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.
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 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."

Ciaramella may be right to an extent that the love affair isn't very convincing, but part of the reason for that is that 1984 is an imperfect book. Orwell is able to imagine newspeak and Big Brother and the chief torturer O'Brien with great power, but when he comes to portraying Julia, he flails. She's thoughtless, primitive, interested only in things of the body rather than the mind — "only a rebel from the waist downwards," as Winston calls her. We never really learn why, or feel why, she loves the older, not particularly attractive Winston. We merely know she does because she says so and because, as soon as they meet in private, she starts calling him "dear.” She's just a stereotypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl who's part of Winston's story, not the other way around. So it's not exactly a surprise that she betrays Winston immediately, or that, as O'Brien says, just about licking his lips, "All her rebelliousness, her deceit, her folly, her dirty-mindedness—everything has been burned out of her." None of it was ever really there to begin with.

So I suppose you could argue, then, that Orwell is emotionally and thematically opposed to his own romance plot—that he, like Big Brother, just lets it spin out the better to crush his characters. From this perspective, Orwell's unsentimental toughness and Big Brother's unsentimental toughness have an uncomfortable congruence. It is possible, as Ciaramella does, to create a clear-eyed, brutal Orwell, who sees the world as defined by violence, not foolish sentiment. (It was such an Orwell who Christopher Hitchens would deploy on behalf of the Iraq War.)

I prefer to think, though, that whatever Eric Blair's limitations as a writer of female characters, he did, in fact, believe in love. Winston, at the end, abandons Julia for big Brother. But does that mean that the relationship with Julia never existed? O'Brien would say it didn't. Memory, history, love; for the Party, none of them are real. It seems to me that Kristen Stewart is on the side of the resistance, and of Orwell, when she says that O'Brien is wrong, and that 1984 is a romance.


CJ Ciaramella's name was misspelled in a number of instances in the original version of this piece. We regret the errors.

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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 a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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