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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
In his preface to the play, Strindberg describes his heroine, Miss Julie, as a woman with a "weak and degenerate brain." In the play, Jean comments on Julie's crazy behavior. Miss Julie, one of the first major exercises in naturalism and the naturalist character, becomes a case study of a woman who is supposedly, as Jean says, "sick." This sickness condemns her to ruin in one of the more misogynistic classic works of modern theater. Strindberg was interested in psychology, and the play spends time detailing Julie's pathologies. Two concepts from the psychology of Strindberg's day are relevant: hysteria and feminine masochism. Hysteria was historically considered a female disease, and in the late-nineteenth century was defined as an illness brought on when a woman failed or refused to accept her sexual desires and did not become a sexual object, as the psychologists put it. Strindberg probably meant for us to read Julie as a hysteric, for she is simultaneously disgusted and drawn to men, both nonsexual and seductive. Strindberg, in his fear of early European feminism, attributes Julie's problems to a mother who believes in the equality of the sexes and, indeed, hates men. He also blames an initially absent, ineffectual father. Julie inherits her mother's hatred of men, attempting to train her fiancé with a riding whip and fantasizing about the annihilation of the male sex.
Besides this sadism (pleasure in another's pain), the play is interested in Julie's masochism (pleasure in one's own pain), a masochism explicitly identified as feminine. When Julie proposes suicide, Jean declares that he could never follow through with a plan to kill himself, and says that the difference between the sexes is that men are not masochistic, as women are. Julie confesses her desire to fall, and her brazenly flirtatious behavior with Jean supposedly makes her ruin her own fault. She ends up submitting herself wholeheartedly to Jean's will—Jean standing in, as we discover in the final scene, for Julie's father, the Count—.
Miss Julie has two subordinates—a daughter and a servant—who are subject to each other's authority. Julie is Jean's superior in terms of class; Jean is Julie's superior in terms of morality, because Jean is a man and Julie is a "degenerate" woman. These differences structure most of the play's action. The play is conservative in sentiment. It keeps these superior and inferior positions in place, and ultimately submits both characters to the total authority of the Count, who is father and master. An uncountable number of power reversals occur along class and gender lines throughout the play. The difference between Jean and Julie is central to their attraction. Whereas Julie expresses a desire to fall from her social position, Jean expresses an idle desire to climb up from his social position. Jean hopes to better his social status by sleeping with Julie. When he discovers that she is penniless, however, he abandons his plans. By sleeping with Jean, Julie degrades herself and places herself beneath Jean's level. The power shifts again, however, when Julie reasserts her superior class, mocking Jean's name and family line.
As explained in the preface to the play, these battles reflect Strindberg's social Darwinist notions of evolutionary history and hierarchy. He writes, "I have added a little evolutionary history by making the weaker steal and repeat the words of the stronger." Jean and Julie borrow from each other when they talk about the vision of the hotel or the sheriff. The most explicit instance of mimicry, however, occurs in the final moments of the play, when Julie asks Jean to imitate her father, commanding him to send her to her suicide. The conflicts between Jean and Julie throughout the play recreate Julie's fundamental submission to the Count. Julie has authority over Jean partly because she is her father's daughter, and Jean has authority over Julie because he has the Count's power as a man.
Strindberg's notorious misogyny is characterized by the simultaneous idealization and degradation of woman. To him, these opposite impulses are two sides of the same coin. Jean at once worships and scorns Miss Julie. Early in the play, he describes her as both crude and beautiful. In the story of the Turkish pavilion, young Jean must flee an outhouse through the bottom and, emerging from his master's waste, sees Julie. He falls in love with her on the spot, but then she raises her skirt to use the outhouse, and he sees her in a compromising position. On top of Jean's initial love comes revulsion. The image of Julie strolling amidst the roses is degraded by the image of her going to the bathroom.
The famous scene of hypnosis at the end of Miss Julie emerges from Strindberg's longtime interest in psychology and occult phenomena. Here, hypnotism stands for the absolute authority of the Count, the master and father, whose power feels all the more absolute for his absence. The play shows us the effects of his power—the ringing of the bell, the animation of the speaking tube, and, most importantly, the direction of the characters' action. Miss Julie asks Jean to hypnotize her, because she lacks the will to commit suicide. Jean lacks the will to command her, so he is to pretend that he is the Count giving himself an order. The magical power of Julie's father, sends Julie to her death. Though Julie is hypnotized, the Count's power exerts a hypnotic effect on Jean as well. The trappings of the Count's authority (his boots, the bell, etc.) reduce Jean to paralysis.
Two pets appear in Miss Julie. Both function as doubles for the heroine. The first pet is Diana, Julie's dog, who is pregnant by the gatekeeper's mongrel. Diana's name is a joke, for the goddess Diana is the goddess of virgins. Her resemblance to her owner implies that Miss Julie is not good looking. The second pet is Serena the canary, who Jean decapitates on a chopping block after deciding that Miss Julie cannot take the bird with them on their journey. The decapitation of the bird is linked to the story of Saint John the Baptist, who was decapitated. Saint John's story can be read as an allegory of a castration staged by a conspiracy of women. Here the terms of the allegory are reversed: Serena (or Miss Julie, who Serena symbolizes) is submitted to the chopping block. The execution of Serena sends Julie into a rage. She restores the biblical story in her fantasy, imagining Jean (French for "John") and his "entire sex" swimming in blood.
The play's numerous pantomimes function as pauses in action, interrupting the otherwise unbroken episode with slow, highly realistic interludes. Christine cleans the kitchen, curls her hair, and hums a tune; Jean scribbles a few calculations. Such injections of the banal are typical of the naturalistic theater. Also a sort of pantomime, the dance of the peasants operates differently, laying waste to the kitchen and disrupting a largely two-person play with a rowdy crowd. Many critics have identified this pagan festivity of the rumor-mongering crowd as symbolic of Miss Julie's ruin and prefigurative of German expressionism.
Some objects symbolize the Count, suggesting him in his absence: his boots, Jean's livery, the speaking tube, and, most importantly, the ringing bell. Together, these objects symbolize the workings of the master's authority. Their effect on Jean in particular reveals the magical and irresistible nature of the Count's power. They also reduce Jean to a spineless, yes-man.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Miss Julie!