Arnold and Irene: A Story of Unrequited Love

How many times on this planet traversing the cosmos has love been given freely?  How many times has love been ignored or rejected by the intended recipient?

In Norwegian Henrik Johan Ibsen’s poignant play WHEN WE DEAD AWAKEN (når vi døde vågner) written in 1899, he tells a story of love unrequited.  Sadly, this would be Ibsen’s last play before he died.

The original name for the play was The Resurrection Day.  This was the name given by Professor Arnold Rubek in the play for his masterpiece—a sculpture of a beautiful young woman rising from the sable mists of the undiscovered country of death.

The human model for his piece de resistance was Irene, innocent and young.  For Rubek she was just the untouchable object of his vision, but Irene grew to love the man who gazed on her day after day in all of her purity.

After the task was completed, Irene hoped that Arnold Rubek would transfer the artistic creativity of his hands to the human touch that she had longed for over the passage of time.  Unfortunately, Rubek viewed Irene as a piece of sculpture to be admired and appreciated but never to be touched with human feelings and the warmth that so many people desire and need to live life in the dark shadows of aging in the barren loneliness.

Irene disappeared, but her impression on the master artist still haunted him over the years.  He eventually married a younger woman—Maia, but true to his nature Maia’s desires and needs were secondary to his thoughts as he contemplated his one true masterpiece of the young lady rising from the dead.  Irene haunted his thoughts.

As fate would have it, on holiday Maia and Rubek would encounter the woman that Irene had become.  Rubek viewed it as a second chance, but Irene had another motive for reuniting with her sculptor.

Rubek confessed the following to Irene:

That was just why I found in you all that I required—in you and in no one else. I came to look on you as a thing hallowed, not to be touched save in adoring thoughts. In those days I was still young, Irene. And the superstition took hold of me that if I touched you, if I desired you with my senses, my soul would be profaned, so that I should be unable to accomplish what I was striving for.—And I still think there was some truth in that.

Irene, embittered by the her long journey on the road of life, replied with scorn

The work of art first—then the human being… I gave you my young, living soul. And that gift left me empty within—soulless. It was that I died of, Arnold.

When I had served you with my soul and with my body—when the statue stood there finished—our child as you called it—then I laid at your feet the most precious sacrifice of all—by effacing myself for all time… Yes, for you—for the artist who had so lightly and carelessly taken a warm-blooded body, a young human life, and worn the soul out of it—because you needed it for a work of art.

Rubek’s defense with a bit of pathos for what he sensed of the anger and hurt in Irene’s voice:

I was young then—with no knowledge of life. The Resurrection, I thought, would be most beautifully and exquisitely figured as a young unsullied woman—with none of our earth-life’s experiences—awakening to light and glory without having to put away from her anything ugly and impure.”

Then he told Irene about the additions to the sculpture after she had left his sphere.

Yes, but let me tell you, too, how I have placed myself in the group. In front, beside a fountain—as it were here—sits a man weighed down with guilt, who cannot quite free himself from the earth-crust. I call him remorse for a forfeited life. He sits there and dips his fingers in the purling stream—to wash them clean—and he is gnawed and tortured by the thought that never, never will he succeed. Never in all eternity will he attain to freedom and the new life. He will remain forever prisoned in his hell.

Irene’s response was not what he expected.

Because you are nerveless and sluggish and full of forgiveness for all the sins of your life, in thought and in act. You have killed my soul—so you model yourself in remorse, and self-accusation, and penance,” with a smile, “and with that you think your account is cleared.

She called him a “poet”.  Rubek wanted to know why Irene uses the word poet which he found beneath him since he was a sculptor, a renowned one.

With a malevolent tone she continued,

Because there is something apologetic in the word, my friend. Something that suggests forgiveness of sins—and spreads a cloak over all frailty. But I was a human being—then! And I, too, had a life to live,—and a human destiny to fulfill. And all that, look you, I let slip—gave it all up in order to make myself your bondwoman.—Oh, it was self-murder—a deadly sin against myself!”  In a whisper, “And that sin I can never expiate.

I should have borne children in the world—many children—real children—not such children as are hidden away in grave-vaults. That was my vocation. I ought never to have served you—poet.

Rubek understood her agony to a degree, but her hurt was beyond his comprehension.  For Irene, when he was done with her, she was just another model, and she remembered his final words to her in his studio on the cold day after he was finished with her.

Those words so cold and so impassionate had plagued her like the ancient harpies who tormented King Phineus of Thrace, blinded by Zeus. Rubek had unleashed the harpies when he rejected her, and even though she viewed her soul as dead she could never escape the harpies of words so cruel and so unloving.

She wanted to know if he remembered what he said.  Of course he did not.

You took both my hands and pressed them warmly. And I stood there in breathless expectation. And then you said: ‘So now, Irene, I thank you from my heart. This has been a priceless episode for me.’”

For Rubek, Irene was the key to his creativity.  He so longed for her to unlock the Bramah lock, he said, but she had no key or desire to help the man who had viewed her as a marmoreal object and had jettisoned her for his mein Kind, his child, his creation of stratified beauty for the world to marvel at his creative genius.

True to Rubek’s nature, as he had rejected Irene so many decades before, he told Maia that she was free to pursue her own life.  She could never be a muse to him like Irene had been.

Maia set off on an adventure up the mountain with a hunter and his dogs as Rubek attempted to bring Irene back into his world.  She had no desire or life left to reenter his alabastrine reality.

Rubek convinced Irene to accompany him up the mountain to see the world in all its pristine hues—this was the same promise that he made to Maia, but it never materialized.  She agreed, but as the play related, she carried a knife and her thoughts for Rubek were ones of seeking justice for her soulless life, which he had left her to after he cast her off on the rubbish heap of discarded stone.

On the way up the mountain, they meet Maia and the hunter coming down.  The hunter warned them that a storm was brewing, and they should turn back or seek shelter in the old cabin up the mountain until he could send men to rescue them.

This is where I will end my analysis.  What happened to Arnold and Irene on that mountain trek is fitting for the storyline, and the link to the play is listed below.

Perhaps, Maia’s song as she descended the mountain to the valley below where her new life would begin sums up the reality of love unrequited for Irene as well:

I am free!  I am free!  I am free!

No more life in the prison for me!

I am free as a bird!  I am free!

For I believe I have awakened now—at last.

The last words of the play as Maia sang her song was Pax vobiscum! It is Latin for peace be with you and where better to find peace than on a mountain where one can sees the pristine majesty of the world.


G. D. Williams       © 2019

POST 809

“He wrote When We Dead Awaken with such labour and such passionate agitation, so spasmodically and so feverishly, that those around him were almost alarmed. He must get on with it, he must get on! He seemed to hear the beating of dark pinions over his head. He seemed to feel the grim Visitant, who had accompanied Alfred Allmers on the mountain paths, already standing behind him with uplifted hand. His relatives are firmly convinced that he knew quite clearly that this would be his last play, that he was to write no more. And soon the blow fell.”

Henrik Johan Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen was born on March 20, 1828, in Skien, Norway. In 1862, he was exiled to Italy, where he wrote the tragedy Brand. In 1868, Ibsen moved to Germany, where he wrote one of his most famous works: the play A Doll’s House. In 1890, he wrote Hedda Gabler, creating one of theater’s most notorious characters. By 1891, Ibsen had returned to Norway a literary hero. He died on May 23, 1906, in Oslo, Norway.


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