Both Life in the Iron Mills and The Awakening represent the tragic death of an artist. Rebecca Harding Davis describes the life of Hugh, an aspiring artist confined to his role as a lower class mill worker. Kate Chopin portrays Edna Pontellier as a talented painter similarly confined by her role as a wife and mother. Both Edna and Hugh possess an artistic talent that leads them to question the meaning of their existence. Each character seeks to represent truth or emotions that transcends their contemporary social setting. Edna’s search for passions and Hugh’s longing for expression and beauty lead them both beyond the social confines of their times. As a result, the strict societal role by which they define themselves shatters, leaving Hugh and Edna to look beyond the accepted roles of men and women of the time to search for their true identities. Both Life in the Iron Mills and The Awakening end with the seemingly tragic death of the artist. Yet, both Hugh and Edna obtain a brief true happiness by themselves becoming artistic creations that transcend their contemporary social worlds.
Edna and Hugh use their art as a form of expression. Hugh creates his grotesque sculpture of a woman ravaged by hunger to express a deep need that he cannot communicate in words. While attempting to explain the appearance of the statue, Hugh says, “I dunno… It mebbe. Summat to make her live, I think, like you. Whiskey ull do it, in a way” (Davis, 33). Hugh fails to communicate verbally the need and hunger for life in his statue to his boss and the doctor. Rather, everything Hugh ever wished to express found a voice in his sculpture. His search for beauty and happiness as well as the utter frustration resulting from his fruitless search find their way into the statue in a way words could never express.
Edna expresses her own sensuality in her painting. For Edna, painting represents a fulfillment of her own desires. The images and emotions she feels flow naturally from heart to hand and brush. Edna steps outside her role as a wife within this context because she satisfies her own wants, rather than living to fulfill the needs of her children and husband. Edna fails in attempting to paint a likeness of Madame Ratignolle, the epitome of the role of a perfect wife. She becomes frustrated with herself and smudges the painting. Motivated in much the same way as Hugh when he crushes all of his sculptures, Edna finds herself unable to link her need for passionate fulfillment with the portrait of a woman she considers an ideal wife. Hugh, frustrated by his failure accurately to express his hunger for beauty because he is thwarted by the hellish iron mills, crushes his works as well. Both Edna and Hugh find that their medium for expression, be it korl or canvas, fails to fulfill their needs.
Each character seeks to represent an object of feeling that transcends his or her social role. Hugh sought beauty in his art and Edna sought passions and sensuality in her painting. Yet, the confines of their social roles deny them the very thing that would fulfill their lives and allow them a moment of happiness. Hugh searches for beauty within the workman’s iron mills, which bear a close resemblance to Dante’s Inferno. While describing Hugh, Davis writes, “Think that God put into this man’s soul a fierce thirst for beauty, to know it, to create it, to be— something, he knows not what,— other than he is” (Davis, 25). Although a passion for beauty consumes Hugh’s soul, the life of a vile, dirty and intellectually dim laborer is his only source for beauty. As a result, Hugh remains unfilled in his desire for beauty since the role in which society places Hugh leaves his life devoid of any true beauty.
Edna suffers a similar fate in her search for passionate fulfillment. While craving the sensuality of the sea, society confines Edna to the role of one who fulfills the needs of others. The wants of her children, husband, and their guests supercede the desires of an “ideal” woman. Yet, Edna’s consuming need to experience passion puts her at odds with the accepted role of a wife. When Edna visits Madam Ratignolle she feels “a pity for that colorless existence which never uplifted its possessor beyond the region of blind commitment, in which no moment of anguish ever visited her soul” (Chopin, 76). The passion that Edna seeks is mingled with the anguish or frustration found in searching within the physical world for an ideal only found in the imagination. Madame Ratignolle lives a life of benign commitment. While she may never suffer the anguish of a frustrated desire, Madame Ratignolle relinquishes the possibility of true happiness if that desire is ever fulfilled. Edna seeks more than the simple and blind commitment of a wife; she is willing to sacrifice her very being for true bliss.
Before Edna and Hugh look to themselves as media for the fulfillment of their art, they question what it means to be an artist. Mademoiselle Reisz says the artist must possess the courageous soul that dares to defy. Yet, as artists, Hugh and Edna do more than defy the social barriers of the time. The question who they are and their very existence. While the answers they find often lead to cold and harsh truths, the act of questioning defines their artistic lives. Neither character is content blindly to accept the role that society give them. Rather, Edna and Hugh attempt to discover their true identities.
Edna faces the uncertainty of stripping away the role of a dutiful wife when she states, “I’m going to pull myself together for awhile and think—try to determine what character of a woman I am; for candidly, I don’t know. By all the codes which I am acquainted with, I am a devilishly wicked specimen of the sex” (Chopin, 103). As an artist, Edna looks beyond the material world with all its roles to search for the universal or eternal. Edna may never come to understand who she is or what role she does modify. Yet, her artistic talent teaches her to look beyond the social or material world for an answer.
For Hugh, satisfaction is not to be found in the material world. The money given to him by Deb leaves him in no better a state than the inferno of the iron mills. The money serves only as a passport to the upper class that still lacks the beauty and love that Hugh seeks. Rather, Hugh finds a moment of contentment in watching the colors of the sunset play on the water below a bridge. For Hugh, this opens the world of eternal beauty. The narrator states, “Wolfe’s artist-eye grew drunk with color. The gates of that other world! Fading, flashing before him now! What, in that world of Beauty, Content, and Right, were the petty laws, the mine and thine, of mill-owners and mill hands?” (Davis, 47). In this “world” of true beauty, roles do not define men, and possession of money and wealth mean little. It is this world that the artist in Hugh seeks to enter and find his identity.
The desire to transcend the material world and enter a world of eternal beauty and sensuality consumes both Edna and Hugh. They are no longer content to create media that transcend the material world. They soon find that the only way truly to become an artist of beauty and passion is to enact their art upon themselves. Hugh finally creates beauty by sculpting himself into a work of art. At that moment, Hugh “did not think with savage anger of what might have been and was not; he was conscious only of a deep stillness creeping over him” (Davis, 60). Hugh transforms himself into a creation that expresses his need for beauty and at that moment realizes his dream of an artist in the actualization of the beauty within his own life. Although Hugh takes his own life, it is within those final moments that he is a true artist. Hugh himself becomes art and transcends the material world. He takes control of his life by transforming himself into the object of his desire. By transforming himself into art Hugh is finally able to satisfy need for beauty.
Edna succumbs to passion by swimming out into the sea that, for her, symbolizes sensuality. Chopin describes Edna’s feeling as “having descended in the social scale, with a corresponding sense of having risen in the spiritual” (Chopin, 115). Before entering the sea, Edna rids herself of all the social confines by removing her clothing. She walks freely into the sea enacting the very scene that Mademoiselle Reisz stirred in her mind one summer before. As she enters the sea it caresses her ankles and she swims out farther to realize her own satisfaction. Edna freely surrenders her body and soul to the sea and to her art. Neither her children nor her husband could have received such a gift. Edna’s suicide becomes her enacting of her artistic passions. It also represents her final fulfillment of those passions from which she could have never achieved in the material world in which she lived.
Both Life in the Iron Mills and The Awakening seemingly end in tragedy. Yet, the tragedy is for the reader, not the characters who succumb to death. Edna and Hugh represent artists courageous enough to question their existence and face the harsh and cruel answers they received. Both Kate Chopin and Rebecca Harding Davis challenge their readers to question their identities and the roles they inhabit. While Edna’s and Hugh’s lives are filled with discontent and frustration, the authors maintain that Edna’s and Hugh’s moments of happiness represent a greater bliss than any life of blind contentment in a societal role. Each novel echoes the teachings of Emerson to transcend the material world for greater truths. Chopin even writes that Edna picks up Emerson to read one afternoon. While neither character epitomizes Emerson’s ideal man, each attempts to follow the path of Emerson to transcend their roles in life and actualize their art. Both authors maintain that this is the only path to true happiness.