Two Tragic Characters In August Strindberg’s "Miss Julie" & Leoncio Deriada’s "Dog-Eaters"

By Niño Saavedra Manaog
May 10, 2005

Unsolvable—this is what August Strindberg’s Miss Julie and Leoncio Deriada’s Dog-Eaters make clear about the woman problem. In both works, the woman is portrayed as the modern tragic hero, powerless and insignificant character, not being able to achieve her full person, and failing to maximize her existence, largely hinged on her being smothered, silenced, suppressed, and considered insignificant.

In the two plays, women are depicted in a desperate state—not being able to do what their hearts desire or when they do—rather suffer their consequences in the most dismal forms. The powerlessness of a woman suppressed by the male ego is brought about by her status in any given society—whether aristocratic or urban poor. The patriarchal society presses too hard on their lives, suffocating themselves to despair, ill fate and eventually, downfall.

This dismal reality is common to both plays: At the end of the day, who survives? Certainly, not the woman, not the woman. In the Strindberg classic, Miss Julie, a count’s daughter, at the turn-of-the-century Europe, yields to the workings of her father’s footman and finally succumbs to her own ruin the unchanged social structure—intact, in place. In Deriada’s social realist piece written in the 1970s, one cloistered wife Mariana similarly displays despair and resignation to the stark poverty she consciously drew herself into, where her husband Victor lives the dog-like existence with his dog-eating friends—she helplessly constricts her existence within the filth of the slums.

Both of these dramatic tragedies spell the inevitability of downfall, of the protagonist’s ruin. In each of these works, the protagonist’s fate—we are obliged to see—is necessary, inexorable, a state that no one can escape. In tragedy, the forces of life being what they are, and human nature what it is, the protagonist will wrestle with these forces, but he cannot hope to win over them, and ultimately he is defeated. Miss Julie is primarily a delineation of a series of unfortunate events—particularly for its protagonist, Countess Julie. That Miss Julie is the daughter of a count affords her the blessings of a good life. Miss Julie has been brought up by her mother to hate men. When she—to express her contempt for them—forced her fiancé to jump over a horsewhip at her command, the man broke the engagement. As the play opens, Miss Julie joins in a servants’ party and flirts with Jean, a footman. She seduces him and, unable to live with the conflicts this act creates in her, commits suicide.

In The Dog-Eaters, Mariana laments the fact that hers is not a good life. She scorns her husband Victor for not having a permanent job. She nags him for their poor life. She blames him for their sorry living conditions. Like a mad dog, she is hysterical at her husband for a noble purpose: “I am mad because I want my husband to have a steady job… I want my husband to make a man of himself.”

On the whole, Mariana presents one ambivalent character when her actions are gauged on grounds of morality. She finally resorts to aborting her second child. Despair and resignation spell her entire character. Their dismal poor circumstances now dictate her sense of values. She does not anymore desire having children. At this point the woman become irresponsible for her acts—she hardly recognizes its consequences. Though her intention to save the child from earthly suffering and death is recognizable, the act against the unborn—from all perspectives—will appear to be morally wrong.

Interestingly, both works play around the battle of the sexes—for domination, in an effort to create an order in a given society. And more interestingly enough, both have naturalistic treatments of the same subject: the suppressed female sensibility never—if at all—triumphs over the otherwise ruthless and impersonal male order. Her fate is largely determined by her enclosed, cloistered and restrained status in any given social setting.

While it makes a problematic of the woman’s issue, Miss Julie also clarifies that men and women are different and such fact entails two things—they want different things; and each is determined to dominate. The battle of sexes is depicted very intensely ravishing. (Krutch, 1953)

In Miss Julie, the woman character who belongs to the highly privileged class makes fun of the male character who rather belongs to the working-class. Bit by bit, through the play, we see how their respective roles are reversed on grounds of the more dominant sex. The male gradually dominates the female sex—regardless of how they are placed in the society, or economically determined.

Early on, Julie, the daughter of a count, utterly declares her domination of the other sex to her father’s footman, Jean— Jean: And so you got engaged to the country commissioner! Julie: Exactly—so that he should become my slave. Jean: And he wasn’t willing? Julie: He was willing enough, but he didn’t get the chance. I grew tired of him.

Ruled by her instincts, on a frenzied mardi gras, Julie gets attracted to his father’s valet Jean—composed but virile and ambitious—but later fails to recognize the consequences of her wild act to engage him in a verbal war and later an intimate affair— Julie: Kiss my hand first! Jean: Don’t you realize that playing with fire is dangerous? Julie: Not for me. I’m insured. Jean: No, you’re not! And even if you are, there’s combustible material nearby. Julie: Meaning you? Jean: Yes! Not because I am who I am, but just because I’m a young man…

Here, the male character very well recognized the male-female chemistry is highly combustible, much less the male hormones are highly excitable, fact which never has been familiar to an otherwise naïve Julie who subconsciously desires to subdue the male sex. She has done so to her former fiancée who later broke off engagement with her on grounds of her wild domineering act—making him jump on a horsewhip. Julie: …with an attractive appearance. What incredible conceit! A Don Juan, perhaps? Or a Joseph? I’m prepared to believe you’re a Joseph! Jean: You think so? Julie: I almost fear so. [Jean makes a bold move to embrace and kiss her.] Julie: [Slaps him] Insolence! Jean: Serious or joking? Julie: Serious.

In this part, Julie does not at all recognize the consequences of her actions until the time Jean plays his part to poke fun at her and is lured in turn by her “statutory” seduction—one imposed to the male servant by her female master. Julie: Have you ever been in love? Jean: That’s not the word we’d use. But I have run after plenty of girls. And once, when I couldn’t have the one girl I wanted, I became sick. Really sick, I tell you, like those princes in the Arabian nights who could neither eat nor drink for love. Julie: Who was she? [Jean is silent.] Who was she? Jean: You can’t make me answer that. Julie: If I ask you as an equal? As a—friend? Who was she? Jean: You Julie: [Sits] Priceless!

Jean is an ambitious man now compelled to make use of his being male to obtain what he desires—to become the powerful though anonymous Count himself who defines all control and order. And after several instances of seduction by his female master, the male servant becomes the male usurper, who affords for himself the chance to use his sex and sexuality and her sensitivity to conquer her.

Jean, the footman turned usurper turned abuser turned footman [again] delineates a potent character of the patriarchal order. He is the ambitious pervert constituent of the lower social stratum who attempts to climb the social ladder by preying on the female sensitive character of the elite Julie. He represents the virile and unfeeling phallus, seeking its own pleasure and self-preservation. He serves the entire purpose of the masculine sensibility—sheer sex and bodily satisfaction—in its efforts to attain for the male order its necessary clout and control—power—on all matters of human affairs.

After the seduction results in consummation, whether compelled or otherwise, Julie gradually realizes what she has drawn herself into. The subservient Jean is now someone who has said much about the story of the parents of the countess herself. He then makes her realize that like her mother, she is crazy. She is definitely crazy— Jean: It’s what comes of getting mixed up with women. Miss Julie, I know you’re suffering but I cannot understand you. I think you’re sick. Yes, you’re definitely sick. Julie: Please be kind to me. Speak to me like a human being.

When they both realize that their action is shameful before the whole household, the woman has something clear in mind—she’d run away with the footman. Jean: So what do we do then? Julie: Go away together! Jean: To torment each other to death? Julie: No—to enjoy ourselves for two days, or a week, or for as long as it’s possible to enjoy oneself. And then—die.

Here is proven that the man-woman disparity is perennial as life and death. Though Julie recognizes harmony in their coexistence, Jean does not share this idea, especially with Julie, who he considers not his equal, but a rival. When Julie summons him to join her in her plans to flee the Count’s household to establish their lives some place else, the male stands his ground to make her see—he has only fooled her as much as she did him prior to the consummation of the sexual act. Julie: Come up with me! Jean: To your room? Now you’ve lost your mind again! Go, at once! Julie: Speak kindly to me, Jean.

Now disillusioned and given to disgrace and perhaps even death, Julie’s character is transformed as it is disintegrated. Here she appears to be the sorriest character after the swift turn of events. Jean only made her believe that he desired her—after patronizing her own seduction of him. The woman becomes the unwanted sex—the pathetic sex that pulled to itself its own ruin. Julie: What would you do in my place? Jean: In your place? Let me think. As a Count’s daughter, as a woman, after this kind of mistake. I don’t know. Yes, now I do know. Julie: [makes a gesture] Like this? Jean: Yes. But I wouldn’t do it—be clear about that! There’s a difference between us. Julie: Because you’re a man and I’m a woman? What difference does that make? Jean: Same difference as between—a man and a woman!

Close to her suicide, the naïve Julie does not recognize the difference of the two sexes insinuated and illustrated by the footman—that in her parent’s marriage, it is the Count, her father himself who ruled after all—not her mother. It is the man who has dominated.

These final exchanges of rhetoric between the male and the female highlight the failure of the woman to attempt at changing her own destiny. It is the male that still defines the female. It is he on whom she will hinge her existence into. Her existence is largely defined by how he allows [or not] it to be. Rendered immobile by everything surrounding her, Julie succumbs to her own ruin, and the male dominates in the end— Julie: I’m unable to do anything any longer! Unable to feel remorse, unable to run, unable to stay, unable to live—unable to die! Help me! Order me, and I’ll obey you like a dog. Do me this last service, save my honor, save my name! You know what I should do, but can’t—will me to do it. Order me to do it! Jean: I don’t know why—but now I can’t, either—I don’t understand it. It’s as though this jacket here actually kept me—from being able to order you—and now, since the Count spoke to me—now—how can I explain it—ah—it’s this damned servant boy sitting on my back! I think if the Count were to come down here right now—and he ordered me to cut my throat—I’d do it on the spot.

Here, she very well realizes that her existence cannot at all be given meaning beyond this thing she’s “ordered to do.” Everything has dawned on her, thus— Julie: Then make believe you’re my father, and I’m you. You were such a good actor before, when you got down on your knees—you were the gentleman then—or haven’t you ever been to the theater and watched a hypnotist? He says to the subject, take the broom! And the subject takes it. He says, sweep! And the subject sweeps— Jean: But the other one has to be asleep. Julie: I’m already asleep.

The woman is given to accepting her destined place in the world where man reigns powerful and prevails. In Miss Julie, we also come to realize that the woman problem is perennially unsolvable—irresolvable, or fixed in a number of ways. It seems to declare that the woman is a predictable social character whose ill destiny in the patriarchal society can never be less than tragic or devastating.

We can infer a number of things about the predictable plight of the woman in an otherwise irregular reality put forth by the existing patriarchy. The fact that Julie approaches derangement, prior to her self-murder, tells us that a woman is doomed for life. When Julie approaches derangement, Julie both desires and rejects the male ego. She both abhors and adores Jean, the male culture constituent, the phallus that lures an otherwise reluctant female crevice into its traps. When Julie sets out to kill herself as per hypnotism by the animal, brusque Jean, the female sensibility succumbs to the male, phallic, patriarchal order—and reaffirms its control over human affairs.

Because Miss Julie illustrates a love-hate relationship between a noblewoman and one of her servants, reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, this presupposes therefore that the woman character is hinged on the male’s animal nature. Her significance is only noted against the existence of the male.

Nothing much more can be said about this work but about its author’s strong aversion against women. The stark reality unfolds in this brazen work that depicts one gruesome male ego that stalks and preys on the female sensibility as it seeks to elevate itself by way if raping the female—physically and subconsciously.

In Leoncio Deriada’s Dog-Eaters, we see the tragic fate in Mariana, the wife of a jobless Victor who prefers drinking with his dog-eating friends to finding a stable job that could support his family. When Mariana recalls her expectations when she eloped with Victor, she is frustrated when she realizes that her dreams of having things she didn’t possess did not materialize after her elopement. Mariana is the pathetic icon of irony when she pastes pictures on the walls so the house could get some sense of cheerfulness of the rather gloomy living conditions. Of course, the pasted pictures and plastic fixtures in the house all the more emphasized their destitution. Mariana could have been the usual, morally upright, goal-oriented, perhaps sensible modern woman who becomes a misfit—she has to indeed fall into despair—she doesn’t belong to the slime of the slums. She prefers a better life. She despises the dog-like existence inasmuch as she abhors her husband’s affinity with their dog-eating neighbors. But she is living with the likes of Victor and Aling Elpidia, characters who fail to realize that the worst that can happen to them is to become human refuse—yielding to their animal nature.

Though Mariana appears to be a good woman, she is the quintessential woman whose morals are sacrificed—falling prey to an unrelenting male ego-dictated society, one that is hostile and aloof, cruel and impersonal, unkind and stern. Like the countess Julie—and like Ramir whom she butchers—Mariana succumbs to the slavering tongues of the dog-eat-dog society where she finds herself in.

As for the woman’s act or attempt to kill her unborn—moralists would immediately retort—the end does not justify the means—and comments to the same effect. Mariana will never be judged by her intention—but primarily by the act. In the play, the act of abortion was never executed but Mariana’s attempt to do so has already propelled the worse circumstances and consequences.

Mariana is a catalyst for change in that desperate part of the world, but her being a wife to a macho Filipino husband more clearly draws her real fate—helplessness and despair altogether cause her downfall. Mariana drew to herself her own degeneration, and ill fate.

In the Dog-Eaters, the man-woman clash is caused by the male’s skewed sense of himself, his virility that makes not a sensible sense to the other sex. Mariana has a husband who has no ambitions, who never makes efforts to alleviate them from their stark poverty. Her natural circumstances largely determine her character, thus her story, thus her destiny.

Enclosed in a strongly patriarchal structure, Mariana cannot just achieve her full potential as a person, much more a moral agent who strives to do what is right, or morally upright. Though she consciously takes chances and risks to change her husband’s disposition, she fails. In the process she loses her self. And she loses her self in the end.

When Victor tells Mariana, ““Behave, you woman,” he articualtes a macho rhetoric that attempts or obviously, starkly impose silence or seek to silence the woman and her possibilities. But to Mariana, Victor’s macho image is not in fact masculinity, but perhaps otherwise. She tells him she’s a coward because he hardly could provide for his growing family. For her, the measure of manhood is not something between his pants, it is his being able to provide and provide well and enough for his family. Very well, these texts highlight that the woman problem can never be solved because the unrelenting male sensibility will perennially make ways—consciously or otherwise—to suppress it, and make it realize its own insignificance, its unimportance.

Man [read: man and woman] is said to be the victim of conflicting desires, and the strongest of them, like his desire for a member of the opposite sex, are irrational and yet stronger than reason. He despises himself for not being able to cease desiring what he also hates (Krutch, 1953). Such generalization rings true in these two characters. Miss Julie obviously cannot do away with her desire for her father’s footman. So she desires him incessantly, while she also abhors his sex because she has been taught by her mother to hate men. This puts her in an irrevocable dilemma from which she could hardly get out one piece. Mariana, meanwhile, is a female sensibility which unconsciously or unknowingly brings upon herself her own ruin. The moment she decided to elope with a good looking animal named Victor instead of finishing her college course, she already degraded herself inasmuch as she belonged to a society where poverty defines the majority of its constituent. When she yielded to Victor’s sex and sexuality, she already stole from herself the right to a better status in an even more male-dictated society.

The essence of man’s tragic dilemma is that there is no rational—only an irrational solution of this dilemma (Krutch, 1953). Highlighted by the two tragic women characters and their sorry plights, the two works pursue a naturalistic tragedy that highlights pity, fear, and catharsis. Pity is aroused in us by the characters’ inherent weaknesses and the social class structures they inhabit Fear is evoked when we realize that the same fate could overcome any of us. Catharsis comes next when we realize that the old, decaying order must give way to the newer and stronger order for life to continue (Szondi, 1987). Both plays highlight a weak woman spirit. The plays enunciate that the woman indeed is a weak species—in the midst of the male-dominated society.

Women are rendered to have tragic lives. Their fate—determined by the egoistic male society where they are situated—or where they are rather placed—is highly predictable. But the fact that these women characters defy such destiny is what makes their lives worth telling. The fact that they defied the boundaries of the oppressive, brusque, virile, and unfeeling patriarchal order—altogether redefines the character of a woman.

In the bigger picture, it is the woman that is put in bad light—or is she? Mariana rebels against the stifling patriarchal structure—antagonizing Victor when she resorts to aborting the second child and hurting his male ego by killing his pet dog Ramir. Mariana resorts to abortion to spite Victor and perhaps make him aware of his responsibility. Mariana also prefers to do so in order that she may not see it suffer after birth; just like their 8 month-old firstborn. Faced with extreme poverty and her husband’s incorrigible irresponsibility, Mariana further sees abortion as the inevitable solution. By wanting to kill her second child, for they cannot practically feed them well, she rather redeems him from earthly suffering and damnation. “I told you I didn’t want another child. You broke that bottle but I will look for other means. I’ll starve myself. I’ll jump out of the window. I’ll fall down the stairs,” runs the litany of despair, of Mariana’s exasperated existence as well defined by the male world of Victor’s. This part of the play makes clear that the nature of woman to liberate herself from the restrictions of the male structure that encloses her—or rather defines her—one that subjects her as a wife, that subjugates her as a woman [secondary or insignificant to man]. Rebelling against such dismal structure afford the woman her liberty, her individuality, her self.

In Mike Figgis’s rendition of Strindberg’s masterpiece, Saffron Burrows’ Julie is one unforgettable tragedy in literary and cinema consciousness. Her sexually hungry, angst-ridden female countenance spells the female nature—”vessel and damsel” but defiant and irreverent. She delineates one discontented and disturbing female character, a bored individual whose hollow existence is not compelled or desired but naturally determined. She has been taught by her mother to hold grudges against men; she is a man-hater gone haywire. When we see her as the protagonist, as the victim of a superior force, it arouses our pity. When we realize that the action demonstrates universal truths and that we feel that the victim could just as easily be ourselves—it arouses our fear. In the tragic hero’s death, we feel a sense of loss, but only because he has demonstrated his great worth.

These two women do not recognize the futility of their actions to free themselves from these patriarchal enclosures until they actually succumb to it. But the modern woman is one admirable character. She seeks to challenge an otherwise dismal structure that oppresses more her inane existence, and transform her very sensibilities. While both works attempt to define a helpless, ill-fated woman whose existence is hinged on the brusque, unfeeling, naïve and indifferent male sensibility, the two characters essentially clarify that the patriarchal setups such as family largely determines their very sensibilities. Neither of them triumphs in their attempt to resist the patriarchal vacuum that sucks up their persons and influences their consciousness and eventually their fates.


About the author: Niño Saavedra Manaog reads the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Luis Cabalquinto, Kenneth Rexroth, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. He also delights in the fictions of F. Sionil Jose, Sidney Sheldon, and Leoncio Deriada.

Email: ninomanaog@yahoo.com

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