Miss Julie is not simply the tragedy of an aristocratic woman with a self-destructive personality and an ambivalent feeling toward men. It is also more than a naturalistic study about a victimized woman torn apart by family strife. Miss Julie, a drama of paradoxes and reversals, is about the breakdown of the social order. The play begins on the celebration of Midsummer’s Eve, a carnival-like festival allowing for the breakdown of social and sexual distinctions. Miss Julie, the lady of the house, would rather dance with the peasants than visit relatives with her father. Jean, her servant, is more concerned than the reckless Julie about propriety. In keeping with Midsummer’s Eve, Julie wants all rank laid aside and asks Jean to take off his servant’s livery. Julie and Jean then reverse roles. He drinks wine, she prefers beer; he is concerned about his reputation, she is negligent and foolhardy; he dreams of climbing, she dreams of falling.
In Miss Julie, aristocracy itself is a paradox. Jean fights to become a new aristocrat, but the aristocracy to which he aspires is a sham. Young ladies use foul language, their polished nails are dirty underneath, and their perfumed handkerchiefs are soiled. Miss Julie’s family title was obtained when a miller let his wife sleep with the king. Thus, the aristocratic title was earned through sexual corruption. Jean’s fiancé, Christine, who is not above thievery and fornication, cannot live in a house where the mistress sleeps with a servant. Jean, who realizes the hypocrisy behind aristocracy, is not beyond buying himself a bogus royal title. He cannot have Julie’s noble blood (which was gained by corrupt means), yet he can make their children nobility (by purchasing a less-than-reputable title). In Miss Julie, the authenticity of aristocracy is questioned.
In the midst of midsummer madness, not only are class barriers falling but gender distinctions are also becoming confused. Miss Julie’s father married a common woman; yet this common woman was given control of his estate. Another reversal of roles has occurred: The commoner ruled over the aristocrat. Julie’s mother also reversed gender roles and reared Julie to ride and hunt and to wear men’s clothes. Furthermore, she turned the whole estate into a carnival world in which the men did the women’s work and the women did the men’s work. When the father reexerted his control and restored order, she burned down the estate. He was then forced to borrow her money to rebuild, thus reversing the power structure again. The same ambiguous relationship between commoner and aristocrat is played out between Jean and Julie. Julie, the woman, makes her fiancés jump over whips like trained animals and delights in having Jean kiss her shoe. She becomes the seducer while he becomes nervous about his reputation. In his bedroom, she is the one who becomes sexually aggressive while he is the one who is shocked.
Banned by the censors, Miss Julie was produced at a private performance in Copenhagen in 1899, was later proclaimed a revolutionary naturalistic drama, and is now one of Strindberg’s most anthologized plays.
Miss Julie’s broken engagement to the county attorney was quite a scandal to the servants in the house. Miss Julie, the twenty-five-year-old daughter of a count, had made her fiancé actually jump over her horsewhip several times, giving him a cut with the whip each time. He finally put an end to such conduct and the engagement by snatching the whip, breaking it, and striding away from the manor.
A few weeks later, on Midsummer Eve, a great holiday observed throughout the Swedish countryside, Miss Julie enters into the festivities and dances with the servants. She dares to do so because her father has gone to the city and is not expected to return. Although the servants dislike her joining in their...
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