Life in the Iron Mills | Study Guide

Rebecca Harding Davis

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Life in the Iron Mills | Context

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Literary Realism

As a genre, literary realism first came to prominence in the 1860s. Its popularity soared in the following decades thanks to influential authors such as British novelist Charles Dickens (1812–70), Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–81), and American author William Dean Howells (1837–1920) among others. Realism sought to render subjects objectively and realistically and offered critiques of modern social life. As a participant in this movement, Rebecca Harding Davis (1831–1910) was before her time. Even in Europe, where the movement originated, realism was not truly underway until the 1860s, after the publication of Madame Bovary by French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821–80) in 1857. In it Flaubert attempted an absolutely accurate portrayal of the French middle class, conveying both concrete detail and psychological nuance.

"Life in the Iron Mills" is considered a seminal early work in the American literary realism wave. As one of the first works to address the plight of the American factory worker, it is progressive in its efforts to shine a light on unpleasant realities. Davis's story breaks from the earlier literary tradition of Romanticism by focusing on the commonplace. Romanticism was a literary, intellectual, and artistic movement that began late in the 18th century and lasted into the mid-19th century. The movement celebrated the imagination, the subjective, the visionary, and the individual over rationality. In contrast, in "Life in the Iron Mills" Davis aims to show factory life "as it was" while subtly making the case for reform.

Industrialization in the American South

Living in Wheeling, West Virginia, Davis experienced the boom years of industrialization in a border town between the American North and South. Around the time the story was published, the American Civil War (1861–65) had begun and 11 Southern states had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. Friction between the North and South over the issue of slavery had been building for decades. West Virginia, which remained on the side of the federal government during the Civil War, began seceding from Virginia, a Confederate state, in 1861. It officially became its own state in 1863. Despite the state's Federal allegiance, Wheeling was a slaveholding area, just like the town depicted in "Life in the Iron Mills." However, it had a number of factories rather than being primarily plantation-based, like much of the South. The two main characters in the story, Hugh Wolfe and Deborah, both work in factories. Hugh works in an iron mill, and Deborah works in a cotton mill. The experience of the social upheaval and conditions created by industrialization inform Davis's story, which—though it does not directly address slavery—pleads with the reader to consider the inherent worth of human beings apart from their usefulness as a labor source.

Industrialization is defined as a socioeconomic status that was a result of a shift away from a chiefly agrarian, or farming, background. Europe experienced this change in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; North America lagged slightly behind. The creation of a factory-based economic system in the United States, especially in the Northeast, was a result of several influences, including an influx of work-ready immigrants, abundant natural resources, the creation of the transcontinental railroad, and the fostering of intellectual curiosity and invention. West Virginia, also part of the region known as Appalachia, attracted immigrants from all across Europe in the thousands. As a frontier town between the settled and unsettled territories of the still-forming United States, it had a unique culture and immigrant heritage. This is revealed in the different dialects of the mill workers in Davis's story.

Literary and Religious Allusions

Dante's Inferno

Italian poet and writer Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) is best known for his medieval visions of heaven, hell, and purgatory as described in his epic poem The Divine Comedy (c. 1308–21). The first section of the poem, the Inferno, takes place in hell, which Dante depicts as comprising nine circles. Dante as a character within the poem visits each circle and describes the souls he meets there, who are damned for certain types of sin, ranging from lust to violence.

In "Life in the Iron Mills" the men on mill-owner Kirby's tour are well educated and thus can speak using literary allusions. One of the men describes the iron mill as looking like Dante's Inferno, and his meaning is clear to his fellows although it is lost on the workers themselves. Kirby laughs and points out one of the workers as being like "Farinata himself in the burning tomb." By doing so, Kirby acknowledges the suffering of his workers at the same time he makes light of it. In The Divine Comedy Farinata has "great contempt for hell," but Davis depicts the workers as too weary to muster up much in the way of contempt. Dante based Farinata on the real-life Italian noble Farinata degli Uberti (d. 1264), who was decried as a heretic, or a person's whose religious opinion does not align with recognized religious doctrine, after his death. He occupies the sixth circle of hell, reserved for heretics.

Religions Allusions

In "Life in the Iron Mills" Davis alludes to several religious viewpoints, through her minor characters and her narrator, to show how these spiritual beliefs affect attitudes toward human rights. Some background knowledge of the religions mentioned in the story is helpful for discerning Davis's complex exploration of religion.

Early in the story the narrator refers to the reader as "You, Egoist, or Pantheist, or Arminian," as if the reader might embrace any of these viewpoints. The narrator clearly rejects them all, although traces of Arminian theology can be seen in the actions of the character of the Quaker woman, who extends Christian kindness toward another character.

  • Egoism is the belief that the self is the only motivation for an individual's actions.
  • Pantheism is the belief that the universe—physical matter, substances, and governing forces—is God. Therefore, people, animals, trees, plants, gravity, and such, when combined, equal the whole of divinity. In pantheism, all religions, creeds, and conceptualizations of God are acceptable.
  • Arminian theology is based on the teachings of Dutch minister Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609). Arminius rejected the predestination theory of Calvinism, which supposes that whatever happens was originally willed by God. Instead, God sends prevenient grace—a sort of divine grace that comes before human action. Prevenient grace endows a person with faith and draws them away from depravity or evil, enabling them to accept God.

Some of the basic aspects of Christianity drive the story, such as beliefs in heaven and hell, a final judgment day in which the righteous and sinners are judged, and the idea of Jesus Christ as advocate and redeemer of humankind. The narrator further places the reader in the position of "God's judging angel"—angels act as messengers between God and humans in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament—and might in fact be divine. Through evidence such as the narrator's hypersensitivity and ability to see the future and the past simultaneously, the story suggests that the narrator is an angel visiting a hellish Earth from heaven or perhaps is trapped on Earth but able to remember that heaven exists.

The character Kirby accuses Mitchell of quoting the Bible too freely, to which Mitchell responds, "Deist? Bless you, man, I was raised on the milk of the Word." Deism is the belief that God has created all things but does not interfere or intervene in the created world or in human lives, especially by the power of miracles.

The character Doctor May is a Saint-Simonist who is mockingly invited by another character to preach his doctrines about the "rights of the soul" to mill owner Kirby. Saint-Simonian doctrines are based on the teachings of French social theorist and founder of Christian socialism Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825). The author references these doctrines to critique contemporary cultural ideas about how to help the poor.

A Quaker woman visits the character Wolfe when he is in jail. Quakers, also called Friends, are part of a Christian movement that started in the mid-17th century in England. They believe in the possibility of direct communion with God and the idea of living lives that embody this spiritual communion.

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