Finding Happiness in Dystopia: Classical Notions of Freedom & Happiness in Zamyatin’s ‘We’

In his novel We, Zamyatin presents among his key themes the pursuit for happiness two opposing ideas of freedom. I intend to show the linkage between the concepts of happiness and freedom within We, arguing that Zamyatin presents something similar to the classical notions of these two things: That happiness is the personal experience one has upon attaining a good, and that freedom is the ability to choose the good. 

According to OneState, and according to the protagonist for much of the novel, freedom is an evil, equated with criminality: “The only means to rid man of crime is to rid him of freedom.” (Zamyatin, 36) For freedom here means to be able to choose one’s own desires, regardless of whether or not it benefits oneself—and it inevitably will bring about one’s own harm, as history has shown—so the best way to ensure one’s good, one’s happiness (one’s good is to be happy), is to enslave oneself to a benevolent master who will ensure you are not free, but are given what is good (to OneState, part of what is good is slavery itself). All this lies on the premise, unstated, that freedom means to be able to do whatever one wants. 

But what if freedom means to be able to choose the good? As an example, a drug addict wants to abuse substances. Is he free? No, because he must choose the bad, the drugs. I, however, could abuse substances, but I choose health instead—I choose the good—therefore I am free. Were I forced to choose health, I would not be free. If we take this premise, we can actually keep OneState’s implicit premise that a thing is good if it helps one attain happiness, which is attainment of the good. But if I am not free, I cannot choose the good, cannot choose happiness. The basis of this lies in that happiness is the fulfillment of desire, and that man’s innate desire is for the good. Thus, before continuing on to happiness, I must digress to the notion of desire. 

In We, I-330 satirically presents OneState’s view, saying, “And happiness. . . what is it, after all? Desires are a torment, aren’t they? And it’s clear that happiness is when there are no longer any desires, not even one. . . .” (177) I-330 presents OneState’s happiness as a lack of desire, because desire necessarily leads to suffer. In Greek, “pathos” means both to suffer and to desire; and this remains in English, wherein “passion” may mean a strong desire or emotion, but also suffering (as in “the Passion of Christ;” coming from the Latin “pati,” “suffer”). Here also, Zamyatin presents this link between desire and suffering, as D-503 narrates a thought that comes from his “not me,” that new and rebellious “soul” that ultimately is crushed: “Can it be that everyone harbors the kind of pain that can be extracted only along with the heart. . . ?” Understanding the heart as the seat of desire, the “not me” D-503 and I-330 (the latter through satire) present this key theme that we must clarify before moving on: According to OneState, happiness is the attainment of the good, but suffering is not a good; and desire necessitates suffering, therefore to attain happiness one must eliminate suffering. This argument relies on the premise that suffering is not a good, that one cannot be happy while suffering. I-330 and D-503 challenge this assumption; so I contend with previous argument according to the following: Happiness is the attainment of the good, and demands the personal choice of the good—that is, it requires a desire for the good. This personal choice for the good, then, leads us to the idea of freedom. 

We have already seen I-330 present OneState’s concept of happiness as a lack of desire. D-503 discusses this early in the novel, before his “not me” comes out, saying that happiness equals the quotient of bliss over envy. Here he presents envy as equal to desire, speaking of envy in terms of the natural desire for food and for love (here, therefore, envy is not necessarily the desire for another’s good, as some may define it). But D-503 claims that “[t]he denominator of the happiness fraction has been reduced to zero and the fraction becomes magnificent infinity.” (23) Here the mathematician D-503, who expresses consternation at “a thing [he] couldn’t express in numbers,” (8) uses a mathematical law that applies only in setting limits in calculus, such as for an integral (note the name of the ship D-503 builds—the INTEGRAL). But in concrete mathematics, in a world where the limits are unknown and man does not make them, anything divided by zero is “undefined.” Later, as “not me” D-503 appears and discusses one of the aforementioned desires—love—with I-330, he narrates that he has become a slave to her; and she says, “You can only love something that refuses to be mastered.” (71) In other words, you can only seek the good—the happiness—of something, if it in turn freely chooses that good. I note that he has become a slave to her because it is not D-503 who attains happiness in the novel, because at the end his head is “easy and empty,” and “there’s nothing to keep [him] from smiling.” (224) Nothing, because he has nothing—he has no good, ergo no happiness. Moreover, his relationship with I-330 fails, because he never felt he was feely choosing her; rather he “can’t manage without her,” (83) lusting after her “blindly” (97). 

Instead, we see O-90 go on to attain happiness: She has freely chosen—criminally, in fact—a child, which she desires more than her own life (109). And she has left the confines of OneState and its mathematically abstract values, escaping beyond the green wall into the “uncalculated life” that D-503 imagines may contain happier creatures (91). Here, attaining and possessing her good, she has what the other two main characters lack: life, for I-330 dies; and desire by a good, for D-503 desires, is fulfilled by, nothing. So O-90 freely chooses the good, and in attaining it—through suffering (we may note how suffering is particularly associated with childbearing)—she attains happiness. 

Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. New York, Penguin Books, 1993.

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