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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
Revised in 2010..©
Type of Work
.......Miss Julie is a stage play in the form of a naturalistic tragedy. The drama centers on a twenty-five-year-old aristocratic woman who becomes the victim of hereditary and environmental forces.
.........The action takes place in
the kitchen of a count’s country estate in Sweden on Midsummer Eve, June 23, and early Midsummer Day, June 24. Midsummer Day is a secular and religious holiday in Europe, celebrating the summer solstice, agricultural traditions, and the feast of St. John the Baptist.
Protagonist: Miss Julie, because it is she who suffers the downfall
Antagonists: (1) Jean; (2) Miss Julie’s inherited traits and aristocratic upbringing
Note: One may argue that there is no protagonist or antagonist in keeping with Strindberg’s
intentions not to unduly emphasize one character over another.
Miss Julie Twenty-five-year old daughter of a count. She hates men, thanks to her mother’s influence on her, and
believes her high social station makes her superior to her servants. Nevertheless, her instinctual female sexual urges drive her into the arms of a valet, Jean, who is all that she despises–a man and a lowly menial.
Jean Thirty-year-old valet of the count. Though of the
servant class, he is articulate and even can pepper his speech with French phrases he learned while working as a wine steward in Switzerland. He seems to represent the lower classes of the late 19th Century in a world that was casting off class distinctions and allowing the lowly to become equals of the high and the mighty.
When Miss Julie entices him with her charms, he invites her to his room—and the boundaries separating social classes, and Miss Julie’s clothes, droop to the floor.
Christine Thirty-five-year-old cook. Through her interaction with Miss Julie and Jean, she helps to define them and illuminate their motives. Christine accepts her role as a menial and entertains no notions of rising above her station.
Miss Julie's Mother: Woman
who reared Julie to hate men. (The mother does not appear on the stage.)
The Count: Miss Julie's father. (The count does not appear on the stage.)
Count Attorney: Man who
broke off his engagement to Miss Julie. (The county attorney does not appear on the stage.)
Servants (They do not appear on the stage.)
Diana: Miss Julie's
Serena: Miss Julie's finch.
Year of Completion
.......Strindberg completed Miss Julie in 1888 and staged its first production in 1889. The play, written in Swedish, was published in expurgated form in Copenhagen in 1889 by Joseph Seligmann (1836-1904), a Swedish publisher. The deleted passages have since been restored.
.......Miss Julie is a
one-act play capable of being performed in less than two hours. Strindberg provides specific directions on how to set up the stage to give it an authentic look. For example, the kitchen utensils are to be of copper, iron, and tin, and the table at which servants eat is to be of white pine. There are no scene changes or intermissions. However, Strindberg includes two transitional scenes: a
pantomime and a dance.
.......In the pantomime, the count’s cook—alone on the stage—carries out kitchen chores while listening to violin music played outside, curls her hair with a heated hairpin, and
smells and folds a handkerchief Miss Julie has left behind. In the dance, which Strindberg calls a ballet, peasants celebrating Midsummer Eve enter the kitchen while Miss Julie and Jean are in the latter’s room. The peasants place containers of beer and whiskey on the table and perform a ring dance while singing. Strindberg directed that there should be no footlights and that the actors should
wear little or no makeup.
By Michael J. Cummings...©
.......It is Midsummer Eve, June 23, the night preceding one of the most festive
holidays in Sweden. Servants on the estate of a count celebrate the occasion with spirited dancing in a barn. In the kitchen of the count’s house, Christine, thirty-five, a cook, is working at a brick stove near a wall lined with copper, tin, and iron utensils. Jean, thirty, a valet, enters and sets down a pair of tall riding boots, which he is to polish for the count. Jean has just returned from
dropping the count at the train station for a trip to see relatives living nearby. Seating himself at one end of a white-pine table, Jean begins discussing the behavior of Miss Julie, twenty-five, the count’s daughter, who is in the barn dancing.
After parking the carriage, Jean says, he went into the barn and saw her cavorting with the gamekeeper. When Miss Julie saw Jean, she immediately approached him and asked him to dance a waltz.
.......It is unbecoming of lady of her station to be dancing with
servants, Jean declares. While cooking, Christine notes that Miss Julie has been acting strangely since the county attorney broke off his engagement to her. Jean says he witnessed the very incident causing the breakup. Miss Julie, who was “training” her fiancé as a master would train his dog, forced him to jump over her horsewhip. Twice he did it and twice the whip cut him. When
he was supposed to jump again, he took the whip from her, broke it into pieces, and walked off.
.......Christine serves Jean some kidney cut from a veal roast. When he complains that she hasn’t warmed his plate, she scolds him playfully. He says she
would be lucky to get a man like him, who is thought by people to be her beau anyway. (In fact, the conversation between Jean and Christine implies that they indeed have an understanding pledging them to marriage.) While Christine has beer and Sean some claret, Miss Julie walks in and asks Jean to dance with her again. Although he warns her that they should not be seen dancing
together—people will get the wrong impression—he dances with her anyway. While they talk, he slips in a French word or two, which surprises Julie. He explains that he picked up the language while working as a sommelier (wine steward) in Switzerland.
.......Christine falls asleep on a chair. Miss Julie asks Jean for a beer, saying she is not averse to sampling the drink of the common folk, and they both have one together. She makes him toast her, then boldly asks him to kiss her shoe, then her hand. She tells him he is handsome—a Don Juan, perhaps, or a Joseph. Her coquetry arouses him. But when he attempts to kiss her, she slaps his ear. Her playful behavior—she is forward one moment, coy the next—is dangerous, he says. He is only a man. And what will people say? As he works on the count's boots, Jean again warns her about being seen with a
.......After Christine goes to bed, Miss Julie asks Jean whether he has ever been in love. In fact, he says, he has been—with Miss Julie. He explains that when he was a child, he saw her when he strayed onto her father’s property. (Jean was the son of a farmer who worked for the owner of a nearby
.......“I lived in the cotter’s hovel, together with seven other children, and a pig—out there on the grey plain, where there isn’t a single tree. But from our windows I could see the wall round the count’s park,
and apple trees above it. That was the Garden of Eden, and many fierce angels were guarding it with flaming swords. Nevertheless, I and some other boys found our way to the Tree of Life. . . . I caught sight of a pink dress and a pair of white stockings—that was you!”
.......The following Sunday, he says, he put on his best clothes and went to church just to see her there.
.......In a moment, the servants celebrating Midsummer’s Eve come toward the house singing.
Jean tells her they must not to see her with him. If they do, he says, “you are lost!” When he invites her to his room, saying he will bolt the door so no one can enter, she accepts his offer.
.......Later, after the servants are gone, Jean and Miss Julie return
to the kitchen, which is in disarray from the servants’ reveling. She becomes slightly paranoid, believing Jean when he suggests that the servants know she and Jean were together. It is clear from their conversation that they had been sexually intimate in their brief time in Jean’s room. Jean asks her a leading question: “Do you think it is possible to stay here?” She answers no, of course, but
wonders where they can go.
.......Jean suggests that they flee to the lake region of northern Switzerland, where he will open a hotel and she will be the “mistress of everything.” Warming further to Jean, she asks him to begin calling her simply “Julie,”
but he says he cannot while still a servant in the employ of a count. They discuss his hotel scheme animatedly until he discovers she cannot back their enterprise financially. He then says the plan is off. Miss Julie cries hysterically and says she cannot face those on the estate who know about their sexual encounter. They will tell the count. Kneeling down, she presses her hands together in an
attitude of prayer and exclaims, “O God in heaven, make an end of this wretched life! Take me out of the filth into which I am sinking! Save me! Save me!”
.......Jean says he feels sorry for her, but he also disavows his previous statements about loving her. He
admits only that he once had “the same nasty thoughts that all boys have.”
.......They argue and insult each other, but Jean gets the better of her, telling her that he is the superior one and she the lowly menial. She only wants to shield herself from
disgrace, he says, by convincing herself that she loves him. However, he then speaks again of going away with her. This prospect revives her hopes of escaping shame, and she drinks wine while telling him about her background “so that we know each other right to the bottom before we begin the journey together.”
.......She then says her mother, who was not of noble birth, believed in women’s rights and women’s independence.
.......“My mother wanted to bring me up in a perfectly natural state, and at the same
time I was to learn everything that a boy is taught, so that I might prove that a woman is just as good as a man. I was dressed as a boy, and was taught how to handle a horse, but could have nothing to do with the cows. I had to groom and harness and go hunting on horseback. I was even forced to learn something about agriculture. And all over the estate men were to do women’s work, and women to
do men’s—with the result that everything went to pieces and we became the laughingstock of the whole neighborhood.”
.......Finally, her father asserted himself, Miss Julie says, and made everything conform to his wishes. Her mother
then developed a mysterious illness, suffered convulsions, and exhibited odd behavior. Then came a fire which burned all of the family’s property—the day after the insurance on the property expired. All was lost. However, at the urging of her mother, her father borrowed money from a brick manufacturer and rebuilt the estate. But it turned out that the money was really
her mother’s. Secretly wealthy, she had invested the money with the manufacturer, who was also her secret lover. Thus, Miss Julie’s father was indebted to his wife’s lover. The upshot of it all was that Miss Julie’s mother was the one who set the fire in the first place—to force her husband into indebtedness and thereby gain revenge. When he discovered her
machinations, he made her life a living hell.
.......“From her I learned to suspect and hate men—for she hated the whole sex, as you have probably heard—and I promised her on my oath that I would never
become a man’s slave.”
.......Miss Julie, who continues to drink, then deeply laments her intimacy with Jean, saying, “Oh, how I regret what I have done! How I regret! If at least you loved me.”
.......In response, Jean has another change of heart, refusing to abscond with her but instead advising her to leave the country by herself. She goes out to get traveling money and dress in the appropriate clothes.
.......It is now early morning. Christine enters the kitchen. She is dressed for church. After announcing that she plans to leave the count’s employ in October, she suggests that Jean leave with her and get a job as a janitor or perhaps as a messenger for a government office.
She also reminds him that he agreed to go to church with her. Then she goes back to her room to fetch her Bible.
.......Moments later, Miss Julie returns wearing traveling clothes and carrying a cage containing her pet finch, which she says she cannot leave
behind. When she mentions that she obtained some money, Jean says he will go with her after all. But they must leave immediately, before the count returns. However, Jean says, she must leave the finch behind. Miss Julie balks at this suggestion. Rather than abandon the poor bird, she says, she would rather have Jean kill it. With hesitation, Jean removes the bird from the cage, retrieves an axe
from among the kitchen utensils, and unfeelingly kills it. The shock of this moment is too much for her.
.......“Kill me too!” She is screaming now. “Kill me! You who can take the life of an innocent creature without turning a hair! Oh, I hate and despise you!
There is blood between us! Cursed be the hour when I first met you! Cursed be the hour when I came to life in my mother’s womb!”
.......Christine enters and Jean goes to another room to shave. When Miss Julie asks Christine to help her—even come away with her to see the world—Christine is unmoved. When Jean tells Christine he is not going to church after all, she leaves.
.......The count returns and enters through another part of the
house. When he rings a bell connected to the kitchen, Jean responds by speaking into a tube. He receives orders to bring up coffee and his pair of boots.
.......“What do I do?” Miss Julie asks.
.......Jean says he does not know, then says, yes, he does know.
.......“Like this?” she says, picking up his razor.
.......Moments later, Miss Julie kills herself.
Theme 1 A woman’s attempt to overcome the gender, cultural, and environmental forces acting upon her brings about her downfall. Miss Julie first orders her fiancé to perform a silly trick, like a trained dog, and loses him. She then crosses forbidden social and sexual boundaries and ends up losing her life to her own hysteria,
paranoia, and panic.
Theme 2 The centuries-old barrier between the aristocracy and the common folk is beginning to collapse. Miss Julie, confused about her social and cultural identity, attends a barn dance for servants, drinks beer instead of wine, and submits
sexually to a valet, Jean. Jean learns French, drinks wine, speaks of purchasing a title to elevate his status, and sometimes treats Miss Julie as an inferior. But he, too, exhibits a measure of confusion about his role, indicated by his willingness to snap to the commands of the count. The cook, Christine, does not venture outside her traditional role as a menial, indicating that the
old system—though dying—is dying grudgingly.
Theme 3 All men and women are mercurial creatures, sometimes acting impulsively in response to hereditary and environmental influences on them. Both Miss Julie and
Jean act unpredictably from time to time, suggesting a certain course of action one moment and disavowing it the next.
Theme 4 Every man and woman is psychologically and physiologically complex. This theme is similar to Theme 3. Often, it is not clear which motive
rules a person at any given time. Is it lust that motivates Jean to invite Julie to his room? Or does he want to lower her to a reduced social status? Is it cruelty? Is it the desire to dominate? Does Miss Julie kill herself out of fear of her father? Or does she do it out of wounded pride, loneliness, or a feeling of powerlessness in a male-dominated world?
Theme 5 Only the fittest survive. Unlike Jean and Christine, Miss Julie fails to adapt to the circumstances over which, ultimately, she has little or no control. This Darwinian motif is in keeping with Strindberg's literary naturalism.
.......The climax of a play or another narrative
work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of Miss Julie occurs, according to the first definition, when Miss Julie accepts Jean's invitation to go to his room. (Their conversation when they later return to
the kitchen implies that they had sexual relations in the room. However, because Strindberg does not depict this implied encounter on the stage, it cannot technically be regarded as the climax of the play. Consequently, it is Julie's decision to go to the room that is the turning point of the play.) According to the second definition, the climax occurs when Miss Julie takes up Jean's razor to
Symbols in Miss Julie
(according to Cummings Study Guides’ interpretation of the play) include the following:
Miss Julie's Dog
.......Miss Julie’s dog, Diana, mates with the gatekeeper’s pug and becomes pregnant. Diana symbolizes Miss Julie, an aristocrat; the pug symbolizes Jean, a commoner. The mating of the two dogs foreshadows the sexual union of Miss Julie and Jean.
The Remedy for the Dog
.......Christine makes a "remedy" for the dog. When Jean asks about it, Christine explains in euphemistic language that the concoction she is cooking will abort the unborn offspring that developed when Diana mated with the pug. The concoction symbolizes the “easy way out” that Miss Julie seeks in order to overcome the
shame resulting from her sexual encounter with Jean.
.......Miss Julie makes her fiancé jump over a horsewhip. This action symbolizes hers desire to dominate men, whom her mother brought her up to despise.
.......Jean drinks wine, a claret. It symbolizes the upper classes, to which he aspires.
Beer and Wine
.......Miss Julie drinks beer, a lower-class drink, and wine, an upper-class drink, symbolizing her confusion about her self-identity. Her mother came from the lower class and her father, the count, from the upper class.
.......Christine smells the handkerchief left behind by Miss Julie, then folds it, actions symbolizing her curiosity about the upper classes (the smelling) and her acceptance of her status as menial (the folding).
.......Because it soars above the earth looking for prey, the hawk symbolizes the status of the upper class and its exploitation of the lower class.
The Caged Finch.
.......The caged finch symbolizes Miss Julie, who is a prisoner of her heredity and environment. Jean’s killing of the finch with an axe foreshadows Miss Julie’s killing of herself with Jean’s razor.
Boots and the bell.
.......The counts boots and bell are symbols of the authority of the count, to whom both Miss Julie and Jean must answer.
.......The razor with which Jean shaves and with which Miss Julie kills herself is a male instrument that symbolizes the fatal power of males over Miss Julie.
These animals symbolize Miss Julie. The dog, Diana, mates with a mongrel, representing Miss Julie's sexual intercourse with Jean, a valet. Jean later kills the bird and provides Miss Julie the razor that she uses to kill herself.
.......Miss Julie says her mother believed strongly in women's rights and women's independence. However, her mother appeared to be just as tyrannical as the men she despised in her effort to force Julie into a precast mold. Julie tells Jean,
My mother wanted to bring me up in a perfectly natural state, and at the same time I was to learn everything that a boy is taught, so that I might prove that a woman is just as good as a man. I was dressed as a boy, and was taught how to handle a horse, but could have nothing to do with the cows. I had to groom and harness and go hunting on
horseback. I was even forced to learn something about agriculture.Allusions: Don Juan, Joseph
Miss Julie trifles with Jean, she suggests that he may be a “Don Juan” or a “Joseph.”
.......Don Juan was a fictional womanizer in Spanish folk tales who seduced a young woman of Seville and killed her father in a duel. Later, the spirit of the father,
springing to life from a statue of him, gained revenge by taking Don Juan to hell. The first published account of the tale was a 1630 play, The Seducer of Seville, believed to have been written by Tirso de Molina. Subsequently, Don Juan became the central character in numerous other works, including Molière’s Don Juan, or The Stone Feast (1665), Thomas
Shadwell’s The Libertine (1675), Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787), Lord Byron’s Don Juan (1819-1824), and Shaw’s Man and Superman (1903).
.......Joseph is a biblical figure who refused to yield to a woman’s temptation. The story
of the incident and its consequences is in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 39, Verses 1-23. Here is what happened: While in Egypt, Joseph works for Potiphar, the Pharaoh’s chief steward. Potiphar’s wife is attracted to Joseph, a very handsome man, and repeatedly attempts to seduce him. Just as often, he rejects her advances. In retaliation, Potiphar’s wife tells her husband that Joseph tried to
ravish her, and Potiphar imprisons Joseph. Joseph later gains his freedom after interpreting the Pharaoh’s dream.
.Miss Julie as a Naturalistic Tragedy
.......Strindberg labeled Miss Julie a naturalistic tragedy–that is, a tragedy that adheres to principles of a literary movement called naturalism.
.......Naturalism developed in France in the 19th Century as an extreme form of realism. It was inspired in part by the scientific determinism of Charles Darwin, an Englishman, and the economic determinism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, both Germans. Four Frenchmen—Hippolyte Taine, Edmond
and Jules Goncourt, and Emile Zola—applied the principles of scientific and economic determinism to literature to create literary naturalism. According to its followers, literary naturalism has the following basic tenets:
(1) Heredity and environment are the major forces that shape human beings. In other words, like lower animals, humans respond mainly to inborn instincts that influence behavior in concert with—and sometimes in opposition to—environmental influences, including
economic, social, cultural, and familial influences. Miss Julie, for example, responds partly to her inborn female instinct for male companionship and partly to her environmentally induced hatred of men. Consequently, she both desires and despises Jean, causing her deep internal conflict. .......Naturalist writers generally achieve only limited success in adhering to Tenet 4. The main problem is that it is next to impossible for a writer to remain objective and detached, like a scientist in a laboratory. After all, a scientist analyzes existing natural objects and phenomena. A naturalist writer, on the other
hand, analyzes characters he created; they may be based on real people, but they themselves are not real. Thus, in bringing these characters to the stage or the printed page, the naturalist writer brings a part of himself—a subjective part. Also, in their use of literary devices—such as Strindberg’s use of symbols in Miss
Julie to support his theme–naturalist writers again inject their subjective selves into the play. In real life, would Miss Julie own a dog that mates with a pug, symbolizing and foreshadowing her brief sexual encounter with Jean? Would she force her fiancé to jump over a horsewhip that symbolizes her effort to dominate him?.
(2) Human beings have no free will, or very little of it, because heredity and environment are so powerful in determining the course of human action.
(3) Human beings, like lower animals, have no soul. Religion and morality are irrelevant.
(Strindberg, an atheist when he wrote Miss Julie, later converted to Christianity under the influence of the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg.)
(4) A literary work should present life exactly as it is, without preachment, judgment, or embellishment. In this respect, naturalism
is akin to realism. However, naturalism goes further than realism in that it presents a more detailed picture of everyday life. Whereas the realist writer omits insignificant details when depicting a particular scene, a naturalist writer generally includes them. He wants the scene to be as “natural” as possible. The naturalist writer also attempts to be painstakingly objective and detached.
Rather than manipulating characters as if they were puppets, the naturalist writer prefers to observe the characters as if they were animals in the wild and then report on their activity. Finally, naturalism attempts to present dialogue as spoken in everyday life. Rather than putting “unnatural” wording in the mouth of a character, the naturalist writer attempts to reproduce the speech patterns
of people in a particular time and place.
.......Miss Julie is a tragedy because Miss Julie suffers a downfall (suicide). However, it is not a tragedy in the traditional sense. Here’s why. In a classical Greek play, such as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, a character falls to ruin in part because of an error or lapse in moral judgment. But in Strindberg’s
play, Miss Julie’s downfall results from the irresistible forces (heredity and environment) acting upon her. It can be argued that she errs when she chooses to stray across sexual and social boundaries. But Strindberg would probably counter that the error resulted from the instinctual and environmental forces that drive her, not from a moral or rational decision. She is like a moth attracted to a
fatal flame.Why Jean Incites Miss Julie to Suicide
.......Although this question is open to interpretation, it appears at first glance that Jean–who has proven himself intelligent and crafty–worries that the count will find out about his sexual encounter with Miss Julie and fire him. To save his job, Jean encourages the only witness to his misdeed to kill herself. That Jean plans to remain in the employ of the count—and refuse Christine’s invitation to go elsewhere to start a new life—is supported by Jean’s deferential response to the count’s orders in the final action of the play.
.......Johan August Strindberg was born in Stockholm, Sweden, on January 22, 1849. He was the fourth child of a once-prominent aristocrat who worked for a steamship line after suffering financial reversals. His mother was a waitress who had married Strindberg’s father after working for him as a servant. Strindberg
studied medicine and religion at the University of Uppsala but did not graduate. While struggling to get published, he worked as a freelance journalist and in various other jobs, including a prestigious position as a librarian at the Swedish Royal Library. His first play, Mäster Olof, was published in 1872 and his first novel, The Red Room, in 1879. His major plays
include Lucky Peter’s Travels, 1881; The Father, 1887; Miss Julie, 1888; The Stronger, 1889; The Creditors, 1890; To Damascus, 1898-1904; There are Crimes and Crimes, 1899; The Dance of Death, 1901; A Dream Play, 1902; and The Ghost Sonata, 1907. His autobiography, The Son of a Servant, appeared in 1886 and 1887. Among
his other novels are The People of Hernsö, 1887; By the Open Sea, 1890; Black Banners, 1907; and The Great Highway, 1909.
.......Throughout his life, Strindberg suffered recurring mental problems—including depression, anxiety, and paranoia—which he wrote about in an autobiographical work, Inferno (1898). These problems may have been caused by his repeated use of absinthe, a strong liquor made from wormwood. Wormwood contains a poisonous chemical, thujone, which can trigger all of the upsetting symptoms Strindberg experienced.
Strindberg was an avowed atheist at the time that he wrote Miss Julie. However, he later converted to Christianity after studying works by the Swedish scientist, theologian, philosopher, and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Strindberg died in Stockholm on May 14, 1912.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
- Why does Miss Julie want to run away with Jean? (Your answer should consider whether she is seriously interested in him or whether she simply wants to escape the wrath of her father when he finds out that she was intimate with Jean.)
- Read Theme 4. Then write an essay that takes a stand on this question: Why did Miss Julie kill herself? Support your thesis with quotations from the play and with library and Internet research.
- To what extent do you believe hereditary and environmental forces influence your behavior and the decisions you make. Explain your answer.
- Write an essay that argues for or against this naturalist tenet: Human beings have no free will, or very little of it, because heredity and environment are so powerful in determining the course of human action.
- Write a short psychological profile of Miss Julie. Support your views with quotations from the play and with library and Internet research.