Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1020
August Strindberg wrote the naturalistic tragedy Miss Julie, which is recognized as one of the playwright’s greatest, for André Antoine’s avant-garde Theatre Libre in Paris. Strindberg’s power, complexity, and originality of technique and vision have led such later writers as Eugene O’Neill to consider him the most progressive and influential playwright of his time.
Strindberg’s achievements are all the more remarkable in view of the squalor of his upbringing. Born in Stockholm into a bankrupt family, one of twelve children, Strindberg was neglected even by his own mother. After her death when he was thirteen years old, his new stepmother added harshness to neglect. This early experience developed in him a strong, lifelong dislike of conventional authority figures. In his writing this is evident in his rejection of traditional stage techniques and traditional societal beliefs and conventions.
Strindberg’s private life was equally unconventional. Each of his three marriages was characterized by an intense component of love-hate dichotomy. Strindberg was prosecuted for blasphemy upon the publication of his collection of short stories Giftas II (1886; Married, 1913). The combination of these personal and public tensions led to an unstable psychological state marked by spells of insanity and delusions of persecution. Between the years 1894 and 1896, the increasing violence of his hallucinations led to the crisis known as his Inferno period. His inner torment during this crisis gave rise to a shift in technique from the psychological naturalism of Fadren (pr., pb. 1887; The Father, 1899) and Miss Julie to symbolist and expressionist departures from external reality in the imaginative brilliance of dramas such as Ett drömspel (pb. 1902, pr. 1907; A Dream Play, 1912) and Spöksonaten (pb. 1907, pr. 1908; The Ghost Sonata, 1916).
While in Paris in 1883, Strindberg became familiar with the doctrine of literary naturalism espoused by Émile Zola, and he successfully applied this approach to drama. He even sent a copy of his first naturalistic play to Zola for comments. In a long foreword to Miss Julie, Strindberg explains his use of naturalistic doctrine in the play, but his definitive formulation of dramatic naturalism is found in an 1889 essay, in which he suggests that the true essence of naturalism is a presentation of the polarization of the basic conflicts of life—love and hate, life and death—through the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest found in both personal relationships and class conflicts. Strindberg’s knowledge of psychology contributes to the creation of his powerful authentic dramas, which remain as moving today as when they first appeared.
Strindberg introduced a number of important innovations in writing and production in which he was ahead of his time. His dialogue, like that of Anton Chekhov, is meant to reproduce the pauses, wanderings, and flatness of everyday speech. Miss Julie is cast in one uninterrupted act so as to capitalize on the emotional involvement of the audience. Strindberg also calls for music, mime, ballet, and improvisation to make use of the full range of actors’ talents. He calls for new lighting techniques to illuminate faces better, allowing them to use less makeup and to appear more natural. Finally, he asks for a return to a smaller theater for a more intimate relationship between the stage and the audience.
Julie’s complex motivations are ample evidence of Strindberg’s art. She is presented as a product of both heredity and environment. Her mother was born into a lower-class family, and she despised conventional social roles for women. She reared Julie as a boy, creating in her a fascination with animals and a loathing for the opposite gender that leads to self-disgust when she becomes sexually attracted to men. Her mother suffered from strange attacks of mental instability that seem to have been passed on to Julie. There is also the strong element of chance: Julie’s father’s absence frees Julie and Jean from customary restraints. It is chance that leads the couple into the locked room. The sensual excitement of the Midsummer’s Eve celebration contributes to the seduction and to Julie’s final tragedy.
Jean’s motivation, although less complex than Julie’s, is also conditioned by his environment, his biological drives, his psychological desires, and his social aspirations. At the same time that he can despise the weaknesses of the old aristocrats, he finds himself unable to break his social conditioning. Only in the count’s absence could Jean have brought himself to seduce Julie.
An added complication is the class conflict in which the decaying aristocracy, which Julie represents, must, by law of nature, be destroyed to make way for a stronger lower class that is more fit for the new world. Some things of value, such as aesthetic sensitivity and a sense of personal honor, are lost; these are the qualities that break Julie and her father, whereas brutality and lack of scruples ensure Jean’s final triumph. He survives because of his animal virility, his keen physical senses, and his strength of purpose. Religion has been discarded by the aristocracy as meaningless, and it is used by the working class to ensure their innocence. Love is seen as no more than a romantic illusion created by the aristocracy to be used, as Julie uses it, to explain animal instincts in an acceptable manner. Jean, the pragmatic realist from the lower class, has no such need for excuses for sexual release.
To underline his themes and characterizations, Strindberg uses recurring animal imagery that links human beings with their animal nature, a technique that may be seen in the dreams of Julie and Jean, the foreshadowing effect of Julie’s mother, Julie’s attitude toward her dog, and the brutal death of Julie’s beautiful caged bird.
Miss Julie is a naturalistic tragedy that follows the Aristotelian concepts of pity, fear, and catharsis. Pity is aroused in the viewer by the characters’ inherent weaknesses and the social class structure they inhabit; fear is aroused when they realize that the same fate could overcome any of them; catharsis results when they realize that the old, decaying order must give way to the newer and stronger order if life is to continue.
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