by Yevgeny Zamyatin

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What are some literary devices used in Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel We?

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D-530, the fictional person writing the story of the "One State," has, oddly enough, a poetic streak and that comes out through his first-person narrative. For example, he uses a metaphor when he compares life in the One State to an "epic poem." He employs repetition to create a sense of emphasis when he repeats "my cheeks burn." That phrase itself is a euphemism for shame or embarrassment.

This novel is a satire, critiquing the overly scientific and mechanistic pretensions of the early communist state in Russia, and Zamyatin manipulates point-of-view to poke fun at the worship of the sterile and the orderly. D-530 begins the novel, as is often the case with first person satires, as a true, unquestioning believer in the system. The imagery—description employing the five senses of sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch—with which he describes nature reflects what his society most values. For instance, he waxes ecstatic, even to the point of exclamation, over the orderly sky he sees: "we love—skies like this, sterile and flawless!" He leans into metaphor as he says the "whole world is blown from the same shatterproof, everlasting glass as the glass of the Green Wall." In other words, he sees the world as mechanistic, as if created from glass produced in a factory. \

D-530 continues by writing with alliteration—words beginning with the same consonant placed in close proximity—and assonance—words beginning with the same vowel placed close together—as he waxes comically about the perfection of even the the everyday things of world: "marvelous expressions of mathematical equality."

The novel uses the literary device of dreams to help unlock and provide access to D-530's severely repressed unconscious, while the clear, glass-walled apartments every one lives in are symbolic of the complete intrusion of the state into the private life of the individual—a private life the state has worked to wipe out.

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One literary device Zamyatin uses extensively is writing style: the novel is told in the form of first-person POV diary entries and the writing style of these entries evolves as the protagonist, D-503, changes his views about the dystopian world in which he lives. At first, he is a model citizen: cold, machine-like, and clinical in the way he expresses himself. However, as he begins to question the dominant order, emotional outbursts and uncertainty begin to lace his prose, as in the following passage:

Now I no longer live in our clear, rational world; I live in the ancient nightmare world, the world of square roots of minus one.

Note how D-503 is still using mathematical terminology to describe his interior state. However, that he is acknowledging his interior state at all is a major psychological development.

Though he does not make use of allusions as extensively, there are a few in Zamyatin's novel, primarily relating to the Garden of Eden story in the Book of Genesis. The condition of Adam and Eve, before and after the fall, is compared to D-503's situation as a defecting member of the state. D-503 can either have, as Adam and Eve did within the walls of Eden, "happiness without freedom," or, as they did when in exile, "freedom without happiness." By drawing parallels to Genesis, Zamyatin is also designating D-503 as an Adam-like figure, trying to re-embrace what once made his ancestors human.

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Much like Ann Rand's dystopian novel Anthem, the society of We is also one that emphasizes collective identity. And, in another parallel, the collective personality threatens to overwhelm the individual in struggles over conformity. 

“The only means of ridding man of crime is ridding him of freedom” (an example of literary parallelism, a recurrent device that entails the syntactical similarity of different parts of a sentence).

This novel is written in the form of a diary that begins with "We"; however, as the pages of this diary are filled, the individual "I" begins to break free as his emerging human emotions come into play. However, this individuality is dangerous to the state's control, so Engineer D-503 is given an operation. But 0-90, pregnant with D-503's child, breaks to freedom and lives among the primitives.

Certainly, the literary style of Zamyatin is full of literary artistry. Here, then, are other examples of literary devices at work in We:

  • Chiasmus (a literary device in which the order of the terms in the first of two parallel clauses is reversed in the second): "But I am ready, like every one, or almost everyone, of us. I am ready."
  • Paradox (A phrase or sentence that seems to be contradictory, but is actually true): "The text is me; and simultaneously not me"; "slow sweet pain"
  • Figure of speech (A phrase or sentence used in a non-literal sense to give added meaning): I feel my cheeks burn.
  • Imagery (the use of words that appeal to the senses) and Alliteration (the repetition of initial consonant sounds) and Allusion (a reference; here the "Ancients" are the peoples of the old world).

But then, the sky! Blue, untainted by a single cloud [visual imagery]...the Ancients [allusion] had such barbarous tastes given that their poets could have been inspired by such stupid, sloppy silly-lingering [alliteration with /s/] clumps of vapor.

  • Simile (a comparison of two unlike things or ideas, using "like" or "as)

...you looked at everything around you with such an inspired air, like mythical god on the seventh day of creation.

The novel We is a satire (writing that holds up to contempt the faults of a group) of the Communist leaders who followed the Bolshevik Revolution.

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