We: The Novel That Inspired George Orwell’s 1984

orwell and "we" // public domain, courtesy of wikimedia commons
orwell and "we" // public domain, courtesy of wikimedia commons

In January 1946, George Orwell published a review of a fairly obscure Russian novel titled We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, in the Tribune. Originally released in New York in 1921 after being banned prior to publication in Russia, We had recently been translated into French, in which Orwell was fluent. As the recent author of Animal Farm and a writer for whom fiction and politics belonged together, Orwell seemed a natural choice to examine this dystopian work.

We tells the story of D-503, a man living in a dystopian city of the future in which people no longer have Christian names and are known instead by a letter followed by a series of numbers. In this city, citizens are subjected to constant surveillance by a branch of government called the Bureau of Guardians, with an all-powerful leader called the Well-Doer ("the Benefactor" in some translations). At a point early on, D-503 notices a particular woman showing up wherever he goes. Filled with suspicion, he first hates her, but soon falls in love with her. She inspires him to commit acts of rebellion against the state.

In his review, Orwell praised the book’s “intuitive grasp of the irrational side of totalitarianism.” Three years after writing those words, Orwell published 1984, a dystopian novel about a man named Winston living in a dystopian city of the future. In this city, citizens are subjected to constant surveillance by a branch of government called the Thought Police, with an all-powerful leader called Big Brother. At a point early on, Winston notices a particular woman showing up wherever he goes. Filled with suspicion, he first hates her, but soon falls in love with her. She inspires him to commit acts of rebellion against the state. Sound familiar?

Orwell never acknowledged having borrowed from We for his masterpiece, but the timing of his reading it, along with some of the uncanny similarities between the two novels, make it hard to conclude otherwise. Along with the basics of the plot outlined above, both D-503 and Winston (DOUBLE SPOILER ALERT) ultimately find themselves subjected to procedures that remove their ability to reject the government’s philosophy, after which both men find that they no longer care for their former lovers. In both novels, freedom is considered by the state to be an evil and the enemy of a proper life. In We, this idea manifests in statements about “when human beings still lived in the state of freedom, that is, in an unorganized primitive state.” In 1984, it is most clearly illustrated in the Party’s oft-repeated slogan:


The two books share certain smaller details in common as well. In both, the protagonist keeps a diary that he is composing at great risk and which he hopes will be read by future generations. Both feature public executions as a means of rousing frenzied loyalty to their respective leaders by the citizenry. In both, the 12-hour clock is no longer in use. In We, D-503 writes:

There is but one truth, and there is but one path to it; and that truth is: four, and that path is: two times two.

In 1984, Winston writes in his diary:

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows.

To be fair, Orwell was not the only writer to borrow copiously from We. For all of its lack of recognition with the general population, many 20th century authors of literary dystopian novels have considered We to be something of a benchmark—Ayn Rand is said to have taken inspiration from it, as had Vladimir Nabokov, who apparently read it before he wrote Invitation to a Beheading. In his own review of A Brave New World, Orwell suggests that Aldous Huxley may have borrowed his novel's plot from Zamyatin. Kurt Vonnegut alludes to this in an interview with Playboy when he mentions Player Piano's debt to We, saying, "I cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin's We." For his part, Huxley claimed to have written his own dystopian novel before he’d ever come across We.

There are differences between We and 1984, of course. The United State (One State in some translations) in We is an imaginary city that seems to have been built from scratch, while the London of 1984, now located within “Airstrip One” rather than Great Britain, features “rotting 19th century houses” and a layout that would be recognizable to readers familiar with that city. In We there is a single class to which all but government officials belong. In 1984, the Inner Party members represent the upper class, the Outer Party members a sort of middle class, and the proles the lower. In We, the entire city is made of glass, which enables the constant surveillance. In 1984, telescreens installed in every home and public place do so. Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, rewriting documents in order to alter the historical record to the Party’s specifications. D-503 is the lead engineer on the Integral, a spaceship with which to conquer other planets.

And then there’s the biggest difference: that 1984 became one of the most important novels ever written in terms of political and societal influence while We fell into obscurity. Here, the reasons become a little harder to pinpoint. 1984 is better written; Orwell’s ability to inhabit Winston’s daily life and have the reader experience his horror at the oppression imposed on him as if firsthand give 1984 an immediacy that We sometimes lacks. And Orwell never loses sight of his own story, while there are sections of We in which Zamyatin meanders in his depiction of the very world he has imagined, leaving the reader puzzled.

In addition, Orwell was wise to set his dystopia in a recognizable location and in a near future that might hit close to home for readers. We, on the other hand, is set in the 26th century and in a city that no reader would directly relate to as their own gone wrong. Zamyatin, who as a dissident writer found himself persecuted by the Soviet regime—he was imprisoned and eventually exiled to France—likely aimed to instill his novel with a milieu not identifiably Soviet, but universal in nature. But the move creates a distance between the reader’s world and the world in the novel, a gap that 1984 closes with aplomb.

Orwell endowed Winston with a barely contained contempt for the political system in which he is trapped from the outset, creating a tension that compels the plot forward. Zamyatin’s D-503, on the other hand, believes in the system and acts against it only after being convinced to do so by the woman with whom he has fallen helplessly—and ruinously, it turns out—in love. Hers are the actions that drive the plot, while D-503, though the protagonist, never manages to become truly sympathetic.

Still, the reaction to We in Russia suggests that it was an important book there: Soviet censors banned publication of the book—it didn’t officially appear in Russia until 1988. But a Russian publisher in Prague printed the novel in its original Russian in 1927 and copies were smuggled back into Russia, passing from reader to reader. Had the book not struck a nerve, it would have been a different story. Zamyatin was certainly onto something with his dystopian novel, and the Soviets’ efforts to thwart its publication only confirm that fact. We successfully takes the emergent ideology of his time to a terrifying logical endpoint.

If Zamyatin came up with the template for the 20th century dystopian novel, then Orwell perfected it. Art always builds upon art that came before it, but rarely does such an overt appropriation remain so little known. 1984 showed just how valuable literature can be for the collective conscience, but failure to acknowledge its debt to We resembles the very kind of obliteration of history that Winston performs every day at work in 1984.

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7 Pieces of Reading Advice From History’s Greatest Minds

When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
Lucien Aigner/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If there’s one thing that unites philosophers, writers, politicians, and scientists across time and distance, it’s the belief that reading can broaden your worldview and strengthen your intellect better than just about any other activity. When it comes to choosing what to read and how to go about it, however, opinions start to diverge. From Virginia Woolf’s affinity for wandering secondhand bookstores to Theodore Roosevelt’s rejection of a definitive “best books” list, here are seven pieces of reading advice to help you build an impressive to-be-read (TBR) pile.

1. Read books from eras past // Albert Einstein

albert einstein at home circa 1925
Albert Einstein poses at home in 1925 with a mix of old and new books.
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Keeping up with current events and the latest buzz-worthy book from the bestseller list is no small feat, but Albert Einstein thought it was vital to leave some room for older works, too. Otherwise, you’d be “completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of [your] times,” he wrote in a 1952 journal article [PDF].

“Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses,” he wrote.

2. Don’t jump too quickly from book to book // Seneca

seneca the younger
Seneca the Younger, ready to turn that unwavering gaze on a new book.
The Print Collector via Getty Images

Seneca the Younger, a first-century Roman Stoic philosopher and trusted advisor of Emperor Nero, believed that reading too wide a variety in too short a time would keep the teachings from leaving a lasting impression on you. “You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind,” he wrote in a letter to Roman writer Lucilius.

If you’re wishing there were a good metaphor to illustrate this concept, take your pick from these gems, courtesy of Seneca himself:

“Food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong. There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.”

3. Shop at secondhand bookstores // Virginia Woolf

virginia woolf
Virginia Woolf wishing she were in a bookstore.
Culture Club/Getty Images

In her essay “Street Haunting,” Virginia Woolf described the merits of shopping in secondhand bookstores, where the works “have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

According to Woolf, browsing through used books gives you the chance to stumble upon something that wouldn’t have risen to the attention of librarians and booksellers, who are often much more selective in curating their collections than secondhand bookstore owners. To give us an example, she imagined coming across the shabby, self-published account of “a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it.”

“In this random miscellaneous company,” she wrote, “we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.”

4. You can skip outdated scientific works, but not old literature // Edward Bulwer-Lytton

edward bulwer-lytton
An 1831 portrait of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, smug at the thought of people reading his novels for centuries to come.
The Print Collector/Getty Images

Though his novels were immensely popular during his lifetime, 19th-century British novelist and Parliamentarian Edward Bulwer-Lytton is now mainly known for coining the phrase It was a dark and stormy night, the opening line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. It’s a little ironic that Bulwer-Lytton’s books aren’t very widely read today, because he himself was a firm believer in the value of reading old literature.

“In science, read, by preference, the newest works; in literature, the oldest,” he wrote in his 1863 essay collection, Caxtoniana. “The classic literature is always modern. New books revive and redecorate old ideas; old books suggest and invigorate new ideas.”

To Bulwer-Lytton, fiction couldn't ever be obsolete, because it contained timeless themes about human nature and society that came back around in contemporary works; in other words, you can’t disprove fiction. You can, however, disprove scientific theories, so Bulwer-Lytton thought it best to stick to the latest works in that field. (That said, since scientists use previous studies to inform their work, you can still learn a ton about certain schools of thought by delving into debunked ideas—plus, it’s often really entertaining to see what people used to believe.) 

5. Check out authors’ reading lists for book recommendations // Mortimer J. Adler

mortimer j. adler in 1983
Mortimer J. Adler in 1983, happy to read the favorite works of his favorite authors.
George Rose/Getty Images

In his 1940 guide How to Read a Book, American philosopher Mortimer J. Adler talked about the importance of choosing books that other authors consider worth reading. “The great authors were great readers,” he explained, “and one way to understand them is to read the books they read.”

Adler went on to clarify that this would probably matter most in the philosophy field, “because philosophers are great readers of each other,” and it’s easier to grasp a concept if you also know what inspired it. While you don’t necessarily have to read everything a novelist has read in order to fully understand their own work, it’s still a good way to get quality book recommendations from a trusted source. If your favorite author mentions a certain novel that really made an impression on them, there’s a pretty good chance you’d enjoy it, too.

6. Reading so-called guilty pleasures is better than reading nothing // Mary Wollstonecraft

mary wollstonecraft in 1797
Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, apparently demonstrating that a book with blank pages is worth even less than a novel.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

To the 18th-century writer, philosopher, and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, just about all novels fell into the category of “guilty pleasures” (though she didn’t call them that). In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she disparaged the “stupid novelists, who, knowing little of human nature, work up stale tales, and describe meretricious scenes, all retailed in a sentimental jargon, which equally tend to corrupt the taste and draw the heart aside from its daily duties.”

If her judgment seems unnecessarily harsh, it’s probably because it’s taken out of its historical context. Wollstonecraft definitely wasn’t the only one who considered novels to be low-quality reading material compared to works of history and philosophy, and she was also indirectly criticizing society for preventing women from seeking more intellectual pursuits. If 21st-century women were confined to watching unrealistic, highly edited dating shows and frowned upon for trying to see 2019’s Parasite or the latest Ken Burns documentary, we might sound a little bitter, too.

Regardless, Wollstonecraft still admitted that even guilty pleasures can help expand your worldview. “Any kind of reading I think better than leaving a blank still a blank, because the mind must receive a degree of enlargement, and obtain a little strength by a slight exertion of its thinking powers,” she wrote. In other words, go forth and enjoy your beach read.

7. You get to make the final decision on how, what, and when to read // Theodore Roosevelt

theodore roosevelt in office in 1905
Theodore Roosevelt pauses for a quick photo before getting back to his book in 1905.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Theodore Roosevelt might have lived his own life in an exceptionally regimented fashion, but his outlook on reading was surprisingly free-spirited. Apart from being a staunch proponent of finding at least a few minutes to read every single day—and starting young—he thought that most of the details should be left up to the individual.

“The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be,” he wrote in his autobiography, and rejected the idea that there’s a definitive “best books” list that everyone should abide by. Instead, Roosevelt recommended choosing books on subjects that interest you and letting your mood guide you to your next great read. He also wasn’t one to roll his eyes at a happy ending, explaining that “there are enough horror and grimness and sordid squalor in real life with which an active man has to grapple.”

In short, Roosevelt would probably advise you to see what Seneca, Albert Einstein, Mary Wollstonecraft, and other great minds had to say about reading, and then make your own decisions in the end.