We is set in the distant future in the One State, an urban, highly surveilled regime ruled over by an authoritarian, God-like dictator known as the Benefactor. Life in the One State is governed according to the philosophy that the collective whole’s well-being outweighs the interests of individuals; thus, the One State robs its citizens of all identifying characteristics. The One State regards its citizens (referred to as “ciphers”) not as individual beings with unique perspectives and needs, but as mere cogs in the machine of the larger society. Ciphers are assigned numeric values in place of names. They all wear the same uniform, and they walk down the city streets in a synchronized march. They work, eat, and sleep to advance the prosperity of the State. The One State vehemently condemns any expression of individualism—of valuing the self as unique and separate of the collective whole—as a threat to equality and the strength of the State. Through the One State’s dystopian collectivism, Zamyatin explores a question of balance that governments have pondered for centuries: how should a ruling body balance the welfare of its individual citizens against concerns of public interest? The One State illustrates an example of public interest run amok—to the detriment of its citizens. Zamyatin suggests that such extreme attempts to enforce absolute collectivism are ultimately in vain, as humankind’s impulse to live as unique individuals will inevitably overpower even the most extreme governmental attempts to suppress individual agency and expression.
The One State denies ciphers individuality on the most basic level by robbing them of individual names and forbidding visible differences. Beyond this, the government also condemns and suppresses all acts of self-expression and creativity. The One State’s totalitarian government teaches its citizens to view the arts and human creativity as “a strange form of epilepsy.” D-503—a rocket engineer, and We’s narrator—considers the music of the “Ancients” (humans who existed on Earth before the One State came to power) to be barbaric and “fantastical.” When I-330, D-503’s love interest and a woman heavily involved with the underground rebel organization MEPHI, plays the Ancients’ old, expressive music on the piano in the auditorium during a required assembly, it is so that the ciphers may hear how “convulsive” and “silly” such inspired compositions were.
In contrast, the One State’s music is not the product of human ingenuity, but derived from “mathematical” syllogisms. After I-330 plays the Ancients’ music, D-503 and the rest of the ciphers in the audience listen “with particular pleasure” to the “unwavering predictability” of their mechanical music based in logic, rationality, and mathematics. The ciphers’ admiration for such uncreative, predictable music reflects how the One State has taught them to value the universality of logical, objective music over music derived of subjective, individual creativity. We is composed as a series of D-503’s journal logs. Typically, one considers journaling, like music, to be an expression of one’s personal thoughts. But D-503 claims just the opposite in Record One of We. He states, “I will just attempt to record what I see, what I think—or, more exactly, what we think.” Even D-503’s personal journal, thus, is not fully personal: it isn’t a collection of his own thoughts, but his recorded rendition of the collective thoughts of the One State.
Despite the One State’s efforts to suppress individuality, however, various characters rebel against the government’s authoritarian collectivism. I-330 is the most obvious of these characters: behind closed doors, she smokes, consumes alcohol, and is heavily involved with MEPHI. More striking than the rebellious I-330’s individuality, though, is when characters like D-503, who initially see themselves as unconditionally supportive of collectivism and the welfare of the One State, begin to express their individuality as rebels like I-330 infiltrate their accepted way of life. D-503 begins his records using the rational, expressionless language of straight, dry, mathematical vocabulary that the One State idealizes. Early in the novel, D-503 criticizes O-90, the female cipher assigned to him as a sexual partner (ciphers’ sexual lives are also controlled by the State) for speaking too openly: “She has an incorrectly calculated speed of tongue. The microspeed of the tongue ought to be always slightly less than the microspeed of the thoughts and certainly not ever the reverse.” The words D-503 uses to criticize O-90 are stale and technical. They say nothing about O-90’s personality or individuality; on the contrary, his word choice depicts O-90 as a malfunctioning machine.
As I-330 begins to influence D-503’s perspective, though—and shows him how fulfilling life as an individual can be—the tone of his records shifts drastically, utilizing more vivid imagery and figurative language. Describing I-330, with whom he is infatuated, D-503 writes: “Because she is not she, but the universe.” D-503 uses metaphor, calling I-330 “the universe,” to express how intensely and fully moved he is by her. Describing how he feels in I-330’s presence, D-503 writes: “I am a crystal and […] there is a door inside me and […] I feel like a happy chair.” Again, D-503 evokes metaphor here to articulate the depth of his internal experience. D-503’s new style of writing reflects his transformed perspective of himself and the world. Despite his hesitations—at his core, he still longs to support the One State and its collectivist ideals—he acquires a more expressive personality and sense of self. D-503’s reluctant and unlikely transformation into an individual shows the strength of individualism, suggesting that even authoritarian governments like the One State are incapable of suppressing humanity’s drive toward individuality and self-expression.
Individuality vs. Collectivism ThemeTracker
Individuality vs. Collectivism Quotes in We
And I don’t know—perhaps it was somewhere in her eyes or eyebrows—there was a kind of strange and irritating X to her, and I couldn’t pin it down, couldn’t give it a numerical expression
With particular pleasure, I listened to our contemporary music […]. Crystal chromatic degrees converging and diverging in infinite sequences and the summarizing chords of Taylor and Maclaurin formulae with a gait like Pythagorean pant-legs, so whole-toned and quadrilateral-heavy […]. What magnificence! What unwavering predictability! And how pitiful that whimsical music of the Ancients, delimited by nothing except wild fantasy.
…Strange: I was writing today about the highest of heights in human history and all the while breathing the cleanest mountain air of thought, but, meanwhile, there were clouds and cobwebs and a cross, some kind of four-pawed X, inside me. Maybe it was my own paws, since they were in front of me on the table all this time—my shaggy paws. I don’t like talking about them and I don’t like them: they are evidence of the savage epoch. Could there actually be, within me—
Freedom and crime are so indissolubly connected to each other, like…well, like the movement of the aero and its velocity. When the velocity of the aero = 0, it doesn’t move; when the freedom of a person = 0, he doesn’t commit crime.
[The Ancients], however, worshipped their absurd, unknown God whereas we worship a non-absurd one—one with a very precise visual appearance. Their God didn’t give them anything except an eternal, torturous journey; their God didn’t think up anything more clever than that. And there’s no apparent reason why it sacrificed itself. We, on the other hand, make sacrifices to our God, the One State—calm, carefully considered, reasonable sacrifices.
There were two of me. One me was the former, D-503, cipher D-503, but the other one…Before, he only just managed to stick his shaggy paws out of my shell, but now he has crawled out whole, the shell is cracked open, now shattered into pieces and…and what next?
Through the fog, I see: long glass tables; sphere-heads are chewing in time, slowly and silently. From a distance, through the fog, a metronome is tapping, and under the regular caress of this music, I count to fifty, mechanically, together with everyone: the fifty mandatory masticatory motions to each bite. I go downstairs, mechanically, on the beat, and I write my name down in the exit book, as everyone does. But I feel: I live separately from everyone else, alone, fenced in by a soft, sound-muffling wall, and behind this wall is my world…
Didn’t I populate these pages with all of you? Not long ago they were just four-cornered, white deserts. Without me, would you have ever been seen by all those that I am leading through the narrow footpaths of these written lines?
What if today’s essentially irrelevant occurrence—what if all this is only the beginning , only the first meteorite in a whole series of rumbling, burning rocks, spilling through infinity toward our glass paradise?
With a ridiculous, muddled flood of words, I attempt to tell her that I am a crystal and that there is a door inside me and that I feel like a happy chair. But such nonsense comes out that I stop.
The sun…it wasn’t our sun, evenly distributed along the mirrored surfaces of the streets: it was live splinters and incessantly jumping dots, blinding your eyes and spinning your head. And the trees were like candles jutting right up into the sky; like spiders on gnarled paws squatting on the earth; like mute, green fountains…And everything is crawling, stirring, rustling, and a sort of rough, little tangle rushes up underfoot and I am riveted, I can’ take one step because it is not level under my feet—do you understand? It was not level but sort of repulsively soft, yielding, living, green, bouncy.
In a blink, I am somewhere up high and underneath me are heads and heads, and gaping, screaming mouths, and arms pouring upward and then falling. This was exceptionally strange, intoxicating: I felt myself above everyone, I was myself, a separate thing, a world; I stopped being a component, as I had been, and I became the number one.
The beauty of a mechanism is in its steadfast, precise, and pendulum-like rhythm. But then you, who have been nurtured by Taylorist systems from childhood, haven’t you grown up to be pendulum precise?
With one exception: mechanisms don’t have imaginations.
Have you ever seen an inanely dreaming and distant smile break across the physiognomy of a pump cylinder while it was at work? Have you ever heard of a crane, in the nighttime, in the hours allocated for repose, turning over in agitation and sighing?
A ridiculous feeling but I was sure of it: yes, I must help. Ridiculous, because it was a duty and yet another crime. Ridiculous, because a white duty cannot, at the same time, be a black duty and a crime—they can’t coincide. Life is either blackless or whiteless and its color only depends on a basic, logical premise. And if the premise is that I gave her a child illegally…
“Because I…I was afraid, that if she was…that they would have…you would have…you would stop lov…Oh, I can’t—I couldn’t have!”
I understood: this was the truth. A ridiculous, funny, human truth!
“The most merciful Christian, God himself, slowly burning all the recalcitrants in the fires of Hell—is he not an executioner? And were there really fewer burned at the stake by the Christians than Christians who were burned themselves? And yet, understand this, and yet, they glorified this God as the God of Love. Absurd? No, the opposite: it is testimony, written in blood, to the ineradicable good sense of a human. Even then—wild, shaggy as they were—they understood: true algebraic love toward humankind is inhuman—and the sure sign of truth is its cruelty.”
If only I had a mother like the Ancients: my—yes, exactly—my own mother. She would know me as—not the Builder of the Integral, and not cipher D-503, and not a molecule of the One State—but simply a fragment of humanity, a fragment of herself, trampled, squashed, thrown away…”