Temptation and Surveillance in We
Temptation lures people to succumb to suppressed human instincts, yet together with surveillance, the opposing forces create a precarious balance between resurgence and restraint. This conflict influences the characters in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, which follows cipher D-503’s experience in the oppressed One State as he evolves begins to reject indoctrination and concede to temptations. Zamyatin explores an interplay between temptation and surveillance that serves to suppress dissidence to criticize the oppressive structure in which this relationship thrives.
Through diction describing the Guardians, Zamyatin depicts the effect of their constant surveillance of the ciphers. Asserting the importance of supervision, D-503 addresses the “distinguished task of the Guardians” (Zamyatin 19). D-503 suggests that the “distinguished” Guardians’ perpetual monitoring the ciphers grants them honor and dignity, expressing his respect for their work maintaining peace and happiness. Rather than their true task of eradicating disobedient behavior, D-503 fixates on the Guardians’ role of capturing rebellious ciphers to save the supposedly upstanding ones. Through this, Zamyatin depicts the corruption of a government that manipulates citizens into revering the restriction of freedoms. D-503 also describes Guardian S-4711 as a “guardian angel” (59). With this title, Zamyatin displays not simply the ciphers’ appreciation for the Guardians’ job, but also their belief that the Guardians indeed guide them to a better life — a utopia of the afterlife. Through the comparison of the ciphers’ worship of government figures to religious faith, Zamyatin criticizes this blind obedience to a higher entity that allows for distorted views of oppression and ignorance. D-503 furthermore remarks of S-4711’s “lovingly protecting” him from the “slightest mistake…the slightest misstep” (59). More than respect the Guardians, D-503 feels an intimate connection to them, affirming their loving relationship. Relieved rather than paranoid about lacking privacy, D-503 expresses affection for the enforced surveillance. To contrast D-503’s distorted perspective, the repetitive diction of “slightest mistake” and “slightest misstep” emphasizes the state’s strict regulations, with “slightest” highlighting the limited margin for transgressions and thus the danger of even minor suggestions of rebellion. Through D-503’s appreciation for prohibiting freedom and independence, Zamyatin exposes his flawed perception to portray the dramatic irony of the cipher’s high regard for those who effectively extinguish their humanity.
Zamyatin’s juxtaposition illustrates the temptation that enforces conformity to criticize its power to oppress. At a musical performance, a speaker announces that ancient people, referencing a piano, “called this box ‘grand,’” despite creating a “silly, fussy clatter of strings” (17, 18). The dismissive tone of “box” imply a crude, unsophisticated object, and quotations around “grand” suggest mockery that indicates the opposite of the word. Together with the condescending description of piano music that devalues the instrument, this belittles practices of ancient times. With music representing past humanity, the One State’s manipulation of tempting influences through ridicule and slander discourages surrendering to temptation and embracing human nature. While the One State wishes to eradicate the creativity and passion the piano represents though, the necessity of addressing ancient music indicates the difficulty of successfully stifling innate human qualities. However, rather than inspire revolution, temptation suppresses rebellious tendencies, as Zamyatin juxtaposes a comical piano performance against “Taylor and Maclaurin formulas” in the One State’s music, which causes D-503 to exclaim, “What magnificence!” (18). Unlike ancient people, the One State produces music with formulas and mathematics to which ciphers respond with awe. D-503 even lacks precise words to qualify such supremacy, describing the One State’s music with simply “what.” In contrasting these two types of music, Zamyatin reveals the dangers of oppression of the instinct to succumb to temptation, as it rejects the human capacity for artistic expression and promotes emotionlessness. Zamyatin also juxtaposes the mention of a cipher’s “unforeseen” act of disobedience to the state against D-503’s opinion of the Personal Hour as a time “reserved for unforeseeable circumstances” (23). Along with the repetition in diction, this comparison portrays D-503’s aversion to the sole hour of privacy. Confronted with the temptation to lower the blinds to limit surveillance, he experiences displeasure with the lessened protection that surveillance reputedly offers, rather than relief for escaping constant scrutiny. This reveals the extent of indoctrination of the ciphers, who actually fear the freedom to pursue individual interests because they learn to believe that privacy and independence equate to betrayal of the state.
Through the motif of nature, Zamyatin depicts the effects of a lack of surveillance to illustrate the dangers of the tool. After waking up to fog engulfing the state, D-503 describes “everything… flying, melting, falling” (62). With the fog obscuring his vision of the state’s constant glass structures, D-503 panics in an environment of chaos and disorder. With things simultaneously elevating in flight and descending in a fall, this portrays D-503’s confusion. Nature interferes with his absolute dependence on the methodical, mechanized One State society, causing him to feel entirely lost and directionless. Therefore, Zamyatin depicts the ciphers’ reliance upon the state for even trivial actions, criticizing their lack of individuality and independence. Near the end of the novel, the ciphers who undergo the operation that erases their imaginations act as “a spurt of water forced out of a…hose” (166). Just prior to machine-like ciphers’ encircling those retaining their imagination, D-503 notes the presence of clouds, which, similar to fog, limits surveillance. As ordinary ciphers flee to escape the operation, the chaos that materializes in the absence of surveillance disrupts the order of the One State. In portraying this disorder as water, a universal and indispensable substance, Zamyatin asserts the natural state and hence inevitability of this urge to resist the complete surrender of one’s individual spirit. When weather limits surveillance, the ciphers submit to the temptation of rejecting passivity and instead protect their humanity. As the two groups of ciphers approach each other, Zamyatin juxtaposes the comparison to water against the mechanical, robotic portrayal of the ciphers lacking imagination to demonstrate the dangers of interference in human nature. Even those who obey the One State fear the complete abolition of humanity. Under oppression, the impulse to protect and preserve one’s fundamental human nature becomes inescapable. Zamyatin therefore asserts the impossibility of eliminating individual thought, criticizing the society that attempts to erase the humanity that inherently exists in all people.
Through the symbol of the Green Wall, Zamyatin critiques the One State’s attempt to limit individuality and irrationality. The Green Wall acts as a cage that encloses the ciphers within a society of restraint and control, confining the human capacity for emotion and irrationality. However, the wall, transparent, actually provides an unobscured view of the wilderness beyond, forcing ciphers to acknowledge the outside world. The close proximity of the wild suggests potential for rebellion, due to the freedom and individuality nature allows, but in actuality, the wall curbs the inclination to seek the freedom of the outside. Nevertheless, in establishing a perpetual view of the wild, Zamyatin highlights the enduring presence of the irrational human instinct, even in a society that prohibits this side of humanity. However, the wall does not entirely succeed. Although the state intends for it to reinforce obedience, D-503 becomes tempted to succumb to his wild nature when he interacts with the outside world. He questions whether an animal finds more happiness than he living an “uncalculated life” (83). D-503 doubts the contentment the One State promises and its restriction of humanity through such devices as the Green Wall.
Additionally, rather than outline a mathematical concept relating to happiness, in fact describing its life as “uncalculated” to set it in direct opposition to the One State’s technological basis, D-503 refers to a beast in nature. This diction indicates D-503’s transition into embodying both the rational and irrational sides of humanity, as he comes from a world of order yet marvels at the natural world. D-503’s character thus personifies this duality in human nature. Zamyatin further develops the symbol of the Green Wall when rebels destroy it, breaking down the barrier separating the strict, regulated society and the irrational, unpredictable wilderness. Destroying the wall unifies these two sides, demonstrating that their integration remains as inevitable as the ciphers’ revolution. Zamyatin asserts that happiness and freedom coexist and further depend on each other. Because he asserts the indestructible existence of the wildness of humanity, Zamyatin therefore criticizes the society that restricts it through surveillance and manipulation to create fear of temptation. Through the symbol of the Green Wall, Zamyatin portrays the inherent duality in all individuals, a reality of which he urges the acceptance and even pursuit.
In We, Zamyatin criticizes the extreme surveillance of the One State that restricts the human instinct to seek happiness in temptation. Although set in a dystopian universe, We warns against the dangers of such corruption existing beneath an appearance of a satisfied society. Rather than passively accept society’s expectation of conformity, individuals must resist the unjust restriction of fundamental human characteristics and freedoms, and instead embrace the complexity of humanity.
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Temptation lures people to succumb to suppressed human instincts, yet together with surveillance, the opposing forces create a precarious balance between resurgence and restraint. This conflict influences the characters in […]