cited

Zamyatin, Yevgeny.  We. Translated by Mirra Ginsburg. Avon Books, 1972.

Author: mdamey

I am an English professor with expertise in medieval and modern retellings of the stories of King Arthur. I have taught high school, college, and university courses over a a range of topics including Utopian and Dystopian fiction, Harry Potter, Science Fiction and Fantasy literature.

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