Unseen response: Dystopia for OCR

Based on the following extract from Zamyatin’s ‘We’, this is a short model response which might be used in teaching of OCR A level Literature.

5: We, Yengeny Zamyatin 1922

I have just looked over what I had written yesterday, and I see that I did not express myself clearly enough. Of course, it is all entirely clear to any of us. But perhaps you, the unknown readers to whom the Integral will bring my notes, have reached only that page in the great book of civilization that our ancestors read some nine hundred years ago. Perhaps you do not know even about such elementary things as the Table of Hours, the Personal Hour, the Maternity Norm, the Green Wall, and the Benefactor. It seems to me ridiculous yet very difficult to speak about all this. It is as if a writer of, say, the twentieth century had to explain in his novel the meaning of “coat,” or “apartment,” or “wife.” Yet, if his novel were to be translated for savages, how could he avoid explaining what a “coat” meant?

I am certain that a savage would look at the “coat” and wonder, “What is it for? It’s only a hindrance.” It seems to me that your response may be exactly the same when I tell you that none of us has been beyond the Green Wall since the Two Hundred Years’ War.

But, my dear readers, a man must think, at least a little. It helps. After all, it is clear that the entire history of mankind, insofar as we know it, is the history of transition from nomadic to increasingly settled forms of existence. And does it not follow that the most settled form (ours) is at the same time the most perfect (ours) ? People rushed about from one end of the earth to the other only in prehistoric times, when there were nations, wars, commerce, discoveries of all sorts of Americas. But who needs that now? What for?

I admit, the habit of such settled existence was not achieved easily, or all at once. During the Two Hundred Years’ War, when all the roads fell into ruin and were overgrown with grass, it must at first have seemed extremely inconvenient to live in cities cut off from one another by green jungles. But what of it? After man’s tail dropped off, it must have been quite difficult for him at first to learn to drive off flies without its aid. In the beginning he undoubtedly missed his tail. But now—can you imagine yourself with a tail? Or can you imagine yourself in the street naked, without a coat? (For you may still be trotting about in “coats.”) And so it is with me: I cannot imagine a city that is not dad in a Green Wall; I cannot imagine a life that is not regulated by the figures of our Table.

The Table … At this very moment, from the wall in my room, its purple figures on a field of gold stare tenderly and sternly into my eyes. Involuntarily, my mind turns to what the ancients called an “icon,” and I long to compose poems or prayers (which are the same thing). Oh, why am I not a poet, to render fitting praise to the Table, the heart and pulse of the One State!


Useful contexts: The novel was written in the early 1920s in Russia and was a response to the new spirit of Bolshevism which had replaced the tsar. So critical is it of the new regime that it was banned immediately and remained banned for many years. It is narrated by a mathematician known only by a number -the re are no personalities in the ‘glass city’.

It is a clear influence on Orwell writing 1984, and is required reading for all A level students studying the Dystopia module.

The PDF contains a transmission error: ‘I cannot imagine a city that is not dad in a Green Wall;’

Unseen: time allowed including planning: 55 minutes.

The passage is set in future. The date is not clear, but references to the past, including a reference to the ‘Twentieth Century’ are given in such a way to suggest that the narrator is looking back from some distance in the future. It is clear that there has been some form of world trauma -‘the Two hundred Years’ War’ – and that at some point all roads and ‘fell into ruin’ in manner suggestive of Russell Hoban’s novel Riddley Walker, in which all the great road networks of Britain have returned to footpaths in the manner of the Bronze Age paths crossing the country. In this text, however, there is no clear problem caused and the narrator is not clear whether or not the roads have ever been rebuilt or have simply been rendered redundant by a society which is clearly technologically advanced compared to ours. Whatever the ‘Integral’ may be, it is clearly some form of transmission device capable of transporting the writer’s words to another time and place.

The only clear liminal marker is that referred to as the ‘green wall’. The phrase suggests not only a boundary, but also by the choice of colour, a non-threatening one, perhaps natural and fertile, an idea developed when the narrator refers to the ‘green jungles’ which once surrounded the cities of the Earth. A modern society separated in some way from a less developed society is a common trope in much Dystopian writing, such as Brave New World or Logan’s Run. Here there is no sense of what or who may lie beyond, rather that the world being described is somehow protected by its wall.

The voice of the narrator is clear and precise. Despite the advances of time, he says that he has ‘written’ him material and recognises the need for ‘greater clarity’ in his writing. Presumably the writing, which is destined to be delivered by the ‘Integral’ is designed to speak to distant civilisations much in the same way as NASA have sent time capsules far into space in the late 20th Century.  It is clear that the reader – addressed directly in the second person – are not expected to be fully cognisant of this new world and are referred to as reading  in a time redolent of some 900 years ago, suggesting a literal 30th Century as a time of writing. The writer wishes to explain his lack of clarity and in doing so refers to key ideas -all capitalised- which serve to organise the new world order. Such terms as the Maternity Norm or the Green Wall are suggestive of the kind of euphemistic nomenclature used in Dystopian writings to shield the truth behind a veneer of normality. Such a technique is used throughout Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go to great effect.

The passage does not explain what these concepts actually are, though the writer is clearly in thrall to The Table, to the degree that the concept is personified as looking ‘tenderly and sternly into [his] eyes’ almost in manner intended to recall the driving emotions of a pair of parents. The writer also used colour to describe the appearance of the Table on his wall -Purple and Gold are regal colours suggestive both of power, beauty and value. There is no doubt that the Table is held in massive esteem, so much so that the writer compares it to an ‘icon’ thus giving it the same significance as a valued religious artefact held to a reader in the early 20th century in Russia.

The narrator/writer tells us little about himself directly. He writes in a confident first person narrative and gives the reader hints that he is aware of the inherent lack of reliability in a first person narrative when he adds explanations of his thought processes in the manner of Kathy, the narrator of Never Let Me Go. He is ‘certain’of his thoughts, yet is aware that none of ‘us has been beyond the Green Wall for two hundred years’. He does not explain any of his references, for he has no need to do so. Instead he hypothesises about life for the ‘savages’ and tries to relate the experience of the earliest forms of mankind to the response of a ‘savage’ seeing his world (obviously a world which has moved far beyond ‘coats’) and in doing so heightens the sense of distance between his world and that of the reader.

His writing is clear and factual. He has no need for figurative language since all can be clearly explained. He is frank -‘I admit’ – and suggests that the new world was not achieved easily, although he is certain about the quality of the world -highlighted in the use of parentheses to repeat the pronoun ‘ours’ when explaining the the equation linking ‘settled’ peoples to quality of life.  Despite his assertions, however, the last paragraph suggests that all may not be perfect.  As it starts, the ellipsis requires him to pause and think. The pair of adverbs regarding the Table are ordered to reinforce the controlling aspect of the concept, and the fact that the Table can ‘stare’ suggests an intrusion in the manner of the telescreens in Orwell’s 1984.  His thoughts of the icon are ‘involuntary’ suggesting an emotional response -something which has been absent from the narrative thus far and something which prepares us for the link to a ‘poem or prayer’ -an intrinsically emotional response to an idea. The fact that the narrator can call them the ‘same thing’ suggests that he is out of touch with organised religion and is focusing more on the nature of the language of the two forms. Only at this stage does he become emotional -he ‘long(s)’ to write and concludes the passage with an apostrophe as he asks ‘oh, why am I not a poet…’ and although he seeks to write praise to the guiding Table of the evidently totalitarian ‘One State’, there is a hint of a surprising level of emotional engagement with his writing. He is not as fully formed as a Winston Smith, but is perhaps closer in tone to H.G. Wells’ narrator in War of the Worlds -a rational man, prone to outbursts of emotion, helped by the first person narrative.

The text introduces a controlling One State which exerts close control over its inhabitants. It allows the awareness of a tantalizing world beyond the ‘Green Wall’, one which no one has visited. It is too common a trope of Dystopias that we should imagine he will not be the first to do so.