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“And Now: Kiss My Shoe!”: Class and Sexual Conflict in Strindberg's Miss Julie

“And Now: Kiss My Shoe!”: Class and Sexual Conflict in Strindberg's Miss Julie

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Published by Ipshita Nath

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Published by: Ipshita Nath on Feb 06, 2012
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“And Now: Kiss My Shoe!”: Class and Sexual ConflictIn Strindberg’s
 Miss Julie
Man endures pain as an undeserved punishment;woman accepts it as a natural heritage.-Anonymous Nobody will ever win the Battle of the Sexes.There's just too much fraternizingwith the enemy.-Henry Kissinger 
Theatre in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was influenced greatly by a literary movementcalled Naturalism. The movement made extensive use of Realism which was fathered by French realist,Honore de Balzac, in the early nineteenth century. Naturalism that occurred immediately after, isconsidered as an extension of this, and goes a step further to establish that heredity, social milieu andenvironment shape the human character, and the trajectory of its mortal existence. The naturalistic principles were greatly derived from Darwinist principles of the ‘Survival of the Fittest’, which contendedthat there was a perennial struggle for dominance and survival amongst species, and the ‘fittest’eliminated the weaker ones by way of direct confrontation and competition for the limited resources.Alongside naturalistic elements, a sense of deep pessimism pervaded the arts- especially the literary worksof that age. Strindberg at that time was writing in accordance with Emile Zola’s idea of ‘Naturalism inTheatre’ and Andre Antoine’s ‘Theatre of the
, that allowed him the liberty of incorporating verysubtle effects such as the play of emotions on a character’s face and a steady conversationalist exchange of dialogue
. Most importantly, the Theatre of the Intimate allowed him to write in his style without makingintellectual compromises, for the material and financial support was guaranteed by a small coterie classthat gave patronage to the plays.But though Strindberg was influenced by Naturalism, his personal philosophy, as critic Evert Sprinchorn points out, was that “life was to be viewed less as a struggle against heredity and environment, as the Naturalists insisted, than as the struggle of minds, each seeking to impose its will on other minds.” He wasaffirmed by the writing of Bernheim, and wrote an essay called, ‘The Battle of the Brains’. Moreover, inthe Preface to Miss Julie, Strindberg says, “Life is not so mathematically idiotic that only the large oneseat the small; it equally often happens that the bee kills the Lion or at least drives it crazy.” It is
ideology that is reflected in the play,
Miss Julie
. For along with the “survival of the fittest”, is seen thegradual destruction of the ‘Lion’; the socially superior Miss Julie, belonging to the aristocrat lineage, atthe hands of the ‘Bee’; the inferior one who was but a valet of her father, the Count.And so, “And now: Kiss my shoe!”, when uttered by Miss Julie to Jean, in haughtiness due to her classsuperiority, meant also for a tantalizing effect that washes over them both, reflects effectively the sexualand class tensions that exist in the play between the two characters, and how Miss Julie attempts to “playwith fire”, against the existing social structures, as did her literary foremother, Anna Karenina.
From Ever Sprinchorn’s ‘Strindberg and the Greater Naturalism’
Imaginably enough, the eventual fate of both was the same.II
Miss Julie
was written in the year 1988, by when, Socialism as a political movement had already gainedits foothold in the psyche of the lower masses, and had become an attractive notion due to its ideas of classequality. These ideas were enabled by the dissolution of the aristocratic class which had already begun inthe early nineteenth century, and which was reflected in several works of Austen like
 Pride and Prejudice
, and
Mansfield Park.
The “turning and turning of the widening gyreshence occurred: the decline of Aristocracy was marked by the rise of nouveau riche. The influence of the Socialists was very prominent as the lower classes beganto aspire for social mobility. The same sentiment is reflected in Jean, the valet and servant in the house of Strindberg’s
Miss Julie.
Throughout the play, Jean is seen as the ideal servant, the staunchest upholder of class hierarchies, conscious, very acutely so, of his inferiority in terms of his social position: “It’s thedamned servant in me”. He is disapproving of Julie, who, belonging to the aristocracy, does not conformto the class conventions, and attempts constantly to break free of them. Right that very beginning of the play, Jean remarks: “its strange, isn’t it, that Miss Julie prefers to stay at home with the servants onMidsummer’s Eve rather than go with her father to visit their folk.”; and “As for Miss Julie, she doesn’ttake any care of herself or her reputation. She somehow lacks ‘finesse’.Jean is thus not only aware of his position in society, but is also very ambitious. When Christine appeals tohim for a stable family life, he says, “I’ve no intention of dying for my wife and children just yet. I’vemore ambition than that.” Moreover, he has trained himself; tutored himself in French and sophistry, andspeaks in a polished way. When Miss Julie asks him where he learnt his debonair language, he says he has been to many theatres. His yearning to climb the social ladder is therefore markedly evident throughoutthe play. The fact that he prefers wine to beer, has an utter utilitarian approach to love, devoid of sentimentality, is a mark of and caused by his desire for the very same.Critic Alice Templeton comments that Strindberg has reduced both Jean and Julie to ‘types’ representingtheir classes. “While Julie is the degenerate aristocrat, Jean is ‘the beginning of a new species’, who isevolving through self-education into a future gentleman of the upper classes.” However, class is not theonly theme of the
Miss Julie
. Strindberg knits a complex fabric interlacing at once, both class and gender.He give the eponymous heroine a problematic position vis-à-vis her gender and class, putting her at adisadvantage in both cases.Miss Julie however, is a woman of the world and a complete antithesis to the self-righteous Christine. Shethe modern woman; the “New Woman”, and struggles for social mobility, sexual freedom in particular.Templeton says, “Read against the preface, as well as against Jean’s judgments of Julie, the play conveysnot a degenerate falling woman, but a woman who is beginning to move toward social and gender consciousness.”The play is thus about the tussle between the instincts and aspirations of both characters, Jean and Julie.While the latter affirms and reaffirms the class and gender roles for both, merely wishing to mobilize
himself on the ladder of social condition, Julie seeks to break free for the rules for her are far more rigid.Critic Templeton says, “Because her revolution lacks a method, and because she has no satisfying meansof expression, her discontent is self-destructive.” When Jeans warns her it would not be wise to dance withthe same partner (him) twice in a row, lest she be mocked and gossiped about, she is outraged and insists:“Let us forget about rank. Now give me your arm.”Indeed, while Jean has the luxury of eventual mobility, Julie does not. Julie’s sexuality is never viewed asan individual entity. Her sexual mores are always conflated with class conventions. She is
to behave in a certain way, unlike is Jean. It might be possible for Jean to climb up on the social ladder through hard labour and education (Jean knows and mentions it that it is possible to buy titles inRomania), but not possible to fall down from the “pillar”, as Julie pictures herself hoisted upon in her dreams. The dreams of both the characters therefore are very significant for both the dreams sum up their respective desires. Julie says that sitting on top of the pillar, “I (she) feel dizzy when I look down. Ihaven’t got the courage to throw myself. I can’t hold on. I long to be able to just fall but I don’t fall. Jeanon the other hand, is lying underneath a tall tree in a dark forest. He says, “I want to get up to the top andlook around me across the bright landscape where the sun shines. I want to plunder the bird’s nest up therewith the golden eggs.”At this point in the play, the sexual tension between the two is simmering almost to the point of a boil-over. But the consummation is delayed for a very long time, mainly due to Jean’s reluctance. When MissJulie flirts with him; attempts to seduce him into a sexual encounter, he cautions her somberly:Miss Julie: Will you sit still? There! Gone! Now kiss my hand.Jean: Miss Julie. Listen to me. Christine has gone to bed, now will you listen to me.Miss Julie: Kiss my hand first.Jean: Listen to me.Miss Julie: Kiss my hand first.Jean: For what? You are not a child anymore, you’re 25.
 Don’t you know its dangerous to playwith fire?
Miss Julie: Not for me, I’m insured.Jean: (boldly) No, you’re not. And even if you were there are other people who might catch fire.Miss Julie: Meaning you?Jean: Yes, but
not just because it’s me
but because
 I am a man and young.
(Italics mine)But wherein lies Jean’s weakness? Despite his financial inferiority, he is meritoriously superior to Julie.Since Julie has personalized their relationship and has deliberately removed the class barriers, he whollygains power over her. But the confidence in him; his presumptuous attitude with her, however comes tonaught at the sight of the Count’s boots. Even when they have consummated, and Julie appeals to him toembrace her, he is unable to. He feels there will be barriers between them as long as they will be in thehouse. “There is the past; there is the Count. I respect him more than anyone else I’ve ever known. Justseeing his gloves makes me feel small. Just hearing his bell up there makes me jump like a frightenedhorse. Seeing his boots standing there, so straight and cocksure, makes me want to grovel.” The boots tohim are a symbol of his crippled state. It is the Lacanian symbol of the father that castrates him. As a man,society may have given him a privileged position in the gender hierarchy; he may not be insecure abouthis position of masculinity in the sexual relationship he might share with Julie, but as the servant- her 

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