Women of dystopias

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Women of dystopias - prevailing female stereotypes in Huxley's and Orwell's fiction

Dystopias as a genre present an interesting aesthetic and psychological challenge. Their view of the future is fixed in the past or the present, and as such, are in danger of not transcending the limitations of their own cultural and sociological context. A certain aspect of dystopias is the ever-present human trait of wishing to “solve problems”. By projecting the issues of the present into the future, by removing the specific factors surrounding one's quandary, one wishes to see a clearer image, to achieve some sort of enlightenment. Dystopias are the perfect genre for that other common human trait (connected to the aforementioned penchant for problem-solving) of presenting the worst that may come to pass (sometimes metaphorically pointing a finger and yelling “I told you so!”). Yet in such exercises of the mind, the subject of authorial objectivity inevitably arises - when writing a dystopia, how far removed should the subject matter be from one's perceived reality? Since a dystopia is to significant degree a heavily satirized transmogrification of one's “real world”, this seems a contradiction in terms. Yet in not being sufficiently willing or able to remove oneself from the conventionally perceived notions and ideals of one's society, one runs the risk (as the author of a dystopia) of compromising the authenticity of one's fictional universe. An argument could be made that this is the case with George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World; the fashion in which female characters are portrayed in both novels conjures up a sense of the misogyny of the authors, rather than a truly dystopian perception of women. The post-war (WWI in the case of Huxley, WWII in the case of Orwell) mentality and internalized misogyny of both Huxley's and Orwell's time is palpably present in the characters of Linda and Lenina, respectively Winston's mother and Julia. By examining these crucial mother and lover characters in their most significant scenes, several interesting parallels can be drawn between the authors' treatment of their female characters.

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The fact that both Huxley and Orwell focus primarily on the female archetypes of lover and mother is in itself quite revealing. The use of these archetypes is not limited to the figures of Linda, Lenina or Winston's mother and Julia; in Brave New World, every woman falls into either category. All women of the “modern world” are potential lovers - their “pneumatic” bodies (an adjective interestingly enough only used in conjunction with women's bodies and furniture[1]) free for the taking (and freely offered up, at that). “Mother” as a term is used to describe everything that is the opposite of a carefree, lustful existence - aging, sagging, embarrassment and taboo. No corresponding term exists to embarrass men - as Huxley puts it, the term “father” is a “scatological rather than a pornographic impropriety”[2]. This hierarchy of shame resurfaces during Bernard and Lenina's visit to Malpais - the old man (the first old person whom Lenina sees) is described in three lines, whilst Linda, the Savage's mother, is described in a lengthy paragraph, containing visual, olfactory and tactile references. This “grotesque” mother-figure is apparent in 1984 as well, although described in a rather more oblique fashion. The reference to “monstrous women with brick-red forearms”[3] (p.86), and the nomer “Mrs.” which “with some women one used (...) instinctively”[4] (p.22), all point to an internalized image of “motherhood” which Orwell uses to juxtapose with the virginal (and insipid) Katherine, and the lustful (and cunning) Julia. Motherhood, or rather the absence of any true motherhood (in the sense of being allowed to openly care for, and show affection for one's children) are central themes in 1984, thus one understands the need to extrapolate on the concept - yet the occasionally dropped adjective, such as the aforementioned “monstrous” and the categorization of women into “Mrs.” and “non-Mrs.” types points to an external, rather than any internal set of values that could exist in the universe of 1984. The characters described in the novel have all grown up in “the system” (perhaps with Winston having a slight remembrance of life before Big Brother), thus it seems odd that for example Julia should use terms like “a real woman's frock”[5] (p.149) - accepting that these items (frocks and high-heels instead of the overalls and practical shoes of the Party) could be found amongst the proles, one is tempted to ask why Julia would refer to them as “real”. The term “real woman” is incredibly relative, and has through time come to refer to everything from Rubenesque figures and unpainted faces to willowy, dramatically made-up women. In this context, “real woman” could by default only refer to the overall and flat-shoe wearing, chaste women of the Party.

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This cognitive dissonance becomes an issue in Brave New World as well - the Savage's view of women is problematic at best. Having grown up amongst the people of Malpais, it is strange that he should become so completely enamoured with Lenina, to the point of regarding her beauty as not only exquisite, but normative. His world-view is explained through him having come into contact with Shakespeare's works at an early age, yet this does not explain the curious exclusion in his consciousness of anything lustful, ribald or “risqué” in the very plays that he idolizes. His mother-complex is more explicable (at least in a psychological sense), yet becomes rather distracting in its one-sidedness. John is a protector-figure, a budding knight in white armour who unsuccessfully tries to rescue his mother from her self-initiated sexual behaviour. His attempted murder of Popé is symbolical of a masculinity which is again a projection of an external masculinity onto that of the world of Brave New World. “Mother, monogamy, romance (...)”, the mantra that the “brave new world” has rejected is the one that he metaphorically repeats again and again to himself. Thus, the true conflict arises between him, and Mustafa Mond, arbiters of these two masculinities - rendering the women secondary characters, objects of either feelings of lust, or protectiveness. As Goldstein rightly points out by quoting Easthope, this is present in 1984 as well, in the dynamics of Winston and O'Brien's relationship: “Winston, who frequently shows misogynist feelings, disavows Julia and heterosexual desire, accepts his unconscious homosexuality, and loves O'Brien and Big Brother” (p.52).[6] In fact, in the light of this statement, what becomes increasingly obvious is the complete lack of intellectual women in either Brave New World or 1984. Women are incapable of introspection in either novel - Julia is described as cunning and shrewd, but also as having a short attention span, and no real powers of analysis. Schweickart rightfully states that “Smith's question: “Julia, are you awake?” could very well be the title of a feminist retelling of 1984.”[7] (p.4), seeing as how Julia sleeps through Winston's perusal of Goldstein's book, and in general shows no interest in notions not concerning her sexuality.

“Othering” women thus becomes a subconscious but constant theme in both Brave New World and 1984. What is not explained in BNW for example is why lust is exclusively sought by male bodies in female bodies - homosexuality is mentioned once in the novel, in the past tense, by Mustafa Mond, referred to as the result of a monogamous, obsessive and repressed lifestyle. Yet surely, in a society where cumulative lust is valued beyond all, the gender-binary and heteronormative system of values described by Huxley would make no sense. This again points to a transposed, external set of values, which reference Huxley's world view, rather than anything objectively dystopian. The aforementioned comment of Julia's (“real woman”) poses a similar dilemma - rather than referencing the instances of illicit behaviour committed by Julia, it seems to reference Orwell's concept of real womanhood. As Patai points out, Orwell's oeuvre contains “a tension between his occasional appreciation of women and his dislike of them, especially the abstraction that is usually referred to as the “feminine”[8](p.867). She extrapolates, saying that “although men [in the world of 1984] fear women because they may be spies, in general the assumptions of male centrality and female “otherness” have survived intact. Julia's love for Winston makes him healthier, whereas O'Brien's attentions destroy him physically; but Winston's true alliance, as we have seen, is with O'Brien, who engages him as a worthy opponent - a recognition that means more to Winston than Julia's love.” [9](p.867). This covert dismissal of his and Julia's love is apparent in the terms that Winstonchooses to describe it with; it is a “hopeless fancy”, “yet he also dismisses the washerwoman's song about such a hopeless fancy because he considers the song and the woman mindless and mechanical”[10] (p.46). The Savage is equally fanciful in his relationship with Lenina - he constructs an ideal to which she unsurprisingly fails to live up to, and goes from considering his hand unworthy to touch her to quoting Othello at her, and getting physically violent. Yet his disappointment is in her moral nature - in her refusal to be passive, and to be worshipped by him. True kinship is masculine, in both 1984 and Brave New World.

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There seems to be a rather disturbing notion in connection with this male kinship; it is somehow connected to absent mothers, or rather mothers who could never truly live up to the ideal of motherhood (both a physical, and spiritual ideal, as we shall see). Winston keeps connecting his mother (who was first described as a statuesque, brave woman) to various “grotesque” (term as used by Orwell) figures of womanhood, most notably the woman who vomits copiously next to him in the preliminary detainment cell (“She might, thought Winston, be his mother.” (p.240)). The Savage's mother, Linda, is also presented as the most grotesque female figure in the narrative of Brave New World (“grotesque” both as defined by the internal system of values of the novel, and the external one's of the author and readership). These absurd instances contain something of the freak-show within them - a voyeuristic, almost fetishistic obsession with the female form, and within that category, the most “sacred” one, that of the mother. Within the context of the archetype, it is understood that “mothers” are not sexual beings - thus the reference to the prostitute that Winston visits as being his mother's age, or to Linda sleeping with Popé are playing with taboo, trying to titillate the reader's sense of the inappropriate through reference to the heteronormative sense of order.

Overall, one experiences a striving on the part of both authors to order women into easily identifiable categories (mothers and (m)others), thus not really challenging or redefining their own societies' respective views on women. Thus, regardless of the fact that both Huxley and Orwell manage to create complex fictional universes (arguably Orwell's being more sophisticated than Huxley's), their views on women are seemingly transposed in their entirety without conscious criticism or willingness to challenge the reader.

Works consulted

* Goldstein, Philip, Orwell as a (Neo)conservative: The Reception of 1984, The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Winter, 2000), pp. 44-57 Published by: Midwest Modern Language Association, Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1315117

* Patai, Daphne, Gamesmanship and Androcentrism in Orwell's 1984. PMLA, Vol. 97, No. 5 (Oct., 1982), pp. 856-870, retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/462176

* Schweickart, Patsy, Orwell Revisited, The Women's Review of Books, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Nov., 1984), pp. 3-4,Published by: Old City Publishing, Inc. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4019466

* Orwell, George, 1984, London, Penguin Books (1989)

* Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World, http://www.hedweb.com/huxley/bnw

[1] Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World, (http://www.hedweb.com/huxley/bnw/four.html - “the pneumatic sofas”

[2] Ibid, http://www.hedweb.com/huxley/bnw/ten.html

[3] Orwell, George, 1984, London, Penguin Books (1989)

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Goldstein, Philip, Orwell as a (Neo)conservative: The Reception of 1984, The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Winter, 2000), pp. 44-57 Published by: Midwest Modern Language Association, Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1315117

[7] Schweickart, Patsy, Orwell Revisited, The Women's Review of Books, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Nov., 1984), pp. 3-4,Published by: Old City Publishing, Inc. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4019466

[8] Patai, Daphne, Gamesmanship and Androcentrism in Orwell's 1984. PMLA, Vol. 97, No. 5 (Oct., 1982), pp. 856-870, retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/462176

[9] Ibid

[10] Goldstein, Philip, Orwell as a (Neo)conservative: The Reception of 1984, The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Winter, 2000), pp. 44-57 Published by: Midwest Modern Language Association, Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1315117