Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 952
Gender Roles 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 fiancé 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. "F 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."
Class Conflict 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....
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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.
Sexuality 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 will 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.