The dystopian society depicted in We is presided over by the Benefactor and is surrounded by a giant Green Wall to separate the citizens from primitive untamed nature. All citizens are known as "numbers". Every hour in one's life is directed by "The Table".
The action of We is set at some time after the Two Hundred Years' War, which has wiped out all but "0.2 of the earth's population". The war was over a rare substance never mentioned in the book, but it could be about petroleum, as all knowledge of the war comes from biblical metaphors; the substance was called "bread" as the "Christians gladiated over it"—as in countries fighting conventional wars. However, it is also revealed that the war only ended after the use of weapons of mass destruction, so that the One State is surrounded with a post-apocalyptic landscape.
Allusions and references
Many of the names and numbers in We are allusions to personal experiences of Zamyatin or to culture and literature. For example, "Auditorium 112" refers to cell number 112, where Zamyatin was twice imprisoned, and the name of S-4711 is a reference to the Eau de Cologne number 4711.
Zamyatin, who worked as a naval architect, refers to the specifications of the icebreaker St. Alexander Nevsky.
The numbers [. . .] of the chief characters in WE are taken directly from the specifications of Zamyatin's favourite icebreaker, the Saint Alexander Nevsky, yard no. A/W 905, round tonnage 3300, where O–90 and I-330 appropriately divide the hapless D-503 [. . .] Yu-10 could easily derive from the Swan Hunter yard numbers of no fewer than three of Zamyatin's major icebreakers – 1012, 1020, 1021 [. . .]. R-13 can be found here too, as well as in the yard number of Sviatogor A/W 904.
Many comparisons to The Bible exist in We. There are similarities between Genesis Chapters 1–4 and We, where the One State is considered Paradise, D-503 is Adam, and I-330 is Eve. The snake in this piece is S-4711, who is described as having a bent and twisted form, with a "double-curved body" (he is a double agent). References to Mephistopheles (in the Mephi) are seen as allusions to Satan and his rebellion against Heaven in the Bible (Ezekial 28:11–19; Isaiah 14:12–15). The novel itself could be considered a criticism of organised religion given this interpretation. However, Zamyatin, influenced by Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground and The Brothers Karamazov, made the novel a criticism of the excesses of a militantly atheistic society.
The novel uses mathematical concepts symbolically. The spaceship that D-503 is supervising the construction of is called the Integral, which he hopes will "integrate the grandiose cosmic equation". D-503 also mentions that he is profoundly disturbed by the concept of the square root of −1—which is the basis for imaginary numbers (imagination being deprecated by the One State). Zamyatin's point, probably in light of the increasingly dogmatic Soviet government of the time, would seem to be that it is impossible to remove all the rebels against a system. Zamyatin even says this through I-330: "There is no final revolution. Revolutions are infinite."