Miss Julie is the play's twenty-five-year-old heroine. Fresh from a broken engagement—an engagement ruined because of her attempt literally to train her fiancé like a dog—Miss Julie has become "wild", making shameless advances to her valet, Jean, on Midsummer Eve. In his preface to the play, Strindberg discusses what motivates Miss Julie: "her mother's primary instincts, her father raising her incorrectly, her own nature, and the influence of her fiancé on her weak and degenerate brain." He also cites as influences the absence of her father, the fact that she has her period, the sensual dancing and flowers, and, finally, the man. Strindberg is interested in psychology, and this list is his diagnosis of what he considers Miss Julie's sickness. This symptoms of this sickness are similar to contemporaneous symptoms of the hysteric. Traditionally considered a female disease, hysteria in Strindberg's day was increasingly used to refer to a disturbance in female sexuality—namely, a woman's failure or refusal to accept her sexual desires.
Raised by a shockingly empowered mother who abhorred men, Julie is alternately disgusted by and drawn to men, horrified by sex and ready to play the lascivious coquette. Her hatred of men leads her to attempt to enslave them sadistically. Ultimately, however, the play is more invested in her masochism above all else. Julie desires her own fall. Strindberg partially blames her for her fate. Julie submits to Jean, who is partly a father figure, imploring him both to abuse and to save her. Julie slips into a "hypnoid state", a trance-like condition that people associated with hysterics. It can be argued that Miss Julie's profile and ultimate fate reveal Strindberg's notoriously misogynistic fantasies.
Jean is the manor's thirty-year old valet, chosen as Miss Julie's lover on Midsummer's Eve, and the second major character in the play. He grew up working in the district and, although Miss Julie does not know this, he has known Miss Julie since she was a child. Initially Jean talks coarsely and disparagingly about Miss Jean with his fiancé, Christine. Later he plays the gallant while seducing of Miss Julie, honorably hesitating before her advances, telling a heart-rending tale of his childhood love for his mistress, recounting his longtime ambitions, and generally making her believe in his gentleness. Upon the consummation of their romance, when Jean finds that Miss Julie is penniless, he rejects her and confesses that he has deceived her, cruelly leaving her to her disgrace.
Jean dreams of grandeur, vaguely imagining someday opening a hotel in northern Italy and becoming a count like Miss Julie's father. However, he remains subjected to authority throughout the play. Indeed, the reminders of the Count—his boots, the speaking tube, Jean's livery, and, most importantly, the ringing bell—automatically reduce Jean to a lackey. Jean's relationship to Miss Julie is complicated by his class envy and misogyny. Jean at once elevates and scorns the object of his desire. This relationship is neatly summarized by a story in which young Jean had to flee an outhouse through the bottom and, emerging from his master's waste, came upon Julie strolling a terrace and fell in love at first sight. This story shows how Jean is mired in filth at the hands of his social betters. It also shows the simultaneous adulation and hatred Jean feels for Miss Julie. He worships her from afar, but then he sees her underside from the bottom of the outhouse.
Imagining Julie in increasingly degrading fantasies, Jean stops being a cowed, reluctantly seduced servant to a sadist reveling in Julie's ruin. Despite the many power reversals between them, however, the end of the play joins them in their submission to the Count's authority, the authority of the father and master. Julie's hypnosis is paralleled by Jean's automatic response at the ringing of the Count's bell, and in the end Jean will only be able to command Julie by imagining that he is the Count commanding himself. The class and gender battles end with Julie's and Jean's submission to their absent sovereign.
A relatively minor character, Christine is the manor's thirty-five-year-old cook and Jean's fiancé. Sharing in Jean's gossip over Miss Julie's "wild" nature, she seems to be a pious and petty hypocrite. She clings fiercely to a sense of social hierarchy. Upon discovering that Julie and Jean have had sex, Christine decides to leave the house. Late in the play, she denies Miss Julie's plea for help. The fact that Jean did not live up to her social position trumps Christine's sense of human compassion.
Miss Julie's sadomasochism was actually the result of her upbringing. Her mother was a sadistic woman who enjoyed power and causing ill to men whereas her father was masochistic because by marrying the countess, he desired his own downfall. Miss Julie grew up witnessing her mother's antics as well as her father's and inherited their particular characteristics to become a sadomasochistic woman.
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