As Big Brother watched over Oceania and Winston engaged in his secret romance that later got him arrested, what was Julia thinking? George Orwell’s novel 1984 (written in 1949) has, over the course of history, become an institution in itself.
It is a book that seemed to have prophesied how authoritarian regimes function. However, like most stellar pieces of literature (then as now), it lacked one thing — a woman’s perspective.
Maybe that’s why the estate of George Orwell recently approved a feminist re-telling of 1984, which reimagines the story from the perspective of protagonist Winston Smith’s lover, Julia. In essence, the re-imagined 1984, written by Sandra Newman, will have Julia as the book’s protagonist as someone who understands the world of Oceania “far, far better than Winston”, said the book’s publisher. The new book will also just be called ‘Julia’.
The re-telling of Orwell’s novel is also part of a larger feminist effort over the years to reimagine classic literature from a woman’s perspective or a gender-neutral lense. Earlier, fairytales like Cinderella and Red Riding Hood, as well as nursery rhymes have been re-imagined to make women central to their narrative, or at least make them key players.
Why Julia “stirred envy” in Winston
“It was the man from Records (Winston) who began it, him all unknowing in his prim, grim way, his above-it-all oldthink way. He was the one Syme called ‘Old Misery’,” writes Newman in the book, according to a report published by The Guardian.
“Comrade Smith was his right name, though ‘Comrade’ never suited him somehow. Of course, if you felt foolish calling someone ‘Comrade’, far better not to speak to them at all”, she adds.
Granta, the publisher of the book, says that the book tells Julia’s story through two plotlines. First, what she sees in Winston that attracts her, and second, how she navigated and made her way through the party hierarchy in Oceania.
“In some ways she was far more acute than Winston, and far less susceptible to Party propaganda. She also stirred a sort of envy in him by telling him that during the Two Minutes Hate her great difficulty was to avoid bursting out laughing. But she only questioned the teachings of the Party when they in some way touched upon her own life. Often she was ready to accept the official mythology, simply because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her,” says Granta.
They add that Julia knew “no other world” except Oceania till she met Winston. She’s “opportunistic” and “does not care at all about politics”, thereby helping the regime and sometimes going against it to suit herself.
“But when one day, finding herself walking toward Winston Smith in a long corridor, she impulsively hands him a note — a potentially suicidal gesture — she comes to realise that she’s losing her grip and can no longer safely navigate her world.”
The Orwell estate had been in search of someone who could tell Julia’s story and Newman, who has previously been been longlisted for the Women’s prize and shortlisted for the Guardian First Book award, “proved to be the perfect fit”, said the publishers.
“Sandra gets under the skin of Big Brother’s world in a completely convincing way which is both true to the original but also gives a dramatically different narrative to stand alongside the original,” the estate’s literary executor, Bill Hamilton, was quoted by The Guardian as saying. “The millions of readers who have been brought up with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four will find this a provocative and satisfying companion.”
Re-imagining classics to put women at the centre
In the past, classics such as Homer’s Odyssey, the Aesop’s Fables and even Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid have been rewritten to put women at the centre, as opposed to secondary characters who were introduced to add nuance to the male point of view.
The retellings have often also given the women in these classics more agency in order to answer basic questions often raised by female readers.
For example, how could Cinderella’s prince not recognise a woman he’d danced with for an entire evening until she wore the right shoe? Or why is Medusa, ostensibly abused and slandered, always written off as a demonic character?
“Literature has laid down the rules of what we know of the past, but they also lay the foundations of what can be represented in the future. Books give you the option of imagining the world in a way that’s beyond the ideals of what you know is true,” says Simble Johney, author of Appropriate Rhymes For Inappropriate Times, a children’s book that reimagined nursery rhymes from a gender-neutral perspective, to ThePrint.
Simble’s book also illustrated how the linguistics of children’s rhymes validated and established the practices of sexual abuse and misogyny.
“I felt that children’s needs have evolved, and therefore so should literature. 1984, from a woman’s perspective, would showcase how power dynamics change when a woman is at the centre. When a woman tells the story of living in a society of absolute power, the issues and questions change. The ways to overcome that sort of a dictatorial regime also changes,” says Simble.
“There is more need for gender-neutral literature. This will lay the foundations for a future where every voice is heard and has a point of view,” she adds.
(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)