Criticism Towards The Portrayal of Women in George Orwell’s 1984

deadline for submissions: 
July 5, 2023
full name / name of organization: 
Andrew DeMar
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Criticism Towards The Portrayal of Women in George Orwell’s 1984 

Research Question: How does George Orwell’s portrayal Julia and Katherine's contrasting attitudes reveal the ways they are oppressed and objectified as women in 1984?

Word Count: 3914

Table of Contents

 

Introduction…………………………………………………………………..…………………3-5

Julia and Katherine’s contrasting attitudes……………………………………………….….….6-8

The Thread of Objectification………………………………………………...………….……9-14

Conclusion……………………………………………………………………….…………...15-16

Works Cited…………………………………………………….………………….………….…17

Introduction

Arguably, Orwell’s 1984 is fawned over for its literary merit; however, 1984 lacks complexity due to its lack of critical analysis outside the novel’s critique of authoritarian regimes. George Woodcock, an author on the life and work of George Orwell, claims that 1984 is a revolutionary piece of literature that addresses the crucial issues of our era (17). However, the assertion that 1984 is a “revolutionary piece” can be problematic as it ties the novel to the notion that it solely deals with important issues, and thus, it cannot be flawed due to its revolutionary nature.

 This binding perception limits the ability to critically evaluate the work, potentially leading to the overlooking of significant issues within the book. Babara Ehrenreich, an author whose writing focuses on social and political issues, confirms this belief in her rationale that assigning the label of “revolutionary” to a literary work often leads to the perception that it is beyond criticism. This can pose a problem as it discourages readers from critically analyzing and evaluating the work (29). One can observe a notable flaw in George Orwell’s employment of character foils between Julia and Katherine in 1984. While character foils can be a powerful literary tool to develop themes and create contrast, the juxtaposition between Julia and Katherine in 1984 is problematic as Orwell portrays the characters in a manner that objectifies them as women. By depicting Julia as sexually promiscuous and rebellious, while portraying Katherine as frigid and uninterested in sex, Orwell perpetuates the notion that women are bound to their sexuality. Although Orwell’s implementation of character foils in 1984 is problematic, this flaw has been disregarded due to the novel’s status as a classic. Nevertheless, a closer examination of how the novel treats these women reveals the restraints of Orwell’s methods and illuminates  the need for a more nuanced portrayal of women in literature. A critical evaluation of the portrayal of female characters in the novel is crucial for a comprehensive analysis of its literary merit. The objectification of women and the restriction of female agency in the novel reflect larger societal issues of misogyny prevalent at the time of the book’s writing and today. Therefore, while acknowledgingthe novel’s contribution to the dystopian genre, it is necessary to examine the depiction of these women, which poses the question of ‘How does George Orwell’s portrayal Julia and Katherine's contrasting attitudes reveal the ways they are oppressed and objectified as women in 1984?’ 

To answer this, the portrayal of Katherine and Julia as foils in Orwell’s work was examined through a feminist lens to analyze the employment of various literary techniques and how they contribute to the objectification of these characters. Further, the usage of secondary sources facilitated the incorporation of multiple perspectives regarding the objectification of Julia and Katherine, thus enabling a more comprehensive analysis of the topic. 

Throughout 1984 by George Orwell, Winston interacts with two specific women: Julia and Katheirine. These interactions reveal how the divergent attitudes of Julia and Katherine converge in relation to the objectification of women. Julia, Winston’s love interest and sexual partner, is portrayed as sexually liberated but is treated as a sexual object. Katherine, Winston’s ex-wife, is portrayed as a dutiful partner, who exists solely for the purpose of procreation.

Orwell objectifies these women, reducing them to passive and sexualized objects. Orwell achieves this, intentional or not, through various literary techniques. Judith Butler, a philosopher and gender theorist, states, “The feminine is thus construsted as a domain of objects, that which is not masculine and hence, not fully human” (29). In essence, Butler argues that many societies have a gender binary that links masculinity with traits like rationality, strength, and autonomy, while femininity is linked with qualities like emotionality, weakness, and dependence. Therefore, the “feminine” is constructed as a realm of objects, rather than as humans with their own autonomy. Orwell’s portrayal of Julia and Katherine in his work reflects this gender binary as he objectifies both women. 

The organization of this essay centers around an analysis of how Julia and Katherine function as foils to each other. Their divergent attitudes are further examined through a feminist perspective, focusing on the objectification of these characters as a significant aspect of their portrayal. The following analysis argues that, despite their contrasting characterization, both Julia and katherine are subject to the same form of objectification. Through the characters of Julia and Katherine, the pervasive nature of the objectification of women and its  impacts in illustration is acknowledged. Through an examination of their portrayal in George Orwell’s novel 1984, it is apparent that the novel portrays these women as objects or symbols of desire, rather than fully realized individuals with agency and complexity. 

Julia and Katherine’s contrasting attitudes

Throughout the novel, Orwell’s stark and concise diction is embroidered with various literary devices that create a clear depiction of Julia and Katherine’s distinctively different attitudes toward the Party. Kathrine’s conviction to serve the Party is denoted in her affinity to “[make] a baby” (Orwell 67) with Winston as she professes it’s “[their] duty to the Party” (Orwell 67). Orwell portrays Katherine and Winston’s relationship as lacking both intimacy and emotional connection. The phrase “making a baby” is a euphemism for sexual intercourse, and its employment in this context is ironic as in the society of 1984, sex is not intened for pleasure or connection, but solely for procreation and alligiance to the Party. The contrast between “making a baby” and “duty to the Party” emphasizes the conflict between personal desires and obligations to a larger group or cause, thematically highlighting the dehumanizing effects of the Party’s control over its citizens. Furthermore, Winston’s observation of Katherine’s use of the phrase “duty to the Party” foreshadows his later rebellion against the Party’s control over his personal life and relationships. The rigidity of Winston and Katherine’s relationship is exemplified In Winston’s acknowledgment that “as soon as he touched her she seemed to wince and stiffin” (Orwell 66). The phrase “as soon as he touched her” suggests that physical intimacy between Winston and Katherine is rare or infrequent, emphasizing the emotional distance between them. The adverb “seemed” suggests that Winston us not entirely sure of Katherine’s emotional state, highlighting the lack of communication and understanding that characterizes their relationship. The verb “wince” connotes a sudden, involuntary movement, as though Katherine is recoiling from something unpleasant. This suggests that the intimacy that she shares with Winston is not only unwelcome but actively distressing for her, indicating a lack of emotional connection and a sense of disconnect between the two characters. Similarly, the verb “stiffin” suggests a physical response to discomfort, as though Katherine is bracing herself against something that she finds unpleasant. This implies a sense of rigidity and inflexibility in her character, indicating that she is unable or unwilling with the emotional demands of the relationship.

 While Katherine represents idealized conformity, Julia represents a form of rebellion against the Party. Julia’s declaration of “[adoring]” (Orwell 125) sex and assertion of engaging in sexual intercourse “Hundreds of times--well, scores of times, any-way” (Orwell 125) accentuates her juxtaposition to Katherine. The hyperbole in the line “Hundreds of times--well, scores of times, any-way” serves to convey Julia’s nonchalant disposition towards sex and relationships by exagerating her number of partners. Likewise, the idiom present in Julia’s use of the phrase “any-way” suggests a lack of concern for the specifics of her sexual history, further emphasizing her carefree attitude towards sex, which directly contrasts Katherine’s tense attitude. Moreover, Winston’s declaration of “[hating] purity” (Orwell 125)  and reference to Julia as a “dream” (Orwell 124) entrenches the reader with Winston’s nihilistic reproach for the world. In this context, it is evident that Winston characterizes Katherine through the lens of purity, which is a concept that Julia deliberately subverts. It is notable that the Party idealizes Katherine for her conformity and lack of individuality, while Winston idealizes Julia for her innate agency and self-expression. Julia’s blithe temperament for sex contrasts Katherine’s repressed aversion to such subject matter. 

This is consistent with J. Meyers’, a writer who has published several articles with a background Marxist and critical theory, findings, which also suggest that the portrayal of Katherine’s conformity to the Party’s norms and lack of independent thought in 1984 reflects the patriarchal nature of the society in which she exists (54). Katherine embodies what Julia is not. Katherine’s aversion to sex and alignment the to the Party’s principles are juxtaposed with Julia’s sexual identity aand rejection of the Party. The narrative portrays Julia as an objectified figure through her portrayal as a sexual entity and her involvement in the Junior Anti-Sex league. The irony is that Julia, who participates in the Junior Anti-Sex League is overtly sexually active, emphasizing her exploitative characterization. While Orwell’s usage of irony does thematically convey the oppressive nature of totalitarian regimes, Julia is restricted to her objectifying characterization; she doesn’t exist beyond her role as a sexual being. In contrast, Katherine is characterized as modest and uninterested in physical intimacy. The portrayal of both characters demonstrates a common thread of objectification, whereby their worth as individuals is reduced to  their physical attributes and sexual identity. Despite their apparent differences in beliefs and behaviors, their portrayal emphasizes the similarity in how both characters are defined and constrained by societal norms and expectations surrounding gender and sexuality. 

The Thread of Objectification

Throughout the novel, Julia is objectified through her sexuality and treated as a means of pleasure and rebellion while Katherine is objectified through her appearance and treated as a symbol of the ideal femininity. Katherine and Julia are reduced to objects to be used rather than complex characters with agency over their lives. Orwell’s initial reference to Julia is enriched by descriptive literary devices that sexuallly objectify her. Julia is referenced as a “bold-looking girl of about twenty-seven, with thick dark hair, a freckled face, and swift athletic movements” (Orwell 10) and lusted after for the “shapliness of her hips” (Orwell 10). The adjective “bold-looking” suggests that Julia is confident and assertive; however, her reference to “girl” infantilizes her, emphasizing her youth and suggesting an absence of the maturity. In referring to Julia as girl rather than a women, she is stripped of her autnomy and reduced to a subservient status. She is positioned as a flat character who is bound to her characterization as a sexually percocious girl. Furthermore, the imagery utilized in characterizing her by the “shaplieness of her hips” reduces Julia to an attribute, highlighting her sexuality. By describing her as shapely, Winston is suggesting that Julia is physically desirable. The phrase “shaplieness of her hips” also suggests a certain symmetry and proportionality, indicating that Julia’s figure is aesthetically pleasing. While the implementation of such vivid imagery creates an allusive picture for the reader, Julia is reduced to her physical appearance and treated as a sexual object. 

As the novel progresses, Winston obsesses over Julia’s characteristics by describing her as “young and pretty and sexless” (Orwell 15). The parallel structure in this phrase is given equal weight and emphasis, which creates a sense of symmetry and balance in the sentence, drawing attention to each individual adjective. In this context, the parallel structure emphasizes Winston’s fixation on Julia’s physical appearance, as well as his idealized and objectifyingview of her as a sexual partner who is innocent in pure. Moreover, the polysyndeton emphasizes Winston’s obsession with Julia’s physical attributes as the repeated conjunction invokes the reader with a sense that he is uttley captivated by her features. Instead of introducing the description with a list, each adjective is separated with a conjunction, which implies spontaneity when compared to a list that insinuatesa certain level of through and thought out action. Orwell’s application of a polysyndeton objectifies Julia in drawing attention to Winston’s obsession with her physical attributes.

  Orwell’s characterization of Winston’s obsessive attitude in regard to sex further illustrates Julia’s role as a sexual object. Winston’s conviction that sex is “[destroying] virtue” (Orwell 125)  and belief that their “embrace…was a political act” (Orwell 126) reinforces the notion that Winston and Julia’s relationship is entirely physical. The metaphorical language unuderpins the reality that their relationship is not intimate, but a deliberate act of rebellion against the Party. Winston’s lack of regard for Julia and their relationship is apparent in his expectation that she satisfy his desires. Winston’s disregard is amplified in the distinction that he believes their “embrace” was “political act.” Julia is expected to exist as a sexual object for Winson to express his rebellion through. Julia is reduced to an object of desire, devoid of her own self-determination. 

 Although, Colin Sparks, an academic in the field of media and communication studies who has written several articles on media, gender, and power,  interprets Julia as a character to challenge traditional gender roles by rejecting femininity and asserting her sexually agency (59). Sparks neglects to acknowledge that in claiming Julia is “asserting her sexually agency” she is inherently bound to the objectification that Orwell utilized to portray her. Julia is not sexually liberated; her existence is defined by her misogynistic portrayal. Julia exists solely as a means of fulfilling Winston’s sexual desires, rather than as a multifaceted person. Her portrayal prioritizes male domination and further entrenchs the notion that women are solely meant for male gratification. The reduction of Julia to a sexual object reinforces the societal values that privilege male gratification at the expense of female autonomy. 

Moreover, the third person narrative perspective further sexually objectifies Julia by referencing that “her body gleamed white in the sun” (Orwell 125). Julia’s body is personified as it’s given the ability to gleam, suggesting a kinda of radiance and brilliance. Orwell’s personification of Julia’s body as “[gleaming] white,” emphasizes her physical beauty and attractiveness, reducing her to an object of desire for Winston. The word “white” symbolizes innocence and purity, and the “[gleam]” of her body in the sun highlights her innocence as the sun’s hot heat could only accentuate her perceived chastity. Orwell’s description of Julia’s body as “[gleaming] white” infantilizes her, emphasizing her purity and innocence. The association of whiteness with innocence and purity further reinforces this idea, suggesting that Julia is only valuable as long as long as she remains chaste and innocent. Julia is objectified in the sense that she is treated as a perceived pure object of desire. While narrator’s characterization of Julia contradicts the Winston’s contempt for purity, she is still reduced to an a sexual object. The third person narrative perspective reflects Winston’s attitude towards Julia. His disposition shifts from an emphasis on purity and innocence to an innate disdain for such concepts. Winston’s avowal of “[hating] purity” after his remarks of her perceived innocence construct a clear depiction that Julia exists as an object for Winston. Winston’s initial attraction to Julia is based on her perceived innocence and purity. Despite Julia’s personal sexual identity not conforming to traditional ideals of chastity and modesty. Winston remains fixated on her as he gains a deeper understanding of her. Orwell juxtaposes Julia’s preconceived identity and her actual identity, emphasizing her existence as a sexual object.

From the initial reference to Katherine, she is objectified through a variety of literary devices. Katherine is characterized as “a tall, fair-haired girl, very straight, with splendid movements. She [has] a bold, aquiline face, a face that one might have called noble until one discovered that there was as nearly as possible nothing behind it” (Orwell 66). This detailed sensory description of Katherine’s physical appearance emphasizes her outward appearance, rather than her inner thoughts, feelings, or personality. The ironic contrast between the initial impression of Katherine’s “noble” appearance and  the revelation that there is “nothing behind” her face emphasizes the emptiness or hollowness of her character, further reinforcing her objectification as a symbol or stereotype. The metaphor of Katherine’s face as “noble” contributes to her objectification by suggesting that she exists primarily as a decorative or ornamental object, rather than a complex and multifaceted person. 

Moreover, Katherine is objectified in Winston’s slanderous descriptions of her as a “human soundtrack” (Orwell 66) and his belief that she is “frozen by the hypnotic power of the party” (Orwell 67). Winston’s attitude towards Katherine dehumanizes her, stripping her of her autonomy and individuality. Furthermore, the metaphorical language employed by Winston, referring to Katherine as a “human soundtrack,” highlights his perception of her as a passive entity, existing solely to provide background noise. By likening Katherine to a soundtrack, she is reduced to an object whose value is determined by what she can offer Winston. In addition, the word-choice “frozen” implies that Katherine is unable to act on her own, as though she is held in a state of suspended animation by the hypnotic power of the Party. This metaphorical language suggests that Katherine is not only objectified but stripped of her agency, emphasizing the larger theme of the novel, namely the impact of a dictatorship on individual autonomy. Katherine is portrayed as an object to be used rather than an individual with her own agency. 

While Julia and Katherine are inherently different, they share significant commonalities. Often, when readers view them as opposing characters, they overlook the areas where their characterization converges. While Julia and Katherine have many contrasting qualities, they also share notable similarities. Both Katherine and Julia are subjected to objectification by the Party and Winston, although in different ways. Katherine is portrayed as the embodiment of the Party’s idealized femininity, reducing to a mere symbol rather than a complex individual. On the other hand, Julia is objectified by Winston, who perceives her as a means to satisfy his own desires rather than a realized person. Despite their differences, both characters are reduced to mere objects by those around them, and their agency and individuality are suppressed. Winston expects Julia to engage in sexual conduct in an attempt to rebel against the the Party, while the Party expects Katherine to engage in sexual conduct in an attempt to bare a child. Maggie Wykes, a writer of several academic articles on gender and language, insists that Julia, as a foil to Katherine, intrinsically resists being reduced to an object and defies the Party’s expectations while Katherine is the embodiment of the Party’s ideal women (303). Conversely, this is true, since arguably Orwell’s implementation of their character foil strategically highlights the contrasting attitudes of both women; however, Orwell’s employment of juxtaposition does exactly that; it highlights Julia’s and Katherine’s differences. By focusing on their differences, Wykes neglects to acknowledge the areas in which Julia’s and Katherine’s characterization overlaps. Winston is not expected to father a child as Katherine is expected to mother a child, and Winston is not expected to perform sexual favors as he expects Julia to entertain his wishes. Julia’s and Katherine’s portrayal embodies the highly embellished roles that women face as their existence in the text does not exceed fulfilling the desires of others. They are characterized as sexual objects meant to be used rather than reasonable characters whose role in the novel is not bound by their sexual nature. 

Although, Andrew McNicol, an author and lecturer in English Language and Literature at the University of Bedfordshire, offers a different perspective on this matter. McNicol asserts that Orwell intentionally objectifies the major characters in 1984 to highlight the novel’s thematic concerns and reinforce its commentary on the dehumanizing effects of totalitarianism (35). On the other hand, McNicol’s assertion holds some validity, given that Orwell’s novel functions as an allegorical depiction of the emergence of totalitarian regimes; however, upon closer examination, the instances of objectification experienced by Winston and O’Brien, two central character who contribute to the plot of 1984, can be attributed to the oppressive nature of the society depicted in the novel. Conversely, the objectification of Julia and Katherine is a result of both their portrayal as female characters in a patriarchal society and the oppressive nature of the society itself. 

Conclusion

In 1984, Orwell constructs a narrative that portrays women as passive and sexual objects of male desire. Orwell does this through various literary techniques that render the women of the novel lesser than men. Orwell’s portrayal of Katherine and Julia contributes a broader discussion of how this canonical text that does not relate to women specifically depicts women as objects.  Even though Julia and Katherine are counter parts for each other, Orwell objectifies these women. Whether intentional or not, the impact of such portrayal on the reader is significant, especially considering that this work is widely taught to highschool students who are developing their conceptions about gender roles. Because this novel does not pertain to feminism directly, the feminist perspective is often overlooked in coversations regarding the novel as they tend to focus on the dangers of an authoritarian regime, resulting in students who are exposed to misogynistic ideas without critical examination. When examining how these literary techniques contribute to ways in which women are oppressed and objectified, it poses a risk of oversimplifyingthe issue, potentially leading to an oversight of how the women in the novel may resist or subvert these roles. A larger scale comprehensive analysis should also consider the intersectionality of gender with other forms of oppression and marginalization. By acknowledging and accounting for the complexity of these factors, a more nuanced understanding of the impact of Orwell’s portrayal of women on theways in which women are oppressed and objectified. 

Through analyzing and revealing this misogynistic portrayal of these two women in the novel, this paper comes to the conclusion that Orwell’s character foil of Julia and Katherine in 1984 objectifies both women, despite their intentional juxtaposition. By portraying female characters such as Julia and Katherine in a manner that objectifies them, Orwell’s novel 1984 reinforces and perpetuates negative stereotypes and societal expectations that are harmful to women. This contributes to the fundamental concern of misogyny in society, as it reinforces the notion that women are objects to be controlled and manipulated rather than individuals with their own desires and autonomy. As well, given the employment of Julia and Katherine’s divergent attitudes in this text offers a nuanced perspective on how this depiction equates them to objects, it would be intriguing to delve deeper into the impact of character foils by conducting a comparative literary analysis that incorporates other novels. This type of analysis could offer valuable insights into how authors utilize juxtaposition to convey themes and messages across different literary works. Through examining juxtaposition among 1984 and other novels, one could explore the areas of commonality and contrast in the ways that authors purposefully position contrasting elements to create compelling characters and advance their narratives. Approaching the subject with a comparative lens may offer a more comprehensive understanding of how authors develop characters and relationships in their works. Such analysis may unveil patterns and trends in the usage of character foils across different literary genres and time periods, providing a deeper comprehension of hos this technique has evolved over time. Furthermore, this approach can furnish a framework for discussing how literature areflects and shapes societal attitudes and beliefs about topics such as power, gender, and identity. Regardless, as readers engage with the portrayal of women in Orwell’s 1984, it is imperative to acknowledge the impact of these representations on our wider cultural attitudes towards gender. By actively challenging the perpetuation of harmful societal norms and advocating for more inclusive and diverse representations of women, there is potential to create more equitable and just portrayals.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2006, pp. 1-193.

Ehrenreich, B. (2003). Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Metropolitan Books.

McNicol, Andrew. “Language and Power in Nineteen Eighty-Four.” The English Journal, vol. 93, no 3, 2004, pp. 35-41. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3656473

Meyes, J. “Totalitarianism and Literary Form: George Orwell, 1984” The Southern Journal of Philoshpy, vol 43, no. S1 2005, pp. 45-64.

Orwell, George. 1984. New York City, Berkeley, 2017, 

Woodcock, George. “The World of Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Canadian Forum, vol. 63, no. 740, Apr. 1984, pp. 17–21. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40231288. Accessed 23 Mar. 2023.

Wykes, Maggie. "Politics, Gender, and Language in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four." Orbis Litterarum, vol. 52, no. 5, 1997, pp. 342-359.

Sparks, Colin. "Gender and power in 1984." Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 17, no. 1, 2008, pp. 51-63.