Miss Julie | Study Guide

August Strindberg

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Miss Julie | Context


Naturalism and Émile Zola

August Strindberg was greatly open to influences from others, particularly in his wanderings across Europe and voracious reading habits, having initially worked in a library. Yet at the same time, he was determined to be an original and create his own revolutionary path to a new and scientific drama of the individual.

In the later part of the 19th century, European literature was under the influence of the scientific and philosophical movement known as Naturalism. Previously, as a reaction against the Romantic and idealized writings earlier in the century, Realism in literature sought to create closely detailed pictures of people's everyday existence rather than heroic or idealized portraits. Realism showed people making decisions about their lives within the strictures and conditions of daily life and developing social structures. Eventually, under the influence of new scientific advances and the view that fate and character were predetermined as part of a struggle against external factors, theories of Naturalism took Realism several steps further. People were shown as scientifically complex, mixing their inherited natures with factors arising from the forces of nature and the environment. The objective viewpoint of a scientist was sought so that frontiers of knowledge could expand without limits and include new formulations based on scientific inquiry. An individual came to be viewed as the product of many influences: family, education, the workplace, political movements, and the natural world that could be hostile and destructive. The role of religion was for the most part notably absent because it was seen as neither realistic nor objective. In fact, it was inconsistent, for the most part, with the Naturalists' pessimistic sense of predetermined forces that lacked a view of grace or salvation.

Strindberg was deeply influenced by the Naturalistic movement because it was congruent with his view of life as a "battle of the brains." Naturalistic characters, composed of disparate parts—past and present, fact and faction, and differing cultures—appealed to Strindberg. By creating characters formed by outside influences, playwrights made "naturalistic" characters like Miss Julie and Jean essentially characterless in that they are only the sum of environmental or social forces, rather than the personal. Strindberg saw Miss Julie as only partially a woman because she had necessarily freed herself from past definitions of femininity but had not developed others to replace what was missing. Instead she became a menacing man-hater engaged in a life-threatening struggle for dominance, which she couldn't sustain.

The leading proponent of European Naturalism in literature was French novelist and political activist Émile Zola (1840–1902), author of a vast body of interconnected novels showing the effects of outside forces on the possibilities for human development. Zola believed in character as formed by heredity, environment, and natural evolution. Therefore, individuals were bound to struggle to achieve fulfillment when all seemed against them. Strindberg adapted Zola's points for a new theater "demonstrating the laws of nature and producing in the end a 'concentrated psychodrama.'" The characters fight to free themselves from unpredictable turns of fate and coincidence that form them and are observed in their battles to be free from others.

As critic Michael Robinson analyzes the psychic makeup of Miss Julie, he finds it results from various factors. Her confused parental upbringing has a hand in her unstable nature. The treatment by her fiancé plays a role in how she reacts to events in the play. Her environment must be considered, too, such as the setting at midsummer eve twilight, the animals around her, and the effects of the dance, music, and flowers. Robinson even considers Miss Julie's menstrual cycle, the character Jean's aggressiveness toward her, and the impact on her psyche of the open door to his room.

Zola's influence from his scientific observational method was significant, but Strindberg wanted to combine it with his own determination to portray characters' contradictory impulses that went beyond a scientist's understanding, thus probing into aspects of psychology. He wanted to create larger-than-life figures enmeshed in psychodramas that might in the end lead to the emergence of the "big brain" that could break through all impediments to fulfillment in human life.

Influences of Henrik Ibsen

Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906) was 20 years older than August Strindberg and today is seen as the most widely performed playwright in the western world, especially his plays dealing with social issues. A Doll's House (1879), for example, chronicles the breakup of a falsely constructed marriage because of the disclosure of a wife's sacrifice of her honor for her husband. Ending with her leaving him and their three children, the play is studied widely as a revolutionary statement of gender equality. Hedda Gabler (1890) deals with the suicide of a desperately unhappy and misunderstood wife.

For a time, Ibsen was unpopular in Norway, writing in Danish and dealing with controversial subjects such as venereal disease and political corruption, in addition to being a harsh critic of conventional marriage. Ibsen also broke with past, more polite dramaturgy, and his social realism greatly influenced playwrights of the time to address new issues.

Strindberg was often compared with him because both men were exiles and explored difficult subjects most people preferred to avoid in looking for entertainment at the theater. However, Ibsen's Realist dramas focused on exposing bourgeois, or middle class, hypocrisy and social customs, and he found support among socialists and women's rights advocates. On the other hand, Strindberg's highly radical views regarding gender roles often got him into trouble, and he received little public support. His frequent misogynistic comments about emancipated women threatening male dominance led him to view the women's movement as contrary to nature and aggressively hostile to men. He seemed to believe at times that peasant life, which spoke of equal distribution of household duties along gender lines, could be a model of "natural" human society outside the present ways of modern life. Ibsen, however, was not extreme in his views and had none of Strindberg's conflicted attitudes about sexual dynamics as primitivistic "battles of the brains." Unlike Ibsen, who seemed to herald some acceptable social changes in his own time, Strindberg found acceptance far later.

Women's Rights

According to biographer Sue Prideaux, Strindberg appeared as an early advocate for the liberation of women and recognition of their equal rights but generally in a conflicted manner reflecting his tortured personal identity. Always ready to pinpoint his many flaws and faults, he wrote of women's ability to lift men up in their behavior. But he was equally ready to see the results as a lowering of both genders into conflict and acrimony. With his usual excessiveness, Strindberg explored many areas of legal equality: education, property ownership, voting, career choice and advancement, sexual pleasure and liberation, self-esteem, and dignity. With his extreme stance, he appeared to have a firm position on the radical left of the political spectra. However, in reality his three marriages and divorces, as well as numerous liaisons, revealed both his inability to surrender male privilege and his reluctance to assume equal responsibilities. Women, in his view, would continue to serve as both wives and mothers, having their own rooms and spaces but still somehow judged. His dealings with and attitudes toward women plagued him throughout his life.

From his desire to be a modern man, with the advances of knowledge and science he encountered for the most part after leaving Sweden, he wished as well to liberate himself and women from past limitations. Yet he was highly uneasy about the women's movement. In principle, he would give women financial freedom about money and property, but he suffered from practical difficulties in managing such questions and felt menaced to see women taking the lead over him. He invoked what he saw as biological evidence of female blood weakness from menstruation, "rooted in his own anxieties," in Prideaux's view.

He spoke of women as "my delightful enemies" and had a lifelong fascination with all manners of sexual otherness in his own behavior as well as in the general population. He was convinced of his wife's lesbianism and followed all news about contemporary movements in male sexuality as well, including the more public image of "dandies," or men excessively concerned with looking stylish, and the scandals surrounding exposed homosexuality.

Miss Julie is thoroughly about women and their roles clashing with the behavior and expectations of men. Indeed it is likely, according to critics, that Strindberg intended the protagonist's actions to reflect his own domestic tensions with his first wife, Siri von Essen. He may have wished Miss Julie to appear "degenerate" and abnormal in her pursuit of almost animalistic pleasures, leading to her total collapse and suicide as a sole refuge. Yet audiences from his time to today may not blame Miss Julie at all, for the playwright provides background justification for her confusion and ambiguity.

Miss Julie's suicide may create sympathy and understanding from audiences, contrary perhaps to Strindberg's intent to identify himself with Jean and his masculine urge to dominate a confused and dangerous female. The real throat-slitting suicide of Strindberg's friend Victoria Benedictsson likely inspired the plot and made it essential for Miss Julie to die. But audiences may have trouble accepting the character Jean's powers of suggestion that seem to impel Miss Julie and allow her no recourse but death with the same razor that theatrically eliminated her pet. Yet for an audience without the tormented values of the playwright, Miss Julie may have more appeal than a bird in a cage, and she overshadows the psychic powers of the malevolent Jean.

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