In Strindberg’s preface to Miss Julie, he explains that one of the themes he is intent on exploring in the play is the fact that, despite his low birth, Jean’s maleness makes him a “sexual aristocrat” and biologically superior to Miss Julie. This discussion is complimented by the pervasive distinctions that Strindberg draws throughout the play between what is “natural” and “unnatural” behavior for women. In his preface, Strindberg explains that Miss Julie is “a man hating half-woman,” who “sell[s] herself nowadays for power, decorations, distinctions, diplomas as previously she did for money.” By equating the struggle for female equality and financial independence with prostitution, Strindberg revealed a deep distrust of women, and a fear that they could overpower or eclipse men. Because Strindberg writes under the assumption that the “natural” thing for a woman to do was to get married and have children, Miss Julie’s attempt to gain autonomy and power in society manifests in an unbridled sexual desire, a hatred of men, and an inability to conform to the expectations of her own class—traits which ultimately spell her undoing. Indeed, according to Strindberg, Julie’s “revolt” against her true “womanly” instincts is the central reason that she dies at the end of the play. In Miss Julie, Strindberg sets out to prove that women only increase their suffering by seeking, against their “nature,” to be equal to men.
Strindberg believed that the primary reason Miss Julie was a “half-woman” was because of the way she was raised. Throughout the play, reference is made to Julie’s unnatural upbringing. Because her mother raised her and ran her house without gender or class distinctions, Julie continually puts herself in harm’s way by being unable to live life fully as either a woman or an aristocrat. From the opening moments of the play, Strindberg shows that Julie prefers spending time outside of her social class. Jean tells Christine that Julie’s mother, the Countess, was “more at home in the kitchen and among the cows” as a way of explaining why Julie has chosen to stay behind on Midsummer’s Eve with the servants instead of going to visit her family with her father. Indeed, Julie is consistently attempting to undercut her noble birth to have more in common with Jean. For example, when Jean offers her one of her father’s best wines to drink she says that she would prefer beer because “my tastes are so simple I prefer it to wine.” However, Julie can never truly be safe among her servants because they resent her for her money and power over them. Jean continues to caution Miss Julie that she should fear the servants’ gossip, as it will tarnish her reputation. Indeed, contrary to Julie’s romantic ideas of working-class life, Jean presents the servants as “a mob” and ultimately convinces Julie to escape into his room so that the mob will not discover the two of them together. Thus, Julie jeopardizes her reputation by sleeping with Jean—and does so, ironically, as a direct result of the threat of servant gossip. She later commits suicide motivated by her fear that the same gossip would ruin her father’s reputation and break his heart as well. Ultimately, she is persecuted by the expectations of others that she embody “natural” womanhood by exhibiting typically ladylike behavior.
Another marker of Julie’s “half-womanhood” is her voracious sexual desire. Throughout the play, Julie is portrayed as a masculine, sexual aggressor, openly pursuing sex with Jean and multiple other men that work on her estate. However, Strindberg believed that sexual openness was a trait that should be reserved for men, and Julie is therefore shamed once she and Jean consummate their relationship and cannot regain her power over him. Christine references Julie’s history of sexual openness in the play’s opening scene, telling Jean that she is acting “crazy” asking men to dance with her even in front of their partners and wives. This is a “craziness” that Julie inherited from her mother, who drove their family to bankruptcy when she chose to invest her personal fortune with her lover, a common bricklayer, who stole all her money. Indeed, even within the play’s central seduction, Julie’s sexual openness is portrayed as inherently negative. Before they have sex, Jean cautions Miss Julie that it is improper for her to be seen drinking with him in a familiar manner and openly flirting with him. “It is dangerous to play with fire,” he cautions. “Not for me,” replies Miss Julie, “I’m insured.” The “insurance” Julie refers to is undoubtedly her social class, which she sees as protecting her even though it is ultimately the factor that makes her feel she must end her life. The misguided comment further proves that Miss Julie has a skewed understanding of her noble title, failing to see that having sex with Jean will ruin her reputation and brand her as a harlot. Indeed, once Julie and Jean have sex, their power dynamic immediately shifts as Jean shames her for her promiscuity and lack of virtue. For example, when Julie attempts to call Jean a “lackey” and a “menial” for speaking improperly toward her, he responds in kind. “You lackey love, you mistress of a menial – shut up and get out of here!” In parroting Julie’s words back to her, Jean suggests that by having sex with him, Julie has placed herself on his level, and has therefore given up the right to dictate Jean’s actions. Jean emerges from the sexual encounter untarnished, while Julie will never be able to escape from the stain on her reputation and virtue.
Describing Julie in the preface as a “man-hating half woman,” Strindberg ultimately condemns Julie for her contempt and outright hatred of men, which he sees as futile and unnatural. Julie explains that she got engaged to the Country attorney “so that he should be my slave,” indicating that the only relationship Julie wishes to have with men is one in which she can dominate and humiliate them. However, after Jean and Julie have sex, Jean assumes complete control of her future and her fate, showing that Julie’s desire for domination is futile. When Julie realizes that Jean has both ruined her life and murdered her beloved canary, she unleashes a murderous tirade. “I should like to see your whole sex swimming in blood like that thing there,” she tells Jean, “I think I could drink out of your open skull, and bathe my feet in your open breast, and eat your heart from the spit!” In Strindberg’s view, Julie’s hatred of men is yet another of the many qualities that make her an “unnatural woman,” and which therefore ultimately lead to her demise.
Despite her deep and angry resolve to see the death of all men, Julie ends the play scared, confused and powerless. Far from drinking from Jean’s skull, she allows him to dictate the way that she will die, much like her prized canary. For Strindberg, this tragedy is merely the natural extension of Julie’s unnatural upbringing and “weak and degenerate brain.” In his prologue, Strindberg explains that the “half-woman” is not only a threat to herself but to the entirety of society: such women “multiply and produce indeterminate sexes to whom life is a torture.” He explains that, “Fortunately, however, they perish in the end, either from discord with real life, or from the irresistible revolt of their suppressed instincts, or from foiled hopes of possessing the man.” Julie’s end comes as a result of all three: an inability to conform to the dictates of her gender and class; a painful subordination by Jean; and an inability to subjugate all men. As a result, Strindberg shows that Miss Julie’s end is expected, and even goes so far as to suggest that the death of such nonconforming, “unnatural” women is necessary in order to preserve the integrity and future of humanity. Another—and less overtly misogynistic—way of looking at the same set of circumstances, however, would be to suggest that Julie’s demise was a direct outcome of the strict and repressive standards of “natural womanhood” to which she was subjected in her life.
Natural vs. Unnatural Womanhood ThemeTracker
Natural vs. Unnatural Womanhood Quotes in Miss Julie
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 there's after all some difference between one kind of people and another- No, but this is something I'll never get over – And the young lady was so proud, and so tart to the men, that you couldn't believe she would ever let one come near her-and such a one at that!
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.