Utopian Sameness

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Leslie F. Stone’s The Conquest of Gola are both set within—arguable—utopias and end with the quelling of rebellions that threaten to disrupt the status quo. In We, there is so much sameness that permeates what appears to be a relatively large population that not only are the members of this population numbered, but even our narrator does not take the time to focus upon the characteristics that make his cohorts different from him until later on in the book- and, by that point, the differences he sees are driving him near-insane and leading him towards rebellion against OneState. The Conquest of Gola presents a matriarchal race that immediately dismisses the entrance of another people due to the fact that they are “barbarians” with “poorly organized bod[ies]”; the narrator then says, upon meeting this new race, that these Dextalans must be “envious of [the Golans’] beautiful golden coats, [their] movable eyes, [their] power to scent, hear, and touch with any part of the body…” (1282). This reminded me of the first time that D-503 sees the people who live beyond the wall; he reacts with the same mix of pity and wonder, pondering how these people manage to thrive outside of the confines of OneState while simultaneously recognizing that there is some appeal to being this particular kind of “barbarian”. Further, the narrator in The Conquest of Gola also acknowledges that the Golans were “without a doubt…freaks to those freakish Dextalans”, again making quite clear that there are immovable differences between the two peoples while also making light of the almost automatic recognition of that racial disconnect. What I found particularly interesting was that although The Conquest of Gola is certainly more of a story about a female-dominated race successfully reigning superior, the editor included the following descriptor, found in the middle of the narrative columns:

“Americans are fond of ridiculing the customs, habits, and temperaments of people of other nations. Similarly other nations pick our peculiarities as a source of amusement. We all think that what we do, think or say is natural and inevitable, and that the actions of others are ‘queer’” (1280).

From this, as well as with both Zamyatin’s and Stone’s portrayals of their respective settings, a question arises: are utopias only possible when they are populated with homogeneity? And, consequently, are they only threatened when an “other” emerges to challenge their sameness?

The Goal of Knowing

Both Yevgeny’s Zamyatin’s We and G. Peyton Wertenbaker’s “The Man From The Atom” discuss the possibility of an “end” to discovery — that is, an end to the unknown. In We, D-503 is hugely discomforted by I-330’s suggestion that the last revolution was not the last one, and that there is no such thing as a “last” revolution. He finds discomfort in her ideas because he believes that the last revolution, the Two Hundred Years’ War, was the end to all revolutions, and that the end goal was met–the happiness and true, “correct” nature of all persons (at least within OneState). I-330, however, debunks his thought in saying, “But [our ancestors] did one thing wrong: later they began to believe that they were the last number, a number that does not exist in nature” (We, Record 30). While I-330 is keen on believing that there is no end to discovery, particularly believing that OneState is stifling, Kirby in “The Man From The Atom” is excited about Professor Martyn’s invention not only due to its brilliance, but also because it holds promise for an end goal: “Why, don’t you realize, Professor, that this will revolutionize Science? There is nothing, hardly, that will be unknown” (63). He’s excited to risk endangering his life to test the machine due to this conceived notion that with it, nothing will be unknown, and that there will be nothing left in need of discovering. Of course, both characters do find out that things are more complicated than just “knowing all” and “knowing hardly anything” –that the journey to discovery is tricky and dangerous, and overall not what they expected.

What I find interesting is that while both characters have this notion that there is an “end” to discovery, and that all that is unknown will be known, these ideas generally go against the science fiction genre. Without the possibility of discovery, and without an “unknown” to discover, the drive behind science fiction is reduced. There usually needs to be some notion of the unknown to create a story in which discovery is possible.

Dangerous Nostalgia

“And now we stopped in front of the mirror.  At that moment all I could see were her eyes.  An idea hit me: The way the human body is built, it’s just as stupid as those ‘apartments’- human heads are opaque and there’s no way to see inside except through those tiny little windows, the eyes.  She seemed to guess what I was thinking and turned around.  ‘Well, here are my eyes.  What do you think?’  (Without actually saying this, of course.)

I saw before me two ominously dark windows, and inside there was another life, unknown.  All I could see was a flame–there was some sort of ‘fireplace’ inside–and some figures, that looked…

That would be natural, of course.  What I saw there was my own reflection.  But it was not natural and it did not look like me (apparently the surroundings were having a depressing effect).  I felt absolutely afraid, I felt trapped, shut into that wild cage, I felt myself swept into the wild whirlwind of ancient life.”

Record 6, page 28-29

Although it could be argued that D-503 is weakened (albeit near-imperceptibly) in his beliefs prior to his first visit to the Ancient House, it is this trip that truly brings about a sense that his foundation is being shaken- entirely due to, it seems, the machinations of the mysterious I-330.  This passage in particular draws attention to his obvious, dutiful disgust for the things of the past–and, more specifically, the things that are illegal in OneState–but it also highlights his fascination with them.  He does not outright express any such sentiment, but it is more than evident in the tone of his account, particularly when he trails off, describing the scene he ‘witnesses’ behind I-330’s eyes.  There is an inarguable amount of reverence in it.  At this point in the narrative (still relatively early on), it would be acceptable to expect that he is not anywhere near ready to change.  However, the way in which he faithfully records his discovery of “another life, unknown” and the “wild whirlwind of ancient life” seems so charmingly accidental–on the part of D-503, certainly not on the part of Zamyatin–and it could be seen as almost akin to the way in which someone might inadvertently reveal their romantic feelings for another.  From this, Zamyatin provides readers with a common trope found in many dystopian novels: nostalgia for a time long before the story takes place that, in the narrative’s current environment, is strictly forbidden for the sake of the maintenance of order.  Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 exemplifies this.

D-503, from this point forward, becomes a character that we want to see tainted and drawn away from the norms of his restrictive society; we need him to be freed from the shackles of his banality because we very desperately want him to return to the comforts of ‘before’, of our own society, of normalcy within individuality.  “Me”, rather, instead of “We”.  D-503 is viciously torn between his current state, upon which he frequently rains unconditional praise, and the scary unknown that I-330 continues to push him into as the novel progresses, and it is this internal and external conflict that propels the narrative forward.  Moreover, his records become far more vibrant (albeit panicked and filled with inner turmoil) due to this forbidden nostalgia he has been so mercilessly infected with.  As a result, We is able to engender a sense of suspense and dread–a feeling almost inseparable from the dystopian genre–with regard to D-503’s fate as an admirer of the ‘ancient world’ in this harshly-regimented new one.

D-503’s Animal Instincts

No! After everything that had happened, after I had unequivocally shown my feelings toward her!

Besides, she did not even know whether I had gone to the Office of the Guardians. After all, she had no way of knowing that I had been sick — well, that I generally could not…And despite all this…

A dynamo whirled, hummed in my head. Buddha, yellow silk, lillies of the valley, a rosy crescent… Oh yes, and this too: O was to visit me today. Ought I to show her the notice concerning I-330? I didn’t know. She would not believe (indeed, how could she?) that I’ve had nothing to do with it, that I was entirely…I was sure there was going to be a difficult, senseless, absolutely illogical conversation […]

I hurriedly stuffed the notice into my pocket — and suddenly saw this dreadful, apelike hand of mine. I recalled how I-330 had taken my hand that time, during the walk […]

And then it was a quarter to twenty-one.

[…]and all the shades dropped suddenly, in all the houses, and behind the shades…

A strange sensation: I felt as though my ribs were iron rods, constricting, definitely constricting my heart — there was not room enough for it.” (Record 9, page 40).

D-503’s attitude toward sex prior to meeting I-330 is the same attitude he holds toward any other biological function. As all things are in Zamayatin’s dystopian future, sex, what One State calls “lowering the shades,” is a highly regulated process in which one must seek permission and follow the proper protocol. D-503, ever loyal to One State, even rejects O in Record One when she makes her spontaneous desire known to him: “How funny she is. What could I say to her? She had been with me only the day before, and she knew — as I did — that our next sex day was the day after tomorrow.” To D-503, sexuality is just another primitive impulse the ancestors could not control. D-503 never takes notice of other Numbers lowering their blinds, but suddenly, as he heads to see I-330, he addresses the routine and even seems to be excited by it. As D-503 increasingly begins to address the sexuality of the other Numbers, he finds himself confronted by his own feelings of desire, which he quickly succumbs to in his encounter with I-330.

The sultry, iconoclastic I-330, is, for all intents and purposes, is what we “ancients” call a tease. The (deliberate) result of her seduction is a very “ill” D-503, who is deeply perturbed by the possibility that his forebears had perhaps not conquered the elemental force of love and reduced it to mathematical order by the Lex Sexualis. Under One State’s strictly systematized order, love and sex are not mere biological requirements, but tools of rebellion that can never be stamped out completely.

Blowing D-503’s Mind With Math

“Her brows make a sharp mocking triangle: “My dear, you are a mathematician. You’re even more, you’re a philosopher of mathematics. So do this for me: Tell me the final number.” / “The what? I…I don’t understand. What final number?” / “You know–the last one, the top, the absolute biggest.” / “But, I-330, that’s stupid. Since the number of numbers is infinite, how can there be a final one?” / “And how can there be a final revolution? There is no final one. The number of revolutions is infinite. The last one– that’s for children. Infinity frightens children, and it’s essential that children get a good night’s sleep….” (p. 168, Record 30)

I think this is one of the most clever passages in Zamyatin’s entire novel. After 29 Records filled with inner turmoil over developing a “soul” that doesn’t gel within the rules of OneState, D-503’s entire world is flipped by using the same language he’s hid behind. This conversation comes after D-503 has been exposed to ideas beyond OneState’s accepted worldview, but is still frustratingly on the fence about betraying his ‘perfect’ government. I-330’s tone here is like a parent telling her child Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy isn’t real. This is why her citing infinity is so effective. By this point in the book, we’ve established that OneState is a society where humans are Numbers, romantic sonnets are written about the union of 2+2, and people like D-503 see mathematical logic as more dependable than God or free thinking. Since no previous emotional appeal has fully converted D-503 out of the static universe he lives in, it takes the novel’s own obsession with numbers to give him an epiphany. I-330 comparing her revolution to infinity is a callback to D-503’s frustration with irrational numbers as a child. He’s forced to use his imagination to interpret an unanswerable question, thus his world is flipped upside down the minute he has to think as “Me” instead of “We” in terms he can grasp. After that, only removing his imagination could ever put D-503 –the ‘child’ told that OneState’s founding was the final revolution– back to sleep.

A Conspicuous Discrepancy

“Negro lips stretched, eyes bulging…. I, the real I, grabbed the other me, wild, hairy, panting, by the neck, and said to R: ‘Forgive me, for the Benefactor’s sake! I’m sick, no sleep, don’t know what’s wrong with me….’

The thick lips smiled fleetingly: ‘Yes, yes, I understand! I know all about that — theoretically, of course. Goodbye!’

From the door he bounced back like a black ball to the table and tossed a book onto it: ‘My latest. Meant to leave it and nearly forgot. Bye!’ (Wet B) Bounced out,” (Record 11, 63).

This turbulent moment in the text stood out because it is one of the first moments that incorporates any type of racial or ethnic categorization of the Numbers into the novel. While I recall the narrator describing R as “African” at another point in the story, the term Negro seems conspicuous, particularly when viewed against the uniform background of the Number’s society. Why would Zamyatin have the narrator include this type of racial categorization, and what are the implications of this considering the publication history first in English, but translated from Russian?

Upon close reading, another moment in this passage I would like to focus on is the use of “I” and “me” and how the first line becomes confusing with who is speaking and about whom. With the “Negro lips stretched” followed by an ellipse to “I, the real I, grabbed the other me,” Zamyatin blurs the line between R and D-503, since it would seem that the I is connected to the Negro lips, despite the fact that we know that R has thick “African” lips. Furthermore, we are confused by the “I” and the “me” and who is grabbing whom about the neck. At first, I thought that D-503 was grabbing R, but when I read it again this passage seems to describe the internal struggle between the narrator’s two emerging identities. It seems odd, then, that his rebellious self is described as “wild, hairy, [and] panting,” particularly when this description follows the introduction of “Negro lips stretched, eyes bulging.” Does this seem too racial a reading, or do you think it is appropriate?

Final note: I included that last little paragraph with the tossing of the book because the alliteration is spectacular! – and an appropriate representation of the poet in R.


D503 As An Emergent Subject and Echo of the OneState

“The cheerful little crystal bell in my headboard dings 7:00 A.M.: time to get up. To the right and left through the glass walls I see something like my own self, my own room, my own clothes, my own movements, and all repeated a thousand times. It cheers you up: You see yourself as part of an immense, powerful, single thing” (33-34).

Part of what intrigues me so much of D503’s journey in We is his transformation as an emergent subject, beginning with identification and evolving to alienation. It is in this passage that we not only receive a visual of what it’s like to live within the glass walls of Zamyatin’s dystopia, but we are able to glean from D-503’s narration the voice of the government’s oppressive restraints on the attitudes and beliefs of each of the subjects. In D-503’s account, he assumes possession of each of the things he sees multiplied apartment after apartment, “my own self, my own room, my own clothes, my on movements,” (34). Ironically, it seems, none of these things are his in the first place. Each identified, be it his self, his room, his clothes, his movements, are shared not only between those he sees depicted directly in front of him, but among EVERYONE in the OneState. Additionally, in the conclusion of the quote, however, “you” is repeated, identifying the ideals that have brainwashed D-503. For D-503 to address his reader as “you” is to establish a relationship between himself and whoever is meant to be reading his entry. It appears, however, he does not really seem to be addressing his reader with his own thoughts at all, but rather reiterating ideas of the OneState which are no more his thoughts than any other number among him. The relationship is illusory: it is rather an echoing of OneState ideals disguised as genuinely felt opinions of D-503.