Darwin’s theory posits that a species naturally over-produces members of its population because not all...
August Strindberg's play Miss Julie illuminates Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection through a contrast of its two main characters: Miss Julie, the modernist daughter of a wealthy aristocrat, and Jean, her ambitious valet.
Darwin’s theory posits that a species naturally over-produces members of its population because not all individuals will survive; therefore, only individuals possessing traits more adaptable to the environment will have a better chance of survival. This is also known as “survival of the fittest.” Strindberg pits his two main characters against each other using this concept, and his play’s plot and dialogue make it clear he believes only one should survive (Jean) while the other should not (Miss Julie).
Strindberg also sought to ground his play in the idea of naturalism, something he believed French playwrights of his day had failed to do within their own work. Thus, Strindberg’s characters think and behave realistically, with multiple motivations and actions grounded in heredity and environment. Two other aspects of naturalism found in Miss Julie are a focus on significant rather than superficial issues and a main plot that stands alone, without any subplots.
These aspects of naturalism serve to highlight the evolutionary battle between Miss Julie and Jean, who are two opposing forces vying for dominance in a game of survival. Miss Julie is depicted as both the last of a dying breed of aristocrat and as the result of modern European feminism, which makes her, according to Strindberg, half of a woman or, as Jean describes her in the play, a “sick” woman who has been made to hate men:
“Oh, I'd love to see the whole of your sex swimming in a sea of blood just like that. I think I could drink out of your skull.” (Miss Julie)
Strindberg’s views on women fall in line with the theory of hysteria, which was believed to be a nineteenth-century disease whereby a woman refused her own sexual desires. Strindberg has Miss Julie contradict herself by expressing both her desire to dance with Jean and her fantasy of the annihilation of all men. This makes her a degenerate character, whereas Jean is made to seem morally superior because he is a man.
Since Strindberg vehemently criticized and condemned modern feminism, it is Miss Julie who must lose this evolutionary battle to Jean; while she is a dysfunctional woman who has lost all power of authority that could come from her upper-class station due to her acceptance of feminist ideas, Jean is a servant who uses methods of psychology to influence Miss Julie’s thoughts and actions, such as exuding charm by offering compliments and praise to win her over.
Both characters' fears and/or aspirations are manifested in a dream each shares with the other; Miss Julie dreams of climbing a pillar and not being able to get down, representing her desire to be free from the strict social expectations dictated by the class and gender norms of the day:
“I'm sitting on top of a pillar that I've climbed up somehow and I don't know how to get back down. When I look down I get dizzy. I have to get down but I don't have the courage to jump.” (Miss Julie)
Jean dreams of looking up at Miss Julie from a pile of weeds in her garden, representing his desire to rise in social status:
“I caught sight of a pink dress and a pair of white stockings. That was you. I crawled under a pile of weeds, under—well, you can imagine what it was like—under thistles that pricked me and wet dirt that stank to high heaven. And all the while I could see you walking among the roses.” (Jean)
Jean goes on to express feeling hopeless to change his social status, which may lead one to believe he may have subconsciously wanted to seduce Miss Julie just to lead her to ruin as an act of revenge upon her entire class:
“You were unattainable, but through the vision of you I was made to realize how hopeless it was to rise above the conditions of my birth.” (Jean)
By the end of the play, Jean has succeeded in convincing Miss Julie to have sex with him, to run away with him to start a hotel, and then, finally, to presumably commit suicide using a razor as a way to escape her predicament and salvage her honor. The fact that Strindberg has Miss Julie use hypnosis on Jean to get him to command her in her father’s voice to kill herself illustrates Strindberg’s disdain for feminism; Miss Julie dies utilizing a method commonly used to treat women for hysteria, which was supposedly, in Strindberg’s view, one of the manifestations of women’s ruin.