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 / 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.