Miss Julie is a naturalistic play produced in 1888 by the Swedish playwright and novelist August Strindberg. The play follows the acute romantic entanglement of the three characters: Miss Julie, a young aristocratic woman; Jean, her father’s well-read and well-traveled valet; and Kristine, the cook. Through the psychological battle of wills between Julie and the ruthless Jean, the play explores themes of Class Conflict and Social Hierarchy, Gender Roles and Power Dynamics, and The Complexity and Contradictory Nature of People. Though the play was initially considered controversial, it has come to be regarded as a classic of Swedish literature. It has been staged many times and even adapted into movies and operas.
This study guide uses the 1983 edition of five plays by August Strindberg, published by the University of California Press and translated by Harry G. Carlson.
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Content Warning: The source text and this guide include themes of power imbalance and class struggle, depictions of sexual dynamics that might be considered outdated or offensive by modern standards, violence against animals, and discussion of death by suicide.
The SuperSummary difference
Miss Julie was published with an Author’s Preface in which Strindberg explains his approach to theater, character, and society. Strindberg says that his characters are deliberately portrayed with a “multiplicity of motives” (66), adding to their complexity and believability. Strindberg also describes some of his theatrical innovations, including innovations in set design and stage lighting.
The play begins with Jean, the count’s valet, walking into the manor’s kitchen. He talks to the cook (and his ostensible fiancée) Kristine about the odd behavior displayed by the count’s daughter, Miss Julie, at the midsummer eve barn dance. Jean and Kristine talk about how Miss Julie recently broke off her engagement and now seems to be avoiding her aristocratic family out of embarrassment. Jean flirts with Kristine while drinking from a bottle of the count’s wine; Kristine, meanwhile, is preparing a drug to induce an abortion for Miss Julie’s dog, who was impregnated by a servant’s dog. They continue to discuss Miss Julie, and Kristine observes that the girl is similar in many ways to her reckless mother.
Julie enters and asks Jean to dance. Jean hesitates, saying that he has already promised Kristine a dance and that he is worried about the gossip that may arise if he dances with her. Julie is insistent, however, and the two leave to dance. When they return, Julie tells Jean about a dream in which she climbs a pillar only to find herself stuck on the top. Jean responds by telling her about the time he snuck into her walled garden as a child and watched her from a distance. He claims that he fell hopelessly in love with her and wished to die rather than live with the knowledge that they could never be together because of their different social classes. Jean and Julie overhear some servants mocking them and Jean persuades Julie to hide in his room.
The servants and farm workers enter, led by a fiddler, and dance a ballet. After they leave, Julie enters, followed soon after by Jean. Both are agitated, and it soon becomes clear that the two had sex. Julie is uncertain about how to proceed and Jean says that the two now have no choice but to leave together, lest their secret be discovered. He suggests that they go to Switzerland and open a hotel. Jean becomes increasingly insistent, frightening Julie and showing her his true colors; Julie, meanwhile, says that she will not be submissive to any man. Eventually, Julie agrees to run away with Jean. She steals money from her father, but Jean becomes angry when she wants to bring her pet greenfinch with her. When Julie says that she would rather kill the bird than leave it behind with strangers, Jean cuts off its head.
Julie is about to leave with Jean when Kristine walks in on them. Julie tries to convince Kristine to come with them but Kristine refuses, suggesting that Julie turn to God and telling her that she is going to have the stablemasters keep the horses inside so that she and Jean can’t run off. After Kristine leaves, Jean and Julie receive word that the count has returned. They both lose their courage and decide they can’t go ahead with their plan. Julie becomes distraught when she realizes how far she has fallen. When she asks Jean if there is any way out for her, he hands her a razor, suggesting that the only way for her to escape her shame is to die by suicide. The play ends with Jean leaving to attend on the count and Julie walking outside, apparently to die.
By August Strindberg