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  • Writer's pictureEvelyn Chen

The Startling Lack of Female Representation in "1984"

Since its inception, 1984 by George Orwell has been hailed as ‘the most arresting political novel written by an Englishman since Rex Warner's The Aerodrome’. The fact that most readers know 1984 but not The Aerodrome is a testament to 1984's enduring impact on culture and political discourse around the world. However, whilst 1984 deftly critiques enduring issues such as censorship and the role of the state, there is a distinct lack of female representation in 1984.

In 1984 Orwell names his protagonist Winston Smith, an amalgamation of the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the common surname ‘Smith’. The first name ‘Winston’ gives readers hope that he would eventually win against the dictatorship since his namesake, Winston Churchill, led Britain to victory in World War II, where 1984 is also set. However, readers are reminded of the contradiction within his character and role in the story by the common surname ‘Smith’, since ‘Smith’ implies that he is also an ‘everyman’ whose individuality is denied by the Party and who ultimately lacks the strength to defeat the Party.

The name of the protagonist is certainly well thought-out, unlike the name of the love interest, Julia. Julia’s lack of surname highlights the lack of importance both Winton and Orwell assign to her due to her gender. The critic Daphne Patai argues that Winston willingly partakes in this game of power because he wants ‘the recognition that O’Brien alone can bestow upon him’, implying that he sees O’Brien as his equal. In contrast, Winston never sees Julia as his equal, having only noticed and used her for sexual pleasure. This is clear from the novel’s beginning when Winston fears and hates Julia for refusing to sleep with him: she is ‘young and pretty’ but does not appear to have sex with any men, causing Winston to ‘hate’ her. Winston’s fixation on Julia’s sexuality shows how Winston feels entitled to her because she of her physical attractiveness, a sexist attitude that may reflect men’s attitude towards women in the era Orwell wrote this in.

In a book focusing on politics, Orwell goes to great lengths to highlights Julia’s lack of political interest. For example, she falls asleep after Winston reads excerpts of Goldstein’s book, which is a contrast to Winston’s more intellectual and politicised character. This can be seen to trivialise women’s involvement in the political process, thereby making women in general almost irrelevant participants in the society of Oceania—perhaps what Orwell thought of women in his own time. The female characters besides Julia are also treated as caricatures—there are stereotypically helpless housewives such as Mrs. Parsons and Katharine the devout Party Wife, all of which incomparable in character development to the male characters of Syme and O’Brien. In his other work, Orwell also displays little interest in exploring women’s issues, preferring instead to explore socialism and fascism, the two ideologies which were driving bloody wars and revolutions in Germany, Russia, China and many other nations.

Whilst Orwell’s 1984 has left a great impact on global culture, society should focus now on how similar works explore women’s place in society. A good place to start is Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, a novel that inspired a TV miniseries.

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