Zamiatin's WE

Information and Questions for Reading

Evgenii Zamiatin (1884-1937), We

Info on Zamiatin and and questions about We | More questions on We

You'll have noticed the connections with both Chernyshevsky's What Is To Be Done (especially the bit we read, "Vera Pavlovna's Fourth Dream") and, especialy, the Grand Inquisitor chapter from Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov. Discussing the similatiries, with quotations from the two (or three) texts, could make a great paper topic.

Evgenii Zamiatin/Zamyatin's novel We  was written mostly in 1920, completed in 1921. It was, kind of remarkably, first published in English translation by Gregory Zilboorg in New York; first published in Russian in 1927 in Paris, as tamizdat though my use of the term is anachronistic; and first published in the Soviet Union in a journal in 1988 (!). The émigré publisher in Paris in 1927 commented that they intentially messed up a few passages to make it look as if the novel had been translated back from English, though it really made them feel terrible to tamper with the work of a master ike Zamyatin.

I hope every edition of We that you might possibly own will have an introduction about Zamiatin's life and writings - if not, let me know and I'll put more information up here. It's tmportant to remember that he was a naval engineer and worked as one until 1917 (when he was 33). The other important thing is that he was a leftist revolutionary who spent some time in exile in the Russian countryside - and that he visited England in connection wtih his day job (and wrote a novel about them, The Islanders [written in England, published after he returned to Russia in 1917 when he heard there had been a revolution]), picked up a lot of information about Taylorism and the like, and disliked many things about British society at that time. (Re Taylorism: I don't know how closely it is associated with Fordism, but in both cases the intention is to tame and mechanize the body so it will perform better as a component of factory machines.)

There are multiple translations - not surprising, given the book's importance. Note that the first several entries are supposed to be stiff and difficult to read, perhaps even more than the translation will suggest. D-503 starts out as a turgid writer, not an artist but a mathematician (I'd say he was "constipated," but the One State must control their diet too well for that). As he opens up emotionally and mentally during the story, his style gets both more fluent and more artistic: there's a lot hiding behind that exterior.

Questions for Reading:

Zamyatin is really a first-rate writer (using 90 proof ink! - as he said in a memoir of how he had mentored the post-Revolutionary group of writers that chose the name The Serapion Brothers); I'm sure you'll notice lots of things as you read. Here are a few questions to get you going:

  1. Our hero, D-503, is a mathematician. What might that suggest about his character?
  2. What's the effect of having numbers instead of names? (Shades of THX-1138, whose name compares to D-503's the way recent license plates compare to old license plates.)
  3. And yet - the letters do function as a kind of "talking names." In the original, the letters come from both Latin and Cyrillic alphabets (maybe to make us feel that the whole world, or at least all of Europe, is now united in this one state?) D-503 has a Cyrillic Д, which may activate the associations of a Greek "delta." O is the same in Russian or Latin letters; I-330, R-13, and S all have Latin letters. "R" looks very like the Russian letter Я, pronounced "ya," which is both a letter and the word for the pronoun "I." Thus suggestions of individuality, or mirror image (the I inverted). What else can you make of R, O, I, and S? Poor old U-, whose number D-503 doesn't give us, is Ю  in Russian - which actually does look a bit like a fish, if you turn on your visual imagination.
  4. The problem with these anti-utopias is always: Who's really running things?
  5. What do we learn about the history of the One State/United State (depending on what translation you have)? What about its architecture and technology?
  6. What do you know about Taylor, his exercises, and his influence in industry and mass production? (What do you know about Ford?)
  7. What's the effect of the references to prior culture in the text (Kant; Scriabin; Pushkin; Dostoevsky; etc.)?
  8. Where do you see irrationality or human passions lurking beneath D-503's lack of self-knowledge? What can happen when someone who's always been innocent or repressed suddenly starts to feel Abnormal things?
  9. Why would this culture have kept the Ancient House?
  10. What is I-330 up to?
  11. What is the role of dreams in the work?
  12. What roles are played in the story by mathematics, art, poetry?

  1. What is the effect of D-503's personality shifts, as his style and mood change, and he comments on how differently he felt and wrote yesterday?
  2. S-4711 has a talking number, as well as his double-curved S, evocative of big ears and scoliosis: 4711 is the name of the original eau de cologne (produced for centuries now in Cologne, as you might expect), taken from the number assigned to the house of the company's owner on the even of the French Revolution. Can you make any sense of this association? (I can't, but I'm curious.)
  3. The effect of the various letters of the Numbers' or Ciphers' names is different in English, where you'll get a sentence like "It is I, I-330" (!). In Russian, the pronoun "ya" (я) is all over the place, activating the connection between R-13 and I-330 whenever D-503 talks about himself.
  4. In the original Russian, they'll "tear out/pull out your fantasy" (fantazija, фантазия).
  5. What do you know about Tamerlane? (a 14th-century Turkic commander)
  6. Record/Note 20 mentions burning at the stake - cf. Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor.
  7. Regarding U-, D-503 rattles off the standard "there is no greater honor than to crown someone's evening years" - but he clearly doesn't like or trust her. What is he repressing here?
  8. Is it plausible that the eyes of an uncorrupted person won't hide what's going on in that all-too-opaque skull?
  9. What are the various implications of the name and purpose of the Integral?
  10. Kind of an obvious question, but: why do the children object to having their fancy or fantasy extirpated by x-rays? (Note that x-rays aren't called x-rays in Russian, but "Röntgen rays,": after Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, who won the very first Nobel Prize in Physics.)
  11. The poetry comes in hexameters, a very classical or neoclassical meter - it seems that poetry here rhymes and scans just like on Mars. Is it plausible that a society that infantilized its population in this way would teach it anything about history, or present what sounds like pretty élite arts, rather than employing brief catchy jingles and beach novels?
  12. Notice the Modernist color symbolism (yellow and black that motivate the association with bees, or maybe tigers, etc.).
  13. I-330 espouses a philosophy very like Zamiatin's own. What's the effect of making a character like her the mouthpiece of the author?
  14. Compare the space flight described in Record 34 to the others we've seen so far.
  15. How can D-503 be so naïve, expecting that no one will read his notes, when he leaves them right on his table in a room with glass walls? (And is I-330 right to blame him for the exposure of the conspiracy to kidnap the Integral?) - How do they betray each other?
  16. How does the speech of the Well-Doer or Benefactor in Record/Note 36 compare to the Grand Inquisitor's?
  17. What do you make of the elements of masochism in the story? The (rather traditional) associations of orgasm with death? The idea that sex gets more painful, but also deeper and more enjoyable, when innocence ends?
  18. What kind of narrative consciousness do we get from D-503? How reliable is the information an unreliable (or potentially unreliable) narrator conveys?
  19. So did I-330 love him or just use him? (How about all those leftover pink tickets in her room? And who might be the mysterious F? - it's a Russian Ф in the original, like a Greek phi.)
  20. What's the effect of the story's end? (Here perhaps closest to Orwell's 1984.)

If you loved We and want to learn more about it, you're in luck: all kinds of people have written about it, including Darko Suvin in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (and many articles elsewhere) and Carl Freedman in Critical Theory and Science Fiction