A Different View of Women in Orwell's 1984
Though some critics acknowledge that in a few of his writings, George Orwell's portrayal of women is sympathetic and relatively modern given the era in which he was raised, that in the novel , he largely presents misogynistic and stereotypical views of women. 1984
In examining the characters of the book, these critics argue that there aren’t any positive portrayals of women in the novel 1984. Because of this, it has been suggested that the novel presents what is primarily a masculine ideology held by Orwell. Yet a closer look at the female character in the novel, and how Winston and the Party react to them, that the women in the novel are actually presented as the ones who will maintain society and allow for hope in the future.
Female characters that have pointed to as having an important impact on the story include Julia, Winston’s mother and several of the lower class Prole women. However, others have argued that these are not exceptions to the stereotypical portrayal which trivializes women. These individuals argue that Julia doesn’t really direct or impact the plot at any point and the others are unimportant as they are minor characters.
On the surface this position could be seen to have merit. Julia is presented as shallow, generally uninterested in any type of intellectual pursuit and she falls asleep in the middle of seemingly important conversations. The other characters are, in fact, minor characters appearing only in a single scene or a few scant memories of the protagonist. Yet each of these characters, regardless of how many pages they appear on, have a major impact on Winston, and present an ongoing theme of the ways in which women influence men and the world around them. Although it may seem that the author himself holds negative views of women or that he is deliberately portraying female characters in a prejudicial manner, the nature of the description related to them shows their importance.
The first description of Julia in the novel 1984 begins with what on the surface may seem to be attractive characteristics. However, this is quickly overshadows by transitions into a description about how undesirable the protagonist, Winston Smith, finds them.
“She was a bold-looking girl, of about twenty-seven, with thick hair, a freckled face, and swift, athletic movements. A narrow scarlet sash, emblem of the Junior Anti-Sex League, was wound several times round the waist of her overalls, just tightly enough to bring out the shapeliness of her hips. Winston had disliked her from the very first moment of seeing her. He knew the reason. It was because of the atmosphere of hockey-fields and cold baths and community hikes and general clean-mindedness which she managed to carry about with her. He disliked nearly all women, and especially the young and pretty ones.” (p. 23)
Julia, who is a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League, is exactly the type of girl that Winston can’t stand. She is pretty, seemingly chaste, and, at least outwardly, loyal to the party. Yet it becomes clear that Winston’s strong reaction to Julia results from his longing for her and his feelings of hopelessness due to his certainty he can never end up with such a girl.
The Party, the totalitarian governing body, does not encourage love matches and sex outside of purely functional relations between man and wife for the sole purpose of procreation is a punishable offense. In a society that uses constant surveillance, referred to by the frequent statement, "Big Brother is watching," to monitor its citizens and trains even the children to turn in family members and friends for offenses against the government, risking rebellion for someone who doesn’t appear trustworthy would be suicide.
Even this opening, consisting of a seeming distasteful description of Julia, points to the power she has over Winston. He may have strongly negative feelings towards her to the point he wants to rape and kill her in the beginning, but the ability to elicit such strong feelings speaks to the strength of her influence over him. Whereas Winston is overwhelmed with feelings of desire for her and other women, he won’t take a chance and approach any of them and instead subjugates his desire into hatred.
Julia, on the other hand, lives life according to her desires and finds ways to be with the men she chooses to be with while avoiding capture. She has the strength to do what she wants and in the process even manages to defy the Party which she hates as much as Winston does.
Not only is Julia not a weak a character in 1984, she seems to have more going for her than Winston. She is more perceptive and sensible than Winston and understands the Party better than he does even if she doesn’t care about the politics behind it. She is more clever in and is more cunning in the ways that she rebels against the Party. While Winston expresses his wishes about the Parties possible downfall in emotional terms, wanting to attack the Party at it’s very heart, Julia sees this as a fantasy.
Instead of focusing on unrealistic goals, she finds ways to get around the Party doctrine without calling attention to herself. This can be seen as a more mature response to a system that is in complete control when there is no real resistance movement that can be looked to for possible deliverance from the oppression.
Winston’s antipathy for women results from him blaming them for letting the party turn them into sexless beings who are expected to have sex only to have children but to never enjoy the act. The party has also tried to get rid of the feminine qualities of women such as affection and care-giving. For example, children aren’t meant to be nurtured, just raised to be obedient to the Party. The fact that Winston is angry at women for letting this happen to them underscores the power and ability he subconsciously believes them to have. He feels they should have somehow prevented this from happening.
Julia, however, doesn’t follow the Party’s rules, instead breaking them at every turn. She is clever enough to appear to be obedient externally but also finds ways to live according to her desires not those of the Party. She gives Winston hope, and he begins to imagine a world where he can think and do whatever he wants after they overthrow the Party. Julia also validates his beliefs and his feelings. She has a strong impact on Winston’s life, outlook and actions.
The Prole woman in 1984 is described unflatteringly as, “Swollen like fertilized fruit and grown hard and red and coarse” (p. 181). However, it is this sturdy nature that both Winston and Julia admire. Winston also notes that despite all the work the Prole woman must do, she is constantly singing throughout, something Winston finds hopeful. It represents the “Vitality the party did not share and could not kill” (pg.182).
Winston also equates the woman’s singing with freedom as members of the Party never sing. The Proles make up a large majority, 85 percent of the population of Oceania. Winston believes that if the Proles were to become fully aware of their plight that they would rebel and bring down the Party.
The Prole woman’s build, stocky and broad, is a symbol of the ability to reproduce and keep the society going. Winston and Julia view her as beautiful as she will be able to give birth to future generations of children who will become rebels against the Party. So in addition to presenting this woman as strong and resilient, as Julia was presented, the Prole woman is also presented as being able to remain happy in the face of difficulty and able to not just help ensure the survival of her generation but also generations in the future. The fact Winston and Julia see her children as intent on overthrowing the Party, speaks to her effectiveness as a mother and as having the ability to influence her children to do what is right for all members of the society.
Winston’s mother in the novel 1984 is the woman who most clearly encompasses true inner humanity. She is governed by “private loyalties,” the antithesis of Party values. Her nature is described by the statement, “It would not have occurred to her to that an action that is ineffectual thereby becomes meaningless.” “A completely helpless gesture, an embrace, a tear, a word spoken to a dying man,” are valued in their own right as they represent individual relationships. Winston remembers a time when women showed affection for affections sake alone.
In a dream, Winston remembers his mother making this kind of embracing gesture, and associates a similar gesture with the mother in the film who is trying to shield her child from bullets. These gestures are associated with nobility and purity in Winston’s mind.. They emanate from the strength, nurturance and protecting nature of women, that Winston sees as being embodied by his mother.
In another memory of his mother, Winston remembers playing a board game with her on a rainy afternoon, right before she disappears. The memory includes his younger sister and it is a happy memory of laughter and playing together just to enjoy each others company. It is clearly his mother who is holding the family tightly together and binding them into a cohesive unit. The family members love and care for each other have aspirations other than just pleasing the Party or gaining brownie points by turning people in as revolutionaries to be tortured. She establishes an atmosphere where affection is shown for affections sake alone. Her very disappearance speaks to her strength and influence as if she was not seen as a threat to the Party they would not have taken her.
The Prole Mother in the Movie and The Prole Woman in the Theater
One day Winston goes to see a movie which shows a young boy and his mother being attacked. The mother instinctively puts her arms around him trying to comfort him covering him up as much as possible as if that protect him from the bullets. The love this mother feels for her child completely outweighs her own instinct of self preservation and she doesn’t consider her own danger, only that of her sons. She automatically puts herself in harm's way despite there being no chance either of them will survive the situation.
This further builds on the memories Winston has of his mother, as it shows the direct connection between parent and child which comes before every other need. It also is an example of how people have the ability to be selfless, despite the Parties efforts to reinforce a type of selfishness by suggesting that it is right for people to do whatever it takes to increase the chance of their survival. This is ironic in a society perpetrated on the idea that everyone must come together under a common umbrella of Party loyalty first without thoughts to their own needs.
Winston feels conflicted when watching this scene as part of him longs to be able to experience and express these types of emotions yet he knows that such thoughts are a betrayal against Party values. He recounts this scene in his diary showing how strongly it affected him, along with an account of a Prole mother who becomes furious at what the movie showed and that it was showed to children.
This woman’s reactions underscores the Prole mothers’ focus on protecting their children and putting them first even to the mother’s own detriment. This outburst occurs when the theater is filled with Party members, which poses a clear risk to the mother that she will be taken into custody. Yet her first impulse is protecting other children from seeing the violence and deaths portrayed in the movie. The Proles’ family relationships make them more compassionate and able to overcome their natural selfish instincts and this is, in large part, due to the women.
Summary and Conclusions
Most of the critical analysis of Orwell’s novel 1984 to date, views the author’s portrayal of women as stereotypical and misogynistic. There has been much discussion of the female characters in the book and they have been largely viewed as weak willed, shallow, unintelligent and willing to just do what they are told. Yet, a closer look at these characters can actually uncover a different way of interpreting their roles in the book and what that says about women in general.
Julia is a pragmatist, knowing how to operate within the societies limitations, accepted rules and laws. She has devised a system to appear to the Party observers as the obedient, law abiding woman who openly supports Party policy, as demonstrated by her participation in the Junior Anti-Sex League. She understands what Winston doesn’t, mainly that they can’t overthrow the entire government and so she learns how to pursue what makes her happy, while limiting the risk of being caught. Ultimately, she is caught due to her relationship with Winston.
The Prole woman below his window that sings regardless of the situation she finds herself in. This establishes the simple yet powerful nature of these women and suggest an inner strength shown that establishes resiliency, no matter what the circumstance. Winston’s believes that the Prole women are the only hope for the future of not just Oceania but the entire world.
Winston’s mother establishes the nature of women, a nature that is defined by compassion, affections and a strong commitment to family cohesion which is not determined by the Party. His memories of her despite her disappearance many years before shows that her influence over him was actually stronger than the Party’s. This dedication to family was further developed through the Prole woman in the movie who put her child’s welfare before her own, and a similar impulse in the mother in the theater who put herself at risk to speak out against the movie’s content.
Ultimately, in the novel 1984 women are not portrayed as weak willed, unintelligent beings who serve the men and must fulfill their desires without having any desires of their own or experiencing any pleasure themselves. The strong effect that the female characters have on Winston can be seen as something other than a prejudicial presentation of women.
The intensity of Winston’s reaction to Julia, his belief about the singing Prole woman, his memories of his mother which haven’t been overwritten by the Party, his noticing and understanding the actions of the prole woman in the movie and the theater, all suggest that the women in this society had definite import. If the Party needs to be afraid of a group of people undermining their authority, it is the women who the biggest threat to their continued leadership. Winston’s strong reactions and the Parties treatment of women both strengthen this position.
If you found this article interesting, you might enjoy these others, as well.
- The Meaning of War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength in Orwell’s 1984
- Similarities in the Surveillance Presented in Orwell’s 1984 Compared to Present Day and Beyond
- Why Did Orwell Choose Freedom is Slavery Instead of Slavery is Freedom as the Second Slogan in 1984?
- How has Orwell’s Novel 1984 Come True Today?
Orwell, G. (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four. New York: Signet Classics.
© 2018 Natalie Frank