Essentially a morality play, French’s adaptation keeps faith with Strindberg’s intent while emphasizing the classic repartee between the main characters in a subtle rendering of gender versus class in a rigidly moral society.
There are three main characters: Miss Julie, daughter of a count; Jean, the count’s manservant; and Kristin, the cook, who provides a dispassionate social commentary to the exchanges between Miss Julie and Jean, her rigid morality and sense of place indisputable: “When gentry try to act common they become common.”
Miss Julie is the pawn of the play, doomed from the start by her inability to restrain her emotions and follow the conventions as required of her position. Although superior to the servants, Miss Julie is described by them as “emotionally unstable.” her intemperate actions on Midsummer’s Eve “inappropriate”.
In fact, Miss Julie indulges in the most outrageous behavior on Midsummer’s Eve, throwing herself into a physical affair with Jean, her father’s manservant. Certainly, Miss Julie’s status in the household is threatened by her actions, her power tempered by the fact that she is female, given to behavior that simply is not perceived the same way as a male in a patriarchal society, thereby destined to be the loser in any confrontation.
The servants live strictly proscribed lives, their own hierarchy governed by acceptable and unacceptable mores, a world governed by class. Jean is acutely aware of this state of affairs; running the gamut of emotions from desire to jealousy to dominance, Jean’s behavior is all the more shocking for his blasé manipulation of the situation. Having had his satisfaction, he toys with his victim before escaping into the more comfortable role of manservant.
Although he is the culprit, taking advantage of Miss Julie’s confusion and inexperience, it is she who suffers, she who is akin to a baby bird fallen from the nest with no instinct for survival. Miss Julie is inevitably harshly judged by society, including the servant class who observes her activities with relish.
This shocking social commentary exposes the fallacies of class and gender, acted out between two people who can bridge neither, their very humanity rendered irrelevant.