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an analysis of the play by August Strindberg

The following essay was originally published in The Social Significance of the Modern Drama. Emma Goldman. Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1914. pp. 51-61.

IN his masterly preface to this play, August Strindberg writes: "The fact that my tragedy makes a sad impression on many is the fault of the many. When we become strong, as were the first French revolutionaries, it will make an exclusively pleasant and cheerful impression to see the royal parks cleared of rotting, superannuated trees which have too long stood in the way of others with equal right to vegetate their full lifetime; it will make a good impression in the same sense as does the sight of the death of an incurable."

What a wealth of revolutionary thought -- were we to realize that those who will clear society of the rotting, superannuated trees that have so long been standing in the way of others entitled to an equal share in life, must be as strong as the great revolutionists of the past!

Indeed, Strindberg is no trimmer, no cheap reformer, no patchworker; therefore his inability to remain fixed, or to content himself with accepted truths. Therefore also, his great versatility, his deep grasp of the subtlest phases of life. Was he not forever the seeker, the restless spirit roaming the earth, ever in the death-throes of the Old, to give birth to the New? How, then, could he be other than relentless and grim and brutally frank?

Miss Julie, a one-act tragedy, is no doubt a brutally frank portrayal of the most intimate thoughts of man and of the age-long antagonism between classes. Brutally frank, because August Strindberg strips both of their glitter, their sham and pretense, that we may see that "at bottom there's not so much difference between people and -- people."

Who in modern dramatic art is there to teach us that lesson with the insight of an August Strindberg? He who had been tossed about all his life between the decadent traditions of his aristocratic father and the grim, sordid reality of the class of his mother. He who had been begotten through the physical mastery of his father and the physical subserviency of his mother. Verily, Strindberg knew whereof he spoke -- for he spoke with his soul, a language whose significance is illuminating, compelling.

Miss Julie inherited the primitive, intense passion of her mother and the neurotic aristocratic tendencies of her father. Added to this heritage is the call of the wild, the "intense summer heat when the blood turns to fire, and when all are in a holiday spirit, full of gladness, and rank is flung aside." Miss Julie feels, when too late, that the barrier of rank reared through the ages, by wealth and power, is not flung aside with impunity. Therein the vicious brutality, the boundless injustice of rank.

The people on the estate of Julie's father are celebrating St. John's Eve with dance, song and revelry. The Count is absent, and Julie graciously mingles with the servants. But once having tasted the simple abandon of the people, once having thrown off the artifice and superficiality of her aristocratic decorum, her suppressed passions leap into full flame, and Julie throws herself into the arms of her father's valet, Jean -- not because of love for the man, nor yet openly and freely, but as persons of her station may do when carried away by the moment.

The woman in Julie pursues the male, follows him into the kitchen, plays with him as with a pet dog, and then feigns indignation when Jean, aroused, makes advances. How dare he, the servant, the lackey, even insinuate that she would have him! "I, the lady of the house! I honor the people with my presence. I, in love with my coachman? I, who step down."

How well Strindberg knows the psychology of the upper classes! How well he understands that their graciousness, their charity, their interest in the "common people" is, after all, nothing but arrogance, blind conceit of their own importance and ignorance of the character of the people.

Even though Jean is a servant, he has his pride, he has his dreams. "I was not hired to be your plaything," he says to Julie; "I think too much of myself for that."

Strange, is it not, that those who serve and drudge for others, should think so much of themselves as to refuse to be played with? Stranger still that they should indulge in dreams. Jean says:

Do you know how people in high life look from the under-world?... They look like hawks and eagles whose backs one seldom sees, for they soar up above. I lived in a hovel provided by the State, with seven brothers and sisters and a pig; out on a barren stretch where nothing grew, not even a tree, but from the window I could see the Count's park walls with apple trees rising above them. That was the garden of paradise; and there stood many angry angels with flaming swords protecting it; but for all that I and other boys found the way to the tree of life -- now you despise me.... I thought if it is true that the thief on the cross could enter heaven and dwell among the angels it was strange that a pauper child on God's earth could not go into the castle park and play with the Countess' daughter.... What I wanted -- I don't know. You were unattainable, but through the vision of you I was made to realize how hopeless it was to rise above the conditions of my birth.

What rich food for thought in the above for all of us, and for the Jeans, the people who do not know what they want, yet feel the cruelty of a world that keeps the pauper's child out of the castle of his dreams, away from joy and play and beauty! The injustice and the bitterness of it all, that places the stigma of birth as an impassable obstacle, a fatal imperative excluding one from the table of life, with the result of producing such terrible effects on the Julies and the Jeans. The one unnerved, made helpless and useless by affluence, ease and idleness; the other enslaved and bound by service and dependence. Even when Jean wants to, he cannot rise above his condition. When Julie asks him to embrace her, to love her, he replies:

I can't as long as we are in this house.... There is the Count, your father.... I need only to see his gloves lying in a chair to feel my own insignificance. I have only to hear his bell, to start like a nervous horse.... And now that I see his boots standing there so stiff and proper, I feel like bowing and scraping.... I can't account for it but -- but ah, it is that damned servant in my back -- I believe if the Count came here now, and told me to cut my throat, I would do it on the spot.... Superstition and prejudice taught in childhood can't be uprooted in a moment.

No, superstition and prejudice cannot be uprooted in a moment; nor in years. The awe of authority, servility before station and wealth -- these are the curse of the Jean class that makes such cringing slaves of them. Cringing before those who are above them, tyrannical and over-bearing toward those who are below them. For Jean has the potentiality of the master in him as much as that of the slave. Yet degrading as "the damned servant" reacts upon Jean, it is much more terrible in its effect upon Kristin, the cook, the dull, dumb animal who has so little left of the spirit of independence that she has lost even the ambition to rise above her condition. Thus when Kristin, the betrothed of Jean, discovers that her mistress Julie had given herself to him, she is indignant that her lady should have so much forgotten her station as to stoop to her father's valet.

KRISTIN: I don't want to be here in this house any longer where one cannot respect one's betters.
JEAN: Why should one respect them?
KRISTIN: Yes, you can say that, you are so smart. But I don't want to serve people who behave so. It reflects on oneself, I think.
JEAN: Yes, but it's a comfort that they're not a bit better than we.
KRISTIN: No, I don't think so, for if they are not better there's no use in our trying to better ourselves in this world. And to think of the Count! Think of him who has had so much sorrow all his days. No, I don't want to stay in this house any longer! And to think of it being with such as you! If it has been the Lieutenant -- ... I have never lowered my position. Let any one say, if they can, that the Count's cook has had anything to do with the riding master or the swineherd. Let them come and say it!

Such dignity and morality are indeed pathetic, because they indicate how completely serfdom may annihilate even the longing for something higher and better in the breast of a human being. The Kristins represent the greatest obstacle to social growth, the deadlock in the conflict between the classes. On the other hand, the Jeans, with all their longing for higher possibilities, often become brutalized in the hard school of life; though in the conflict with Julie, Jean shows brutality only at the critical moment, when it becomes a question of life and death, a moment that means discovery and consequent ruin, or safety for both.

Jean, though the male is aroused in him, pleads with Julie not to play with fire, begs her to return to her room, and not to give the servants a chance for gossip. And when later Jean suggests his room for a hiding place that Julie may escape the approaching merry-makers, it is to save her from their songs full of insinuation and ribaldry. Finally when the inevitable happens, when as the result of their closeness in Jean's room, of their overwrought nerves, their intense passion, the avalanche of sex sweeps them off their feet, forgetful of station, birth and conventions, and they return to the kitchen, it is again Jean who is willing to bear his share of the responsibility. "I don't care to shirk my share of the blame," he tells Julie, "but do you think any one of my position would have dared to raise his eyes to you if you had not invited it?"

There is more truth in this statement than the Julies can grasp, namely, that even servants have their passions and feelings that cannot long be trifled with, with impunity. The Jeans know "that it is the glitter of brass, not gold, that dazzles us from below, and that the eagle's back is gray like the rest of him." For Jean says, "I'm sorry to have to realize that all that I have looked up to is not worth while, and it pains me to see you fallen lower than your cook, as it pains me to see autumn blossoms whipped to pieces by the cold rain and transformed into -- dirt!"

It is this force that helps to transform the blossom into dirt that August Strindberg emphasizes in The Father. For the child born against the will of its parents must also be without will, and too weak to bear the stress and storm of life. In Miss Julie this idea recurs with even more tragic effect. Julie, too, had been brought into the world against her mother's wishes. Indeed, so much did her mother dread the thought of a child that she "was always ill, she often had cramps and acted queerly, often hiding in the orchard or the attic." Added to this horror was the conflict, the relentless war of traditions between Julie's aristocratic father and her mother descended from the people. This was the heritage of the innocent victim, Julie -- an autumn blossom blown into fragments by lack of stability, lack of love and lack of harmony. In other words, while Julie is broken and weakened by her inheritance and environment, Jean is hardened by his.

When Jean kills the bird which Julie wants to rescue from the ruins of her life, it is not so much out of real cruelty, as it is because the character of Jean was molded in the relentless school of necessity, in which only those survive who have the determination to act in time of danger. For as Jean says, "Miss Julie, I see that you are unhappy, I know that you are suffering, but I cannot understand you. Among my kind there is no nonsense of this sort. We love as we play -- when work gives us time. We haven't the whole day and night for it as you."

Here we have the key to the psychology of the utter helplessness and weakness of the Julie type, and the brutality of the Jeans. The one, the result of an empty life, of parasitic leisure, of a useless, purposeless existence. The other, the effect of too little time for development, for maturity and depth; of too much toil to permit the growth of the finer traits in the human soul.

August Strindberg, himself the result of the class conflict between his parents, never felt at home with either of them. All his life he was galled by the irreconcilability of the classes; and though he was no sermonizer in the sense of offering a definite panacea for individual or social ills, yet with master touch he painted the degrading effects of class distinction and its tragic antagonisms. In Miss Julie he popularized one of the most vital problems of our age, and gave to the world a work powerful in its grasp of elemental emotions, laying bare the human soul behind the mask of social tradition and class culture.