At its heart, Miss Julie is a play about two people that are struggling to attain and maintain dominance over one another. Julie uses her nobility and sexuality to dominate Jean, driven by what Strindberg, in his preface, identifies as her aggressive sexuality and her desire to control men. Jean, despite being of lower class, dominates Julie simply by virtue of his masculinity. As Strindberg writes in his preface, “Jean stands above Miss Julie not only because his fate is in ascendancy, but because he is a man.” He writes, “Sexually, he is the aristocrat because of his male strength, his more finely developed senses and his capacity for taking the initiative.” Once Julie and Jean consummate their relationship, Julie loses her air of dominance and begins to exhibit more submissive characteristics, including putting her life and fate in Jean’s hands to decide. Apart from associating femininity with submission and masculinity with dominance, Strindberg’s play argues that the state of nature is an ongoing struggle for dominance in which questions of justice and fairness are irrelevant.
Before Julie and Jean consummate their relationship, Julie tries to use her powerful sensuality to make Jean both physically and sexually subordinate to her. After Julie commands Jean to “drink to her health,” she also insists, “now you must also kiss my shoe in order to get it just right.” Kissing Julie’s shoe is a humiliating task, as she has been outside walking through the stables. The act is meant to remind Jean of his place as her servant by placing him in a physically submissive position, kneeling under Miss Julie’s foot. Nor is Jean the only man that Julie has attempted to sexually dominate. Before Miss Julie enters the kitchen, Christine explains in hushed tones that she once witnessed Julie attempting to “train” her former fiancé with a horse whip. “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. Twice he jumped and got a cut each time.” Christine’s observation, coupled with Julie’s self-proclaimed hatred of men, suggests that Julie views her sexuality as a tool for dominating others.
In his preface, Strindberg goes out of his way to portray Jean as a man who not only will not be sexually or emotionally dominated by Miss Julie, but who uses sex to assert biological superiority to take full control over her. Once Julie and Jean have sex, Julie begins to exhibit conventional womanly characteristics, saying to Jean almost immediately, “Tell me that you love me. Come take me in your arms.” The change in Julie’s behavior is alarming and immediate, meant to indicate that despite her presumption of sexual dominance, Julie has been “tamed” and feminized by Jean. Indeed, Strindberg includes the stage direction “with modest and true womanly feeling” to make clear that the actress playing Julie should reflect the change in her performance as well. As Julie becomes more feminine, Jean becomes more harsh, masculine, and controlling, seeming to delight in punishing Julie for her promiscuity as a method of exhibiting full control over her. “You're the right one to come and tell me that I am vulgar,” he says. “People of my kind would never in their lives act as vulgarly as you have acted tonight.” Indeed, by repeatedly shaming Julie, calling her a “whore” and a “menial,” and telling her that she has debased herself, Jean forces Julie to completely succumb to his influence. By the end of the play, Julie has no strength or conviction to make any of her own decisions, including the one to end her own life. “Command me,” she cries, “and I’ll obey you like a dog! Do me this last favor – save my honor.”
Julie’s actions in the second half of the play become increasingly hysterical, dictated by her emotions instead of her previous aloof rationality. In her hysterics, Miss Julie continues to make reference to her own weakness. “What power drew me to you” she shouts at Jean, “Is it the attraction that the strong exercises over the weak – the one who is rising on one who is falling? Or was it love? This – love! Do you know what love is?” Julie’s sudden and frenzied discussion of love testifies to Jean’s ultimate power over her, which takes on an emotional dimension as well as a physical and sexual one. By tracking a complete and definite shift in Miss Julie and Jean’s dominant and submissive relationship over the course of the play, Strindberg indicates that Julie’s concept of her own dominance is false, bolstered by both her social position and her “weak and degenerate brain,” while Jean’s dominance is ensured simply by his gender. Therefore, once Miss Julie seduces Jean, she is both stripped of her social dominance and her sexual autonomy and no longer has any way to fight Jean’s power over her, nor any way to return her life to the way it was before their encounter. Therefore, Strindberg suggests that, by having sex with Jean, Julie is restored to a state of “natural” female submissiveness, and Jean wins dominance over her to dictate her actions, up to and including her eventual suicide. In this way, love and sex are portrayed in Miss Julie as battlefields where lovers vie for dominance over one another.
Dominance vs. Submission ThemeTracker
Dominance vs. Submission Quotes in Miss Julie
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.
I think I read the story in a paper, and it was about a chimney-sweep who crawled into a wood-box full of lilacs because a girl had brought suit against him for not supporting her kid-.
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 can't leave! I can't stay! Help me! I am so tired, so fearfully tired. Give me orders! Set me going, for I can no longer think, no longer act –
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!
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!