In the modern democratic West, George Orwell’s political novels are widely regarded as all but divinely dictated prophecies warning of the horrors of totalitarianism, but as is so often the case with prophecies, Orwell’s work generally raises far more questions than it attempts to answer. In his magnum opus 1984, for example, Orwell initially introduces as major themes both the politicization of sex and the necessity of the proletariat to beneficial political upheaval—but by the end of the novel, both themes are long forgotten by most readers. Nevertheless, these two evidently insignificant themes are actually intimately related to one another and, like many of Orwell’s observations, highly relevant not only to 20th century victims of totalitarianism but to the democratic citizens of the 21st as well.

Orwell’s exploration of the political power of sex takes place primarily within the protagonist Winston Smith’s affair with the youthful and sensuous Julia, an act of daring disdain towards the Party’s staunch standards of chastity. As Julia explains, the Party’s regulation of sex is far more than an attempt to control members’ bodies: 

“When you make love you’re using up energy; and afterwards you feel happy and don’t give a damn for anything. They can’t bear you to feel like that. They want you to be bursting with energy all the time. All this marching up and down and cheering and waving flags is simply sex gone sour. If you’re happy inside yourself, why should you get excited about Big Brother and the Three-Year Plans and the Two Minutes Hate and all the rest of their bloody rot?” (133)

Consequently, the couple’s sexual interactions are both “a battle” and “a victory”; intercourse is “a blow struck against the Party,” “a political act,” and “the force that would tear the Party to pieces” (126). 

Meanwhile, Orwell develops a second theme through Winston’s thoughts and conversations, suggesting that only the impoverished Proles have the power to undermine the Party. Winston first encounters this theory only as an inexplicable intuition, but he eventually realizes that the Proles’ immunity to the Party is related to their uniquely human emotions. The Proles are “governed by private loyalties which they [do] not question. . . . They [are] not loyal to a party or a country or an idea, they [are] loyal to one another” (165). Understandably, in Orwell’s humanistic socialist opinion, this non-coerced familial love for one’s community promises to preclude the development of a society like the one pictured in 1984.

Consequently, the link between these two evidently disparate themes becomes obvious: because the Proles have largely maintained control over their own sexual (and ergo familial) lives, they have preserved their power over their own emotions, affections, and loyalties. As the ultimate expression of mutual affection and an essential component of the nuclear family unit, sex radically influences one’s attachments—and so, perspicaciously, the Party and the Anti-Sex League mandate their members’ affections and ultimately their political affiliations by legally designating their sex lives. And this phenomenon is not only a literary invention of Orwell’s—while superficially dissimilar to Orwell’s politicized abstinence, historical movements ranging from misogynistic components of the modern alt-right to lesbian feminism to perhaps most explicitly the monogamy-smashing orgies of the Weather Underground and the 20th century sexual revolution have demonstrated and continue to demonstrate that sex truly can be “a political act.” 

Indeed, though they seem to fade from the narrative in Part III of the novel, these secondary themes are actually extrapolations of 1984’s principle theme: “God is power” (264). By sexually directing Party members’ affections, the Party gains power over their hearts, the power to tear “human minds to pieces and [put] them together again in new shapes of [its] own choosing” (266), that ability most coveted by human pride. Consequently, the Proles’ seemingly simple sexual and emotional freedom is of great political significance. 

Nevertheless, the plot of this dystopian novel does not suggest a utopian strategy to normalize this proletarian power of innocent emotion. The climax of the novel reveals that Winston’s prior assumption that “they can’t get inside you” (166)—that the Party ultimately cannot contort one’s deepest affections and emotions—is utterly false. Worse still, Winston learns that the very raw, unadulterated emotions (namely fear) for which he admired the Proles can actually easily overthrow and even reverse the fiercest love. In reality, Orwell suggests, sex is not only politically manipulatable; it can also ultimately demolish personal autonomy. By all appearances, then, while the year 1984 has come and gone, not even the true love of mankind is sufficient to save humanity from the tyranny of the world pictured in Orwell’s novel.

All citations taken from:

Orwell, George. 1984. Signet Classics, 1949.

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