My Back Pages: George Orwell’s 1984

During freshman year of high school, my literature class was required to read 1984 (or, to be absolutely correct, Nineteen Eighty-Four) by George Orwell. Some of the novel’s finer points probably went over our heads, but we grasped the main concepts. The story of protagonist Winston Smith and his doomed personal rebellion against “Big Brother” and the Party that governs every detail of his life is a powerful one, even if you’re just fourteen years old and don’t really know all the historical context that surrounded the writing of the book.

In addition to the big ideas about a totalitarian government that exercised mind control and historical revision, there was one passing scene that impressed itself upon my memory. Winston and his lover Julia (who is also secretly disloyal to the Party) have begun a forbidden affair, meeting clandestinely in a rented room above an antique shop. Julia asks Winston to turn his back for a minute and then reveals herself in this passage:

“She must have slipped into some shop in the proletarian quarters and bought herself a complete set of makeup materials. Her lips were deeply reddened, her cheeks rouged, her nose powdered; there was even a touch of something under the eyes to make them brighter. It was not very skillfully done, but Winston’s standards in such matters were not high. He had never before seen or imagined a woman of the Party with cosmetics on her face. The improvement in her appearance was startling. With just a few dabs of color in the right places she had become not only very much prettier, but, above, all, far more feminine. Her short hair and boyish overalls merely added to the effect. As he took her in his arms a wave of synthetic violets flooded his nostrils…”

It’s a before-and-after transformation (a makeover, even!) with an added thrill: lipstick and perfume as a revolutionary statement. As you might remember or guess, things don’t end well for Winston and Julia. But I do love wearing violet fragrances, and I can’t help wondering whether this passage planted the idea in my teenage mind.

To read other posts in this series, click here.

Images: first edition of 1984, via Wikipedia; scene from the film adaptation “1984,” directed by Michael Radford (1984).

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