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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12 Surprising Facts About T.S. Eliot


Born September 26, 1888, modernist poet and playwright Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot is best known for writing "The Waste Land." But the 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was also a prankster who coined a perennially popular curse word, and created the characters brought to life in the Broadway musical "Cats." In honor of Eliot’s birthday, here are a few things you might not know about the writer.

1. T.S. Eliot enjoyed holding down "real" jobs.

Throughout his life, Eliot supported himself by working as a teacher, banker, and editor. He could only write poetry in his spare time, but he preferred it that way. In a 1959 interview with The Paris Review, Eliot remarked that his banking and publishing jobs actually helped him be a better poet. “I feel quite sure that if I’d started by having independent means, if I hadn’t had to bother about earning a living and could have given all my time to poetry, it would have had a deadening influence on me,” Eliot said. “The danger, as a rule, of having nothing else to do is that one might write too much rather than concentrating and perfecting smaller amounts.”

2. One of the longest-running Broadway shows ever exists thanks to T.S. Eliot.

Getty Images

In 1939, Eliot published a book of poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which included feline-focused verses he likely wrote for his godson. In stark contrast to most of Eliot's other works—which are complex and frequently nihilistic—the poems here were decidedly playful. For Eliot, there was never any tension between those two modes: “One wants to keep one’s hand in, you know, in every type of poem, serious and frivolous and proper and improper. One doesn’t want to lose one’s skill,” he explained in his Paris Review interview. A fan of Eliot's Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats since childhood, in the late '70s, Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to set many of Eliot's poems to music. The result: the massively successful stage production "Cats," which opened in London in 1981 and, after its 1982 NYC debut, became one of the longest-running Broadway shows of all time.

3. Three hours per day was his T.S. Eliot’s writing limit.

Eliot wrote poems and plays partly on a typewriter and partly with pencil and paper. But no matter what method he used, he tried to always keep a three hour writing limit. “I sometimes found at first that I wanted to go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory," he explained. "It’s much better to stop and think about something else quite different.”

4. T.S. Eliot considered "Four Quartets" to be his best work.

In 1927, Eliot converted to Anglicanism and became a British citizen. His poems and plays in the 1930s and 1940s—including "Ash Wednesday," "Murder in the Cathedral," and "Four Quartets"—reveal themes of religion, faith, and divinity. He considered "Four Quartets,” a set of four poems that explored philosophy and spirituality, to be his best writing. Out of the four, the last is his favorite.

5. T.S. Eliot had an epistolary friendship with Groucho Marx.

Eliot wrote comedian Groucho Marx a fan letter in 1961. Marx replied, gave Eliot a photo of himself, and started a correspondence with the poet. After writing back and forth for a few years, they met in real life in 1964, when Eliot hosted Marx and his wife for dinner at his London home. The two men, unfortunately, didn’t hit it off. The main issue, according to a letter Marx wrote his brother: the comedian had hoped he was in for a "Literary Evening," and tried to discuss King Lear. All Eliot wanted to talk about was Marx's 1933 comedy Duck Soup. (In a 2014 piece for The New Yorker, Lee Siegel suggests there had been "simmering tension" all along, even in their early correspondence.)

6. Ezra Pound tried to crowdfund T.S. Eliot’s writing.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1921, Eliot took a few months off from his banking job after a nervous breakdown. During this time, he finished writing "The Waste Land," which his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound edited. Pound, with the help of other Bohemian writers, set up Bel Esprit, a fund to raise money for Eliot so he could quit his bank job to focus on writing full-time. Pound managed to get several subscribers to pledge money to Eliot, but Eliot didn’t want to give up his career, which he genuinely liked. The Liverpool Post, Chicago Daily Tribune, and the New York Tribune reported on Pound’s crowdfunding campaign, incorrectly stating that Eliot had taken the money, but continued working at the bank. After Eliot protested, the newspapers printed a retraction.

7. Writing in French helped T.S. Eliot overcome writer’s block.

After studying at Harvard, Eliot spent a year in Paris and fantasized about writing in French rather than English. Although little ever came of that fantasy, during a period of writer’s block, Eliot did manage to write a few poems in French. “That was a very curious thing which I can’t altogether explain. At that period I thought I’d dried up completely. I hadn’t written anything for some time and was rather desperate,” he told The Paris Review. “I started writing a few things in French and found I could, at that period ...Then I suddenly began writing in English again and lost all desire to go on with French. I think it was just something that helped me get started again."

8. T.S. Eliot set off stink bombs in London with his nephew.

Eliot, whose friends and family called him Tom, was supposedly a big prankster. When his nephew was young, Eliot took him to a joke shop in London to purchase stink bombs, which they promptly set off in the lobby of a nearby hotel. Eliot was also known to hand out exploding cigars, and put whoopee cushions on the chairs of his guests.

9. T.S. Eliot may have been the first person to write the word "bulls**t."

In the early 1910s, Eliot wrote a poem called "The Triumph of Bulls**t." Like an early 20th-century Taylor Swift tune, the poem was Eliot’s way of dissing his haters. In 1915, he submitted the poem to a London magazine … which rejected it for publication. The word bulls**t isn’t in the poem itself, only the poem’s title, but The Oxford English Dictionary credits the poem with being the first time the curse word ever appeared in print.

10. T.S. Eliot coined the expression “April is the cruelest month.”

Thanks to Eliot, the phrase “April is the cruelest month” has become an oft-quoted, well-known expression. It comes from the opening lines of "The Waste Land”: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”

11. T.S. Eliot held some troubling beliefs about religion.

Over the years, Eliot made some incredibly problematic remarks about Jewish people, including arguing that members of a society should have a shared religious background, and that a large number of Jews creates an undesirably heterogeneous culture. Many of his early writing also featured offensive portrayals of Jewish characters. (As one critic, Joseph Black, pointed out in a 2010 edition of "The Waste Land" and Other Poems, "Few published works displayed the consistency of association that one finds in Eliot's early poetry between what is Jewish and what is squalid and distasteful.") Eliot's defenders argue that the poet's relationship with Jewish people was much more nuanced that his early poems suggest, and point to his close relationships with a number of Jewish writers and artists.

12. You can watch a movie based on T.S. Eliot’s (really bad) marriage.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tom & Viv, a 1994 film starring Willem Dafoe, explores Eliot’s tumultuous marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a dancer and socialite. The couple married in 1915, a few months after they met, but the relationship quickly soured. Haigh-Wood had constant physical ailments, mental health problems, and was addicted to ether. The couple spent a lot of time apart and separated in the 1930s; she died in a mental hospital in 1947. Eliot would go on to remarry at the age of 68—his 30-year-old secretary, Esmé Valerie Fletcher—and would later reveal that his state of despair during his first marriage was the catalyst and inspiration for "The Waste Land."

This story has been updated for 2020.