- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
AUGUST STRINDBERG 1888
First published in 1888, August Strindberg’s Miss Julie shocked early reviewers with its frank portrayal of sexuality. Although it was privately produced in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1889, the play was banned throughout much of Europe and was not produced in Sweden, Strindberg’s native country, until 1906. Britain’s ban on public performances of the play was not lifted until 1939. Notoriety is often the best publicity, however, and the play soon gained an underground popularity in both Europe and America; mainstream acceptance and success came a bit slower, but by the early twentieth century the play was considered an important facet of modern drama.
The root of contention over the play stemmed from its frank portrayal of sex. Not only does Miss Julie contain a sexual encounter between a lower-class servant and an upper-class aristocrat (in itself outrageous for the times), the play clearly describes the sex act as something apart from the concept of love. The idea of intercourse based completely on lust was scandalous to late-nineteenth century thinking and enough to provoke censure. And it was nothing more than the idea of sex without love that caused the trouble: the act is only referred to in the play, not actually depicted on stage.
Strindberg’s drama focuses on the downfall of the aristocratic Miss Julie, a misfit in her society (the author refers to her in his preface as a “man-hating half-woman”). Julie rebels against the restrictions Page 212 | Top of Articleplaced on her as a woman and as a member of the upper-class. From the beginning of the play, her behavior is shown to alienate her peer class and shock the servants. She displays a blatant disregard for class and gender conventions, at one moment claiming that class differences should not exist and the next demanding proper treatment as a woman of aristocracy. Her antics result in her social downfall, a loss of respect from her servants, and, ultimately, her suicide.
Miss Julie is widely regarded as the most important drama to come out of the literary movement known as naturalism. The movement was based largely on the theory of social Darwinism, which proposed that individuals fight for position in society much as animals fight for their survival in the wild, and that, in humans (as in animals) only the fittest can survive (this theory is known as “Natural Selection” and was first proposed by Charles Darwin). As a naturalistic drama, Miss Julie focuses on Julie and Jean’s struggle for survival in their society. Strindberg claimed that the basis for the plot of Miss Julie was a true story he had heard of a young noblewoman who had had sexual relations with a servant, although that young woman did not commit suicide. Strindberg lived in a time in which gender and class roles were becoming more fluid, and the play reflects the conflicts that are inevitable in a society struggling with change.
Today Miss Julie is regarded as remarkable for the same reason early critics and censors found it so shocking: it is the first play in which sex is separated from love. Strindberg’s portrayal of the strength of sexual desire (and the often calamitous situations that result when one surrenders to such desires) strongly influenced later playwrights, most notably Tennessee Williams (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). Although the play’s importance was not widely recognized during Strindberg’s lifetime, its place in modern drama, particularly as an example of naturalism, is now virtually undisputed.
Strindberg was born Johan August Strindberg on January 22, 1849, in Riddarholm, Stockholm, Sweden. His father was a middle-class merchant, his mother a former servant. He suffered through an emotionally difficult childhood; when he was four his father went bankrupt, and when he was thirteen his mother died. A year after her death, his father married the family housekeeper.
As Strindberg grew older, he struggled to choose a profession. He worked as an elementary school teacher, studied medicine and philosophy, worked as a journalist, and had an appointment in the Swedish Royal Library, cataloguing holdings in the Chinese section. He also made two unsuccessful attempts at becoming an actor. It was during the first of these attempts that Strindberg began writing plays and, in 1870, his first two plays, The Freethinker and In Rome, were produced. His early plays were poorly received, however, and it was not until 1881 that a reworked version of an earlier play, Major Olof, brought him some success.
In 1894, Strindberg’s first collection of short stories was published. Frankly sexual in nature and critical of the upper classes, the book was considered immoral by many, and Strindberg was eventually put on trial for blasphemy. Although he was finally acquitted, the episode made him realize that the government could take away his freedom of expression. He nonetheless continued to explore sexuality as well as class issues in subsequent writings. In addition to working in other genres, Strindberg continued to write plays, gaining more success with his naturalistic dramas, the most well known of which are The Father (1887) and Miss Julie (1888).
In 1897, Strindberg briefly quit writing in order to pursue scientific experiments, particularly in alchemy, the attempt to turn less valuable metals into gold. He also became interested in mysticism and the occult. In 1896, he began developing psychotic symptoms, experiencing obsessions and hallucinations. Putting himself under a doctor’s care, he eventually recovered and began writing again. After this experience, however, he developed a new interest in the reality of the psyche, particularly dreams. He began to write his “dream plays,” surrealistic pieces such as A Dream Play (1902) and The Ghost Sonata.
Strindberg’s personal life mirrored his professional career, with many ups and downs. In 1877, he married Siri von Essen, a divorced actress. This union ended in divorce in 1891. Strindberg would marry and divorce two more times. He fathered a total of six children: Karin, Greta, and Hans from his first marriage (a daughter also died in infancy); Kerstin from his second marriage; and Anne-Marie from his third.
In addition to his writing, Strindberg was active in other artistic areas. He founded the Scandinavian Experimental Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1888, and founded the Intimate Theatre in 1907. Strindberg remained active throughout his adult life, continuing to write until his death from stomach cancer on May 14, 1912. Today he is regarded as one of the most important of modern dramatists.
Miss Julie opens with Jean, a valet, and Kristine, a cook, in the kitchen of the Count, their master. The two begin to talk about Miss Julie, the Count’s daughter. Jean says she is crazy, dancing with the servants at a Midsummer’s Eve celebration when she should be visiting relatives with her father. Kristine remarks that Julie has always been crazy but has gotten worse since breaking off her engagement with her fiance. Jean reveals that he once saw Julie “training” her fiance as one would train a dog, making him jump over her riding crop and hitting him with it after each jump until he finally took the riding crop from her, struck her with it, and broke it into pieces. According to Jean, Julie, like her late mother, acts in some ways like an aristocrat and in others like a commoner.
Julie enters and asks Jean to dance with her. At first he declines, noting that he has already promised this dance to Kristine, but Julie finally persuades him. The two go offstage together, leaving Kristine working in the kitchen. When Julie and Jean return, they engage in conversation while Kristine sleeps at the table. Jean reveals to Julie his aristocratic tastes—he drinks wine, speaks French, and uses the language of the upper classes. In contrast Julie chooses to drink beer instead of wine, saying she prefers it.
Julie wants to dance with Jean again, but Jean warns her that she is talked about because of her familiarity with the male servants. Kristine goes to bed, leaving Julie and Jean alone and, in the ensuing conversation, Julie alternates between urging Jean to treat her as an equal and ordering him around. Jean reveals that he was in love with Julie when they were both children and that to him her father’s garden was the Garden of Eden, while Julie herself symbolized the hopelessness of his ascension to a higher class. As they are speaking, a crowd of servants comes to the door, singing a vulgar song about Julie and Jean. The servants are about to enter
the kitchen, and Jean tells Julie that, in order to safeguard her reputation, the two of them must hide and that the only possible place for them to go is his room. Julie and Jean leave the kitchen and the servants enter, continuing their singing. When the servants are gone, Julie and Jean return; it is clear that they have had sexual intercourse in Jean’s room.
With both of their reputation endangered by their tryst, Jean says that the two of them must leave together, perhaps go to Switzerland to open a hotel. Julie, trying to create a romantic relationship from their purely carnal encounter, asks him to say he loves her and tells him to call her Julie rather than Page 214 | Top of ArticleMiss Julie. Jean refuses, saying that such familiarity is only possible in the future, when his ambition leads him to great heights—perhaps to becoming a count in Rumania, where titles can be purchased. He begins to speak harshly to Julie, saying he needs money to leave. When Julie says that she has no money, Jean says that they will have to stay. Julie expresses alarm at the prospect of the servants laughing at her for taking Jean as a lover. Jean calls her a whore, saying her actions are below those of a female servant, who would never throw herself at a man as Julie has.
Later, Jean softens in his attitude toward Julie. They return to the idea of running away together. Julie tells Jean about her family history. She relates her mother’s belief in women’s equality to men, beliefs which resulted in Julie being raised as a boy in order to show that women could be as good as men. Julie’s mother also insisted that, on the estate, male servants take on the tasks of women and female servants do the work of men, a policy that resulted in financial ruin. Finally Julie’s father took control, but a suspicious fire, later revealed to be started by Julie’s mother, burned the house and other buildings. The family then faced poverty, but Julie’s mother was able to secure a loan from a brick manufacturer, later discovered to be her lover. The “loan” was actually money that belonged to Julie’s family in the first place. From her mother, Julie learned to hate all men. Despite such hatred, she is still sexually attracted to men and a victim to her passions.
Although Julie says she hates Jean, she wants the two of them to leave together. Jean says that the only solution is for Julie to go away alone. She says she will go if he will come with her. When he refuses, Julie, unable to make a decision, asks him for an order. He now tells her to go and dress for their trip, that the two of them will leave together. Julie leaves the room and, shortly afterwards, Kristine enters. Guessing what has happened, Kristine is disgusted with Julie and no longer respects her. Kristine leaves and Julie enters the room, carrying a bird cage. Jean agrees to leave with her but says they cannot take the bird; Julie agrees to let him kill it. When he decapitates the bird, Julie screams that she hates him and that she will tell her father everything.
Jean leaves, Kristine returns, and Julie begs her for assistance, suggesting that all three of them go to Switzerland, attempting to paint a beautiful picture of their future. Kristine is not interested, and she leaves for church, cutting off Julie and Jean’s chance for escape when she remarks that she will tell the groomsman not to let any of the horses go. Julie asks Jean what to do. He tells her that she should commit suicide. The bell rings, and the two realize that the Count has returned. Jean becomes subservient at the sound of the bell, but he hands Julie the razor and tells her to go the barn. She walks out, carrying the razor.
Jean is the ambitious valet who engages in sexual relations with Julie. Although he is a servant, he longs for a higher social position. He tells Julie of his desire to open a hotel and become a count like her father. In his discussion with her, he reveals a taste for fine food and good wine as well as a dream of climbing a tree, a symbol of his desire to move up in the world. It is clear, however, that his actions will keep him a servant for life. He has become engaged to Kristine, the cook, further cementing his place in the lower classes and, when he and Miss Julie sleep together, he is primarily concerned with the fact that, because of his actions, he may lose his position as a servant—the very station he says he wants so desperately to leave.
Although Jean freely insults Julie after their sexual encounter, apparently no longer seeing himself as her inferior, when Kristine insults Julie, Jean tells her she must be respectful towards her mistress. Although Jean is brave enough to steal wine from his master, when the Count returns, ringing for his boots and coffee, Jean immediately returns to subservience, leading the audience to doubt that his ambitions will ever turn into reality.
Miss Julie is the play’s main character. She does not understand her place in society as an aristocrat or as a woman; her confusion and lack of understanding is the primary focus of the play. When the audience first sees her, she has been dancing with the servants at their Midsummer’s Eve festivities when it would be more appropriate for her to be visiting relatives with her father, the Count. During the course of the play, she spends most of her time with Jean, her father’s valet. In her conversations with Jean, Julie alternates between giving him commands and trying to convince him to treat her as an equal. In order that the other servants Page 215 | Top of Articlewill not see her with Jean, however, she hides with him in his room. While they are locked in together, the two engage in sexual intercourse.
Julie not only rebels against her place as an aristocrat, but—having given in to animal passion, to sex without love—she has revealed a confused gender identity as well. Respectable women at this time did not engage in such behavior. Julie also reveals that her mother raised her as a boy, which contributes to her gender confusion. At the end of the play, although Julie is ashamed of her actions, she has really learned nothing. As in the beginning, she still alternates between seeing herself as an aristocrat and as an equal of the servants. At the end of the play, she commands Jean to order her to commit suicide.
Engaged to Jean, Kristine is the Count’s cook. Unlike Jean and Julie, she recognizes her place in society and stays within what she considers proper bounds. Traditional in every way, she is also extremely religious. Julie’s actions appall Kristine from the beginning, but when she discovers that Julie has slept with Jean, Kristine says she can no longer work for people who have no sense of decency. She does not show such anger at Jean, however, and tells him that, in fact, his indiscretion with Julie is not as bad as if he had committed a similar act with a fellow servant. In Kristine’s view, it is only Julie who has completely debased herself and is so deserving of disdain. Kristine cuts off Julie and Jean’s only possibility of escape when she announces that she will tell the groom not to let any of the horses out, thus revealing that her loyalty is to her master, the Count.
Miss Julie’s confusion over her sexual identity ultimately leads to her ruin. For Strindberg, men and women have specific roles in society; in the play’s preface he describes Julie as a “man-hating half-woman.” Julie’s problems stem from her heritage as well as the way she was reared. Her mother did not bring Julie up according to accepted standards regarding women’s roles; she also believed—incorrectly, Strindberg implies—that men and women are equal. She refused to conform to traditional female roles. At first, she would not marry Julie’s
father, although she had sexual relations with him, was the mother of his child, and was essentially mistress of his household. In this position, she forced the servants into “unnatural” occupations, with men assigned to traditionally female tasks while women did the work of men. The result was financial ruin. In keeping with this philosophy, Julie was raised as a boy, expected to match or exceed the role of a male child. She was forced to wear boys’ clothes, engage in physical chores such as caring for horses, and even go hunting.
In addition to forcing male traits on her daughter, Julie’s mother also taught her to despise all men. Julie says she only became engaged so she could make her fiance her slave, and it is clear that this is what she did, even to the point of making her betrothed jump over her riding crop while whipping him like an animal. When Jean kills Julie’s greenfinch, Julie’s rage at men is nakedly revealed. “I’d like to see your whole sex swimming in a sea of blood,” she tells him. The situation is complicated, however, by the fact that Julie despises women as well and blames her father for bringing her up to revile her own sex. Complicating matters is Julie’s sexual desire, which forces her to adopt female behavior she abhors and seduce the men she hates. The result, Julie says, is that she is neither fully male nor fully female but has become “half-woman,
half-man,” an unnatural role in which, according to Strindberg, she can never find happiness.”
Much of the action of Miss Julie focuses on the conflict between the upper and lower classes. Both Julie and Jean are dissatisfied with their class positions. Julie, the aristocrat, relates a recurring dream in which she is high atop a pillar yet longs to come down to the ground. Jean, the servant, also has a recurring dream: he conversely sees himself struggling to climb a tree in order to obtain the golden eggs at the top. Julie, although she is mistress of the house, attends the servants’ party, participating in their revelry rather than visiting relatives with her father. Jean, on the other hand, has aristocratic pretensions. He is fussy about his food and drink, speaks in cultured tones, and plans to escape his role as a servant, open his own hotel, and become a count like his employer.
In spite of their desires, however, Strindberg’s characters are destined to remain in the class to which they were born. Julie is, at heart, an aristocrat and Jean, despite his refined playacting, has the soul of a servant. While she longs to belong to their common class, Julie also snobbishly states that she honors her servants with her presence at their dance; she alternates between entreating Jean to treat her as an equal and ordering him about. Jean speaks of his ambitions, but, after his sexual encounter with Julie, he desperately searches for a way to keep his lowly position and tells Kristine she must respect her mistress. When the Count returns and rings for his boots and coffee, Jean reverts to a state of complete subservience. As far as these characters are concerned, Strindberg believes that there is no escaping class destiny.
In Miss Julie, sex is divorced from love—a fact that caused Strindberg and his play a good deal of trouble when it first appeared. Although there is mild flirtation between Julie and Jean at the beginning of the play, there is no sense that their subsequent sexual encounter arises from unrequited passion or love, especially as it occurs while the other servants sing what Jean describes as “a dirty song” about himself and Julie. In addition, when the two emerge from Jean’s room, Jean confesses that his previous story of romantic longing for her as a child was merely a lie invented to seduce her. When he saw her as a child, he later reveals, he had “the same dirty thoughts all boys have.” Julie is horrified by this revelation. She asks Jean to say he loves her, but her desperate attempt to introduce romance into their relationship is forced, an attempt to convince herself that she has not been disgraced in her surrender to carnal desire.
Strindberg makes it clear, though, that Julie’s sexual act with Jean is not romantic but unbridled lust. Jean says he has never seen a woman throw herself at a man as Julie has, that such sexual baseness exists only in animals and in whores. Julie says that, although she despises men, she cannot control herself “when the weakness comes, when passion burns.” Julie’s sexuality ultimately contributes to her downfall. Not only do her passions drive her to sex with a lower-class man—an act that Page 217 | Top of Articlewill forever sully her reputation—they force her to intimately interact with the male sex she so despises, behavior that will further damage her conflicted personality. Julie’s sexual encounter with Jean causes a breakdown of both her external and internal status: she is disgraced in the eyes of others and has dealt an irreparable injury to her already precarious self-esteem.
An allusion is a reference to another literary work. In Miss Julie, the name of Julie’s dog, Diana, is an allusion to the Roman goddess of hunting. According to her legend, when a man caught sight of her bathing, Diana unleashed her hounds to tear him to pieces. The goddess Diana’s rejection of men mirrors Julie’s. Another allusion is found in the subject of the church sermon Kristine will attend, the beheading of John the Baptist. According to the Biblical story, John the Baptist was beheaded by the Palestinian ruler King Herod Antipas, who was tricked into killing the disciple of Jesus Christ by his wife, Herodias, and daughter, Salome. John the Baptist’s death is reflected in the death of Julie’s bird as well as in the death of Julie herself.
In foreshadowing, words, symbols, or an event suggest a future incident. Julie’s dog Diana’s sexual encounter with the gatekeeper’s dog, an encounter that horrifies Julie, foreshadows her own sexual act with Jean—as well as her subsequent shame and horror following the act. The beheading of Julie’s bird by Jean foreshadows Julie’s own death.
The three classical unities, unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action, are a Renaissance-era interpretation of the rules of ancient Greek drama (as they are described in Aristotle’s Poetics). Unity of time dictates that the action of a drama occur within a twenty-four hour period. In order to conform to unity of place, the action of a play must take place in either a single location or locations that are close to one another; one cannot, for instance, set one scene in Paris while another is set in Rome. Unity of action means that all of the incidents of a drama must follow each other logically. In writing Miss Julie, Strindberg strictly adhered to the classical unities.
The structure of Miss Julie differs from contemporary late-nineteenth century drama in that Strindberg, believing that the intermissions between acts interrupted an audience’s concentration, chose to write a shorter play. He conceived Miss Julie as a one-act rather than the traditional three-act play so that the audience could experience his drama in a single sitting. Nevertheless, the play’s structure reflects the traditional structure in that it has three distinct parts. Instead of being divided by an intermission, the first and second acts occur on either side of the mime, in which Kristine appears alone onstage. The second and third parts are separated by the servants’ ballet, which occurs onstage while Jean and Julie are alone (having sex) in Jean’s room.
A symbol represents something outside of itself. In Miss Julie, the Count’s boots and bell symbolize his offstage presence as well as his continuing power over Julie and Jean. When Jean hears the Count’s bell, his dreams of social mobility evaporate, and he once again becomes a lackey. Likewise, Jean and Julie’s respective dreams are symbols of their desire to escape their reality.
Naturalism is a literary movement that began in France in the mid-1800s. The French writer Emile Zola (the Rougon-Macquart series of novels) is considered the most influential in defining the principles of the movement. Naturalists were influenced by the theory of social Darwinism, in which the human struggle for social survival mirrored the struggle of animals for physical survival (survival of the fittest). In Naturalism, humans are controlled by social and biological factors, heredity, and environment, rather than by their own strength of will and character. Miss Julie is widely considered to be the most important naturalistic drama.
In 1859, less than thirty years before Strindberg wrote Miss Julie, Charles Darwin published The
Origin of Species, a book that revolutionized scientific thought on the subjects of evolution and environmental adaptation. Darwin identified a process he called natural selection. According to this theory, the earth cannot support all organisms that develop and so these life forms must compete with one another for environmental resources such as food and living space. The tendency for the hardier species to prevail and propagate while the weaker species die off is what Darwin termed the survival of the fittest.
Darwin’s ideas were extremely controversial at this time. Previously, people believed that God had created each species individually. Further, Darwin’s theories indicated that humans evolved from lower life forms—more specifically lower primates such as apes. To many, this idea was sacrilegious (as they believed God had created humans in his image, as fully-evolved creatures), a repudiation of God, and a threat to religion. Although some pious individuals accepted Darwin’s theories, believing evolution occurred under God’s guidance, others found their beliefs challenged. After all, if humans descended from other species, then there was little to separate man from beast.
In spite of such objections, acceptance of Darwin’s theories grew. And while Darwin’s ideas applied to biology, the concept of survival of the fittest began to influence other disciplines as well. Most notable was the development of social Darwinism, a concept that came to prominence in the late-1800s. Social Darwinists saw natural selection occurring within the social as well as biological realm; the concept was used to explain disparities—why some rose to aristocracy while others languished in the lower-classes—in social status. Those who were wealthy or had accomplished much had done so because they were better adapted to compete for scarce social resources. Those who were poor and had achieved little were in their positions because of their own nature. The concept of social Darwinism became important to the Naturalist Page 219 | Top of Articleliterary movement from which Miss Julie arose. In Strindberg’s play, the concept of social Darwinism can be seen in the fall of Julie, who is clearly unfit for a superior position and cannot survive. Jean’s ability to rise, while questionable, is presented more optimistically; he is stronger and consequently more likely to improve his position in society.
The social position of the lower-class was improving at the time Strindberg’s work appeared. Workers in Sweden began to strike for higher wages and shorter workdays. In 1881, a law was passed to limit child labor in factories, but it was not until 1909 that all adult males in Sweden were given the right to vote. The possibility of social mobility was becoming greater at this time as well. In his preface to Miss Julie, Strindberg, himself the child of a servant, wrote of “the old. . . nobility giving way to a new nobility of nerve and intellect.”
The position of women in society was also an important issue at this time. It was only in 1845 that women in Sweden were given the right to own property. In 1846 women were also given the right to hold certain specific jobs, such as teaching, and finally, in 1862, the right to vote. In the 1870s, women were let into the universities for the first time, although they were not allowed to study theology or law. In general, women were gradually becoming, at least in the eyes of the law, more independent and closer in equality with men.
Strindberg himself showed mixed feelings about the changing roles of women. In many ways he sympathized with women, but while Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen created Nora, the heroine of A Doll’s House who walked out on her husband and children to meet her own needs, Strindberg placed more importance on the sanctity of marriage and spoke in his preface to Miss Julie about the rise of the “man-hating half-woman.” A general opposition to feminism is also apparent in Miss Julie.
With its frank portrayal of sexuality, Miss Julie has been a controversial play since its inception—even before it was produced onstage. Initially, Strindberg was only able to get the play published, and reviews of this published version were largely negative. Michael Meyer, in his biography Strindberg, quoted a number of early critics. The play was called “a filthy bundle of rags which one hardly wishes to touch even with tongs” as well as “a heap of ordure . . . [with] language that is scarcely used except in nests of vice and debauchery.” One critic cited in Meyer’s book prophesied that the play “will surely nowhere find a public that could endure to see it.” Another said that, in order to write Miss Julie, Strindberg “must. . . have been troubled by some affectation of the brain which rendered him . . . not wholly normal.”
Production of the play was initially banned by censors, but Strindberg, who opened his own experimental theater company in order to produce the play, was able to have Miss Julie shown privately in Copenhagen in 1889. In the next few years, the play was banned in various European countries, and it was not until 1906 that Miss Julie was performed publicly in Sweden. While the play gradually began to receive more frequent productions, it continued to be perceived as shocking. As Margery Morgan noted in her book August Strindberg, as late as 1912 one critic called the play “the most repellent and brutal play we have ever had to sit through.” In spite of repeated censure and harsh criticism, however, the importance of Miss Julie was gradually recognized. According to Meyer, after seeing a production of the play, playwright George Bernard Shaw (Major Barbara) wrote of Strindberg as “that very remarkable genius who was left by Ibsen’s death at the head of the Scandinavian drama.”
Miss Julie is no longer considered shocking because of its sexuality, and critics have turned instead to viewing the play largely through the lens of psychology, a fledgling science in Strindberg’s time. In Gradiva, Harry Jarv wrote that the pre-Freudian psychological theories of the 1880s focused on the elements of a personality but “did not produce a synthesis,” a whole integrated personality. Jarv noted that other literary critics have found fault with Julie’s lack of cohesiveness as a character. Jarv, however, pointed out the multitude of motivations Strindberg gives for Julie’s actions in the preface and remarked that, in his understanding of personality, Strindberg was actually ahead of his time. According to the critic, “the master psychologist Strindberg has managed, in Julie and Jean, to give form to the exceedingly complicated functional units of human personalities.” Jarv also suggested that Strindberg drew upon elements of his own psychology in developing Julie. “Like Julie,” Jarv Page 220 | Top of Articlewrote, “Strindberg had personally felt drawn to a life of the instincts, but at the same time he has perceived it as something shameful.” Jarv’s article focused on Strindberg’s own battles with madness as well. As is often the case in Strindberg criticism, Jarv analyzed the play by offering an analysis of its author.
Writing at the same time as Jarv, Martin Lamm, in his book August Strindberg, also saw Julie as a psychological study. Lamm called her a “psychological enigma.” According to Lamm, Strindberg’s lengthy list of the “causes” of Julie’s fall were an answer to Georg Brandes, who considered Julie’s suicide “psychologically unbelievable.” Lamm noted that there is no simple single-theory psychological explanation for the suicide. “Strindberg’s intention,” he wrote, “was to go beyond simple explanations for answers and to present the multiplicity of conscious and unconscious motivations upon which actions are based.”
Like Lamm, Harry G. Carlson, in his 1982 book Strindberg and the Poetry of Myth, also focused on the complexity of Julie’s personality, calling her downfall “the [result] of the awesome power of nature’s twin forces, heredity and environment.” In addition, however, Carlson pointed out that Julie and Jean’s dreams are also a window into the psychology of their characters. However, Carlson went beyond psychology, suggesting that “a mythic destiny had long ago designed and determined the characters’ fate.” For Carlson, Strindberg’s psychological play also has mythical overtones.
Lesley Ferris, in her 1989 study Acting Women: Images of Women in Theatre, also showed an interest in the psychology of Julie, but saw that psychology from a feminist perspective. Ferris focused on Strindberg’s characterization of Julie as a “half-woman,” androgynous because of her upbringing. Julie, according to Ferris, has absorbed the patriarchal concept of what women should be but cannot assume the role patriarchy assigns her. Consequently she does not have “access to an autonomous self.” Like earlier critics Ferris believed that Julie has no integrated personality, in essence no self, and this is what leads to her downfall.
Current psychological examinations of Julie and Jean reflect late-twentieth century thought and its emphasis on psychology as surely as the earliest critiques reflected common views on propriety in Strindberg’s time. As times continue to change, further viewpoints will lead to a greater understanding of Miss Julie.
Cross is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in modern and contemporary drama. In this essay she discusses Miss Julie’s inability to live within the gender and class roles imposed on her by society.
In his preface to Miss Julie, Strindberg refers to Julie as a “man-hating half woman,” and indeed, the playwright draws her as such—though it should be pointed out that Julie despises not only men but women as well. Nonetheless, psychologically—considered within the context of her time—Julie is neither wholly male nor wholly female, and she cannot find a place for herself within the social confines of either gender role. In addition, Julie, though an aristocrat by birth, does not fit in with either the upper classes or with the lower. Although she lives in a time during which rigid divisions in class and gender were softening, nineteenth-century Sweden was still a highly structured society with clearly defined class and gender roles. Because Julie cannot distinctly identify with male or female, master or servant, there is no place for her in this world. It is this fact that finally leads to her suicide.
From the beginning of the play, well before she even sets foot on stage, Julie’s class and gender confusion become clear as the servants Jean and Kristine discuss their mistress’s idiosyncrasies. Julie’s inability to act within the bounds of acceptable female behavior is illustrated by an act Strindberg makes so extreme that it becomes ludicrous: Julie “training” her fiance by having him jump over her riding crop and striking him each jump. Clearly, Julie desires power over men to a point that is pathological.
Strindberg provides further evidence of Julie’s lack of class identity. On one hand, Kristine reveals Julie’s extreme anger over her dog’s sexual encounter with the gatekeeper’s dog, an act that foreshadows Julie’s own indiscretion with Jean. On the other hand, Julie has chosen to stay at home and dance with her servants when it would be more appropriate for her to be visiting relatives with her father.
“Miss Julie,” Jean says, “has too much pride about some things and not enough about others.” Jean reveals that Julie’s mother was the same way. As he recalls, “the cuffs of her blouse were dirty, but she had to have her coat of arms on her cufflinks.” Like her mother, Julie is unrefined, even less refined than her own servants. Jean remarks that Julie “pulled the gamekeeper away from Anna and made him dance with her.” Such an act is unheard of in the world of the servants. “We wouldn’t behave like that,” Jean says.
Julie’s inconsistency in matters of class is revealed again when she appears onstage for the first time. When Jean points out that, by dancing with him, she risks losing the respect of her servants, she replies, “As mistress of the house, I honor your dance with my presence!” Yet when Jean says he will act “as [she] orders,” Julie replies, “don’t take it as an order! On a night like this, we’re all just ordinary people having fun, so we’ll forget about rank” As much as Julie tries to force a sense of social equality, Strindberg makes it clear that she also demands the respect her position dictates.
In her book Acting Women: Images of Women in Theatre, Lesley Ferris pointed out that Kristine, the cook, acts as a counterpoint to Julie. As Ferris wrote, Kristine “clearly knows her place as a woman and a member of the lower class—waiting on Jean, the footman, and enjoying this subservient position.” When Jean asks Kristine if she is angry at him for dancing with Julie when he had promised to dance with her, Kristine tells him, “I know my place.” Jean responds, “You’re a sensible girl. . . and you’d make a good wife,” a statement that plays up the contrast between Kristine and Julie, who is not sensible and would never make a good wife. Shortly after Julie and Jean return from their dancing, Kristine does the sensible thing; she goes to bed. In contrast, Julie stays up with Jean, telling him the story of a recurring dream, in which she is up in a tower and wants only to come down, clearly a reference to her discomfort with her position in society.
As Jean tries to point out to Julie, she is a woman and the mistress of the house, and she tremendously endangers her reputation by drinking alone with him in the kitchen: Julie, however, will not accept (at least initially) the fact that she cannot simply act as she pleases. Even when the other servants arrive and begin to sing the song of the swineherd and the princess, Julie believes they sing
out of love for her; she cannot see the gulf between herself and the workers. Finally persuaded that she has invited the disrespect of her servants, Julie hides with Jean in his room, another clear violation of her proper role. Her downfall becomes complete when she willingly has sex with Jean; at this point, her reputation is damaged beyond repair.
After their sexual encounter, Jean and Julie initially seem to believe that they can rectify the situation by fleeing to Switzerland, a place where no one knows them and their class differences will not matter. At this point, Julie, having acted with the sexual freedom reserved for men, now reverts to a traditionally female viewpoint; she wants to turn their purely carnal encounter into an expression of love. Jean, however, will not go along with her romantic fantasy. In addition, the sexual encounter has made them, in a sense, more equal; at least Jean is now able to openly express disdain for Julie. He tells her that her actions make her lower than her servants, calls her a whore, and, fearing no reproach, reveals that he has stolen wine from her father’s cellar as well. At this point, Julie no longer wishes to play at social equality, and she attempts to regain her superior position. Insulted by Jean, she commands him, “You lackey, you menial, stand up when I speak to you!” He responds in kind: “Menial’s strumpet, lackey’s whore, shut up and get out of here!” This exchange brings Julie to realize the consequences of taking liberties with her socially-prescribed role; the respect that she feels is her due—and which she desperately needs for her self-esteem—has been-erased.
At this point in the play, Strindberg chooses to provide the audience with some explanation for Julie’s inability to accept her gender and class roles. Strindberg shows Julie as the product of heredity and environment, and his explanation for Julie’s gender and class confusion even predates her birth, extending back to the character of her mother. Earlier Jean revealed that Julie’s mother tried to act as both master and servant, that she insisted that her dirty cuffs be adorned with cufflinks bearing her coat of arms. After her sexual encounter with Jean and the ensuing arguments, Julie reveals to Jean more of her background. She describes her mother as “a commoner—very humble background.” Because her father is a gentlemen, genetically, Julie truly is a hybrid of the upper and lower classes. Environment, however, has also played a strong Page 223 | Top of Articlepart in bringing Julie to her present position. Her mother was “brought up believing in social equality, women’s rights, and all that.” Julie herself was reared according to her mother’s bizarre ideas about gender equality.
As when he described Julie’s “training” of her fiance, Strindberg once again presents a situation so extreme that it becomes ridiculous. Not only did Julie’s mother believe women to be equal to men; she actually forced complete changes in gender roles. Male servants were assigned tasks normally reserved for women and women did the work of men. As a child, Julie was not simply freed from the conventional roles of women; she was forced to take on the activities and even the clothing of men. Julie was not brought up to see men as equals but to hate men and to want to make them her slaves. In addition, Julie complains that her father “brought me up to despise my own sex, making me half woman, half man.” Because Julie hates women as well as men, she cannot help but hate herself and is doomed to confusion and misery. Because she is an aristocrat who cannot fully take on the role required by her class, there is no place where she belongs.
Up until the end, Julie’s sense of gender and class identity remains ambiguous. For a time she is able to convince herself that she can escape her society by going to Switzerland with Jean, again trying to see their relationship as that of equals, but when Jean kills her greenfinch (her pet bird), her hatred of his sex and class resurfaces. Her words are remarkable for their violence: “I’d like to see your whole sex swimming in a sea of blood . . . I think I could drink from your skull! I’d like to bathe my feet in your open chest and eat your heart roasted whole!” In addition to this expression of hatred for men, Julie again reveals her sense of social superiority in her diatribe against Jean: “By the way, what is your family name?. . . I was to be Mrs. Bootblack—or Madame Pigsty.—You dog, who wears my collar, you lackey.” Again, however, Julie changes her attitude. Retaining a sense of ambiguity in matters of class superiority, she essentially orders Jean to tell her to commit suicide, seemingly taking the roles of both master and slave.
John Ward offered a somewhat different interpretation in his book The Social and Religious Plays of Strindberg: “In a sense, Julie decides to kill herself; Jean merely says the words. If anyone is controlled or conditioned, it is Jean by the bell, not Julie who. . . makes her own decision.” In her book The Greatest Fire: A Study of August Strindberg,
Birgitta Steene expressed a similar opinion. During the course of the play, Steene pointed out, Jean and Julie exchange roles. At times Julie acts as the master but at other times assumes the position of servant. According to Steene, however, Julie shows her superiority to Jean in her act of suicide. As she wrote: “While Julie walks to her death holding her head high, Jean cringes in fear before the count’s bell. The servant is victorious as a male, but he remains a servant. The aristocrat is defeated sexually and socially, but she dies nobly.”
It is common in the study of literature to romanticize suicide. In reality, however, the nobility of Julie’s suicide is questionable and problematic. Ferris denied that Julie even makes a choice at all. “Miss Julie makes no decision here,” she wrote, “except the joint decision with Jean that they have ‘no choice.’ . . . there is no option, no choice in this world where the hierarchy of gender and class reigns supreme. Ferris went on to say that “Miss Julie is Strindberg’s ‘battle of the sexes’ personified; her selfhood, whose existence she denies, manifest itself in a psychotic struggle between her male and female halves.” One could add that Julie also engages in such a struggle between her aristocratic and common halves. For Ferris, Julie’s suicide is not a noble act, but the only way out for one, neither male nor female, neither master nor servant, whose divided identity “gives her no willful action to an autonomous self.” Having at best a divided identity, Julie sees self-destruction as her only option.
Source: Clare Cross, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.
Citing the playwright’s background as a photographer and filmmaker, Rokem explains the stagecraft Page 224 | Top of Articletechniques employed by Strindberg in writing Miss Julie.
Strindberg succeeded in arriving at theatrical effects that resemble the way a photograph “cuts out” a piece of reality: not a symmetrical joining of one wall to the other walls in the house—the basic fourth-wall technique of the realistic theater—but rather an asymmetrical cutting-out. Furthermore, Strindberg used cinematographic techniques resembling zoom, montage, and cut, which are highly significant from the strictly technical point of view and for the meaning of the plays. Historically, photography and movies were making great strides at the time and were art forms to which he himself—as photographer and as movie writer—gave considerable attention and interest. During Strindberg’s lifetime, both The Father and Miss Julie were filmed as silent movies by the director Anna Hofman-Uddgren and her husband, Gustaf Uddgren, writer and friend of Strindberg, but only The Father has been preserved.
Strindberg thus developed dramatic theatrical techniques that, like the movie camera, can bring the viewer very close to the depicted action and, at the same time, can quite easily change the point of view or direction of observing an event or succession of events. The disappearance or near disappearance of the static focal point is largely the result of the introduction of these different photographic and cinematographic techniques. When the characters, the action, and the fictional world are continuously presented, either from partial angles or from constantly changing ones, it is often impossible for the spectator to determine where the focal point is or what the central experiences are in the characters’ world. This in turn is a reflection of the constant and usually fruitless search of the characters for such focal points in their own lives.
Whereas Hedda Gabler’s lack of will to continue living was based on her refusal to bear offspring within the confines of married life, Miss Julie’s despair primarily reflects her unwillingness merely to exist. Of course, there are external reasons for her suicide, and Strindberg has taken great care both in the play and in the preface almost to overdetermine her final act of despair. Nevertheless, as several critics have pointed out, there are no clear and obvious causal connections between her suicide and the motives presented. Instead, this final act of despair is triggered by an irrational leap into the complete unknown, as she herself says “ecstatically” (according to Strindberg’s stage direction) in the final scene when she commands Jean, the servant, to command her, the mistress, to commit suicide: “I am already asleep—the whole room stands as if in smoke for me. . . and you look like an iron stove. . . that resembles a man dressed in black with a top hat—and your eyes glow like coal when the fire is extinguished—and your face is a white patch like the ashes.” These complex images within images resemble links in a chain, and they illustrate the constant movement or flux of the despairing speaker’s mind. For Miss Julie there is no fixed point in reality, no focal point, except her will to die, to reach out for a nothingness.
In Strindberg’s description of the set in the beginning of Miss Julie, he carefully specifies how the diagonal back wall cuts across the stage from left to right, opening up in the vaulted entry toward the garden. This vault however, is only partially visible. The oven and the table are also only partially visible because they are situated exactly on the borderline between the stage and the offstage areas. The side walls and the ceiling of the kitchen are marked by draperies and tormentors. Except for the garden entry, there are no doors or windows. As the play reveals, the kitchen is connected only to the private bedrooms of the servants Jean and Kristin; there is no direct access to the upper floor where the count and his daughter, Julie, live except through the pipe-telephone.
In his preface to the play, Strindberg explained: “I have borrowed from the impressionistic paintings the idea of the asymmetrical, the truncated, and I believe that thereby, the bringing forth of the illusion has been gained; since by not seeing the whole room and all the furnishings, there is room for imagination, i.e., fantasy is put in motion and it completes what is seen.” Here Strindberg describes the imaginative force of this basically metonymic set. But rather than following the custom in realistic theater of showing the whole room as part of a house that in turn is part of the fictional world of the play, Strindberg very consciously exposes only part of the room. He claims it should be completed in the imagination of the audience. As Evert Sprinchorn comments: “The incompleteness of the impressionist composition drew the artist and the viewer into closer personal contact, placing the viewer in the scene and compelling him to identify with the artist at a particular moment.”
The audience comes closer not only to the artist through this view of the kitchen from its interior but also, by force of the diagonal arrangements of the Page 225 | Top of Articleset, to the characters inside the kitchen. This is because the fourth wall, on which the realistic theater was originally based, has been moved to an undefined spot somewhere in the auditorium, the spectators are in the same room as the dramatic characters. It is also important to note that, to achieve this effect, Strindberg also removed the side walls from the stage, thus preventing the creation of any kind of symmetrical room that the spectator could comfortably watch from the outside. Furthermore, the audience is not guided regarding the symmetries, directions, or focal points in the set itself, which the traditional theater strongly emphasized. The only area that is separated from the kitchen is the garden, visible through the vaulted entry, with its fountain and, significantly enough, its statue of Eros. Thus, the physical point of view of the audience in relationship to the stage is ambiguous.
What is presented is a “photograph” of the kitchen taken from its interior, drawing the audience’s attention to different points inside or outside as the play’s action develops. The set of Miss Julie can, furthermore, be seen as a photograph because while the spectators get a close view from the inside of the kitchen, they also experience an objective perception of it and the events taking place there through the frame of the proscenium arch. The comparison between Strindberg’s scenic technique in Miss Julie and the photograph is compelling because of the very strong tension between intimacy and closeness on the one hand and objectivity and distance on the other; this sort of tension has often been observed to be one of the major characteristics not only of the play but also of photography, as the practice of documenting and preserving large numbers of slices of reality. The photograph also “cuts” into a certain space from its inside, never showing walls as parallel (unless it is a very big space photographed from the outside), at the same time it freezes the attention of the viewer upon the specific moment. In photography the focus is on the present (tense), which is “perfected” into a “has been” through the small fraction of a second when the shutter is opened. Barthes even goes so far as to call this moment in photography an epiphany.
This is also what happens in Miss Julie when the attention of the audience is continuously taken from one temporary focal point to the next by force of the gradual development of the action. Our eyes and attention move from the food Jean is smelling to the wine he is tasting, to Miss Julie’s handkerchief, to Kristin’s fond folding and smelling of the handkerchief when Jean and Miss Julie are at the dance
and so on. In Miss Julie these material objects force the characters to confront one another and to interact. They are not objects primarily belonging to or binding the characters to the distant past toward which they try to reach out in their present sufferings—as are the visual focal points in Ibsen’s plays or even the samovars and pieces of old furniture in Chekhov’s plays. The objects in Miss Julie are first and foremost immersed in the present, forcing the characters to take a stance and their present struggles to be closely observed by the audience.
In Miss Julie the past and the future have been transformed into fantasy, so the only reality for the characters is the present. Because Jean and Miss Julie are forced to act solely on the basis of the immediate stimuli causing their interaction, and because the kitchen has been cut off diagonally leaving no visually defined borders on-or off-stage, it is impossible to locate any constant focal points, either outside or inside the fictional world of the play and the subjective consciousness of the characters. This “narrative” technique achieves both a very close and subjective view of the characters and a seemingly objective and exact picture of them. The temporal retrospection has also been diminished because Jean and Miss Julie are not as disturbed by irrational factors belonging to a guilt-ridden past as, for example, the Ibsen heroes are. Strindberg’s characters are motivated primarily by their present desires.
This of course does not mean that there are no expository references to the past in Miss Julie, on the contrary, there are a large number of references to specific events in the lives of the characters Page 226 | Top of Articlepreceding the opening of the scenic action. The play, in fact, begins with a series of such references, all told by Jean to Kristin. Thus, we learn that Miss Julie is “mad again tonight” (inferring that it is not the first time this has happened), as represented by the way she is dancing with Jean. And to give her behavior some perspective (just before her entrance), Jean relates to Kristin how Miss Julie’s fiancé broke their engagement because of the degradations he had to suffer, jumping over her whip as well as being beaten by it. These events are, however, never corroborated by other characters in the play. Miss Julie’s subsequent behavior does to some extent affirm Jean’s story, but we can never be completely sure.
What is specific to Strindberg’s plays is not the omission of the past—which absurdist drama emphasizes—but rather a lack of certainty regarding the reliability of what the characters say about that past. And since in many of Strindberg’s plays there is no source of verification other than the private memory of the character speaking, the past takes on a quite subjective quality. Miss Julie gives her version of her past and Jean relates his, and the possible unreliability of these memories is confirmed when Jean changes his story of how he as a child watched her in the garden. (pp. 112-15)
The major outcome of past actions, guilt, is objectified in Ibsen’s plays. That is the reason why it can be given a specific geographical location in the outside world, which becomes the “focus” (in all respects) for it. In Strindberg’s fictional worlds there is definitely an awareness of past actions, that is of guilt, but it exists as a private limbo in the subjective consciousness of the individual characters and thus cannot be projected onto the objective outside world. That is why in Strindberg’s plays there is either no visual focus or a constantly moving one.
In Miss Julie the two principal characters continuously try to turn their respective opponents into the focal point onto which their own guilt and related feelings of inadequacy and general frustration can be projected. That is one of the major reasons for their sexual union and the distrust and even hatred to which it leads. Just how fickle those focal points are, however, can also be seen as in Miss Julie’s last desperate attempt to find some kind of support in Jean for her step into the unknown realm of death. Jean’s face has become a white spot, resembling to Miss Julie the ashes of a fire because the light of the sun—which is rising at this point in the play—is illuminating him. Again the present situation becomes the point of departure for her wishes. And when Miss Julie wants to die, her wish is thus focused on Jean’s illuminated face. In Ghosts Ibsen used the same images (the fire and the sun) at the end of the last two acts as objective focal points. Strindberg has compressed these images into one speech in which they are projected onto Jean by the fantasy of Miss Julie’s subjective consciousness. Ibsen gives a “scientific” explanation of Oswald’s madness for which the sunset is a circumstantial parallel, whereas Strindberg lets the sunset motivate the outburst of Julie’s death wish, as expressed from within. Thus the preparations for the introduction of expressionism, wherein everything is projection, had already been made in Strindberg’s pre-Infer-no plays.
Source: Freddy Rokem, “The Camera and the Aesthetics of Repetition: Strindberg’s Use of Space and Scenography in Miss Julie, A Dream Play, and The Ghost Sonata” in Strindberg’s Dramaturgy, edited by Goran Stockenstrom, University of Minnesota Press, 1988, pp. 107-28.
Calling Strindberg’s drama “more a pathological curiosity than a clear and moving play,” Gibbs nevertheless offers a positive appraisal of this 1956 production.
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Source: Wolcott Gibbs, “Two Crazy, Mixed-up Kids” in the New Yorker, Volume XXXII, no. 2, March 3, 1956, pp. 63-64.
Carlson, Harry G. Strindberg and the Poetry of Myth, University of California Press, 1982, pp. 61-64.
Ferris, Lesley. Acting Women: Images of Women in Theatre, New York University Press, 1989, pp. 121-24.
Jarv, Harry. “Strindberg’s ‘Characterless’ Miss Julie in Gradiva, Vol. 1, 1977, pp. 197-206.
Lamm, Martin. August Strindberg, translated and edited by Harry G. Carlson, Benjamin Bloom, 1971, pp. 216-17.
Meyer, Michael. Strindberg: A Biography, Secker & Warburg, 1985, pp. 203-04, 515.
Steene, Birgitta. The Greatest Fire: A Study of August Strindberg, Southern Illinois University Press, 1973, p. 55.
Ward, John. The Social and Religious Plays of Strindberg, Athlone, 1980, p. 62.
Ferris, Lesley. Acting Women: Images of Women in Theatre, New York University Press, 1989.
This book is a good basic introduction to the depiction of female characters in drama from the Greeks to the present.
Hawkins, Mike. Social Darwinism in European and American Thought: 1860-1945. Nature As Model and Nature As Threat, Cambridge University Press, 1997.
This book provides a basic introduction to the theory and history of social Darwinism, particularly as it was perceived during Strindberg’s time.
Morgan, Margery. August Strindberg, Macmillan, 1985.
This book provides a brief biography of Strindberg and an introduction to his works.
Sprinchorn, Evert. Strindberg As Dramatist, Yale University Press, 1982.
Dividing his work into periods, this book integrates a study of Strindberg’s development as a dramatist, including biographical information and criticism of his plays.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692900023