Irene von Satow is a character in Henrik Ibsen’s last play, When we dead awaken, which deals with art facing life – love, in particular – and the dynamics of a relationship between an artist and his muse.
When we dead awaken outlines the story of Arnold Rubek, a famous artist who capitalized on a single masterpiece to build his career. This artwork is a sculpture called “The Resurrection Day,” inspired by Irene, his sole model and former muse, whose love he had rejected to devote his life to art. Irene disappeared without a word after Rubek thanked her for their artistic collaboration (an “episode,” in his own words), as well his inspiration to create significant artworks.
The story (re)begins in a mountain resort where Rubek is vacationing with his wife. In the quietude of nature, he notices a slender lady, dressed in a fine, cream-white, long dress and shawl over her head and shoulders, followed by a Sister of Mercy, fully dressed in black. She is registered as Ms von Satow.
“I know you quite well, Irene,” says Rubek when he meets Mrs von Satow. Irene von Satow is indeed Rubek’s former muse, now wrapped in a scent of death – dead hopes, memories and feelings of a lifetime apart from each other. Irene herself assumes she is dead. Coming “from beyond the grave”, she tells about her life in the darkness, whilst their “child” stood transfigured in the light. The child is the masterpiece she inspired and he sculpted, years ago. She confesses to regretting not having “killed” that child, “crushed it to dust”… but concedes she did not have “that sort of heart” – in those old days she was modeling, at least.
After she left Rubek, Irene’s inclinations of the heart, however, switched position. She recounts the innumerable times that she has killed, “in hatred, revenge, anguish,” two of the hundreds of men she has been linked to – her husbands. She relates that she drove the first – a distinguished South American diplomat – incurably mad to the point that he shot himself in the head. She killed the other one – a Russian gold prospector – with a fine, sharp dagger she always has with her in bed. She also killed her many children, as soon as they were born. Rubek can’t believe her speech but is somewhat disturbed by her apparent frankness and obvious pain.
Irene is resentful towards Rubek for the fact that he took advantage out of her, sculpting the beauty of her body but turning her love away, never connecting their feelings nor touching her frame once the masterpiece was done. Irene’s love for Rubek was never consumed by the artist, yet she feels like her body has been exploited, then rejected. This resentment of being used in her “naked loveliness” for the glorification of Rubek’s art explains Irene’s rhetoric of being dead: “I gave you my young, living soul. And that gift left me empty within – soulless,” she says.
At some point, Irene is about to stab Rubek in the back with a knife. Yet, she refrains and takes his hand “because it flashed upon [her] with a sudden horror that [he was] dead already – long ago.” She indeed understands that Rubek was a living-dead, perishing in the material comfort of a boring life, without inspiration nor real love. The most memorable sentence of the book is then declared by Irene: “When we dead awaken, we see that we have never lived.”
Driven by a desperate desire to live, Rubek walks into death out of love for Irene. Climbing up to the top of a mountain to take vows under the sunlight, they are indeed both swept away by an avalanche. The Sister of Mercy who was looking after them reacts: “Pax vobiscum!” – “Peace be with you!” Finally.