We Themes


Every human action in OneState has been regimented and mechanized. Every bite of food must be accompanied by "fifty statutory chews" (197). There is a precise, collective schedule that controls everything from when citizens to take walks, to how they have sex, to their morning routine. Even names--D-503, I-330, O-90--are mechanical. As a result D-503 imagines himself as a small part in a larger machine. The Numbers in OneState even eat "petroleum food," just like machines consume gas or oil (22). Zamyatin references F. W. Taylor, the pioneer of work-time studies, throughout the text. Taylor reduced labor to small, mechanical actions, so workers could be easily integrated into assembly lines. Instead of building an entire chair, individual workers would perform limited duties, like sanding chair legs, tens of thousands of times. In OneState all human actions, even private ones have been integrated into a larger mechanism. At the end of We workers have their imaginations removed so they can function even more like machines.


In We, citizens are alienated from one half of the human experience: emotions, imagination and all other irrational elements are forbidden. The wilderness beyond the city and its free tribes represent this verboten, irrational side. OneState builds a wall separating Numbers from the woods, which remain uncontrollable. Individuals are both physically and symbolically alienated from the wild aspects of their nature. His meeting with I-330 precipitates the emergence of D-503's irrational side, often depicted symbolically through his uniquely hairy hands. As his irrational tendencies assert themselves, D-503 becomes increasingly alienated from himself. When he attacks I-330, he describes the event from the third person, as if his irrational self was another entity entirely. He reports, "I saw how he grabbed her with his hairy paws"; D-503 is so alienated from this half of his nature, he does not recognize himself (57). As his pursuit of I-330 intensifies he often describes himself as a stranger.


OneState celebrates a form of secular religion, in which citizens worship reason and an infallible god-king presides over all. D-503 believes the government acts in his best interest, not because he has been presented with proof, but because he trusts OneState. His support of the Benefactor is, in essence, an act of faith. Religious language is used to describe the Benefactor, who is referred to as "the new Jehovah, as wise and as cruel in his love as the Jehovah of the ancients" (135). Indeed his relationship to the people is that of God to Man: the Benefactor is omnipotent, and men have no rights in relation to him. The metaphor continues: OneState is a manufactured Garden of Eden. As early Adam and Eve, residents are innocent of corrupting knowledge and completely subordinated to their God. Just as in the Bible, Eve, here I-330, tastes the fruit of forbidden knowledge and tempts Adam, D-503, into following suit. Zamyatin's extended religious metaphor serves to critique a religious culture he believed to be stagnant and totalitarian.


Like 1984, the novel it inspired, We is concerned with total surveillance. In OneState all buildings and furnishing are made of transparent glass, so that Numbers can be monitored continuously. Guardians, plain-clothes state police, roam looking for any behavior that deviates from the tightly mandated norm. Yet it is not only the Guardians who are constantly watching, individuals must fear their fellow citizens. Ultimately it is U, not the police, who discovers and reports the rebels' plans. D-503 reports the woman he loves twice: first after being rejected, then after receiving the operation. During the Day of Unanimity, which features elections, D-503 describes the power of being watched; he writes, "I see how everybody votes for the Benefactor and everybody sees how I vote for the Benefactor" (133). Voting otherwise would be impossible, as citizens are not afforded privacy or anonymity. By constructing a transparent city and encouraging citizens to report rebellious behavior, OneState has successfully engaged individuals in their own surveillance and oppression.


The Benefactor describes paradise as a state in which subjects have "lost all knowledge of desires" (207). Every need is rationally and mechanically filled, so Numbers are perfectly happy; they do not want for anything. As an emotion, desire represents an irrational impulse and is targeted mercilessly by OneState. Sex is scheduled and regulated to prevent frustration or unrequited desire. Yet desire is an irrepressible human fact. All the novel's characters desire something with enough force to risk their lives. I-330, S-4711, and R-13 yearn for revolution, as O-90 years for a child, U years for D-503, and D-503 years for I-330. D-503's passion for I-330 tears his tightly structured world apart, both literally and figuratively. The rebellion he supports breaches the walls of his glass city, and he begins suffering from lovesick delusions. Zamyatin argues that Utopia cannot exist because desire can never be truly satisfied, even when wants are mechanically inventoried and filled.


The only constant in We is change. I-330 best encapsulates this theme when she explains the nature of infinity (168). Since there is no final number, as values continue into infinity, there can be no final revolution. Every revolution only gives way to another revolution; all governments ultimately fall. OneState will fall at some point in the future, whether at the hands of the Mephi or others. Even individuals desperate to prevent change, like D-503, cannot stop it. Though perfectly satisfied with his mechanical life, he is derailed by I-330, an uncontrollable element that alters his entire world. The inevitability of change points to the impossibility of total control. Regardless of how brutally a system represses its citizens, there will be dissidents and rebels plotting the next change.

The Individual vs. the Collective

Modern governments have struggled to balance the interests of the individual with those of the collective. In We, the balance has shifted entirely to the side of the collective. D-503 explains that the individual can have no rights before the interests of the collective (111). Both the protagonist and OneState embrace a utilitarian moral calculus in which one individual's life is simply worth the small fraction he or she represents of the population. Using such arithmetic, one person's desire can never outweigh the public interest. The collective pull is so strong in OneState that D-503 imagines himself part of "one body with a million hands" (13); he does not even inhabit his own body. Everything in OneState, from chewing to walking to sleeping is performed as a collective. As he develops individual desires, namely his love for I-330, D-503 feels oddly detached, even disassociating. He has spent so long as part of the collective that he does not recognize the individual emerging.