Life in the Iron Mills | Study Guide

Rebecca Harding Davis

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Course Hero. "Life in the Iron Mills Study Guide." March 15, 2019. Accessed August 5, 2020.


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Life in the Iron Mills | Character Analysis


Hugh Wolfe

Hugh Wolfe lives the typical life of an iron-mill worker. He stands at the furnace for long hours and sleeps in a small cellar. He has just enough education and interest in art to make him unpopular among his fellow workers, who jeer at him, especially because they do not understand why he spends his small amount of free time molding figures out of korl. Wolfe has an artist's eye and is attracted to beauty. When he sees the gentlemen on the tour of the mill, he understands with bitter certainty that no matter how much he wants to, he will never be like them. Doctor May tries to do him a kindness by telling Wolfe he has talent and he has a right to a better life. But this idea of rights only tempts him to keep the money Deborah stole. When they arrest him, he insists he had a right to it; that makes the authorities think he might be insane. Once behind bars and staring down a 19-year sentence, Wolfe realizes that his whole life has been a prison and that death would be a mercy. With no hope for a better future, Wolfe commits suicide. The Quaker woman promises Deborah that she will bury Wolfe in the countryside.


Deborah lives the hard life of a mill worker, and her sallow features and bent body are the consequences of such a miserable life. Deborah's only light is the love she feels for Hugh Wolfe. Despite being young, Deborah is not beautiful, and she understands that Wolfe can never love her because of his appreciation of art and beautiful things. She envies young Janey for this reason, because she sees how Wolfe is kind to Janey in a way that he is not kind to her. Despite this, Deborah is faithful in her unrequited love, sacrificing her own rest in order to bring Wolfe his meals at the iron mill. She steals Mitchell's money for Wolfe because she hopes it will give him a better life. Later, after they are both in jail, she realizes her actions have condemned him to death. She pleads with the Quaker woman to bury Wolfe somewhere beautiful where he can have fresh air. Even years later Deborah is hopeful she will see Wolfe again in the afterlife. The Quaker woman brings Deborah to live in the hills in a final act of redemption in which Deborah finds forgiveness, hope, a healthy new lifestyle, and a relationship with God, the "Spirit of Love."


The unnamed narrator is not identified as a man or a woman and, with the ability to see past and future simultaneously, might in fact be an angel. As Davis uses the narrator to speak directly to her upper-class compatriots, readers might view the narrator as a persona of Davis herself. Through the narrator, Davis pleads a case for social justice and social reforms to improve the lot of mill workers in industrialized towns.


Kirby represents an elite society that has little interest in bettering the lives of the working class. Kirby dismisses the workers as wretches who could better their own lives if they only had the will to do so. He admits to there being "some stray gleams of mind and soul" among the workers but views them as little better than animals and basically only valuable as a labor source.

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