2018 Reading Challenge: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

This blog post is part of my 2018 challenge ‘moving forward by going back’.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

I reread Zamyatin’s We recently. It is, by all intents and purposes, a masterpiece. It was the inspiration or Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and is undeniably philosophically, morally and politically profound. The more I learn about the time (1921) and place (Russia) in which it was written, the more I am in awe of Zamyatin and his intense bravery for writing such a powerful yet delicate piece of literature.

Although the political and social aspects of the novel are incredibly effective and relevant today, the aspect of the novel that I found to be most impactful was the characterisation, particularly regarding Zamyatin’s depiction of women. Reflecting on the genre as a whole, science fiction is not exactly well-known for its compelling female characters, but Zamyatin really strikes a chord with the rebellious, strong and intensely sexual I-330.

I-330 is a figure of desire for the main character, D-503. In many ways she is seen as an intangible, untouchable fantasy, and as such she possesses all the enigmatic allure that you would expect of such a character, yet she is simultaneously courageous, strong, intelligent and cool-headed. Surprisingly, these traits in no way detract from her femininity or desirability, which is what I would generally expect in a female character – they actually intensify her appeal. D-503 is obsessed with her. Her mysteriousness and aloofness is compelling, but she doesn’t display these qualities in order to make herself attractive to D-503. I-330 is secretive and commanding because she is rebelling against societal constraints, and although she acknowledges her sexual power over D-503, it is not a wholly conscious intention. She is living for herself, for her community, for her ethics, not to win over a man. This sort of delicate balance is rarely seen in fiction, let alone in a science fiction novel.

The dystopian society in We, the One State, maintains a strict atmosphere of facelessness, uniformity and synchronicity for all citizens. In many ways this is freeing for I-330 – looks, achievements and gender do not hold any level of importance and therefore do not affect her behaviour or sense of self. I-330 is not fazed by gender. She is only intimidated by the laws, fears and physical threats that govern the state. The fact that she is a woman within this oppressive society is not a factor to her, which has made me question whether We is a false utopia. Is it a show of extreme equality? If so, is inequality required in today’s society for diversity and social hierarchy?

I don’t believe I have read anything that has ignited these sorts of questions before. The complexity and importance of We has been largely overlooked as a piece of seminal dystopian literature because of Nineteen Eighty-Four, but now that I’ve reread it I believe its impact is far greater and its characters far richer. When I decided to read We for a second time I didn’t expect to get so much from it, but it has altered my perception of the ‘classics’. I think it’s time to delve into my influences influencers.

E.J. Babb created Dystopic in 2012 after requiring an outlet for her love of dystopian and apocalyptic fiction. She is the author of These Unnatural Men, FOREGROUND and The Festivities of Morkwood.

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