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The Flawed Pronoun/Antecedent Precedent in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We”

Like the majority of dystopian literature composed in the first half of the twentieth century, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We seeks to expose the threats a totalitarian regime poses to individuality and its (not simply personal) benefits, as well as the regime’s flaws in logic regarding productivity and the source of human happiness. By aligning the masses in a single direction, the despot of this type of society is able to maintain power by upholding what philosopher Michael Foucault calls a “regime of truth” – a group of laws produced by an institution that are intended to be regarded as the absolute truth by citizens of that regime. By convincing (often via force) citizens to adhere to these laws and believe in them completely, the despot eradicates the individual’s sense of personal morality and replaces it with a devotion to public law, which helps avoid conflicting actions by the people.

As demonstrated by the single pronoun title of Zamyatin’s novel, the Benefactor of the One State upholds that the many (we) are greater than the individual (I), but only if they function with solidarity, believing in the same ideologies, performing the same actions, and upholding the same morals. With a unified population, the Benefactor hopes to achieve a perfect state that functions efficiently (based very much on Taylorism), a state devoid of the rebellion or revolution that springs from individuality. Ironically, however, this attempt to avoid individuality by unifying the masses actually only produces a more powerful, capable entity: the group is great only if they act as an individual. In this way, the lowercase “we” state is no different from a giant, uppercase “I.” This connection is even made by the protagonist, D-503, who – when discussing the election of the Benefactor and the tradition of everyone voting openly – posits, “how could this be otherwise, since ‘everyone’ and ‘I’ are a single ‘We’” (Zamyatin 138). Just as the pronouns “I” and “we” must both perform a singular action in a sentence, the like-minded group will function similarly to the individual, except on a larger scale, which makes it more efficient (again, following Taylor’s logic), but also susceptible to massive failure. The entire society is based on “we” and this pronoun’s linguistic implications regarding structure and formality, yet – just as language can be chaotic and susceptible to utter meaninglessness (as emphasized by Derrida and the deconstructionists) – the One State and its (grammatically) formal structure is not infallible; rather than rendering the One State indestructible, the State’s ideology instead constrains a society of many individuals to a society of one (giant) individual, reduces its population through standardization (dissenters disappear into the Benefactor’s Machine), and yields a society that is vulnerable to attack, as demonstrated by the conclusion of the novel.

As the narrator of We, D-503 immediately establishes the One State as a unified society, devoid of individualism. Because the work is considered a journal, a documentation of day-to-day action in his society, D-503 – in a direct address to the potential reader – writes, “I shall merely attempt to record what I see or think, or, to be more exact, what we think (precisely so – we and let this We be the title of my record)” (Zamyatin 2). While the story is told by one member of the society (in first person narration), what is true for that individual with regard to social regulations and laws is implied to be true for the rest of the society. In this way, the narrative technique itself of sci-fi novels such as We seems to reinforce the common theme of a unified society, where one represents the whole. In his article “Structure and Design in a Soviet Dystopia: H.G. Wells, Constructivism, and Zamyatin’s We,” critic William Hutchings points out that Zamyatin’s narrative – as with most dystopian narratives – is told by a first person narrator who seems initially insignificant from the general populous (84). By making D-503 compose journal entries and get straight to the point with his documentation, Zamyatin is eliminating any possibility of dissent presented by recollection, where a pseudo second narrator (memory) interferes with what truly happens by documenting what was believed to have happened; in this technique of direct documentation, there is also no second narrator who has “found” the journal and introduces it, thus placing a division between narratives (Hutchings 85). The words of the writer truly are the words of the society, and a unified, consistent account is given due solely to this journal style of writing.

Yet in a work meant to establish total unity as the norm, the narrator disrupts this perfect unity by acknowledging a potential reader and separating himself from the potential reader with the employment of the pronoun “you.” When comparing a public execution (a ceremony, of sorts) arranged by the Benefactor with archaic religious customs, D-503 inquires, “You who will read this – are you familiar with such moments? I pity you if you are not…” (Zamyatin 49). D-503’s writing is not a diary – a therapeutic record of his personal tribulations – but rather a sequence of journal entries intended to be read by the unknown Other, and D-503 is very much aware of his audience. The purpose behind this “you” – and even the purpose behind the entire documentation – is the building of the Integral, a spaceship meant to exit the glass dome and spread the gospel of the One State to other worlds. Thus, it is no coincidence that the builder of the Integral is the one composing this narrative, the one affronted with pronoun confusion (which is consequently identity confusion in the grammatically sound One State). However, the Integral is a flawed conception by the Benefactor (who wants complacency for his society and the perception that there are no other societies worthy of enumeration outside of the One State), considering its sole intent is an exploration of foreign worlds, which diverts attention from the synonymous “I” and “we” and places it on the unknown “you” and “they.”

Along with this initial distinction of pronouns between writer (“I,” “we”) and reader (you) comes an awareness of other pronouns (“he,” “she,” “they”), of differentiation within society; the Integral is simply a catalyst for this awareness. D-503 initially adheres to the Benefactor’s concepts of conformity, the equation of “we” and “I,” even denouncing an ancient idiom — “’My (sic!) home is my castle.’ What an idea!” (19) – for its grammatical incorrectness, using “(sic)” to note that the use of “my” is grammatically unsound (implying that “our” is the only grammatically correct option in the One State). Language can be as formulaic as mathematics, where certain rules of grammar and syntax must be upheld as constants for the rest of discourse to maintain its order. In the One State’s linguistic structure, seemingly, the equality of “we” and “I” is the absolute truth, the locus of action and thought. Yet, as Jacques Derrida points out while discussing human desire for a center in linguistic structure in his essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” “it was necessary to begin thinking that there was no center, that the center could not be thought in the form of a present-being, that the center had no natural site, that it was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of nonlocus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play” (84). To use the wrong pronoun is to make an incorrect calculation within the One State’s system, but – as highlighted by Derrida – the incorrect pronoun will always be used, because there is no true locus in the One State (as there is none in linguistic structures). This is made evident by D-503’s unintentional substitution of “He” for “we” as the center of society, where “He” is the Benefactor and “we” is the One State. Despite the doctrine of uniformity, the One State and the Benefactor are given equal importance by civilians; each title is even mentioned in sequential, patriotic chants (“Long live the Benefactor! Long live the One State!”). Likely under the instruction of the Benefactor himself, in his writing, D-503 always refers to the ruler with the capitalized pronoun “He” in the same way a monotheist would refer to his God, making insignificant (yet telling) observations in his records like “He came nearer and nearer, and millions of hearts rose higher and higher to meet Him. Now He sees us” (Zamyatin 141). By allowing himself to be equated (in importance) with the greater cause of the One State, the Benefactor not only makes yet another mistake by individuating himself from the masses, but he also draws attention to the instability of the linguistic system his state is founded on, displaying that there is no true center for the civilization. The center is supposedly “we,” but it could also be “He,” which proves that no center actually exists – the space is simply Derrida’s “nonlocus” – as it will always be filled with something: “she” is even eventually substituted, when D-503 falls under the dominance of I-330.

I-330 – as implied by the noun chosen for her number – is the most individualistic character in We. Through her acts of rebellion (liquor-drinking, cigarette-smoking, the wearing of archaic dresses, interaction beyond the Green Wall), I-330 separates herself from the rest of the One State, properly introducing “she” into D-503’s narrative of “I” and “we.” D-503 immediately recognizes the commonalities in speech and thought he shares with I-330 and the rest of the members of the One State; however, he cannot help but acknowledge a certain mystery in her personality: “She seemed to speak somehow out of myself; she spoke my thoughts. But in her smile there was that constant, irritating X. Behind the shades, something was going on within her” (Zamyatin 27). The unknown qualities of I-330 (as detected by D-503) are her traits of individuality, her cultivation of “she,” and – as exemplified by her extensive survival in the One State – I-330 knows how to separate herself (“she”) from the rest of the One State (“we”), using the rhetoric of the culture to mask herself. D-503 genuflects to the power of I-330’s adaptability, the strength of one who can separate herself from the masses, acknowledging “She is stronger than I. I’m afraid I will do what she asks” (Zamyatin 109). Just as I-330, the individual, is stronger than D-503, the minion, the pronoun “she” holds more power than “I” or its equivalent in the One State – “we.”

Perhaps it is the constant example of I-330 (as well as exposure to the strength of “He,” the great Benefactor) that leads D-503 to the discovery of himself, enabling him to extract “he” from “I” in a similar fashion. His frequent encounters with I-330 eventually engender a certain self-reflection, something he labels as imagination. His true division of self, however, comes in the form of literal reflection, a Lacanian viewing of his image in a mirrored surface and the subsequent identification of that image as a separate being. This particular identification of a separate self is not directly engendered by I-330, but rather – as critic Michael Amey points out in his article “Living Under the Bell Jar: Surveillance and Resistance in Zamyatin’s We” – by the glass (and thus, reflective) architecture and framework of the One State. Amey writes,

The extent to which mirrors, or the mirroring of others, play a role in D-503’s self realization is remarkable. D-503 increasingly sees mirrors everywhere, and, as Lacan would have predicted, D-503 both identifies with the image projected by these mirrors and at the same time finds that this reflected identity alienates him from himself (32).

D-503 is able to view other individuals (like I-330) as separate from the “we” of the One State, but – like Lacan’s “mirror stage” infant – D-503 only views himself as separate for the first time when he stands in front of a mirror. While gazing at his reflected image, D-503 states, “I see myself with astonishment as a certain ‘he.’ Here am I – he […] I look at myself – at him – and I know: he, with his straight eyebrows, is a stranger, alien to me, someone I am meeting for the first time in my life. And I, the real I, am not he” (Zamyatin 59-60). In this moment, chaos and identity confusion truly supplant D-503’s settled sense of place within society. He first equates “he” and “I” instead of “we and “I” (“Here am I – he”), only to then determine that the “he” in the mirror is a stranger and not actually a part of him (“And I, the real I, am not he”). Although momentous, this may not technically be D-503’s first association with a body outside of his own, however. As Amey points out, “The process by which a subject identifies itself as ‘I’ first occurs, according to Lacan, when the subject identifies with an image outside of him or herself” (31). One could assert that D-503’s first true alignment of self with another comes in his identification with the One State. D-503’s extensive group of peers are incapable of being the first image he sees outside of himself, however, because the masses – despite their unity – cannot be taken in or processed as a single image of Other, considering they don’t possess a singular face. The face – not the innumerable, similar body parts – is how humans individuate themselves. It is D-503, after all, who – when discussing a physical interaction with I-330 – laconically writes, “She took my face – all of me” (Zamyatin 132). Additionally, considering that members of the One State are taught at birth to believe that “I” is equivalent to “we,” labeling alignment with the One State as D-503’s first encounter would be a syntactical and logical error, since there should be no difference between the two antecedents, just as there is no difference between the two pronouns, and the individual is technically incapable of making this discovery himself (he is instructed).

As D-503 uncovers “you,” “she,” and – eventually – “he,” his discomfort places him on the verge of mental breakdown. He is unable to accept this fragmentation and randomness in his life: for the majority of his life, D-503 has followed the One State’s Table of Hours, which keeps his daily schedule consistent. D-503 (“I,” “we”) is accustomed to traveling, acting, and even thinking, as part of a unit. Earlier in his journal, D-503 documents, “Every morning […] we – millions of us – get up as one. At the same hour, in million-headed unison, we start work; and in million-headed unison we end it” (Zamyatin 12). The regime of the One State very much models itself after the empiricism and structure of modern thought. As Tony Burns explains in his essay “Zamyatin’s We and Postmodernism,” “modernist science considers the universe to be essentially a giant machine, the component parts of which can be conceived of as being isolated and separate from one another. It also maintains that the various parts of this machine […] behave in a regular, ordered, law-like manner” (67). The “ordered, law-like manner” of the One State is what gives D-503 purpose in day-to-day life; like the synonyms “I” and “we,” D-503 believes that the mathematical order of his society is a constant, and upholds it as the absolute truth. Yet, just as there is no absolute truth (or locus) to stabilize language, there is no formula stable enough to keep the totalitarian society functioning perfectly, as the One State is riddled with dissenters (future revolutionaries) and people like D-503 who have obtained imaginations. As Burns points out, the One State is absolutely flawed, but it views itself as perfect and – thus – only becomes aware of its flaws when they are exposed, a mindset certainly adopted from modern science, which refuses to recognize its own flaws, as well (Burns 71). It follows, then, that when D-503 is exposed to a flaw in his system, he reacts irrationally, taking unnecessary risks and becoming truant with his work on the Integral in favor of pursuing the unknown.

D-503 tends to embody modern thought, and his erratic behavior is indicative of how modern science reacts when exposed to postmodernism. Unlike modern thought (more precisely, in direct opposition to), postmodernism “emphasizes the importance of the notions of indeterminism, lawlessness, disorder, uncertainty, unpredictability, and catastrophe” and “is skeptical concerning the notion of objective truth” (Burns 67). In mathematical terms, postmodernism is the uncertainty that has grated on D-503’s logical foundations throughout his life: the square root of negative one. Linguistically speaking, postmodernism is concerned less with the equation of “we” and “I” and more with the plurality of “he,” “she,” and “it,” as well as with the many variations with which these pronouns can interact (or – to borrow Derrida’s word – play) in discourse. And, as the most “she” character in the novel, I-330 thrives on unpredictability and absence of truth, embracing – even flaunting – her flaws (drinking and smoking proudly in front of others), flaws that are highlighted to demonstrate her individuality, her separateness from the One State’s “we.” Yet, for these qualities, I-330 cannot continue to inhabit the One State, but must instead be tortured under the glass bell – where D-503 notes she continually refuses to disclose information despite repeatedly having the oxygen taken from her lungs (Zamyatin 232) – and subsequently sentenced to death by the Benefactor’s Machine.

I-330 is postmodernism, and the more involved D-530 becomes with her – the more he allows his previous self to be dissolved in her presence – the more aware he becomes of the world’s postmodern nature and the inevitable clash of the state’s modern uniformity with the burgeoning chaos of individuality. He becomes confused as to whether the world belongs to the individual or the One State, as reflected in his writing, which –instead of its initial style of mechanical documentation – morphs into self-reflective, ontological questioning: “But then, if this world is mine alone, why does it go into these notes? […] I am saddened to see that, instead of a harmonious and strict mathematical poem in honor of the One State, I am producing some sort of a fantastic adventure novel” (Zamyatin 102-3). Since encountering I-330, D-503’s life has indeed turned into a fantastic adventure, and D-503 unwittingly documents his transformation from a modern individual to a postmodern individual in what he believes to be a log of the One State’s great achievements. However, D-503’s transformation is premature – too sudden, even – for his society, and his life does not end in a state of postmodern wonder. Just like I-330, his soul is extinguished (yet he is subjected to the Great Experiment instead of the Benefactor’s Machine; he still retains his “life”), because postmodern thought cannot be incorporated outright into modern thought. However, it does manage to work its way into the modern framework, as the One State shows signs of deterioration at the novel’s conclusion. I-330 (“she”) and D-503 (“he”) may not survive, but neither does the One State and its “we” solidarity. As the Benefactor rushes to subject more members of the One State to the Great Operation, the MEPHI and rebellious affiliates carry out small, yet lasting, attacks against the regime and its ideology. It becomes clear that “we” and “I” are no longer invulnerable, and “they” are encroaching on the One State’s uniformity in all of their various forms.

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