Opinion: A completely new take on ‘1984’

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Editor’s Note: Laura Beers is a professor of history at American University. She is the author of several books on British culture and politics, including the upcoming “Orwell’s Ghosts,” on the continuing relevance of George Orwell’s writing in the 21st century. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

George Orwell and his classic novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” are having a moment. The book ranks in the top ten on Amazon’s classic literature best seller list, and last year Russian media reported that it was the most downloaded e-book in that country.

Laura Beers - Laura Beers
Laura Beers - Laura Beers

Earlier this month, Elon Musk posted a picture on X (formerly Twitter) showing off his new T-shirt emblazoned with “What Would Orwell Think”  —  an ironic homage from a man many see as enabling a resurgence of Orwellian disinformation on the social media platform.

“Nineteen Eighty-Four,” a searing denunciation of totalitarianism, censorship and disinformation, brought us the terms “doublethink” and “Thought Police.” Its relevance in the era of Trump, Putin and Xi has led many to return to the novel or to seek it out for the first time.

The dangerous disinformation campaigns attending the outbreak of the war between Israel and Hamas earlier this month have only underscored the relevance of Orwell’s critique of those who seek to rewrite history for their own ends.

Yet, while “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is revered for its clear-eyed depiction of tyranny, there have long been those who chafed under the book’s representation of gender.

Now, nearly 75 years since its publication, the novelist Sandra Newman has produced a feminist retelling of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” which asks us to imagine how the story might have looked had it been told from the woman’s perspective.

“Julia” forms part of a long tradition of fictional retellings that complicate the perspective of an original work’s protagonist by telling the story through the eyes of a marginalized character.

Milton’s 17th-century epic poem “Paradise Lost,” which narrates the Old Testament from Satan’s perspective, is the first and arguably the best example of this genre, which also includes novels such as Jean Rhys’ 1966 “Wide Sargasso Sea,” a retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” from the perspective of Bertha, the “madwoman in the attic,” and John Gardner’s “Grendel.” There have also been film and television reinterpretations such as Disney’s latest Star Wars spinoff “Ashoka,” which offers a new female-centered perspective on the fate of the Jedi after the fall of the Empire. As with Newman’s “Julia,” the most successful retellings are both homage to and critique of the original work.

In “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” agents of the totalitarian regime’s Thought Police entrap, arrest, torture and finally mentally break a couple perceived to be dangerously disloyal to Big Brother’s regime. In Big Brother’s eyes, both are threats worth eliminating, but in Orwell’s estimation, they are not equal.

The male member of the couple is the hero of the novel. We know his full name. Winston Smith. We know that he is thirty nine years old, and a factotum in the Records department of the Ministry of Truth (where he spends his days manufacturing fake news), that he has brown eyes, bad teeth and varicose veins. The woman presumably also has a full name, but we never learn it. She is simply Julia.

In fact, according to Orwell, she is not a woman but a “girl,” whom Winston estimates to be in her late 20s. (Tellingly, the reader never learns her age, only Winston’s perception of it.) Her principal traits are her physicality and her voracious sexuality.

They both work in the Ministry of Truth, but while Winston uses his mind to rewrite history, Julia uses her hands in “some mechanical job.” She is uninterested in politics.  She falls asleep when Winston attempts to share with her his revelations about the inner workings of Big Brother’s regime and laughs with delight when he dismissively claims that she is “only a rebel from the waist downwards.”

Actors perform the adapted novel by George Orwell "1984" on the stage of the Podil theatre located in the center of Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on June 25, 2022. - Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images
Actors perform the adapted novel by George Orwell "1984" on the stage of the Podil theatre located in the center of Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on June 25, 2022. - Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

While they are both caught up in the Thought Police’s net, it’s clear that Winston is the big fish. Julia only meets O’Brien, their captor and interrogator, because Winston invites her to tag along when he pays a visit to the great man’s apartment.

At first reading, Orwell’s marginalization of Julia might seem like simply a product of its time — yet a growing body of work, including most recently Anna Funder’s “Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell’s Invisible Life,” has emerged suggesting that Orwell was exceptionally misogynistic and patriarchal even by the standards of the 1940s.

Orwell first came under attack from second-wave feminists in the 1980s, including Daphne Patai and Beatrix Campbell, who argued that his work generally ignored the position of women within society and specifically obscured the burdens that poverty places on working-class women.

A spate of archival revelations over the past few years further reinforced existing evidence that he was a philanderer who frequented prostitutes and seemingly never missed an opportunity to proposition both his wife’s friends and his friends’ wives.

So, how would the story of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” have looked different had it been told by a feminist?

For one thing, Julia would have had a last name. Julia Worthing. She would also have a fully developed backstory.  In Newman’s novel, Julia comes from a family of bourgeois socialists who are initially in the vanguard of Big Brother’s revolution.

Her family is first exiled and ultimately murdered when the leader, like the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin on whom he was modeled, consolidates his hold on power by eliminating his potential rivals within the party.

A copy of George Orwell's novel '1984' sits on a shelf at The Last Bookstore on January 25, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. - Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A copy of George Orwell's novel '1984' sits on a shelf at The Last Bookstore on January 25, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. - Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Julia’s sexuality and her anti-intellectual practical-mindedness are the tools that help her survive life as an exile and an orphan.  She sleeps her way back from exile and into a good party job in London.

She mentally compartmentalizes the crimes that she is forced to commit to survive, and she possesses a knack for black-marketeering, which keeps her in chocolates, coffee and cigarettes. Whereas Winston’s rebellion is driven by an intellectual rejection of Big Brother, hers is ultimately propelled by love. (Crucially, not love for Winston Smith who is, at best, a minor character in Julia’s story).

It’s an ingenious conceit. At several points, I found myself asking whether this portrait of Julia could really be squared with the two-dimensional picture of her that we get in “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” and whether the story that Newman tells could hold simultaneously with Orwell’s narrative. That they arguably could underscores how differently the world can look depending on your perspective.

Newman’s attempt to turn Orwell’s Oceania on its head and look at it from the perspective of a woman never granted the dignity of a last name is in many ways not dissimilar to this summer’s blockbuster attempt to reclaim “Barbie” for feminism.

Like Barbie Handler, Julia Worthing is a product of the patriarchy who refuses to stay in the box and let herself be objectified and diminished. She insists on being the heroine of her own story and, in doing so, pushes Winston Smith into a life of blond fragility.

But if the Barbie movie largely dodged the problematic question of Barbie’s hypersexualized physical appearance in favor of a focus on her intellectual awakening, Newman’s Julia remains fundamentally a rebel from the waist downwards.

Why doesn’t Julia get to be an intellectual rebel in her own right? Why must she be characterized by the traditional “feminine” traits of empathy, practicality and intuition, not to mention a stereotypical physical attractiveness?

The women’s movement has long been divided between maternalist or biological feminists who view woman as fundamentally different from men and seek to elevate and celebrate that difference, and equal rights feminists who argue that gender differences are largely societal constructs and that, but for patriarchy, empathy would not be deemed a feminine trait nor intellect a masculine one. (Others, of course, would argue that the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes.)

In doubling down on Orwell’s depiction of Julia as a practical-minded anti-intellectual, Newman’s book appears to come down firmly in the former camp.

One of my favorite parts of the original “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is a rare instance in which Orwell grants Julia intelligence and agency, with the narrator even conceding that, “In some ways she was far more acute than Winston.”

This moment comes as the couple are discussing the seemingly endless war between Oceania and its rivals, when “she startle[s] him by saying casually that in her opinion the war was not happening. The rocket bombs which fell daily on London were probably fired by the Government of Oceania itself, ‘just to keep people frightened’. This was an idea that had literally never occurred to him.”

Perhaps this is just evidence of Julia’s feminine intuition, but it at least hints that she possesses a power of reasoning equal to if not beyond Winston’s.

In exalting Julia’s feminine practicality above Winston’s idealism, Newman is arguably adhering to Orwell’s original pessimistic message about the futility of clinging to notions of intellectual freedom under absolute tyranny. But it is cold comfort to imagine that Julia might have survived by forfeiting her right to think for herself.

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