Two days later, Mildred Douglas—the wealthy daughter of a steel tycoon—sits above deck with her aunt. She is “slender” and “delicate” with “a pale, pretty face marred by a self-conscious expression of disdainful superiority.” In line with this, she is “nervous and discontented, bored by her own anemia.” Her aunt, on the other hand, is “pompous and proud,” though she sits like a “gray lump of dough touched up with rouge” while Mildred herself looks like “the vitality of her stock [was] sapped before she was conceived, so that she is the expression not of its life energy but merely of the artificialities that energy ha[s] won for itself in the spending.”
O’Neill’s physical descriptions of both Mildred and her aunt suggest that their wealthy, sedentary lifestyles have taken a toll on their overall physical wellbeing and happiness. Indeed, Mildred’s aunt tries to compensate for her lack of life-force by dressing in a “pompous and proud” manner, though there’s no hiding the fact that she looks like a “gray lump of dough.” Similarly, Mildred looks as if she has no “vitality.” What’s more, O’Neill suggests that this is a direct result of her wealth, since her “life energy” has been exhausted by the “artificialities” that have come as a result of her family’s good economic fortune. In this moment, then, he intimates that growth and economic progress do not necessarily lead to happiness.
Looking out over the ocean, Mildred comments on the “black smoke” coming from the ocean liner, suggesting that it looks “beautiful” as it “swirls back against the sky.” Her aunt, however, says that she “dislikes smoke of any kind.” As the two women argue with one another, it becomes clear that they aren’t on good terms—a notion made all the more apparent when Mildred says, “I detest you, Aunt. Do you know what you remind me of? Of a cold pork pudding against a background of linoleum table cloth in the kitchen of a—but the possibilities are wearisome.” Her aunt hardly pays attention to this insult, suggesting that they try to make a “truce” since she has to accompany Mildred to England as her chaperone.
Mildred and her aunt are clearly unhappy with their lives, despite the fact that they are wealthy and have seemingly everything a person could ask for. Interestingly enough, this general discontent works its way into their relationship, so that they turn their scorn on one another as a way of expressing their overall unhappiness. With nothing to do, it seems, they feel the need to insult one another as a way of distracting themselves from their own everyday ennui.
Mildred’s aunt criticizes her for seeking “morbid thrills” by working with the poor. “How they must have hated you, by the way,” she says, “the poor that you made so much poorer in their own eyes!” Now, she says, Mildred is taking her “slumming” abroad to the London district of Whitechapel. “Please do not mock at my attempts to discover how the other half lives,” Mildred says. “Give me credit for some sort of groping sincerity in that at least. I would like to help them. I would like to be some use in the world. Is it my fault I don’t know how?”
According to Mildred’s aunt, Mildred’s brand of philanthropy only makes poor people feel even “poorer,” since her very presence emphasizes the yawning gap between wealthy people and the working class. And although this might be true—and although Mildred’s intentions are perhaps self-serving—there’s no denying the fact that the desire to “be some use in the world” is a genuinely admirable one. The problem, then, isn’t that Mildred wants to help the poor, but that she doesn’t seem to know how to do so in any kind of meaningful way.
Going on, Mildred says that she wants to be “sincere” and that she’d like to “touch life somewhere,” though she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to do this. “I’m afraid I have neither the vitality nor the integrity,” she admits. “All that was burnt out in our stock before I was born. Grandfather’s blast furnaces, flaming to the sky, melting steel, making millions—then father keeping those home fires burning, making more millions—and little me at the tail-end of it all. I’m a waste product in the Bessemer process—like the millions. Or rather, I inherit the acquired trait of the byproduct, wealth, but none of the energy, none of the strength of the steel that made it.”
The Bessemer process is a method of mass-producing steel that came about in the Second Industrial Revolution, when a number of smaller inventions emerged so that companies could improve upon the innovations that came about in the original Industrial Revolution. When Mildred says that she is a “waste product” of this process, she alludes to the fact that wealth has had a negative effect on her ability to live life with “sincerity.” Under this interpretation, Mildred has benefited from her family’s fortune, but this has kept her from experiencing the “energy” and “vitality” of what it means to live her own life, which is why she is so obsessed with seeing how “the other half lives,” an experience that she clearly hopes will help her transcend her own limited worldview.
Mildred’s aunt mocks her for trying to be “sincere,” saying she ought to be “artificial,” since this would be more “sincere” than anything else she might do. In response, Mildred says she glad she’ll soon be going down to the stokehole. Hearing this, her aunt is quite upset, refusing to believe that she’ll actually go through with her idea to see “how the other half lives.” Nonetheless, Mildred tells her that she convinced the captain and the chief engineer to let her go down. “Oh, they didn’t want to at first,” she says, “in spite of my social service credentials. They didn’t seem a bit anxious that I should investigate how the other half lives and works on a ship. So I had to tell them that my father, the president of Nazareth Steel, chairman of the board of directors of this line, had told me it would be all right.”
Ironically, Mildred—who wants to prove how unattached she is to her wealthy background—has called upon her high social status as a way of convincing the captain to let her visit the stokehole. As such, she makes use of the very thing she is hoping to subvert by seeing “how the other half lives”: her wealth and privilege.
When the Second Engineer comes to fetch Mildred, he tries to make small talk while waiting for another engineer to accompany them into the stokehole. He says that it’s nice and hot in the sun, but Mildred says, “Not hot enough for me. I don’t like Nature. I was never athletic.” Smiling, the engineer says, “Well, you’ll find it hot enough where you’re going.” In response, Mildred says, “Do you mean hell?” Beside himself, the engineer forces an awkward laugh and says, “Ho-ho! No, I mean the stokehole.” He then suggests that Mildred change out of her white dress because she’s sure to rub against grease on her way down the many ladders and pathways leading to the stokehole, but Mildred refuses, saying that she has “plenty of white dresses.” As Mildred follows the engineer, her aunt calls after her, calling her a “poser.”
When Mildred conflates the stokehole with “hell,” O’Neill reminds the audience of the conversation that Yank and his coworkers have in the play’s first scene about the terrible conditions of their everyday environment. What’s more, he emphasizes how unprepared Mildred is to go below deck—although she insists that she can withstand great heat, it’s easy to see that she has no idea what she’s about to do, as evidenced by the fact that she refuses to change her white dress. Indeed, this refusal not only underlines her naivety regarding the abysmal conditions of the stokehole, but also reveals her extremely privileged attitude, as she says that she has “plenty of white dresses” and therefore doesn’t mind ruining this one.