‘It was always the women’: Misogyny in 1984.

Meia
Meia
Sep 22, 2017 · 13 min read

George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) is a novel set in a hypothetical future in which London is now situated in ‘Oceania’, a state ruled by a totalitarian regime supposedly led by the elusive figure of Big Brother. The society is extremely hierarchical, with at the bottom the ‘proles’, above them the Party members, and then the members of the Inner Party. The proles are deemed so unimportant that they’re free to live their lives as they wish, but Party members are always monitored by the (Inner) Party and its Though Police. Any deviation from Party rules — or really the social norms, because there are no longer any laws (Orwell 8) — is punished. ‘Big Brother’, as everyone knows, ‘Is Watching’ (3).

It is generally thought that by depicting this grim dystopian world Orwell meant to criticize totalitarian regimes, and that he succeeded very well at this. The narrator, however, also shows a misogynistic world view, one that is often present in dystopian novels, in which women are unimportant and inferior, ‘either sexless automatons or rebels who’ve defied the sex rules of the regime’ (Atwood 516). As Daphne Patai has asserted, this is quite hypocritical: ‘Orwell assails Big Brother’s domination [of the state] but never notices that he is the perfect embodiment of hypertrophied masculinity’ (Patai, Despair 88): the narrator never ‘focuses on male power over females’ (93).

Although I do not agree with Patai’s continuous ‘blaming’ of the author himself, it is curious that a book criticizing power structures leaves power of men over women completely unquestioned. In this essay I will show how misogyny is subtly interwoven in the text of 1984. As the narrator often uses free indirect discourse (FID), it is made easy to read misogynistic descriptions as objective. This can be harmful, because it means that the narrator doesn’t just ignore gender inequality, but actually perpetuates it.

1984 starts with a third person narrator introducing the main character, Winston Smith, and his world. From the very first page, this narrator is constantly switching between what seem to be facts — the poster on the wall says BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the lift seldom works, Winston is thirty-nine and has a varicose ulcer above his right ankle — and Winston’s opinions. This means it’s difficult to tell whether the hallway “actually” ‘smelt like boiled cabbage and old rag mats’, or if that is Winston focalising, and who exactly describes Big Brother as having ‘ruggedly handsome features’ (3). The use of free indirect discourse (‘It was no use trying the lift’) ensures, like in many other books, that the main character’s focalisation is easily overlooked and taken as the truth.

It is not the case that Winston’s opinions are always presented as objective, but the narrator often alternates between the use of FID and mentioning that it is Winston who thinks something. Let us consider for example the first time Julia (at that point still nameless) is mentioned:

He did not know her name, but he knew that she worked in the Fiction Department. Presumably — since he had sometimes seen her with oily hands and carrying a spanner — she had some mechanical job on one of the novel-writing-machines. She was a bold-looking girl, of about twenty-seven, with thick dark 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. … He disliked nearly all women, and especially the young and pretty ones. It was always the women, and above all the young ones, who were the most bigoted adherents of the Party, the swallowers of slogans, the amateur spies and nosers-out of unorthodoxy. But this particular girl gave him the impression of being more dangerous than most. (11–2)

The narrator seamlessly switches between a third person narration and FID focalised by Winston. This leads to confusion, as Daphne Patai’s interpretation of this passage shows: ‘Orwell here dislodges the general comments about Party women so that they are no longer attached to Winston’s point of view but instead take on the form of reliable “facts”’ (Mystique 241), she writes. But in fact the narrator uses a textual style that simply suggests factuality. The sentence Patai refers to (‘It was always … unorthodoxy’) is surrounded by Winston’s subjectivity: ‘He disliked’, it says in the sentence before, and it is followed by ‘gave him the impression’. But still, the narrator makes it seem like Winston’s impressions of women are the truth. And these impressions are misogynistic and two dimensional.

The women that Winston-narrator describes are all empty-minded and full of party slogans: they are either like his wife ‘The Human Soundtrack’ (Orwell 69), the proles, whom he at some point watches ‘disgustedly’ (73), prostitutes, or they are self-effacing maternal figures: even when seen positively women are stereotypes (Patai, Despair 88). ‘Women are at the margins’, and ‘exist mainly as a source of frustration, irritation, or temptation’ (Bail 215). And this view is never challenged by the only woman who doesn’t fit quite into this narrative: Julia might be different, she is still first and foremost defined as a female body.

Winston starts out wanting to rape and kill Julia. Eckstein argues this stems at least partly from his fear that she is a member of the Thought Police (49), and this is probably party true, certainly when Winston wants to kill Julia because she saw him in the proles quarter (105). However, before this he has already said:

He hated her because she was young and pretty and sexless, because he wanted to go to bed with her and would never do so, because round her sweet supple waist, which seemed to ask to encircle it with your arm, there was only the odious scarlet sash, aggressive symbol of chastity. (Orwell 17)

It it thus undeniable that Winston started out hating Julia simply because he wanted to have sex with her. In knowing, or assuming, that that would never happens, Winston finds himself cheated out of something that he feels he ought to have. Possibly even cheated out of a sense of masculinity that might come with having sex with a young woman like Julia.

It seems that the only reason Winston wants ‘a woman of his own’ (71) is for her body, and the politics that come with it. When he stops ‘just’ hating Julia’s body, Winston starts to see it as a means to an end: he thinks Julia can defy the Party with it. When he dreams of her undressing, what overwhelms him is ‘admiration for the gesture with which she … throw[s] her clothes aside … as though Big Brother and the Party and the Thought Police could all be swept into nothingness by a single splendid movement of the arm’ (33). Later, he calls the same action (but this time in real life) a ‘gesture with which a whole civilisation seem[s] to be annihilated’ (131). Furthermore, he feels like his first time sex with Julia is not an act of love, or even desire for a women ‘you could not call … beautiful’ (132), but a political act.

The importance of politics versus the body changes throughout the novel, and it seems that the longer their relationship lasts, the more focused Winston is on just Julia’s body. When he gets Julia’s ‘I love you’-note, he is solely concerned about losing her ‘white youthful body’ if he doesn’t reply (115), and later on he gets ‘violently angry’ when Julia is menstruating because he feels like she is cheating him out of something he doesn’t just want desperately, but actually ‘ha[s] a right to’ (145–6). Curious to note here, too, as both Patai (Mystique 247) and Tirohl (58–9) have done, is that Julia and Winston apparently only meet up to have sex.

And although Winston at some point starts saying he loves Julia, he never quite comes around to appreciating her as a person. And at the end of the novel, when he meets Julia for the last time and his love for her has been crushed, it is only logical that she is still only described in terms of her body parts: what has changed after the torture is that her waist is thicker, her body feels like stone, and her feet have grown broader (304–5).

If we take into account that 1984 is told from the perspective of Winston, the book’s misogyny can be excused, or at least explained, by saying that it is simply Winston’s. But this does not account for the fact that the Appendix, which is written in past tense and certainly not by Winston, meaning that the narrator and Winston can be separated. In this Appendix, the narrator has made the decision to present Winston’s misogynistic views as facts, without ever questioning them, not even when it is the Party, which is constantly questioned, doing the oppressing.

Winston learns from Julia that ‘[a]ll the workers in Pornosec’, where cheap pornography is made for the proles, ‘except for the head of department, were girls’ (137). ‘The theory was that men, whose sex instincts were less controllable than those of women, were is greater danger of being corrupted by the filth they handled’ (137). This adheres to a view that women are just “naturally” less interested in sex than men, also perpetuated when we are told that ‘so far as the women were concerned, the Party’s efforts [to dirty and distort the sex instinct] were largely successful’ (69).

Again, this passage is told in FID, but it is Winston thinking: the narrator says that the Party’s view on sexuality ‘was never put into plain words’ (69), but this statement seems to be incorrect, as Julia later on mentions ‘sex talks once a months for the over-sixteens’ at school. ‘They rub it into you for years’ (139), she says. It turns out Winston has simply been ignorant of the sex education girls get.

This shows that it is not just Winston who sees women as inferior. The Party treats girls and women differently too: apparently they get ingrained in them that sex is bad and scary, and are taught to resist it, while men are not once told that sex should just be a ‘duty to the Party’. This may be intentional, as in the Appendix it is explained that according to the Party goodsex is ‘normal intercourse between man and wife, for the sole purpose of begetting children, and without physical pleasure on the part of the woman’ (319, emphasis mine).

Oppression of women, thus, is actually described in Party doctrine. That is why it is strange that while the whole story is about criticizing the Party doctrine, oppression of women is consistency left out. Did the narrator simply not notice, as his own misogyny is too deeply ingrained to find it odd?

Possibly. Because it’s not just bodies, it’s minds too. ‘Winston is contemptuous of females’ (Bail 215), and it appears the narrator is too. When talking about something else than Julia’s appearance, the narrator is often emphasizing that she’s just a stupid woman. She is, he quotes her, ‘not clever’ and she ‘[does]n’t care much for reading’ (136). Other details show her indifference towards intellectual activities: she gets ‘bored and confused’ when Winston talks to her about Newspeak (163), and falls asleep when Winston reads to her from the ‘Goldstein’ book (226). In fact, Julia doesn’t care about many things at all, ‘everything [comes] back to her own sexuality’ (139). She is ‘only a rebel from the waist downwards’, as Winston tells her (163). And this not exactly complimentary note she finds, according to the narrator, ‘brilliantly witty’ (163). These small interactions always show Winston, the man, as as serious, smart and politically engaged intellectual, all traditional masculine traits, and as the opposite of the silly girl Julia.

This preference for masculinity might explain an element of the book that doesn’t quite fit with the idea that Winston hates the Party: his admiration for O’Brien. Both Bail and Patai note that this love for O’Brien might even be stronger than that for Julia, with Bail reading ‘Winston’s relationship to Julia [as] accidental, and subordinate to his involvement with O’Brien, which seems fated and necessary (216), and Patai that ‘Orwell devotes far more space to the details of Winston’s torture than to the details of his affair with Julia’ (Mystique 239). She suggests that this is because Winston longs for ‘intimacy with O’Brien, the most powerful man he knows.’ It is certainly true that Winston never has any serious conversations with Julia, while his conversations with O’Brien are ‘at the heart of the novel’ (239). And when the men are talking, the woman is left out.

O’Brien ignores Julia, when she in Winston come to visit him, ‘seeming to take it for granted that Winston would speak for her’. Interestingly enough this is possibly the only instance that ‘the secondary status of women is commented upon’ (Tirohl 61). Both men take it for granted that the woman will not speak, and can be spoken for. But when she does speak, refuses to be separated from Winston, she is said to have ‘broke[n] in’ (Orwell 180). The game the men play, of question and promise, is rudely interrupted by the woman. Winston, who by all means should be happy that Julia loves him so much, is startled, and doesn’t know whether he is going to agree with her (180). It seems, then, that in this one instance where men are shown actively ignoring women, they have the right to do so as women will only ruin everything with their emotions. Masculinity and all that is supposed to come with that — rationality, heroism — remains the ideal. That is probably what O’Brien’s ignoring of Julia shows: he knows, or at least pretends to see, that Winston is the ‘true rebel’ (Tirohl 61).

And this true rebels still admires Inner Party member O’Brien when he is almost torturing him to death. In part 3 of the book, Julia is rarely mentioned, and she seems hardly ever on his mind. Winston’s ‘great reverence’ for O’Brien is explained in detail, when of Julia it is just occasionally said that Winston loves her, no questions asked (Orwell 286). O’Brien and Julia then, seem to be competing. O’Brien tells Winston that Julia betrayed him: ‘[i]mmediately — unreservedly. I have seldom seen anyone come over us so promptly’ (271). This however, says Eckstein, pointing out what Patai overlooked, must have been a lie, as Julia later tells Winston that they ‘threaten[ed] [her] with something — something you can’t stand up to, can’t even think about’ (305), implying that she, too, went to Room 101 before she surrendered. ‘Her resistance has been fierce’ (Eckstein 52).

The strange competition, between Julia and O’Brien, the girl with only a first name and the man with only a surname (Patai, Mystique 244) who never were equal, is in the end of course won by O’Brien. Julia only has the volatile love Winston feels for her, which often seems to be consist more of resistance of the party than actual love, while O’Brien gets his unconditional admiration. Winston is only truly defeated when he betrays Julia, which must mean that he did love her, but this also means that his biggest weakness was a woman. Had he not loved Julia, what would he have betrayed? Because of course it is not really Julia O’Brien is competing with, it is Winston himself. Even Winston’s love for Julia adds to O’Brien’s total control over him.

1984 is praised for its depiction of a disciplinary society where everyone is constantly seen like in the Panopticon, and rightfully so. It is Foucoult’s “Panopticism” reworked in novel form, which works very well because by exaggerating the reality of the society as a prison, Orwell is able to show the danger of it: the Panopticon is based on finding the abnormal and normalising it (Foucault 227), but if a single person or group gets to decide what is normal — and is there any other way? — you end up with telescreens screaming at you. This is the warning 1984 gives. Power should always be shared. And in 1949 it was not uncommon to believe that women were not capable of doing this, but we know better now. Daphne Patai has stated this:

The view of women as inferior, and their simultaneous idealization as reproductive and sexual specialists, forms an essential part of that notion and thus does not conflict with Orwell’s implicit values. But as an ideology it conflicts with his attacks on hierarchy and injustice, which remain woefully incomplete, even hypocritical (Despair 88).

In this essay I haven’t touched upon George Orwell’s misogyny like Patai does — although it is quite easily proven that Orwell didn’t like feminists all too much — because I don’t want to claim to know or dwell too much on Orwell’s intent. I have tried to show, however, that there is certainly a misogynistic discourse present, in the world of 1984 but also in its narration. The Party is extremely androcentric and Winston often seems to love O’Brien more than he loves Julia, but while some ways of the Party are continually explained, criticized and talked about, its misogyny is never foregrounded. Furthermore, due to the continuous use of free indirect discourse and the way that presents Winston’s opinions as the truth, it appears that the narrator, whoever he may be, agrees with Winston’s views as they are. And they are, like the Party’s, never even slightly proven wrong.

This all leads to a book that criticizes, and warns for, totalitarian regimes, while leaving the structural oppression of women out of every equation. 1984 is a classic and for good reasons, but it should, as any book, always be read critically. It is easy to go along with the narrative and the facts presented, but if we don’t scrutinize and discuss Winston’s and the narrator’s views, as we are free to do so, when we just take the authority of this text for granted, when we go along with its view of what is normal, just like that, we have learned nothing from it.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake ‘In Context.’” PMLA, 119.3 (2004): 513–17. JSTOR. Web. 22 June 2017.

Bail, Paul. “Sexuality as Rebellion in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949).” Women in Literature: Reading Through the Lens of Gender. Ed. Jerilyn Fisher and Ellen S. Silber. Westport: Greenwood Group, 2003. 215–17. Google Books. Web. 19 June 2017.

Eckstein, Arthur. “Orwell, Masculinity, and Feminist Criticism.” The Intercollegiate Review 21.1 (1985): 47–54. Isistatic. Web. 20 June 2017.

Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism.” Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1995. 195–228. Monoskop. Web. 22 June 2017.

Orwell, George. 1984. London: Penguin Books, 2008. Print.

Patai, Daphne. “Gamesmanship and Androcentrism in Nineteen Eighty-Four.” The Orwell Mystique: A Study in Male Ideology. Amherst: U of Massachusetts, 1984. 219–63. EBSCOhost. Web. 20 June 2017.

— — — “Orwell’s Despair, Burdekin’s Hope: Gender and Power in Dystopia.” Women’s Studies International Forum 7.2 (1984): 85–95. ScienceDirect. Web. 18 June 2017.

Tirohl, Blu. “‘We are the dead… you are the dead’. An examination of sexuality as a weapon of revolt in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Journal of Gender Studies 9.1 (2000): 55–61. Taylor and Francis Online. Web. 18 June 2017.

Meia

Written by

Meia

I study literature and don’t ask me what I’m going to be when I grow up

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade