Once, I tried to use 1984 as a self-imposed deadline. I thought I was allowing myself a reasonable time to complete my dissertation – which I began in 1980 – and the date seemed somehow meaningfully symbolic. At that point, 1984 represented the unimaginably distant future. (I missed that deadline.)
For some time thereafter, 1984 became simply a date in the increasingly distant past or, when I occasionally thought about the novel, Big Brother and surveillance society or, more distantly, Newspeak and doublethink.
Recently, I have joined the many others listing George Orwell’s 1984 alongside other dystopias to describe the present: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, the Parable series by Octavia Butler, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. At first, I resisted re-encountering these books because today’s news seemed sufficiently dystopic for me. I started and stopped Lewis’s book, and began a project to re-read Octavia Butler but could not continue. The news was enough trauma, I thought. Reading as escape was serving me well whereas reading that reinforced trauma or even verged on the proto-politica; seemed . . . unreasonable.
I was taking what actions I could in the political arena and in civil society, but I was not going to read (or watch) dystopias.
This summer I gave in to watching the new, streaming version of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. I watched with my partner and in large measure because she wanted to do so. The costuming had already become part of political protest culture and I had read the book many years ago. I wavered between resistance and recognition. Suspension of disbelief seemed unnecessary or irrelevant. The series was entrancing and painful (and worth the watch).
Then, I began 1984, again in large measure because I was accommodating others, in this case the endeavor called “One Book, Many Conversations.” I read it in a few days, with a slow down during what felt like the boring parts. Only in retrospect do I see that, as is the case with the present, the repetition of the ideological had its effect: boredom combined with panic. A certain frightened lassitude. Though I have argued for years that our increasingly ahistorical framework is itself the enemy – on this re-read I was reminded that (as is viscerally evident in today’s America) some of the erasure of history is intentional and all of it is consequential. Unlike my first reading of 1984 when the Vietnam War was ongoing, I am now old enough to know that we have been at war for my entire lifetime, whether we call it war or not and whoever we are referring to when we use the word “we.” I know that it is more than a theoretical device to entangle notions of memory with notions of history.
As important as these reminders were, I saw something else in 1984 on this reading, something I had not remembered. I was fascinated to find that like the dystopias by Atwood and Butler that I had read much more recently than 1984, Orwell, too, places gender politics at the heart of his dystopia. I had forgotten this or, perhaps, the last time I read it, which might have been in high school, I did not recognize what I was reading as gender politics. While I have since discovered that these themes have been addressed by scholars and students (in response to assigned writing prompts) regularly in the past 30-40 years, as a reader with little context on Orwell and a deep commitment to both gender justice and work against sexism and homophobia, I was simultaneously pleased and deeply put off as I re-read Orwell with these themes in mind.
I began my reading by trying to keep track of the literal visibility of women. While the novel is written through the lens of Winston Smith and thus his particular masculinity, his encounters with women begin early in the novel and can be read as definitive of the trajectory of a (youngish, heterosexual, presumably white, male, party member) in a totalitarian world: women are encountered as co-workers, marital partners, mothers, prostitutes, lovers, strangers. They are the object of fantasy and projection and hope, as well as the site of loathing. While women vary by their relationship, for example, to the Party, they are defined by clothes and scent and understood in the workplace (for example) as less susceptible to the temptations of desire than men (and hence put in charge of creating pornography). Masculinity is defined, in part, as hatred of women, as ugliness and as submitting to power (on the one hand) or lusting for power for power’s sake (on the other hand).
In fact, if I were imagining a subtitle for 1984, it might be “the romance of totalitarianism.” Here, we have a novel that might be described as a dystopia of love and marriage, family and sex. While isolation is part of what enables totalitarianism, so too does the management of sex (labeled by some of Orwell’s characters “doing one’s duty to the party”), the family (including children well indoctrinated to scrutinize their parents), and furtive, ultimately unsuccessfully closeted, romance. Heterosexuality of a very particular kind – its embodiment and its betrayal – are the core of the tale. Women thus become wives, mothers, prostitutes, lovers – betrayers and betrayed -- of very particular kinds.
What distinguishes 1984 from The Handmaid’s Tale and Octavia Butler’s Parable series? The centering of London rather than North America merits mention as does the centering of race by Butler which serves to remind us that Orwell does not. More obviously, for both Atwood and Butler religion is critically important as both source of misogynist dystopia and (on very rare occasion) the possibility of freedom. In this centering of religion, those that are most deeply problematic are varieties of Christianity that we know well today. As the two authors intentionally center religion, they also are intentional in their centering of women as human. Orwell, of course, does not. While the societies offered as exemplifications of risky possibilities toward which we are hurtling by Orwell, Atwood and Butler are each misogynist and point to political ramifications of governmental management of family and sex, Atwood and Butler exemplify what happens when the author is determined to challenge gender and class and race constructions as dystopic. Together, they remind us that under totalitarianism individuals and collectives are created to be afraid and to betray, to be isolated while together and to conform. Juxtaposing the three reminds us of what might be Orwell’s own anti-feminism and homophobia.
What connects 1984 as this type of gendered novel with the dystopias of Atwood and Butler and to today’s daily experiences in the United States? While there are many parallels, of particular importance are the ways in which women’s bodies (whether biologically female or transgendered) are under attack and managed as reproductive bodies, the assault on and government intervention in reproductive justice, the decline of privacy and its gendered aspects, the use of language and war to manage gender, threats to literacy and critical thinking that are pervasive, and concerns focused on the gendering of class.
Perhaps most critical is the way that all of this – all of the concern about gender from the relative conservatism of marriage equality to assaults on Planned Parenthood to the murders of women by husbands and boyfriends to the gendered racism of Nazi exhibitions across the country -- is dismissed by some as ancillary to today’s more important matters of totalitarian regime change. Like the drum beat of racism, the drum beat of sexism “should be” of little concern given other horrors we face. Confederate statues do not matter; dismissal of women’s pay inequity is irrelevant. On the right, the attacks are overt; on the more progressive side, more covert. Yet, all too often the sides come together in the operations of our society, seeing attention to racism and sexism as “PC” rather than as substantive concerns.
And yet, as is the case for the sexism in 1984 these are at the very heart of the current American disaster.
Yes, there is much more to Orwell’s world. And yes, it is worth reading today, in 1984. Please do.
President Emerita, Shimer College