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Miss Julie takes place in the kitchen of the Count's manor house in Sweden, on a Midsummer Eve in the 1880s. In the stage directions, Strindberg describes the kitchen in great detail. A statue of Cupid, perched on a fountain, is visible through a set of glass doors. Christine, the manor's thirty-five-year-old cook, is frying something at the stove when Jean, the manor's thirty-year-old valet, enters. He says Miss Julie, the Count's daughter, is wild tonight. Julie, age twenty-five, led the local barn dance that evening and chose him for the Ladies' waltz. Christine observes that Miss Julie has been especially rambunctious in the wake of her broken engagement. Unable to face her family after this disgrace, Julie has remained on the manor with the servants for the Midsummer Eve festivities. According to Jean, Miss Julie's fiancé abandoned her after her attempt to train him by making him jump over her riding whip in the barnyard as she beat him. Jean saw the abuse. Jean thinks the man fundamentally good, if not rich. The man ultimately tore the whip from Miss Julie's hands, breaking it into pieces. Christine serves Jean kidney from the frying pan, and Jean takes a bottle of red wine from a drawer. They flirt. It is revealed that Jean and Christine are engaged.
Jean asks Christine what else she is cooking—the stench is awful. Christine is making something for Miss Julie's sick dog, Diana, which recently got pregnant by the gatekeeper's mongrel. Miss Julie is irate at the pregnancy. Jean says Miss Julie is "too stuck-up in some ways and not proud enough in others," just like her mother. The Countess felt comfortable in the kitchen or among the cows, but had to have a pair of driving horses. Her sleeves were filthy, but her buttons were immaculate.
Nevertheless, Jean finds Miss Julie beautiful. Miss Julie enters and asks Christine if she has finished the meal. Jean suddenly becomes polite and charming, asking if the women are sharing secrets and inquiring if they are preparing a witches' brew in which to see the face of Miss Julie's future husband. Miss Julie invites Jean to dance. He hesitates, telling her that he has already promised a dance to Christine and warning her against the dangers of local gossip. Miss Julie finds his hesitation preposterous: she is mistress of the house and wants to dance with its best dancer. Beneficently telling Jean that rank does not matter this evening, she walks out to the party on his arm.
The backdrop of Miss Julie is Midsummer Eve, a festival of pagan origins celebrated in Northern Europe. A number of critics have related the paganism of the festival to the lust of the protagonists. The pagan festival, a pause in regular provincial life, is an occasion for disguise and deception, the crossing of social boundaries, and rebellion against moral stricture. It is appropriate that Midsummer Eve is the setting of Miss Julie and Jean's liaison, an encounter that crosses class lines. The play's investment in Miss Julie's degeneracy and ruin is clear from the outset. The portrait we get of Miss Julie through gossip shows the major motifs that shadow her character. Strindberg's interest in contemporary psychology emerges in the first scene. His heroine is portrayed as sick, probably sick in the manner of female hysterics of Strindberg's day.
Jean introduces Miss Julie as a woman who dreams of dominating men, subjecting them like dogs to her sadistic will. Her fiancé rejects her because of her urges, and she must stay home with the servants in disgrace. The story of the training session is a fantasy of unmanning the unruly heroine. Her fiancé, a man with whom Jean clearly sympathizes, breaks her riding crop. The crop is a phallic symbol, and when her fiancé breaks it, he breaks Julie's masculine power. The play disapproves of Julie's impulse to wield power, and prefers her to abuse herself rather than others.
We are meant to associate Julie's dog with Julie herself. The dog has coupled with a mongrel, just as her sex-hungry mistress does not care about the class of the man she wants to seduce. As Jean's first lines indicate, Miss Julie is "wild," dancing scandalously with the peasants in the barn. Miss Julie is meant to stand for modern women in general. When Jean tells the story of her broken engagement, he says, "Well, that's a woman for you," which suggests that Julie's behavior is typical of a woman. Miss Julie is a case study of a degenerate woman who supposedly embodies all woman. This case study is Strindberg's famous experiment in the "naturalistic" character. To some extent, Strindbergian naturalism is inseparable from Strinbergian misogyny.
These misogynist fantasies primarily find voice through Jean. In these first scenes, a motif that will become appears in his speech: the simultaneous idealization and degradation of woman. Jean describes Julie and her mother as both proud and crude. Miss Julie is cruder than the average servant. The Countess's degraded nature manifests as the dirt on her sleeves. This is an image of filth typical to the play. Such images recur to indicate female degradation. Still, Jean is mesmerized by Julie, saying, "But she is beautiful! Magnificent! Ah, those shoulders—those—and so forth, and so forth!" Jean's conflicting feelings for Julie are complicated by his being not just a man relating to a woman, but a servant relating to a mistress. Much of Miss Julie comes from the servant's perspective, the servant positioned to see the undesirable sides of their supposedly superior masters. This degradation is not really about class subversion, but about misogyny. Jean's humiliation of Julie relies on an assertion of female degeneracy. In the context of this play, Jean is superior to Julie because he is a man, a superiority he can use to combat her superiority to him in terms of class.