I shall attempt to discuss in what ways the theory of the French historian Hippolyte Taine helps illuminate the potential meaning and effect of Strindberg’s Miss Julie. I have chosen Taine to focus my attention on because the complex character of Miss Julie is above all in conflict with the person she must be for society and the person she really is inside. Heredity, when “family resemblances might be brought out by similarities of conduct in certain situations” (quoting Maurice Larkin), plus environment, not to mention epoch, have all made her and the people around her. These three primordial forces are not only Taine’s reflection of his time but also characteristics of Naturalist dramaturgy.
The search for the soul combined with causes and consequences are Taine’s main philosophies. Despite the fact that Bjorn Hemmer minds Ibsen when he states that “what was at stake was the liberty of the spirit, liberty of thought and of the human condition”, I can perfectly borrow the saying for Miss Julie because these were her struggles too.
For the purpose of my task of identifying Taine’s ideas, I shall apply his theories through the analysis of Strindberg’s most famous play from the historical and social points of view, when also “material factors played a predominant role in shaping men and making them what they were”, as an excerpt of Man and society in the nineteenth century exemplifies my thought indirectly. Because Strindberg was a Naturalistic writer attempting to portray la bête humaine, a “prime concern in Realism” as Maurice Larkin summarizes, I shall focus on the Naturalist script writing practice at his time, mirrored by Strindberg’s own experiences and mixed with the writer’s artistic skill of translating day to day reality into theatrical illusion, since:
Drama was meant to act as a mirror of society in which it was written: but at the same time reflecting something of the writer himself. The drama has its background in a profound personal crisis,
the same way Strindberg was having many problems when he wrote Miss Julie. According to Sue Prideaux, who wrote a biography on Strindberg:
1888 was a traumatic year. Strindberg has been suffering from psoriasis … got separated from Siri, was persecuted by Ludwig Hansen and prosecuted for the alleged rape of Martha Magdalena.
Through structure, language, character, action, setting and stage direction I might be able to trace the ways Strindberg constructed Miss Julie, because the play on the page is all I will be able to examine at this time, knowing that the play on the stage certainly would deliver some more emphasized theatrical meaning based on the performer’s and /or director’s interpretation. Writing a Naturalistic play has been proven to be more difficult than writing a novel – taking Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin as an example – because not all natural elements can be brought onto the stage (including the way to portray a thought), therefore the focus on theatrical elements to create a near perfect illusion is essential.
Strindberg’s play structure is based on unity because with an intermission audiences would break from the illusion he was trying to create. Miss Julie has just one act. Thus, the play demands the maximum concentration from the audiences even if the time spam of the play surpasses the real time of the performance.
Considering the naturalistic aspect of the play, is Miss Julie attempting to rely on some truth? Combining Taine with Strindberg, I will now pass on to a closer analysis to explain to what extent the historian and the writer come together based on Taine’s main reflections.
CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES
For Taine no historic fact can be analyzed without understanding the cause. Nothing ever happens without a reason and this same main reason can be ramified in many other reasons. For instance, why did Julie behave so out of normal in the Midsummer Night? Strindberg had the same concerns and gave the audience some hints. The party of the midnight sun might have been a moment for Julie to go mad as most people do in such occasions, or the recent break-up with her fiancé could have contributed to her mental stress. Another option is that she could just have had enough of doing all the time what her father tells her, what others expect of her and then used that night in question to do what she pleased. Strindberg illustrates:
Miss Julie is a modern character not because the man hating half-woman may not have existed in all ages, but because now, after her discovery, she has stepped to the front and begun to make noise.
If her own choice to go wild came from the wish of feeling free at least once a year when she would forget for some hours how it felt to be imprisoned in her own mind and body, the consequence of her act was her mental breakdown, for she could not expect losing control of the situation. Because she had sex with the valet Jean in his territory, the manor’s kitchen, Julie lost her upper hand. In addition, the realization of what she must do to correct her mistake – giving up on life on her terms – is the biggest consequence that came from the cause itself.
SEARCHING FOR THE SOUL / THE INNER MAN
Miss Julie does not reinforce any psychological stereotypes because characters are supposed to be complex in Naturalistic plays. Nobody can be only crazy, or angry, or happy all the time. People can act for the outside world as if they were one-sided, but under the shell there is a complex world. In Miss Julie Strindberg looks to expose “the inner man that is concealed beneath the outer man” like Taine’s quote. Julie changes her behaviour many times during the play when she is serious, then sweet, then authoritarian, then submissive, sure of herself, afraid, seductive, seduced… There is a great diversity of emotions and states of mind within so few hours.
Psychological processes are what interest the people of our own day more than anything else, analyses Strindberg. Being so, after having spent so much time and read so many books on madness or psychology, he might have presented in Julie an alternative cause for her unexpected behaviour that night. Julie could have had a psychotic episode. The publication What is Psychosis explains:
Psychosis describes a set of symptoms that include delusions… and confused or disturbed thoughts. When people experience these symptoms, they are having a psychotic episode.
Because Strindberg worked the stories based on real memories and experiences, he knew a thing or two about mental breakdowns – that is if he was not using the story of someone he had witnessed. Given that “people who have psychotic depression are twenty times more likely to take their own lives than people who do not” according to the publication on psychosis, Julie’s suicide further strengthens the possibility of psychotic depression because Julie is also depressive. The moments when she envies Christine’s deep sleep, when she asks Jean to beat her because she was worthless, when she feels guilty for her bird’s death are all signifiers for her depression.
RACE (AND GENDER)
Whatever the cause that triggered Julie’s unprecedented wild behaviour in front of her employees as discussed above, her heredity plus gender played a very important role on how the night developed as well as how it finished. A woman who didn’t fit the job description of being a lovely and obedient wife raised Julie like a man, so how could she be different? Despite her mental breakdown on the Midsummer Night, according to J.L. Styan, “Julie’s actions were motivated by her birth and upbringing”; the actions of wanting to seduce and control the valet Jean only because she is above him socially. Yet, what Strindberg showed is that although her upper class status might give her the right to make the valet kisses her boots (which Strindberg found extremely erotic and a model for a submissive act), Jean is still the man and should and would have the upper hand. This is a sexist idea and Strindberg was indeed called a misogynist many times, despite his famous Feminist Manifesto. Michelene Wandor explains sexism in the following excerpt:
Sexism refers to the systematic ways in which men and women are brought up to view each other antagonistically on the assumption that the male is always superior to the female.
Although Julie is strong, in the morning-after shortly before her escape with Jean fails and she realizes her father is about to return home, she understands that there is no place for someone like her in the Swedish society of her time, because as Wandor further explains, “female sexuality is seen as something dangerous and uncontainable.” Julie cannot do as she pleases without consequences. Feeling as if she could not face anybody any longer and still live with herself, she decides to take her own life. Today women’s sexuality is seen with a lot more ease, but in 1888 sex for pleasure was reserved strictly for men, when women should only get pregnant and obey their husbands. Julie’s dilemma was that her soul was strong and true to herself, but faced with the even stronger Jean she gave up her right to fight for what she wanted most: freedom, sexual equality and financial independency. Styan’s extract summarizes it indirectly:
The conception of the new woman lay not merely in recognizing her intellect and independence; she was also required to perform in a new way when Julie was not allowed not even for a night to perform in Styan’s new way. She is very much responsible for her actions and although she could hide behind her race, she took responsibility for her acts and ended her life.
It is not enough to justify race or gender alone without considering that nobody is alone in the world. Thus, surroundings account for many behavioural choices. As Naturalistic concepts are complex, so are the characters. Julie and Jean are not finished products: they and everybody else are in constant transformation. This transformation comes not only from the core (or soul), from a time or from the environment, but they come from all the elements combined. If the circumstances had been different, perhaps Julie would not have killed herself. Chris Megson exemplifies: “It was the external pressure that prompted Julie’s emotional collapse.” In a way she is responsible for her actions, but from another angle Julie is a victim of the circumstances. I dare to disagree with Strindberg when I affirm that in my opinion, Julie is no man-eater. She wants to be one and she certainly tries, but she is not successful at that. She is not sure what she should be.
In terms of society, Miss Julie represents a stiff, patriarchal, misogynist and unforgiving environment. It is no wonder that nobody wanted to stage the play at first. Not even Strindberg’s publisher had faith in it. Back then, audiences were not used to facing their inner ugliness in such a public manner, independently from their social class. Naturalistic plays are the mirror of society, after all. Theatre and literature were supposed to entertain and not disturb the peace of mind. Even today the play makes headlines if a director decides to cast a black actor to play Jean while Julie is a well-dressed, well-fed and well-combed white lady. Although it is easier to climb social scales today when one has the proper studies, inner strength and good connections, society is still full with prejudices. Today women in the western world are allowed to enjoy their sexuality without much of a fuss, but if a woman manager chooses a male janitor for a lover, people will talk.
Where the design is concerned, Strindberg, like most Naturalists, stressed the importance of a perfect illusion of reality on stage. No footlights on the stage, no lights whatsoever in the auditorium, no visible musicians, but the attempt to hypnotize his audience not only through the perfect plot and uninterrupted action, but also through a normal speech and dialogue (just like people normally talk and not in the old-fashioned theatre-voice). The reason why he placed the action in the servants’ kitchen – “arranged diagonally in order that the spectator should complete what was not seen by visualizing it in his imagination” (quoting Styan again) – is simply to make Julie come down from the pedestal. Thus, when she decided to celebrate the Midsummer Night with her servants, in and around the kitchen, Julie was forced to become part of the environment in Jean’s and the rest of the servants’ terrain. Because she came down to their level, they would no longer respect her as a superior.
I argue that costumes are also part of the environment, because according to Chris Megson they “indicate the vocations of Jean and Christine”, the superiority of Julie (especially in the boots kissing scene, because boots are part of the costume too) and the strong presence and authority of Julie’s father has, even when he is not in the property. His jacket and boots in the kitchen are constant reminders that this is his house, even the kitchen.
Miss Julie is not a class based play because Strindberg focuses on two classes. The upper class has nowhere to go (represented by Julie) whilst the lower class can and will rise (represented by Jean) because of the “greatest transformer of the nineteenth century: the Industrial Revolution”, quoting Larkin. For the first time noble birth was no longer life’s success guarantee and those who possessed certain qualities like ambition, cleverness, creativity and even some immorality could at last start aiming for the stars. There is no doubt that Jean (representing the striving worker class) is the most likely to adapt and succeed in the new world order as Julie (representing an old, lazy and dying system of unsurpassable hierarchy). Here Darwinian philosophy applies when only the stronger and the most adaptable can survive.
Nevertheless, Strindberg does not offer only one drastic solution letting the rich fall and the poor rise. He also gives Julie and Jean a chance to overcome their social differences through their sexual relationship, even if this only could be possible far away from Julie’s father – the Count – someone who does not even has a proper name in the play, but just a title. Strindberg suggests that no matter how strange such a relationship can sound to members of society (low and high), class barriers can indeed be surpassed, even if this is not what happened in the play at the end.
The last of Taine’s three primordial forces is epoch. Environment plays a role in a person’s character as much as race does, not to mention the inner Man’s influence in someone’s behaviour, even though the human core remains the same through history. Epoch, or time, is equally relevant to building a complex character. Some people say that Mozart’s music or Freud’s psychology were beyond their time and what they mean with it is that nobody will ever be in complete harmony with their surroundings if they do not understand their epoch. Thus, by interpreting Julie’s action in the play, I understood that she was beyond her time while her father was past the time and Jean was right on time. Sweden in 1888 was not ready for Julie; the outcry over the play and over her character is a proof of that. So, being the Naturalist that he was, Strindberg had to kill Julie for she did not belong in the world she was living in, even though “legally, suicide was a crime in Sweden”, according to Sue Prideaux. Perhaps this was one of Strindberg’s protests too – that every person should have the right to end the life as he/she wishes.
A misogynist society does not care that a woman is synonym with complexity. Around the time when Miss Julie was written society could not understand how an upper class lady could be a man-eater and a confused and vulnerable woman at the same time. If today it is quite improper for a large company’s CEO to engage sexually with her gardener, back in the end of the nineteenth century having the count’s daughter sleep with the valet was unimaginable.
Sexual morality still in late nineteenth century had close bonds with marriage and because Julie was not married while engaging in sexual foreplay with her ex-fiancé and going all the way with the footman, in the eyes of society she became a figure of shame. The role of women had just started to change in Sweden and the country can be proud of letting their women “achieve education far earlier than many of their European sisters, even though they had to wait until 1919 to vote”, according to Prideaux, what Julie would not live to see, although she was highly educated for her time.
If Julie had succeeded in escaping with Jean to construct a hotel in southern Europe with the stolen money from the Count and later their relationship did not work out, Julie would lose everything because property rights for women would only be established in Sweden in 1921. Related to this, I strongly believe that Jean seduced Julie not for love and even lust, but because he envisaged her as the means for his wealthy future. He knew to interpret Julie’s mental breakdown and used it for his gain knowing that the time they lived would always protect man’s interest over a woman’s.
The last Taine’s point that I will bring to a brief discussion is the one of Future Predictions. Here I do not mean fortune telling, but simply a scientific method of observation of facts and circumstances that lead people automatically to one certain end. Taine stresses that such an approach is essential for the study of history and because of its history, the future can be predicted. In a way this justification could be led to the Darwinian theory of the survival of the fittest. Those who cannot stand for themselves cannot survive. There is no need to go to a fortune-teller to ask what will become of a violent young man who disregards rules and feels no empathy for others. This young man might think that he is strong, when the truth is that he cannot cope with the world as it is; he is weak and tries to hide behind his aggression.
After examining Julie’s environment, race and epoch, plus her inner struggles, I can only predict that society in late nineteenth century would never accept Julie as she is, especially if she decided to live together with Jean. The combination of noble birth plus crazy behaviour (on the eyes of everybody else, not necessarily in Julie’s eyes) could never be accepted or understood. Thus, Julie was not willing to accept society and their terms any longer, when the outcome could only be one. Realizing this, Julie is strong enough to face the truth and ask for help, when Jean must order her like a dog and pass her the razor for her suicide since “Julie cannot live without honour”, as Strindberg describes, even if this solution could be interpreted as a bit melodramatic, different from Naturalistic basic rules when optimism should always prevail. Perhaps killing Julie was an optimist act after all, if one reflects on the thinker Herbert Spencer’s words:
No good could come of protecting people against their own ignorance or weakness.
From the Strindbergian point of view, the old cannot survive when the new is taking over. Therefore it is a matter of time, perhaps of few generations, until traditional families like Julie’s become extinct for not knowing or wanting to adapt to the new world order. Aware or not, Jean even did Julie a favour by passing her the death tool, sparing her from future disappointments. Strindberg himself even believed in Swedenborg’s idea that:
Hell … is a state we may encounter in this mortal life, because heaven and hell are not located elsewhere. They are internal and spiritual states;
quoting Prideaux’s book. I argue whether Strindberg felt that he was releasing Julie from her prison by killing her, since hell must have been where she felt she lived her whole life without freedom, without comprehension, without the financial means and the moral courage to defy society and do things her way.
Naturalistic plays were written so that the audience could identify themselves with what they were watching in a good or in a dark way. Taine’s definition for environment, heredity (including social classes), inner struggles and respective epoch, not to mention future predictions, were translated by Strindberg into the play’s elements that contributed to the general and even a more focused identification with was happening on the stage or on the page.
Strindberg’s characters are as complex as any person in real life and they find themselves in crisis, never satisfied with what they have. Although some references in Miss Julie are typical for the Swedish society of late nineteenth century (strong faith, importance of a noble birth, gossip, classes that do not mix up, men seen as the strong sex, women seen as men shadows), “certain general traits, certain characteristics of the intellect and the heart are common to men of any race, age or country”, evaluates Taine. Jealousy, temper, free will, hierarchy and so on are today as modern topics as it was back in Jesus’ time in the Middle East or no matter where.
Concluding my study on Miss Julie through Taine’s philosophical ideas it is worth recapitulating Taine’s main points:
Causes and consequences: Julie, Jean and all the other characters have a history and a reason to act the way they do.
Searching for the soul / the inner man: The person someone seems to be is most of the time not who he /she really is. Strindberg succeeds in showing this aspect especially through Julie and her mood swings, when she shows and hides her true self.
Race and Gender: This aspect is of major relevance in the play, when sex war and clash of social class due to heredity and material possessions dictates the plot.
Surroundings: The incapability of Julie to fight off the odds, to erase everything what is not pleasant in her life is due to the pressure and weight that society has imposed on her.
Epoch and Future Predictions: Although not really in full swing in Sweden by 1888, the Industrial Revolution is responsible for the long awaited class mobility. With the new world order Julie, the Count and their fellow nobles must adapt to the aggressive, reckless and masculine epoch.
The impact of Miss Julie back in Strindberg’s time was great as it still is today, for he was not holding back his Naturalistic approach to entertain as well as disgust those who needed to be entertained or disgusted by their own set of morals. I finish my essay with Taine’s excerpt that seem to resume some of the points that I have been trying to discuss throughout this paper:
When the work (literature) is rich and people know how to interpret it, we find there the psychology of a soul, frequently of an age now and then of a race.