"Miss Julie," a Play by August Strindberg: A Critical Analysis of Gender in Victorian Society
To Be Female Means to Be Oppressed
The repression of women, as a whole, gave men the power to control the female gender by creating general outlines of what their interpretation of the role of femininity encompassed. In doing so, the female was systematically stripped of her individuality and forced into a cookie-cutter mold of what was considered to be socially acceptable for herself and her gender. Psychologically, this creates a situation where men, to some degree, become beholden to certain gender roles in order to be considered socially acceptable, as well. It is a natural occurrence for one to be successful according to the tenets of the society they inhabit. However, for women, this resulted in subordination, subjugation and objectification and consequently, wreaked terrible havoc on her psyche. In Victorian society, such mental and spiritual malaise within the female gender was clearly evident. There were some feminist writers of the time, male and female, that shed light on this type of psychosis by highlighting the inequities between the genders and the devastating effects these inequities had on women. One such author was August Strindberg and his play Miss Julie.
Queen Victoria, the image of purity and moral fortitude, set the social standards for the age that was named for her. But, also true to the time, everyone could not be as the Queen was. Nineteenth century (Victorian) society was a time of social and moral extremes. According to the literature of the time that dealt with these social issues, people seemed to operate within an air of hypocrisy, projecting a clean face and hiding a dirty behind, so to speak. Strindberg’s protagonist, Miss Julie, represents this duality of human nature. On the surface, she appears to be a fine Victorian specimen and expects to be considered as such. But, she inadvertently displays a dark side in her character. This dark side exists as a result of her tumultuous upbringing by a sadomasochistic, man-hating mother and absent father. In the play, the overriding gender theme appears to be that women are evil, weak and dependent. Consequently, this contributes to the sadomasochistic psychosis of Miss Julie, which according to the author, are brought on by repressed sexual desires. Miss Julie appears to be in a constant battle with herself to reconcile her fiery nature with the demands of the social mores of the times. Naturally, she wants to be successful as a proper Victorian woman, but she also needs some real help and guidance. She, sadly, has nowhere to turn and no constructive way to direct her intense energies because she lacked that example in her mother, who herself, was out of control.
One would go so far as to say that what Miss Julie experienced in the play was not only a result of her upbringing, but was the result of the systematic oppression of the female gender. Throughout human history, women have been subjected to everything from social subtlety to holy religious conquest and murder by the male hierarchy to bring about the total subjugation of women for the sake of male domination and control. The fact that the primary tool of oppression was the violence conducted by men towards women and towards the Divine feminine worshippers caused women not to only be physically and socially oppressed, but most importantly, spiritually subjugated.
In the play, Miss Julie, the protagonist, displays a deep mental and spiritual disturbance in her character. One can also surmise that she “inherited” this spiritual malady from her primary example of womanhood—her mother. In such a society as the Victorian one, female oppression, objectification and social subjugation may have made female hatred of men a typical occurrence. “Psychology of oppression refers, first and foremost, to the fact that oppressed psychology is the subjective processes that sustain oppression within the victims of oppression. Oppressed psychology is oppressive, oppressing psychology. It is not the passive result of oppression, but an active reproducing of oppression by consciousness/subjectivity/agency (Ratner, 2011). Victims of oppression are unwittingly complicit in their own oppression. Psychology of oppression consists of motivation, agency, perception, emotions, ambitions, ideals, reasoning, memory, aesthetics, and morals that accept the oppressive social system, desire it, identify with it, take it for granted as normal and even as ideal, take pleasure in it, defend it, and reject alternatives to it. This is only possible because consciousness/psychology has been mystified and manipulated to not perceive, understand, or resist the oppressive society and the oppressive social basis, characteristics, and function of psychological phenomena. (Ratner 1)” Throughout history, oppressed peoples who are shoved into controllable molds are first subjugated. This strips the oppressed people, as well as the individual, of their uniqueness and importance in the world and in society. These oppressed peoples are eventually forced to abandon themselves and their own individuality for the sake of survival and the continued ability toward self-expression. This, in turn, creates a deep feeling of self-abandonment and self-loathing. This person has to lead a sort of schizophrenic existence in order to remain true to themselves, in some way, inwardly, while outwardly projecting what is considered to be acceptable by the terms of the society in which they reside. Women are no different. To me, Miss Julie is a product of her upbringing. Technically, she is not at fault for her condition—this is all she knows. But, she lives in a society where men patronize and undermine women. So, she doesn’t receive the approval of men and she doesn’t receive the approval of other women who have been socialized according to male-dictated, Victorian standards. She gets the shaft not only in terms of gender, but also class, as well. I feel sorry for Miss Julie! She is all alone pining for acceptance in a society built on schizophrenic extremes. This only adds to her psychosis and deepens her sense of despair in the end. Ultimately, she is forced to rely on the instruction and direction of the ones who despise and mishandle her because she is female, upper-class and privileged. The fact that she is mentally unstable only adds gasoline to the flames that engulf her when she dies at her own hand.
The catalyst of Miss Julie’s sense of hopelessness arises in the cook’s character. Kristine, the cook, was portrayed as the devout Christian in the play. But, she too, drops the ball when it comes to fair dealings with Miss Julie and by no fault of her own. Kristine is just as much a product of the masochistic mindset of the Victorian-age woman as Miss Julie is. Instead of standing up to her fiancée, Jean, for being unfaithful to her with Miss Julie, she cooperatively tolerates his behavior. However, due to social edict, she is in no position to say much because of her class and gender. She is a servant and a female. She is subservient to Jean, because he is a male and to Miss Julie because she is a household servant. However, near the end, when she is met with the proposition of running off to Europe with Jean and Miss Julie, who has now become his lover. Jean quips at her for being less than pious for her unscrupulous dealings with the butcher despite her religious veneer. Truly, no one is perfect, but Miss Julie gets what I consider to be a horrible backlash instead of Jean who came up with the whole sordid idea of a travelling threesome to begin with. Kristine basically informs Miss Julie there is no means of redemption for herself by implying that her family’s wealth, combined with her wickedness, is her albatross. “Well, you see, we can’t have it (faith) without God’s special grace, and that isn’t given to everyone/That’s the secret of the workings of grace, Miss Julie, and God is no respecter of persons, for the last shall be the first/and it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. That is how it is, Miss Julie! (Jacobus 737)” Now, whether Kristine was mis-taught by the male-dominated church or simply stuck it to Miss Julie to make herself appear “better” is left to question. Either way, class and oppression appeared to be the source of her quip. Miss Julie, who is desperately looking for a way to socially redeem herself, is cast into spiritual “outer darkness” as a result of this comment. Kristine had the opportunity to lead a “lost soul” to redemption, but chose to squash out a flickering light in Miss Julie in order to redeem herself. Didn’t the male-dominated church resort to such methods in order to subjugate and control women? Psychosis begets psychosis and the wages of sin most certainly result in death. Miss Julie was forced to seek redemption from her own demise because in her world, there appeared to be no other means of redemption socially or personally. The rules were too rigid; the pathology was deeply and systematically inbred at every level of society.
I have to admit, although, to me, the play is completely psychotic, it provides a bird’s eye view of trying to walk the straight and narrow path when the sidewalk is uneven. But, also, there is to each his or her own. Who’s to say what one’s walk or journey is supposed to look like? In Victorian society, a woman’s role, unfortunately, determined her path in life. For a woman to set out on her own, to express her deepest desires and be candid with her thoughts was considered socially sacrilegious. Such women didn’t garner the respect of the so-called moral and decent lot of society. Although Strindberg, himself, was rumored to be a misogynist, he wrote from a perspective that exposed hypocrisy within society. Through Miss Julie, he displays and accurate portrayal of women as the “walking wounded.” Unlike Strindberg, I see the repression of sexual desires as a smaller issue in the bigger scheme of things. Women were totally oppressed with no way of achieving a sense of self and individual self-expression. To me, this causes a psychosis—a spiritual malady. So women become the very thing they are seen to be—evil and dependent. Women are punished for being what they are forced to become. That is absolutely abominable!
- duBarry, Stephanie. “Witches!”: An Extra-Ordinary Expression of Misogyny in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Copyright 1994 by Stephanie duBarry. Retrieved from http://www.witchtrials.co.uk/misogyny.html
- Jacobus, Lee A. The Bedford Introduction to Drama: Seventh Edition. Copyright 2013 by Bedford/St.Martin’s
- Ratner, Carl. The Psychology of Oppression. Copyright 2013. Retrieved from http://www.sonic.net/~cr2/psych%20of%20oppression.htm
- SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Miss Julie.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. n.d.. Web. 5 Mar. 2014.
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