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29th November 2023

Dystopian hope and the art of feminist retelling: What does Julia hide?

How about “laugh, love, live in a totalitarian state”? Discussing Julia, the promising new feminist retelling of 1984 by Sandra Newman
Dystopian hope and the art of feminist retelling: What does Julia hide?
Photo: Emma Tarasenko @ The Mancunion

We already have feminist and sapphic retellings of Greek mythology, Shakespeare’s wife story, and female rage in their own genre. It seems that the 21st century started with the reappraisals of classical text which led to the modern classics very fast, and we are here for it. 

Trigger Warning: Refers to sexual abuse and graphic scenes

Setting new optics  

1984 by George Orwell, one of the key books of the 20th century, (and probably one of the most topical in today’s almost dystopian decorations) now has its own feminist retelling. The long-awaited Julia by Sandra Newman was announced a year ago with a premise for the story of 1984 from “Winston Smith’s lover’s” point of view, giving her a chance to become a real fulfilling character. It has finally hit the bookshelves.  

The cult, dark-toned, hopeless original is beloved for its special voice, striking to terrify and dumbfound readers and critics. But, if you believe Orwell’s biographer, it doesn’t come from a very bright place.  

Men-centric to its core, 1984 shows the only woman, named Julia, who can amaze and be disposed of. She is somewhere between femme fatale and manic pixie dream girl, in shattered totalitarian decorations. We have no idea who is she outside the relationship with Winston. She doesn’t even have a surname. In Newman’s version, she does – it’s Worthing.  

With Orwell’s Estate approval, we now have a promising, complex, sometimes controversial, but an undoubtedly honest tribute to Sandra Newman’s tone and voice. So how is Big Brother watching – and looking – from a woman’s point of view? 

Hits different  

First and foremost, it’s a companion novel. Yes, from the very first pages, the difference in tone and writing is obvious, but it would be incomprehensible to someone unfamiliar with the world. The book expands, explores, and explains, without wasting pages for building it from scratch.  

Nevertheless, Sandra’s Newman version is longer than the original. Much longer. She has a lot to show and unwrap in Orwell’s world from exploration of mundanity in Oceania to details of a Black Market life.  

New characters and tiny details, such as State-made names, are fittingly organic. Like Typity, named after the slogan ‘Three-Year Plan in Two Years’ (a reminder of USSR girl’s names inspired by Lenin). Look closely – there are many such little hidden gems.  

Newman even touches complex topic of race in Oceania, completely ignored in the original. With the concept of nationalities – people of colour and full-fledged members of the outer party – she shows two-faced racism of the closed privileged Inner Party. The dystopian rupture between words and deeds had never been so topical. Does it fit in the original? Definitely. Does it add more layers? Absolutely. 

The book is ‘feminist’, which means just giving a woman’s perspective. From the life of an all-woman hostel to horrible back stories from young girls’ lives with sexual abuse and the market of illegal abortions.  

Yet, the main goal was to give Julia agency and dimension. And Newman did it perfectly with all the complex and traumatic past, feelings and motivations in present. Winston here is a side character, not even the main love interest of Julia. She is in love with someone else but freely engages in romantic relationships with many men and women.

Speaking of romance, if you fancy some explicit scenes, you would appreciate this new dimension. Characters are not afraid to get physical and the author is not afraid to go into graphic details. Yet, they start to feel overpowering and a bit unnecessary.   

And it ends differently too (but no spoilers!) 

In its middle part, the story carefully follows the outline of 1984. Almost scene by scene, pointing to minor, but fulfilling details. It feels exactly right. At this point, the original is cherished.  

But Julia does not end after room 101, nor after the brief and vague last meeting with Winston. It’s the end of his story, not hers. Julia survives so much more than we can imagine and is still not eaten up by the state. The whole terror point was in the idea that no man has a chance against the state. No hope, no future. From someone who saw a bit of an authoritarian state in their life, it seems deeply believable.  

Julia races to break the cycle, whatever it takes, and a promise of escape with cyanide-ish flavour. Empowering someone in a world where all the power belongs to the all-absorbing ubiquitous state is a brave decision. Thin ice, between brightest twist and sliding almost into Hunger Games territory (no offence, Hunger Games lovers!). It’s for readers to decide: does it fit Orwell’s world? It might be a point of controversy.  

Not Orwell’s, gladly  

It’s hard to see Newman’s book as a completely separate creation, so you cannot help to compare. Orwell’s prose is subtle. full of hints, opaqueness, and hidden danger. Newman makes everything clear and explicit – sexual life, violence, torture (TW: room 101 here is even more graphic and horrendous) and even back-room intrigues. It makes you reconsider the events of 1984 and adds almost too much to Julia’s role.  

Julia has much more agency than Winston in the original despite the even more terrifying things she goes through. He is almost inanimate – fear, love, and torture happen to him; there’s no escape. The State is everywhere and always wins. That makes the book so lightless, devastating and remarkable.  

Julia has hope. Someone would say too much of it and it was never needed there in the first place. The gem of 1984 was exactly in its absence. 

It is Sandra Newman’s book, not an Orwell lookalike. Different style, tone and atmosphere. No more sharp gloomy descriptions of oppressive surroundings. Sometimes it’s a bit too silly, funny and flirtatious. Yes, we are still talking about 1984 retelling.   

But maybe the hope in the most absorbing dystopia is just the thing the world now needs. Even if it does not resonate with the original so much and feels a bit unrealistic. Are you ready to willingly believe in it? If yes, you will deeply love Julia 

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