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The Question Of Who Has Control Over Life Is Quite Complicated

August Strindberg gives us a look into naturalism and its case against free will, through his play ‘Miss Julie’.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Last night, I finished reading Miss Julie—an 1888 play by the Swedish playwright, August Strindberg. And, to be honest, I’m still trying to process it.

There’s a lot that goes on in the play—the opposing levels of superiority between Jean (the valet) and Julie due to their gender and social class, Julie’s conflicted sexual desires, death (with decapitation and suicide, in particular)… Not to mention Jean’s (and Strindberg’s, really) misogyny put on full display.

Needless to say, there is a lot that can be—and should be—discussed. However, as a major work in naturalistic theatre, I couldn’t help but ask: What exactly is naturalism?

Survival Of The Fittest

After doing some research, I think it’s best if we start with Charles Darwin—the English geologist and biologist who’s known for his theory of evolution.

Portrait of Charles Darwin (Source: Julia Margaret Cameron, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Darwin was a naturalist. His theory is that evolution happens by natural selection, or “survival of the fittest”—those who have a biological or genetic advantage over other individuals within a species are the one’s who will survive and reproduce, thus passing down the advantageous genes to their offspring. For example, if most of the seeds on an island are large ones, then birds with larger, broader beaks have an advantage, making them more “fit” than those with thinner beaks.

But the thing with natural selection is that the features an individual possesses is not inherently “good” or “bad,” but rather it’s the environment that determines which traits are more beneficial than another. Birds with larger beaks, on their own, are not any better than those with smaller ones. It’s the type of food sources available within their environment that gives either one of the birds an advantage. The individual’s ability to survive is directly affected by its environment.

In society, however, Darwinism seems to be an excuse for racism, sexism, imperialism, and other social inequalities and exploitation. Social Darwinists believe (according to the editors of History.com because they phrase it much better than I can) in “the idea that people become powerful in society because they are innately better.”

There’s a lot more that I could go into about all the issues that come with this belief, but that’s basically some context of the ideologies behind naturalism. Therefore, as a form of realism, naturalists claim to base their philosophy in science and the scientific method. Naturalism is the idea that “everything arises from natural properties and causes” (to quote the New Oxford American Dictionary) and discounts “supernatural” entities.

Perhaps This Is Nature’s Tug Of War

Naturalism in literature emerged in the 19th century, and one of its leading figures was French writer Émile Zola. He based the characters and plots in his novels on natural causes, rather than supernatural explanations.

In literature and theatre, naturalism often features characters of lower-class, determinism—the idea that events are caused by external and pre-existing factors, such as heredity and social environment—and plots that show the character’s inevitable downfall.

These are all elements that we can see in Miss Julie. The plot is fairly simple—everything takes place in the kitchen of the count’s manor. It’s Midsummer’s Eve, Julie—the count’s daughter—is attracted to her valet, Jean. Kristin is the cook, who’s also Jean’s fiancé. After Julie and Jean sleep together, which they knew would lead to many unfavorable consequences, they then have a talk about how they ought to deal with it.

The People’s Theatre production of ‘Miss Julie’ in Stockholm, November 1906 (Source: Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Julie is a naturalistic character—she struggles to understand her desires and is incapable of making her own decisions. In the play, her flawed characteristics are blamed on her family background and upbringing, as well as the fact that she’s a woman and of a higher social class. (Do note that these are all factors that are a part of her environment, not of her own choice.)

Within the social context of the play, Jean is supposed to be subordinate to Julie, since he works for her family and belongs to a lower social hierarchy. Yet, this contradicts with the gender roles of the time—as women were often considered inferior to men. This really reflects Strindberg’s misogyny, as Jean manipulates the emotionally vulnerable Julie and takes pleasure in degrading her.

This all leads to a sort of “tug of war” throughout the play—a constant shifting of power and authority between Julie and Jean, as a result of their opposite social statuses. (Don’t people say that opposites attract?) Julie idealizes her decent from her high status, while Jean aspires to climb up the social ladder. Yet, the nature of their situation is that Julie was born into a wealthier family and Jean was not. Their social classes were already established for them. So, while in one moment Jean tries to control Julie—because he feels superior as a man and desires to be of a higher social ranking—the next moment they are pulled back into reality, where Jean needs to be of service to those above him while Julie faces the responsibilities and ramifications that come with being a woman of higher class. (And do remember the context of that time period and the systems of society, which made it difficult for people to move between different levels of the social hierarchy.)

This reversal of power repeats multiple times—showing how despite all efforts to take control of their own lives, they cannot escape the reality of how the nature of society governs their entire existence.

An Attempt To Take Control

All of that is a simplification of what really goes on in Miss Julie, and there is so much more that we can unpack. But this leads me to wonder—to what extent does the nature of our environments control our lives?

Let’s take Julie as an example:

Julie could have went on to live the more common life that she wanted, if she disregarded the social ramifications that came with such a decision. If she really wanted to (and if she really knew what she wanted), then she could defy and choose not to conform to the rules of society.

Of course, reality is a lot more complicated than that. The consequences of these decisions—the factors of her environment—are not within her control. The backlash and mistreatment she’d receive could very well result in a life of much poorer quality. In that case, making the decision to leave her current situation might not be worth the negative outcomes.

But then, there are also consequences that come with her getting in bed with Jean—which I would argue was not 100% within her control either, since Jean was manipulating her in order to get access to the wealth he assumed she had. (Although, I guess it was still a decision that she made while knowing it would lead to issues after others find out—which they do.)

So, to say that Julie is in a tough spot would be an understatement. And you may think that if you were in her position, you could come to make a reasonable decision. We all want to think that we have good judgement. It’s not until we are really find ourselves in a similar situation do we realize the complexity of it all. The factors of our environment and our emotions get in the way of reasoning, which can lead to a lot of internal conflict.

Due to her irrational state of mind (as she’s supposed to be sick with “hysteria,” which is also a very misogynistic part of this whole play that we can dedicate another entire essay to talking about)—it would seem to her that the only viable way out is… death.

(Just a side thought: death seems to be something that comes up a lot when I’m discussing dramatic literature. It’s interesting, because it appears that the only thing we can really be certain of is death. I talk about this in my exploration of the play ‘Our Town’, as well)

Is There Room For Free Will?

At the end, in this naturalistic depiction of life and society, it appears that none of the characters have any free will.

If you look at it this way, then naturalism is basically contradicting the idea that people have the capacity to choose their life path. It suggests that—although you can make certain decisions—in the grand scheme of things, how your life turns out is already determined by your circumstances, and it’s not your’s to control.

Of course, this is just one way to look at life. I do think there is some truth to it, but just because we are born into certain conditions and there are systems (many of which are unjust) already engrained into society, it doesn’t mean that it cannot change over time and that there’s no room for free will. (And there are plenty of cases in real life that do support this.)

This is a very intricate philosophical discussion that I won’t go into more detail now—because, honestly, I still have much thinking to do. But I do believe it’s something worth thinking about—what kinds of factors have an impact our lives? Which of those are within our control, and which are not? In what ways can we take control of ourselves and our own lives? How should we go about doing so?

I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer to any of these questions, and every person will have different responses to them.

For now, all I know is that I still have a lot to figure out.

Hello there! I’m A.X. — a theatre student who is sharing her thoughts about the plays she’s reading in theatre stuff. Interested in more? Here’s what I had to say about The Mousetrap:

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From a theatre student, sharing her thoughts and reflections on the plays she’s reading every week.

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A.X. Bates

A.X. Bates

Words can make a difference. Theatre student writing poems about life, society, and coffee. @axybates on Instagram and Twitter.

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