The godfather of dystopia
I just finished reading We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin. I could try to sound impressive and say that I read the novel because I enjoyed (is enjoyed the right word for a dystopian novel?) Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, and because most literary critics contend that both novels are influenced by We, it was almost my responsibility to check it out for myself. But I’ll be honest: I’ve always wanted to read a novel written by someone named Yevgeny.
I’ve wanted to write a comparison between Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World for some time now. And since I now have the so-called godfather of dystopian novels to add to the comparison, now seems like as good a time as any.
We is written as a diary (which I learned today is called a epistolary novel) and follows the protagonist named D-503, a mathematician working on building a rocket called The Integral. The world he lives in is a glass city which is part of the United State (singular) where there is no privacy, no freedom, and no unhappiness. The city is surrounded by the Green Wall which keeps it clear of unregulated wildlife, and no one goes beyond the Green Wall. People are known only as numbers; lovers and partners are assigned by the State; every minute of every day is regulated by the Tables, timetables for each citizen. The government is led by The Well-Doer, and is enforced by the Guardians, and that’s pretty much all you know about them. The short synopsis is that D-503 meets and falls in love with a woman named I-330 and that leads him to question the society he lives in.
We has more in common with Brave New World than Nineteen Eighty-Four, for one main reason: the protagonist starts the novel believing in the utopia, without seeing the dystopia. As a counterexample, think about the beginning of Nineteen Eighty-Four: Winston knows something is wrong, something is broken. He has memories of a better society, and is (passively, at least) looking for a way out. Nobody’s really happy in Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Oceania; everyone is just existing. The characters in Brave New World, on the other hand, begin the novel believing their life is pretty darn good. This is actually a pretty a good way of separating dystopian novels into two groups: We and Brave New World belong in a “utopia becomes dystopia” group, while Nineteen Eighty-Four and contemporaries like The Handmaid’s Tale and to a lesser extent The Hunger Games belong in the “dystopia sucks, am I right?” group. This allows We (and Brave New World) to be more satirical: their society’s absurdities aren’t absurd to them, and the fact that they’re not in on the joke makes it funny to us.
It sort of stands to reason that the societies in We and Brave New World are further developed than the ones in Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale. The former societies have had more time to brainwash the citizens into believing that their way of life is not only better, but pretty much the only logical or feasible option. I’ve often said that despite predating Nineteen Eighty-Four by seventeen years, Brave New World is the natural extension of Nineteen Eighty-Four. And while We lacks the technology of either Brave New World or even Nineteen Eighty-Four, We belongs after the other two novels in terms of societal traction; conversely, more than the other two novels, We has forgotten the previous society, erased it from its consciousness. Additionally, We’s protagonist is by far the most devoted protagonist to his society: it’s only a chance encounter with I-330 which sends him down the rabbit hole. And throughout the course of the plot, he’s looking for a way out: a way to return to the normal, the familiar.
The chance encounter with a mysterious woman is another trait that Nineteen Eighty-Four and We have in common. This similarity supports a theme: while these dystopian governments can control just about everything else, they can’t control human attraction and love. The two societies deal with this rebelliousness in a similar fashion: by the end of each novel, both protagonists are “cured” (for lack of a better word) without being martyrized.
We is the only novel of the three whose society requires so much uniformity, so little individualism, that its citizens aren’t even given names. Again, this sort of plays into the idea that the United State is further entrenched than Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Oceania or Brave New World’s World State. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Oceania is working on developing a new language called Newspeak, which removes unnecessary or redundant words. Winston has a conversation with one minor character who believes that as the Newspeak dictionary evolves, it would remove words rather than add them. And given enough time, there would only be one word; the society would have outgrown the need for any other words. This is sort of the same idea as removing citizen’s names in We: words (and names) are means of free expression, and getting rid of them gets rid of another avenue of free expression. (In fact, in the beginning of Nineteen Eighty-Four the fitness instructor on the Telescreen calls Winston to attention as “6079 Smith W!”. Is it so hard to imagine that eventually it’d just be “6079!”?)
Is it significant that these novels share many of the same things? Somewhat. Aldous Huxley and then George Orwell took a lot of inspiration from We, but the societies they created each had their differences. Yet ultimately they arrived at many of the same themes and fatal flaws. Each author is clear in their belief that a utopian society without freedom cannot exist: by the end of each novel it’s implied that the society wouldn’t last, that it was crumbling or had fatal flaws which would be exploited eventually. Each of these authors aren’t warning us about the dangers of a promise of utopia; they’re showing that a utopia populated by humans is an eventual impossibility.