Reading Drama of the Fin de Siècle
Jun 20 Monday 2011
Strindberg's Idea of Reaching Salvation: Transcending and Struggling through Desires in Miss Julie and A Dream Play
August Strindberg (1849-1912) has suffered thought out his life. His ultimate interest is reaching his personal salvation. Strindberg’s misogyny came from his hatred toward his parents. He thinks his servant mother does not suit his father. The thought of finding a perfect woman haunted him through out his life. He had divorced three times, tried to commit suicide, and was sent into a mental asylum. His continuous quest of perfection and salvation, along with his sensitivity has enabled him to create those plays. I want to use Strindberg’s two plays: Miss Julie (1888) and The Dream Play (1902) to find out the difference between his early and late idea of salvation. Fourteen years have made Strindberg matured and mild. The two plays show that he had reached reconciliation with God and people in his final years. Agnes is mild and merciful, unlike Miss Julie’s “no way out .”
In Miss Julie (1888), the idea of salvation is obvious: one must realize himself, fulfilling his desires though it might be disastrous. In The Dream Play (1902), Agnes is a character from high class. She is God Indra’s daughter, descends on earth to experience the pang of human beings. She lives like an ordinary woman, got married and gave birth to her child. She never asks for privilege and tasted the contradiction and indecision of humans thoroughly. Agnes does not ask for her safety from her father God Indra’s patriarchy protection. But Julie does, she often takes her father’s power as a protective umbrella, and abuses it to satisfy her own desires.
There are many similarities between the two plays. Both female protagonists come from a higher class. Agnes is Indra’s daughter, while Miss Julie is the count’s daughter. The patriarchy power is ubiquitous through out the two plays, but the two daughters have completely different attitude toward this fact. The fathers in both plays never show up. God Indra only talks to his daughter at the beginning of A Dream Play, without really appears. Count left his frock coat and boots at home, and at the end of Miss Julie, the ringing bell signifies another presence of count. There are also juxtaposition in both plays. Ugly lawyer as Agnes’ husband and footman Jean as Julie’s temp lover. Agnes walked into the burning castle to return to heaven and Julie wished to go to heaven through her suicide.
Jean [awake]: Thank you. I’m going to rest! But just tell me - that those who are first can also receive the gift of grace. Say it, even if you don’t believe it.
Jean: The first? No, I can’t! - But wait - Miss Julie - now I know! You’re no longer among the first - you’re among - the last!
Julie: That’s true. - I’m among the very last. I’m the last one of all! Oh! - But now I can’t go! - Tell me once more to go!
But Agnes is fully awake and knew what she needs to do. A true salvation is derived through her death.
Daughter: Our parting comes, and the end as well;
farewell, child of man, you the dreamer,
you the poet who best understand living;
on wings hovering above the earth,
you dive at times into the dust
not to stay in it but to touch it!
Now when I’m going...in the moment of parting
When one must part from a friend, a place,
how our longing for what one has loved rises
and regret what one has broken...
Now I feel all the agony of being,
that’s how it’s to be a human being...
One misses even what one has not valued,
one regrets even what one has not broken...
One wants to leave, and one wants to stay...
So the halves of the heart are torn apart,
and feelings are torn as between horses
by contradiction, indecision, disharmony...
Farewell! Tell your fellows I remember them,
where I‘m now going, and in your name
I shall bear their complaints to the throne.
Compare Julie’s final words to Agnes’ before her leaving the world, we find that Julie’s indecision and her need for an patriarchal order is the cause of her tragedy. Though she claimed her right to exert her will and her power over the servants at the beginning of the play, she still fell into stound after she had sex with Jean. Her indecision is the result her her mother’s failure on setting a matriarchy order in the house, since then she had great doubt on her role as a woman. This is related to her impossibility of loving his father and getting his consent to explore the world freely. Her mother had tried that but the plan failed miserably. Miss Julie as a daughter, however innocent, feel guilty and feel obliged to be the responsible for her mother’s wrong doings. At the time Strindberg wrote this play, his marriage with Siri von Essen is withering. His autobiography The Son of a Servant also reveals his first marriage with this aristocratic woman Siri von Essen. Miss Julie is the partial reflection of Strindberg’s life with Siri von Essen.
Agnes is full of wisdom, mercy of understanding. Her positive attitude and acceptance of human imperfection makes her receive real salvation. It is different from Julie’s escapism. The castle symbolized the body of human being, each of us is lock within the castle. When the castle is ruined, the “mortal” Agnes is dead and her soul is freed, retuening to her father God Indra in the heaven. In the end of A Dream Play, as the castle burns, it shows a wall of tortured human faces, and “a flower bud on the roof bursts into a gigantic chrysanthemum.” Agnes promises to bring people’s messages to her father’s throne, but Julie only wanted to escape from the result of her seduction.
Strindberg portrays different female protagonists. Agnes and Julie have huge difference in personality and their relation to their fathers. Agnes received Indra’s full consent to explore the earth, to see if human beings’ complaints are justified. But Julie did not have the consent to play with the servants. She danced with servants when her father is not home and when it was a special day, the midsummer eve. It is the time when the class is temporary canceled, so Julie has the chance to “descend to earth.”
In both plays, the consent of the father is critical to his daughter. The daughter shall be free from burden so that they could freely explore their roles as a women and as ordinary people. Agnes never takes her father’s power or position as a shield to protect herself from possible hurts, or abuse patriarchal power as a tool to rule others. As the daughter of God Indra, she voluntarily married to ugly and emotional wounded poor lawyer. In their family, she strikes to find a balance of developing her desires and keeping others unhurt at the same time, though she finally figures out it’s utterly impossible for human beings. Whenever she finds the fact of human dilemma, she utters “Human beings are to be pitied!” Agnes decided to find her personal salvation and left her husband and child behind. Although her husband reminds her of her responsibility as a mother and a wife, she answered she has higher duty to accomplish first. This is similar to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House (1879).
Julie’s chaotic childhood experience makes her sway between matriarchy and patriarchy. Her father had reestablished the house, secured her life. But she still hates her father unconsciously. For she hates her father had installed patriarchal ideas in her mind. Her hysterical confession reveals her suffering:
“I have not a thought of my own!”
Julie has been living a double standard life since then. If Julie wants to exert her will, she must bear the responsibility and risk. Her words confirmed the dilemma of being a daughter brought up in confusion:
She wanted to bring me up as a child of nature, and, what’s more, to learn everything a boy had to learn, so that I might be an example of how a woman can be as good as a man. I had to wear boy’s clothes and learn to take care of horses, but I was never allowed in the cowshed.
Julie was never allowed in the cowshed, and this is the metaphor of her inability of getting the consent from her parents, to freely experience the world, to descend to earth. She’s protected under her father’s power but she wanted to exert her matriarchy will without bearing responsibility. Jean had warned her that she is not insured, but Julie kept played with fire, seducing him, trying to break through the fence her parents set for her. After they mated she told Jean to address her Julie, but her quest was refused by Jean.
Julie [shy; very feminine]: “Miss!” - Call me Julie! There are no barriers between us any more. Call me Julie!
Jean [tormented]: I can’t! There’ll always be barriers between us as long as we stay in this house. - There’s the past and there’s the Count.
Agnes, however, bears the full risk and responsibility of being a human. She does not ask for privilege or protection from her father. Her words are sincere, her acts selfless. She even took the doorkeeper’s shawl to reveal her burden. Marilyn Johns Blackwell wrote in her “Strindberg's Early Dramas and Lacan's 'Law of the Father'”
The primary goal of the Symbolic stage of development is a separation from the mother and an identification with the name or law of the father. For Lacan, the father is equivalent to the principle of law.
Father plays an important role in family. He is the ruler of his kingdom. His permission / consent for his children is the key for their salvation. That is, the pursing of true happiness, the realization of personal quest. Strindberg challenges God throughout his life, he had lost religious belief several times. But before his death he took the Bible and said “this is the truth of the world.” I think it is the best answer for his quest. Agnes represents his quest for salvation. Miss Julie is his early stage as a person who can’t find a way out. Strindberg has indeed lived his life and gave us the example of how we shall reach reconciliation with God and our people as early as possible. Because this is the way of reaching salvation and happiness, this is the truth of the world.
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