We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

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When I mentioned at the beginning of the month that I don’t like science fiction, someone reminded me that “dystopias” are a type of science fiction. Since I have enjoyed the few dystopias I’ve read, I thought I should continue to give the genre a try.

In response to my post about Anthem, Stewart suggested I try We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which was written in the 1920s and was, essentially, the first dystopian novel. I enjoyed We and I can see how it was the first of many: all others that I’ve read do seem to echo it. I’m glad I read it. But I didn’t love reading We. To me it seemed overly “scientific” and political, and it was rather depressing overall. I suspect many books about dystopian societies are sad, but this one didn’t grasp me as others have.

Reading about Dysopia

Before I could write about this book, I thought I should define “dystopia,” since We may be considered the defining novel of the genre. According to Harmon and Holman (my in-house experts via my eighth edition of A Handbook to Literature), dystopia is literally “bad place.” I was surprised to see that, so I checked the dictionary:

dystopia, noun: 1 : an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives; 2: anti-utopia

Ok, so I guess the “depressing” feeling I got from We was appropriate, then. Harmon and Holman also suggest that dystopia applies to “imaginary worlds, usually in the future, in which present tendencies are carried out to their intensely unpleasant culminations” (page 171). (They also have a list of literature that I may have to read some day.)

Which leads me to the next term: Utopia. I recently got Utopia by Thomas More from the library because I’ve always wanted to read it, so maybe I can tell you better after I’ve read it. (Do you remember when they discussed it in the movie Ever After? I’ve always wanted to read Utopia because of that movie.)

Harmon and Holman define utopia as the “ideal imaginary world,” based on More’s book: “The world utopia is a pun on the Greek “outopia,” meaning “no place,” and “eutopia,” meaning “good place” (page 535). I love that play on words and I’d never have known it without looking it up!

One State in We

D-503 lives in the One State, and he is writing an epic ode dedicated to declaring the greatness of the One State. His world is one of mathematics and perfection: everything is in order always. As he writes his ode, we discover that everything of beauty is described in numbers and equations. D-503 cannot understand unordered or spontaneous beauty.

His world is changed when he meets a new woman, I-330. Supposedly, he has fallen in love. To me, it was only lust; I never was convinced that there was any substance in their “relationship.” Since D-503’s world is ordered and personal feelings of lust had been previously unknown to him, though, lusting after I-330 is quite a shock to him. I-330 is different; and she wants to stay different. D-503 cannot decide which direction to go: does he give in to this new, dangerous person? Or does he want to be true to his precious One State, for which he has built the Integral?

The One State was cruel and shocking. It certainly met the dictionary definition of “dystopia” in that the “humans” lived dehumanized lives. It was depressing to see how this was claimed to be

The author of We, Yevgeny Zamyatin, lived through the Soviet revolution. He was often jailed and punished for his outlandish (i.e., nonconforming) ideas and protests. We was one such protest, written in 1921. An English translation was published (1924) before a Russian edition was ever printed and it was never published in the Soviet Union 1988. (This information comes from the introduction to the Natasha Randall translation, as well as Wikipedia, which has many spoilers and obviously cannot be relied upon.)

In the end, I’m glad I read We for the historical and contextual value as a dystopia, but I didn’t love it. Unless I learn a lot more about the Soviet Union’s revolution, I probably won’t revisit this novel.

Have you read We? What did you think of it? As for dystopias, do you think they are always depressing? It’s been a while since I read many, so I guess I wasn’t expecting something quite so sad for this one.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed We on your site, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

Reviewed on March 31, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I read this a couple summers ago. I didn’t love it, but there is a feeling it generates that, while I don’t remember specifics of the story, I remember that feeling. And it’s not a good one! Just as an aside, The Pet Shop Boys wrote a song based on this book called, “Integral”. Once you’ve read “We”, that song will give you the willies!


  • This is great! Am planning to read this book sooner or later (when I get a copy).

    Many dystopias I’ve read are in many ways an expounding and/or criticism of negative elements or trends present in today’s society, hence most are hopelessly depressing. Another more positive effect from reading dystopias though is the reader’s (possible) recognition of the maladies described in the book in our own world. And hence, an awareness that we can have better…

  • I’ve never read “We”, but I do generally like dystopian fiction, so I think I should read it. I don’t think I’ve ever read an upbeat dystopian novel, but I suppose I enjoy them because they’re provocative and to really think about what I’m reading. I have 1984 on the shelf, and think I need to give it a re-read sometime soon!

  • Hi Rebecca! I read this last summer (review here: http://5-squared.blogspot.com/2008/07/we-by-yevgeny-zamyatin.html), and it confused me more than probably any other book I’ve ever read. I still can’t figure out most of the stuff in it. Unlike you, I didn’t see the political connections (though after nearly a year, it’s easier to see that now), nor did I even figure out the little bubble city they lived in was called One State. Yes seriously I was so confused I didn’t figure that out. The book was way over my head.

    I disagree, though, about the love/lust thing. I think he may not have loved 1-330, but I don’t think he was lusting after her, either. He had his partners for sex days, to sate lust. But with 1-330, she was just different. I think he recognized it, and that awoke something in him that made him more human (or sick, in his eyes). It’s like some experience or another can wake us up in our lives – something about her changed him, and made him see things differently.

    I’m glad I read this book, even if I missed 75% (easily) of what was in it. I think I’ll probably try again in a few years to reread, and see if I can see more.

  • Lezlie, yes “not a good feeling” is a great way to describe the book. I shuddered at the end. So I guess I can’t ever say I “enjoyed” it, but I’m glad I did read it.

    karlo, yes I agree: I’m supposed to find some connections to my world. I really didn’t in this one, and I know that’s because I missed it, not that it wasn’t there. I just had a hard time with this one. I hope you “enjoy” it if you read it.

    Steph, I want to reread that one too!

    Amanda, point taken: I-330 was so different there was something to actually fall in love with, while everyone else was just boring and the same. I didn’t really see the political connections either (I know I missed things too!), but I know they are there.

  • In my mind dystopias aren’t a part of the science fiction genre lol. Well I’ve read a few SF that were good but I still tend to shy away from that genre nontheless.

    Dystopias aren’t always that depressing but the majority are.

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