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From Emilia Galotti to Miss Julie

by Julian Scutts

From Emilia Galotti to Miss Julie: How European Literature has Reflected the Fate of Young Women Trapped in Dysfunctional Relationships with their Male-dominated Social Environment

Over a century separated two dramas that are open to interpretations that range from one attributing the death of a young woman to an act of assisted suicide to one that construes such a death in terms of martyrdom imposed on women by the tyranny of a society ruled by men. The year 1772 saw the staging of Emilia Galotti by Ephraim Lessing. In 1888 Miss Julie by August Strindberg was staged in Copenhagen in the face of strictures raised by censorship. In the first case a young women induces her father to take her life so that she may escape being held as the concubine of a powerful prince and in the second the daughter of a Swedish count persuades the chief servant of the house to hand her his razor, the instrument which will enable her to take her life as the only  way she sees to extricate herself from  her hopeless situation.

Are we dealing here with a perennial issue that has blighted the relationship between the genders from the dawn of history or did Lessing and Strindberg among a number of writers that includes Friedrich Schiller, Hebbel, Flaubert, Tolstoy and Theodor Fontane relate the victimization of women to the specific changes affected by socio-economic trends in modern history, thus  reflecting attitudes to matters such as premarital  sex, divorce and women’s rights in general?

As to the antiquity of disturbed relations between fathers and daughters we recall the story of Jephthah the warrior and judge  who killed his daughter in fulfilment of  a solemn vow to sacrifice  the first living creature he encountered on returning to his home after winning a resounding victory over the enemies of Israel. Then we have the story of Virginia from Livy’s annals of the early history of Rome according to which a man slays his daughter to save her from the evil designs of a male assailant. In fact this narrative supplied Lessing with the basis of Emilia Galotti where a father likewise saves his daughter from ‘a fate worse than death.’ The plays poses an early example of  the genre known as  bourgeois tragedy, an innovation that broke with the classical tradition that allowed only royal or divine persons  the role of a hero or heroine. As a member of the middle class Emilia’s father is shown to defend  the stolid values of integrity and purity that stood in marked contrast to the corrupt and dissolute ways of princes and aristocrats. One should be wary of seeing the element of class conflict in post-Marxian terms. After all Emilia was set to marry a nobleman before the prince followed the evil counsel of his chamberlain  to kidnap her and hold captive in the royal palace. In Friedrich Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe  intrigues hatched by aristocratic villains arouse the indignation of a upright member of the middle class whose daughter has fallen foul of a plot to force her into a marriage with a nobleman. In this case suicide plays no role as she is poisoned by her  middle-class suitor, who has been tricked into believing that she has betrayed him for the sake of an aristocratic rival.

By 1843 the German dramatist Friedrich Hebbel  had begun to locate the cause of discrimination against women in the middle class itself especially in the form of Spiessbuergertum as represented by Meister Anton in his tragedy entitled Maria  Magdalena. The female victim of discrimination is Anton’s unmarried daughter Klara, for her father cannot countenance  the fact that Klara expects a child. Fearing that the birth of her child  will bring him  dishonour, Meister Anton threatens to take his own life by means of his razor blade. Klara takes her life by casting herself down a well shaft. Anton resolves to leave for a location where he will be safe from scandal and wagging tongues. He leaves the stage complaining that ‘he no longer understands the world,’ words that have since gained a proverbial currency. What does the title of the play signify in the light of all this? The recall of ‘Mary Magdalene’ in the play’s titles  implies a reproof  of Anton’s callous treatment of his daughter, indeed, the social attitude that underlies it, by recalling the passage in the New Testament that tells of Jesus’ act of forgiving Mary Magdalene’s sexual transgressions once she had renounced her sinful post. To enquire further,  does the title rest on more than an allusion to a well-known biblical narrative? In other words: Does it reveal any concern on the author’s part with fundamental religious issues? Hebbel’s early work Judith and the tragedy Herodes und Mariamne disclose a close interest in episodes in the history of the Hebrews, not to disregard  the symbolism of the star of Bethlehem to which reference is made in the final scene of Herodes und Mariamne, for this announces the advent of a new age that should replace the  tyranny of a cruel despot who oppressed and finally killed his innocent wife. In his preface to Maria Magdalene Hebbel adduced Hegel’s dialectic philosophy as the guiding principle governing his own dramatic works. In accord with the premise that  a thesis generates an antitheses and hence the need to attain a higher level at which the conflict of the two is resolved by a synthesis, a tragedy arises when a representative of the coming new age falls victim to the dictates of a declining but still lingering  old age. Klara seen as a transfiguration of Mary Magdalene in modern terms  embodies the hope that in some  future era female emancipation will cure the ills rooted in male prejudice and male chauvinism in all its forms. Two novels reveal the same awareness of the victimization of women by male assumptions as to the status of women in society and, in these cases, with the dilemma faced by married women accused of adultery. Anna Karenina, suffering anguish under the harsh divorce law that denied women custody of their children, found an escape route only be ending her life under the wheels of a train locomotive. Some detect a strange ambivalence in her choice of the instrument of suicide, for in the popular mind of the times trains promised freedom not only of movement but with regard to opportunities in such fields as commerce, tourism, vacations and social connectivity. Trains, however,  also betrayed a brutal aspect in exemplifying relentless ‘progress,’ not to mention their potential use in military operations. The female protagonist  in Theodor Fortane’s  novel entitles Effi Briest resembles Anna Karenina in being a  divorcee who loses custody of her child. In the story  her Prussian husband happened to find love letters proving that six years before Effi had had a brief affair with another man. The husband challenges his wife’s former lover to duel, in the process of which he kills him, though hardly in the spirit of a crime of hot passion. Effi does not commit suicide in this case but dies young all the same in a state of being a social outcast. She thus offers the prime example of a persecuted woman at the height of Prussian rigidity in matters governing social order and so-called morality.

And now to Strindberg’s  Miss Julie.  Miss  Julie enters the stage as the 25 year-old daughter of a petty Swedish count living on his estate out in the provinces. She prefers to remain at home in the kitchen and not join the mid-summer festivities that have a prominent place in the Swedish annual cycle/

Her  father is not at home, being engaged in a local festive event. The major part of play consists of a private dialogue between Jean, the servant-in-chief of the household, and Miss Julie. It soon transpires that they are strongly attracted to each other sexually but divided by their sense of belonging to different social classes, Jean being a servant and Miss Julie, the daughter of a count at a time when the prestige and moral standing of the aristocracy were in deep decline. Julie is plagued by a sense of being  a captive of her situation with no prospect of personal fulfilment or of attaining a sense of her intrinsic value. Julie recounts a dream in which she sees herself climbing a tree from which she is about to fall. Jean recounts a dream of his own that promises him success and empowerment.  She seeks to drown her sorrows by drinking wine in excessive measure. At one juncture they are on the point of yielding to their sexual passion but Julie tears away from Jean’s embrace. Altercations rooted in social animosity ensue. Jean has better things to do that serve as Julie’s stud. Julie retorts with aspersions of her own. While Julie is Jean’s superior on the social scale, Jean is her superior in more telling ways, not least in education. He has been around and knows the ropes in the new world where international trade and tourism have all but undermined the rigidity of the old static aristocratic order. They leave the stage and after they return there are clear signs that they have yielded to their sexual passion. From now on they contemplate an escape from the count’s household by going abroad and running a hotel with the help of Jean’s fiancée. Julie raids her father’s cash holding and they seem ready to leave, but for one matter. Julie cannon bear to leave her caged greenfinch behind, but taking the cage with them would hinder their escape. Jean kills the poor bird with his razor. Now Julie recognizes the futility of the mooted escape venture and just then the count has signaled his return. Like Pavlov’s dog - for all his fine  talk of freedom - Jean relapses into his role  as a servant, prepares the count’s  coffee and picks up the count’s riding boots. He hands Julie his razor as she depart from the kitchen, and it is not hard to imagine what she will do with it once she is outside. Dream no specific issue trapped cage psycho,

 Neither the path to martyrdom that availed in the case of Emilia Galotti nor the path of contrition that availed in the case of Klara was open to her. Indeed, she repudiated belief in the efficacy and relevance of Christian solutions to her plight, a belief codex  still upheld and defended by Jean’s fiancée. However, all three, Emilia, Klara and Miss Julie, incurred death as a result of their being subject to the overruling power and influence of their fathers. Emilia willingly accepted death at her father’s hand. Klara’s father threatened to slit his throat with a razor rather than face the shame of a family scandal. Throughout Strindberg’s drama the father is ever present without appearing in person at any time. His farmstead assumes the sinister aspect of a Hotel California from which one may check out any time - but never leave.

In the history of European drama Miss Julie points forward to developments that emerged in the twentieth century, particularly to Expressionist drama, as some have argued. I suggest  the psychological drama of Jean-Paul Sartre and even the kitchen-sink realism of John Osborne are anticipated by Strindberg’s drama.  Julie and Jean reveal the inner workings of their states of mind by recounting significant dreams. The action takes place during the  celebration of the mid-summer solstice, a major event in Sweden’s cultural calendar. It marks the beginning of summer when nature’s bounty reaches its full measure and yet also the highpoint after while days progressively decline in length. Julie’s not joining the fun betokens her isolation from common humanity and native culture, the carnivalesque in terms of M. M. Bakhtin’s contention that the post-Romantic era has suffered from the consequences of what he construed as a bifurcation in Western man’s sense of time and therefore an intuitive empathy with his natural environment. Wine is a prime symbol of the sacred and sacramental in traditional religion belief and practice and yet Julie’s excessive  bout of drinking of wine adds to her moral disorientation and loss of self-control. Wine incidentally betrays a similar sinister ambivalence in Chaucer’s ”The Pardoner’s Tale,” Hamlet and A Tale of Two Cities, in which a keg of wine bursts in front of Madame Defarge’s  wine shop, there to  become an omen of the bloodletting of the French revolution. The killing of Miss Julie’s greenfinch presages Julie’s act of suicide. By the way, the death of a caged bird proves equally prophetic in the film Der Blaue Engel in which Marlene Dietrich played so prominent a part. Even a common object such as a razor takes on a symbolic aspect as an instrument of male-sponsored control and implicit violence. Miss Julie differs from  earlier works exposing the injustices prevailing in a male-dominated society and the resultant oppression of women. It is not linked to a specific issue such as divorce or loss of virginity before marriage. Ubiquitous and ill defined forces that permeate society can also induce a young woman to take her life, as J. B. Priestly’s  An Inspector Calls establishes so poignantly.


Book: Shattered Sighs