Miss Julie (1888)
By August Strindberg
Miss Julie is a late 19th-century naturalist tragedy written by August Strindberg.
After ending an engagement, Miss Julie spends her time dancing away with various men including her servant, Jean. The two eventually end up sleeping together. Jean sees Julie as his ticket to move up the social ladder. He suggests that they run away, but Julie reveals that she has no money or capital for them to start a new life together. As a result, Jean decides to break off their engagement. Julie’s love for Jean turns into a passionate rage because he doesn’t take responsibility for her after they had sex.
Miss Julie shows the complexity of human emotions. Each of these three characters— Julie, Jean, and Kristen—have good and bad qualities within them that it’s difficult for a reader like myself to feel fully sympathetic towards them. For Julie, she despises the way she grew up, even though she was born into wealth. She was taught to hate men by her mother and was born to believe that women should be seen as equals to men. Yet what she truly wants is love and affection from a man and she is even willing to throw away her status as an aristocrat for it. Julie lives in a fantasy: she believes in a happily ever after with her lover as opposed to living in reality. Yet, her actions are based on desperation because it’s taboo for a woman to sleep with a man out of wedlock since her reputation will suffer. As for Jean, he is an ambitious man with dreams but he is willing to throw away his morals to move up social classes. As for Kristen, Jean’s fiancee, she is nonchalant over her future husband’s actions and sees Julie as someone beneath her. The irony is that she is a follower of God and believes in sin. While reading this story, I questioned if her actions of ignoring someone in need counts for a sin. Overall, Strindberg displays the realistic nature of all humans: we act like angels when we interact with others but internally, we act like demons too even if we don’t see ourselves as ones.
We see this complexity of the human mind through the use of monologues address to the audience as well as through the implied actions of the characters. Strindberg doesn’t state the obvious but it is implied. For example, we assume that the two, Julie and Jean, slept together, as indicated by the sexual innuendos and the conversation they had about running away together. I actually found the dialogue to be cleverly written because the reader is left with their imagination to come up with what the author’s intentions were and the meanings behind the words selected. I think this adds to the realism of the characters because we aren’t easily told how they feel or why they act the way they do but instead, we have to make educated assumptions about them. And in reality, we do that when we interact with others. We observe their language and actions to understand them as opposed to honestly confronting them.
This play also displays the lack of power women have. Even though Julie was brought up to think women are equal to men, this play shows how that isn’t true. Although the two agreed to consensual sex, society would treat Julie differently from Jean because they aren’t married. Julie would be seen as a “playful girl,” which is how Jean treats her after they slept together. Before Julie was able to hold power over Jean through the way he addresses her, but now that they slept together, Jean uses his masculine dominance to show that they are equals. Ironically, Julie and her mother fought for equality between men and women, but now that Julie and Jean are equals, she doesn’t like it. The power dynamics shifted from a social class power perspective into gender power perspective. Strindberg suggests that men will always be superior to women when it comes to sexual dominance and it is clearly displayed through Jean’s hypermasculinity.
Furthermore, since Julie’s reputation has been ruined, her only solution is suicide. She doesn’t have the confidence to do it herself, but she asks Jean to command her to do so and he does. Julie is aware that she has no one to blame but herself when it comes to her actions and we see her acknowledge that as she goes into a monologue about her suicide motives. As a woman, it’s frustrating for me to see Julie so powerless that her only solution is suicide and that Jean believes he has no obligation or responsibility towards her. He blames Julie’s seductive antics for putting him in this situation, and that Julie got what she deserves for doing so. In fact, Jean tells Julie to write a letter to her father to explain what has happened to her but leaves his name out of it so that he doesn’t receive any blame. I think that’s cowardly. I believe both individuals are responsible for what has happened and should accept all consequences.
There are two key concepts that this play focuses on naturalism and Darwinism. Miss Julie is a naturalist drama that focuses on showing true reality through art. Naturalism writers believe that one’s actions and character is influenced by one’s environment. As for Darwinism, this play shows “survival of the fittest” by displaying how Jean and Julie are trying to survive in a world where one’s social standing matters.
Miss Julie is a play where Strindberg doesn’t hold back in exposing how humans truly interact with one another. We, as people, are all angels and demons at the same time. It’s difficult to recognize on our own, but this play does a great job to expose humans and their flaws.