Kristen Stewart Is Right: 1984 Is Kind of an Epic Love Story

The actress's claims have horrified Orwell devotees, but if the book's romantic plot isn't convincing, it's only because the dystopian classic itself is flawed.
 Jack Dempsey / AP; AP

Kristen Stewart is going to be starring in a film version of 1984 titled Equals. In an interview, she described the narrative as "a love story of epic, epic, epic proportion." So, George Orwell was not, it turns out, writing a bitter denunciation of totalitarianism. He was writing that least respected of literary genres, a romance novel.

CJ Ciaramella at The Federalist expressed the bitter horror of Orwell-philes everywhere at this coming Hollywood lovey-dovey desecration of the great man's work. He disparages Stewart for her role as "a semi-sentient mannequin in Twilight," and goes on to explain that 1984 is not a love story of any sort. On the contrary, the book in his view "argues quite convincingly that the state can deny the humanity of everyone. [The protagonists] Winston and Julia are no longer capable of love by the last chapter, having volunteered each other under duress for unspeakable torture."

Orwell is, of course, famous for linking totalitarianism to the denial of history and objective reality: "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two equals four." But, as Stewart suggests, the bulk of the novel, and the main content of Winston's betrayal, is not an exercise in mathematics, but rather the romance plot.

It is when Julia first passes Winston a note saying, "I love you" that his half-formed rebellion takes concrete shape and form. The couple's first sexual encounter is specifically described as "a blow struck against the Party … a political act." It isn't math or history that strikes that blow, but love. "If they could make me stop loving you, that would be the real betrayal," Winston says. To which Julia replies, "They can't do that … It's the one thing they can't do." Even if you read that as doomed, it's still a fairly romantic bit of dialogue, insisting as it does on the existence of love "in a world where," as Stewart says, "love really doesn't exist anymore."

It turns out, alas, that Julia is wrong; "they" can get inside you. Ciaramella triumphantly quotes the passage in the book where the couple admits that their love has been hollowed out:

“Sometimes,” she said, “they threaten you with something you can’t stand up to, can’t even think about. And then you say, ‘Don’t do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to So-and-so.’ And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards, that it was only a trick and that you just said it to make them stop and didn’t really mean it. But that isn’t true. At the time when it happens you do mean it. You think there’s no other way of saving yourself, and you’re quite ready to save yourself that way. You want it to happen to the other person. You don’t give a damn what they suffer. All you care about is yourself.”

Ciaramella goes on to argue that, since Winston was doomed as soon as he began to keep a diary at the beginning of the book, the love affair is essentially gratuitous—Winston would have been taken by the thought police anyway. "Diluting this message," of lovelessness and despair, Ciaramella concludes "is a gross affront to the book."

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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