Strindberg was the third son of Carl Oscar Strindberg, a shipping agent from a bourgeois family, and Ulrika Eleonora (Nora) Norling. Ulrika was twelve years Carl's junior and of humble origin, called a "servant woman" in the title of Strindberg's autobiographical novel, Tjänstekvinnans son (The Son of a Servant). Strindberg's paternal grandfather Zacharias was born in 1758 to a clergyman in Jämtland and settled in Stockholm, where he became a successful spice tradesman and a major in the Burghers' Military Corps. Strindberg's aunt Johanna Magdalena Elisabeth Strindberg (1797-1880), also called "Lisette", was married to the inventor and industrialist Samuel Owen (born 1774 in Norton-in-Hales, Shropshire, England, died February 15, 1854 in Stockholm) who went to Sweden in 1804 to help with the installation of the first steam engines for industrial use in Sweden and later in 1806 set up his own workshop 'Kungsholms Mekaniska Verkstad' in Stockholm. Carl Oscar Strindberg's older brother Johan Ludvig Strindberg was a successful businessman, the model for the protagonist Arvid Falk's wealthy and socially ambitious uncle in Strindberg's novel Röda rummet (The Red Room).
Strindberg's own version of his childhood is available in his novel The Son of a Servant, but at least one of his biographers, Olof Lagercrantz, warns against its use as a biographical source. Much of what Strindberg wrote has an autobiographical character, but Lagercrantz notes Strindberg's "talent to make us believe what he wants us to believe," and his unwillingness to accept any characterization of his person other than his own.
From the age of seven, Strindberg grew up in the Norrtull area on the northern, almost-rural periphery of Stockholm, not far from Tegnérlunden, the park where Carl Eldh's grand statue of Strindberg was later placed. He went to the elementary schools of Klara and Jakob parishes, continuing to the Stockholms Lyceum, a progressive private school for boys from upper and upper middle class families. He completed his graduation exams studentexamen on May 25 1867, and matriculated at the University of Uppsala in the fall.
Strindberg would spend the next several years in Uppsala and Stockholm, alternately studying for exams and trying his hand at non-academic pursuits. As a young student, Strindberg also worked as an assistant in a chemist's shop in the university town of Lund in southern Sweden. He first left Uppsala in 1868 to work as a schoolteacher, but then studied chemistry for some time at the Institute of Technology in Stockholm in preparation for medical studies, later working as a private tutor before becoming an extra at the Royal Theatre in Stockholm. He returned to Uppsala in January 1870 to study and work on a set of plays, the first of which opened at the Royal Theatre in September 1870, a biography of the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. In Uppsala, he started Runa, a small literary club with friends who all took pseudonyms from Nordic mythology; Strindberg called himself Frö after the god of fertility. He spent a few more semesters in Uppsala, finally leaving in March 1872 without graduating. He would often ridicule Uppsala and its professors, as when he published Från Fjerdingen och Svartbäcken ("From Fjerdingen and Svartbäcken", 1877), short stories depicting Uppsala student life. After leaving university for the last time, he embarked on his career as a journalist and critic for newspapers in Stockholm.
Strindberg's relationships with women were troubled and have often been interpreted as misogynistic by contemporaries and modern readers. Most acknowledge, however, that he had uncommon insight into the hypocrisy of his society's gender roles and sexual morality. Marriage and the family were under stress in Strindberg's lifetime as Sweden industrialized and urbanized at a rapid pace. Problems of prostitution and poverty were debated heatedly among writers, critics and politicians. His early writing often dealt with the traditional roles of the sexes imposed by society, which he criticized as unjust.
The fluent nature of his political positions is perhaps illustrable by the women's rights issue. Early on, Strindberg approached the position of women in 19th century Sweden with sympathy, calling for women's suffrage as early as 1884. However, in other periods he would hold wildly misogynistic views, calling for lawmakers to reconsider the emancipation of these "half-apes ... mad ... criminals, instinctively evil animals". This has become an area of some controversy in contemporary reviews of Strindberg, as has the starkly antisemitic portraits he painted of Jews (and, in particular, Jewish enemies of his in Swedish cultural life) in some works (eg. Det nya riket), particularly in the early 1880s. Strindberg's antisemitic pronouncements, just as his views on women, have been hotly debated, and also seem to have shifted considerably back and forth.
In satirizing Swedish society - in particular the upper classes, the cultural and political establishment, and his many personal and professional foes - he could be bitingly confrontational, with scarecly-concealed caricatures of political opponents. This could take the form of brutal character assassination or open mockery, and while presentation was invariably skilful and hard-hitting, it was not necessarily subtle.
His daughter Karin Strindberg married Vladimir Smirnov, one of the leading Russian Bolsheviks. Because of his political standpoints, Strindberg was heavily promoted in socialist countries in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in the Soviet Union and Cuba.
Strindberg wanted to attain what he called "Greater Naturalism." He did not prefer expository character backgrounds seen in the work of Ibsen, or write plays that gave his audiences a "slice of life" because he felt that these plays were mundane and uninteresting. Strindberg felt that true naturalism was a psychological battle of the brains (hjärnornas kamp). Two people who hate each other in the immediate moment and strive to drive the other to doom is the type of mental hostility that Strindberg strove to capture. Furthermore, he intended his plays to be impartial and objective, citing a desire to make literature somewhat of a science.
Later, he underwent a time of inner turmoil known as the Inferno Period, which culminated in the production of a book written in French, Inferno. He also exchanged a few cryptic letters with Nietzsche.
Strindberg subsequently broke with Naturalism and began to produce works informed by Symbolism. He is considered one of the pioneers of the Modern European stage and Expressionism. The Dance of Death (Dödsdansen), A Dream Play (Ett drömspel) and The Ghost Sonata (Spöksonaten) are well-known plays from this period.
Painting and photography offered venues for his belief that chance played a crucial part in the creative process. Strindberg's paintings were unique for their time, and went beyond those of his contemporaries for their radical lack of adherence to visual reality. The 117 paintings that are acknowledged as his, were mostly painted within the span of a few years, and are now seen by some as among the most original works of nineteenth century art. Today, his best-known pieces are stormy, expressionist seascapes, selling at high prices in auction houses. Though Strindberg was friends with Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin, and was thus familiar with modern trends, the spontaneous and subjective expressiveness of his landscapes and seascapes can be ascribed also to the fact that he painted only in periods of personal crisis.
His interest in photography resulted, among other things, in a large number of arranged self-portraits in various environments, who now number among the best-known pictures of Strindberg.
Alchemy, occultism, Swedenborgianism, and various other eccentric interests were pursued by Strindberg with some intensity for periods of his life. In the curious autobiographical work Inferno - a dark, paranoid and confusing tale of his years in Paris, written in French - he claims to have successfully carried out experiments in alchemy and cast black magic spells on his daughter.
Strindberg's last home was Blå tornet in central Stockholm, where he lived from 1908 until 1912. Today it is a museum.
By the end of his life Strindberg had returned to Christianity, authoring religious works inspired by Emanuel Swedenborg.
One year before his death, his main book publisher Albert Bonniers förlag bought the rights to all his writings for 200,000 Swedish crowns, a fortune at that time, which Strindberg promptly shared with his children.
On Christmas 1911, Strindberg became sick with pneumonia, and he never fully recovered. At this time he also started to suffer from a stomach disease, presumably cancer. He died in May 1912 at the age of 63. Strindberg was interred in the Norra begravningsplatsen in Stockholm, and thousands of people followed him during the funeral proceedings.
Several statues and busts of him have been erected in Stockholm; most prominently Carl Eldh's erected in 1942 in Tegnérlunden, a park next to the house were Strindberg lived the last years of his life.