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Children in Treadwell’s Buchner’s, Strindberg’s Plays


The image of children in literature may have a range of meanings. On the one hand, they may be symbols of purity, innocence, happiness, and joy, and on the other hand, they reveal the strength, morality, and courage of the characters. As for the plays Machinal, Woyzeck, and Miss Julie, all of them cover the stories of women, and therefore, the image of children may be highly illustrative in this context. Consequently, the purpose of this paper is to prove the concept of children as a warning of tragedy, using the aforementioned plays and referring to Greek ones.

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Written by American journalist Sophie Treadwell, the play Machinal was published in 1928 when feminist ideas were widely spread in society and literature. The author narrates a story about a young woman Helen, who is an ordinary stenographer living with her mother at the beginning. Sophie Treadwell describes her resistance to stereotypes concerning her social role, aims for life, preferences, and activities. Helen married her boos, Mr. Jones, against her will – she was persuaded to assent to the proposal by her mother and colleagues due to the wealth of the candidate. However, the heroine was not happy with her marriage, as she did not have an affinity for her husband. After some time after the wedding, Helen finds a lover, whom she regularly visits. During the whole play, the main character perceives pressure put on her due to society’s expectations about women, which are also imposed by her husband. The story finishes in the court, where Helen had to admit her blame for killing Mr. Jones.

Although the image of children is not traced through the whole play, it appears to be extremely illustrative and has a special meaning in the sequence of the events. The fourth episode is devoted to Helen giving birth to her daughter. It is important to notice her emotions: the heroine is not glad. Instead, Helen is in depression, as she did not want to have a child, especially in a marriage with a man whom she did not love. Nurses attempted to impose on her the feeling of satisfaction: “Aren’t you glad it’s a girl?” You’re not! Oh, my! That’s no way to talk! Men want boys—women ought to want girls” (Treadwell, 2014, p. 32). In addition, Mr. Jones assured his wife that he understands her labor of giving birth. However, the only supportive phrase he said was, “But you’ve got to brace up now! Make an effort! Pull yourself together!” (Treadwell, 2014, p. 34). Therefore, in this context, the child symbolized the birth of unbearable resentment of the heroine to the stereotypes. It can be noted that after her child’s birth, her behavior changes, expressing her attitude. It led to negative consequences, in the end, namely the murder of her husband. Thus, the baby appears as a sign of oncoming tragedy in the story.


Approximately at the same time, the play Woyzeck was written by Georg Buchner. The author tells the story of a poor barber Woyzeck. Attempting to save his financial situation, he participated in a medical experiment, which required his adhering to a peas-only diet. Such an eating habit led to negative consequences to his health, such as hallucinations and lack of sexual desire. This results in his wife Marie having a secret relationship with another man Drum-Major. Once noticing her with her lover, Woyzeck became furious and stabbed her wife to death.

Similar to the previously mentioned play, not much attention is paid to the children of Woyzeck. They appear twice in the story as the background of the happenings. The first time the children are described is when the readers notice the first sign of relationships between Woyzeck’s wife and Drum-Major. They are sitting on Maire’s lap while their mother is observing a pair of gold earrings, which were their present from her love (Buchner, 2010). Consequently, children appear in the story before the tragic events. The second time of the children’s appearance occurs right after the murder of Marie. Woyzeck returns to his home, and they tend to be aggressive towards him, refusing to embrace and creaming (Buchner, 2010). Therefore, the same as in Machinal, all times when children are mentioned in the play, they present a sign of tragedy. Another meaning of their image is opposition to all the violence and depravity, as they are perceived as innocent and pure.

Miss Julie

The last play for the analysis is Miss Julie, created by August Strindberg in 1888. The creation is devoted to the story of the Count’s daughter Julie, who fell in love with one of the servants in the manor, namely the valet Jean. She invites him to dance with her during one of the lonely evenings in the manor. The heroine prompts the valet to an intimate conversation, and Jeans tells a story of his childhood, which reveals his affinity to Julie. The evening for two people ends in the heroine’s bedroom. Understanding that having a relationship with a servant, Jean offers her to escape together. However, the characters are incapable of agreeing – while, in the middle of the play, Jean attempts to persuade the heroine to escape with him, and she resents this idea, in the end, the situation turns vice versa. Finally, Jean understands that she cannot live with disgrace and leaves the parents’ house alone.

As well as in Machinal and Woyzeck, there is no evident emphasis on children, and there are no characters of such a young age. However, namely recollection of the characters’ childhood was the reason for them becoming closer to each other. Jean described his first encounter with the heroine, which impressed him significantly. In the middle of the play, the valet confesses:

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“Once upon a time when I lay in the onion bed and saw you in the rose garden then I’ll tell you straight I had the same dirty thoughts as all youngsters” (Strindberg, 1996, p. 26).

The servant used this trick to have sexual relationships with Julie. Despite the fact there are no children characters in the play, the recollection of this period of life presents an image of children in this case. It should be noted namely after sharing memories about childhood, the characters had intimacy, which meant disgrace for the heroine. As it is similar to the plays observed earlier, the sign of children leads to tragic events.

Connection to Greek Plays

The concept of children, which symbolize a warning of troubles, is also used in Greek plays. For instance, in Agamemnon, the main character had to sacrifice Iphigenia, his daughter, in the marriage with Clytemnestra. The reason for it was to ask goddess Artemis to allow the fleet to arrive in Troy. After that, the character is informed that Troy had fallen. Another example, which could be mentioned in this context, is the play Oedipus. During the entire story, the character is determined to investigate the murder of king Laius. Attempting to reveal the truth, he asks for the advice of queen Jocasta, who tells him about the prophecy, which did not match the reality – Laius should have been killed by his son. In the end, Oedipus learned that he is the son of Laius and Jocasta. Thus, in both cases, children appear to be signs of tragic truth or end for the characters of the plays, and this concept was traced throughout centuries.


In conclusion, in literature, there is an interpretation of the image of children as a warning of troubles, ordeals, or pain. Although children appear only in the background of the plot, in Machinal, Woyzeck, and Miss Julie, they symbolize oncoming hardships. In Machinal, after giving birth, Helen starts to show her resentment actively, which results in her husband’s murder. As for Woyzeck, babies appear immediately before all the tragedies in the play – the wife’s betrayal and her murder committed by Woyzeck. In Miss Julie, sharing childhood memories helped a servant to have sex with Julie, which meant her disgrace and led to her departure from the parents’ house. This idea was also used in Greek plays: in Agamemnon, after the daughter’s death, the character receives news about Troy falling, and in Oedipus, he revealed the truth about his participation in his father’s death. Therefore, the concept of children’s image as a sign of tragedy is spread in literature.


Buchner, G. (2010). Woyzeck. Samuel French.

Strindberg, A. (1996). Miss Julie. Ivan R. Dee.

Treadwell, S. (2014). Machinal. Nick Hern Books.

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