In the preface to Miss Julie, August Strindberg explains that his play is a “Naturalist Tragedy.” Strindberg, who is considered one of the foremost naturalist playwrights of his era, was concerned with creating theater that was highly realistic, with characters who were complex and flawed. However, Strindberg also refers to the play as “naturalist” because he viewed Miss Julie and Jean as two characters whose innate natures are betrayed by the way they have each been brought up. Indeed, throughout the play, both characters consistently reference their upbringings and the constraints of society as the reasons that they cannot achieve their dreams. Jean (who epitomizes Strindberg’s conception of the “new man” of his age) is unable to make the most of his considerable intellect, strength, and ingenuity because he grew up poor and can’t get a leg up. Meanwhile, Julie’s unconventional upbringing gave her ideas about female equality and autonomy that (in Strindberg’s opinion) go against what is “natural” for a woman, ultimately rendering her unable to survive in the world. Jean is ultimately the victor in the play, gaining the upper hand over Julie despite his low class and, Strindberg suggests in the preface, going on to escape servitude. Julie, on the other hand, meets a tragic end when Jean succeeds in convincing her to take her own life—an outcome which Strindberg presents as the natural consequence of her “unnatural” upbringing. Through this sequence of events, Strindberg’s “Naturalist Tragedy” makes an argument for the “survival of the fittest,” suggesting that those who are made strong by their biology will always rise to conquer those whom society artificially props up.
Strindberg believed that as a man with a strong will to alter his social circumstances, Jean is superior to Miss Julie. To prove this, Strindberg uses his preface to introduce the concept of “Sexual Aristocracy,” which posits that biological sex is the true measure of a person’s worth rather than inherited wealth. “Jean stands above Miss Julie not only because his fate is in ascendency, but because he is a man,” Strindberg explains. “Sexually he is the aristocrat because of his male strength, his more finely developed senses, and his capacity for taking the initiative.” Strindberg, believing Jean to be superior to Miss Julie simply because he is a man, consistently highlights Jean’s personal taste and intellect, which sometimes even surpasses Miss Julie’s. He learned French, he says, “in Switzerland, when [he] worked as sommelier in one of the big hotels in Lucerne,” where he also picked up a taste for fine wine and a sense of good breeding. Unlike aristocrats, whose pedigree is conferred at birth, Jean is a self-made man who worked hard to achieve a sense of personal taste. And indeed, Julie selectively validates his efforts. “You are an aristocrat, I think,” she tells him flirtatiously, though she is merely referencing his tastes for fine wine. When Jean responds that he is indeed an aristocrat, she states, “and I am stepping down,” indicating that, while Jean might have many of the intellectual and emotional qualities of a nobleman, she is the one who has the title, and therefore is socially debasing herself by spending time with Jean even if he is her “sexual” superior.
Yet, while Julie has a title, it is of little use to her because of her “tainted biology.” Strindberg portrays Julie as inferior to prove that the social hierarchy is protecting and elevating “biologically” weak individuals. According to Strindberg, because Julie was brought up as a “half-woman” by her free-thinking mother, and raised to hunt, shoot, and wear boys’ clothes, she lacks the ability to perform the appropriate duties society expects of both a woman and a countess. For example, Julie learned from her mother to disdain the institution of marriage. Julie tells Jean that her mother married her father without really wanting to, and that Julie herself “came into the world against [her] mother’s will.” Therefore, from the outset, Julie does not have the necessary tools to fulfil the primary imperative of noble women: to find a husband and continue her noble family line. Indeed, just as Julie’s mother caused their family’s ruin, Julie ruins her one chance at marriage because she is commanding and cold toward her fiancé instead of warm and nurturing. Without a husband to make her a respectable countess, Julie pursues and fulfils her sexual desire in the way that a man would, ultimately degrading herself and risking bringing shame to her father. Highlighting this disconnect between Julie’s egalitarian upbringing and her noble title, Jean tells Julie that, despite her social class, her promiscuity has made her worse than a servant. “Do you think any servant girl would go for a man as you did?” he asks rhetorically. “Did you ever see a girl of my class throw herself at anybody in that way? I have never seen the like of it except among beasts and prostitutes.” In this way, Strindberg emphasizes Julie’s inferiority to Jean despite her superior social standing, thereby reinforcing the idea of a natural or “sexual aristocracy” that undercuts the constructed hierarchies of European aristocracy.
Although in Strindberg’s estimation Jean’s maleness, resourcefulness, and intellect make him Julie’s moral superior, both he and Julie are ultimately foiled by the artificial social constraints of aristocratic European society. Strindberg portrays Julie’s death as the natural outcome of her unnatural upbringing, while Jean’s masculine strength and intellect is subverted tragically by his social class. In Strindberg’s preface, he outlines the factors the lead to Julie’s death: “her mother’s fundamental instincts; her father's mistaken upbringing of the girl; her own nature, and the suggestive influence of her fiancé on a weak and degenerate brain.” In other words, Julie’s misguided upbringing and “weak and degenerate brain” made it impossible for her to fulfil the natural womanly duties of marriage and motherhood, leading her instead to pursue sex with a servant, which in turn ultimately leads to her suicide. Meanwhile, Jean is stopped from escaping simply because the Count returns abruptly, causing Jean to fall back into patterns of servitude, despite having the intellect and drive necessary to escape his circumstances. In Strindberg’s preface, he indicates that, while Miss Julie fell victim to a “degenerate” biology, and therefore could not survive her tryst with Jean, Jean is a biological and “sexual” aristocrat, who is only barred from success by the artificial boundary of social class, which he will ultimately transcend as (according to Strindberg) the aristocratic power structure would deteriorate over time. By ending the play with Jean ordering Julie to end her own life, Strindberg suggests that the artificial social hierarchy will soon be superseded by a natural hierarchy dominated by “new men” like Jean, thereby ushering in a new, merit-based society where all strong and resourceful men can prosper regardless of the class they were born into.
Biology vs. Society ThemeTracker
Biology vs. Society Quotes in Miss Julie
My souls (or characters) are conglomerates, made up of past and present stages of civilization, scraps of humanity, torn-off pieces of Sunday clothing turned into rags all patched together as is the human soul itself.
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 a noise. The half-woman is a type coming more and more into prominence, selling herself nowadays for power, decorations … as formerly for money.
It is this, the nobleman’s harikiri or the law of the inner conscience compelling the Japanese to cut open his own abdomen at the insult of another… for this reason the valet, Jean continues to live, but Miss Julie cannot live without honor.”
They were in the stable yard one evening, and the young lady was training him, as she called it. Do you know what that meant? She made him leap over her horse whip the way you teach a dog to jump.
The young lady is too stuck up in some ways and not proud enough in others. Just as was the countess when she lived. She was most at home in the kitchen and among the cows, but she would never drive with only one horse.
Take my advice, Miss Julie, don’t step down. Nobody will believe that you did it on purpose. The people will always say that you fell down.
And I saw you walking among the roses, and I thought: if it be possible for a robber to get into heaven and dwell with the angels, then it is strange that a cotter's child, here on God's own earth, cannot get into the park and play with the count's daughter.
Well, it wouldn't be easy to repeat. But I was rather surprised, and I couldn't understand where you had learned all those words. Perhaps, at bottom, there isn't quite so much difference as they think between one kind of people and another.
No, Miss Julie, they don't love you. They take your food and spit at your back. Believe me
That's the life, I tell you! Constantly new faces and new languages. Never a minute free for nerves or brooding. No trouble about what to do-for the work is calling to be done: night and day.
There will be barriers between us as long as we stay in this house… there is the count – and I have never met another person for whom I felt such respect. If I only catch sight of his gloves on a chair I feel small. If I only hear that bell up there, I jump like a shy horse.
I? Of course! I have my expert knowledge, my vast experience, my familiarity with several languages. That's the very best kind of capital, I should say.
You're the right one to come and tell me that I am vulgar. People of my kind would never in their lives act as vulgarly as you have acted tonight. Do you think any servant girl would go for a man as you did? Did you ever see a girl of my class throw herself at anybody in that way? I have never seen the like of it except among beasts and prostitutes.
Don't you see: I could have made a countess of you, but you could never make me a count.
I came into the world-against my mother’s wish, I have come to think. Then 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.
But I have read about your pedigree in a book that was lying on the drawing-room table. Do you know who was your first ancestor? A miller who let his wife sleep with the king one night during the war with Denmark. I have no such ancestry. I have none at all, but I can become an ancestor myself.
That’s good and well, but it isn't my style to think of dying all at once for the sake of wife and children. I must say that my plans have been looking toward something better than that kind of thing
You think I cannot stand the sight of blood. You think I am as weak as that –oh, I should like to see your blood, your brains, on that block there. I should like to see your whole sex swimming in blood like that thing there. I think I could drink out of your skull, and bathe my feet in your open breast…
I don't know: I believe no longer in anything… Nothing! Nothing at all!
But he was the one who reared me in contempt for my own sex—half woman and half man! Whose fault is it, this that has happened? My father's—my mother's—my own? My own? Why, I have nothing that is my own.
Command me, and I'll obey you like a dog! Do me this last favor – save my honor, and save his name! You know what my will ought to do, and what it cannot do-now give me your will, and make me do it!
I cannot command you – and now, since I've heard the count's voice – now – l can't quite explain it – but – Oh, that damned menial is back in my spine again. I believe if the count should come down here, and if he should tell me to cut my own throat – I'd do it on the spot!