Life in the Iron Mills | Study Guide

Rebecca Harding Davis

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Life in the Iron Mills | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

The Narrator Begins

To open the story Davis first offers an epigraph that asks if life is as "futile" as it is "frail." Speaking in the first person, the unnamed narrator then launches into a description of an industrialized town in the southern region of the United States as seen through the windows of a house. The narrator observes how everything is gray and covered in smoke or ashes, even the canary in the nearby cage. The narrator also observes how "masses of men, with dull, besotted faces" creep past on their way to work in the mills. The foggy day reminds the narrator of the story of Hugh Wolfe. The story comes to mind because it belongs to "this house into which" the narrator "happened to come today."

A Bitter Life

Thirty years prior the Wolfes lived in two of the cellar rooms of the house, while another five families took up the rest. The Wolfes are Welsh immigrants, and Old Wolfe "had spent half of his life in the Cornish tin-mines." Both Old Wolfe and his son Hugh work in the iron mill, and their cousin Deborah works in the cotton mill. They are plagued by "incessant labor," poor living conditions, and bad food. Getting drunk is their only escape.

One night Deborah comes home from work and stumbles into the cellar. She eats her portion of cold, boiled potatoes. She shares one with Janey, a young, pretty Irish girl who seeks refuge from her drunken father with the Wolfes. Then, despite her own weariness, Deborah goes to the iron mill to take Hugh Wolfe his supper. She finds him "heaping coal on a furnace." He eats without appetite and bids her to lie down on an ash heap, which she does like "a limp, dirty rag."

A Discovery on Tour

Hugh Wolfe is nearing the end of his shift when the noisy workers around him grow quiet. A group of visitors is touring the mill. The group stops near Wolfe's station to rest. The visitors include Clarke, who is the overseer, Kirby, who is a son of one of the mill owners, Doctor May, who is a reporter, and a refined man named Mitchell, who is Kirby's brother-in-law. One of the men compares the mill to Dante's Inferno, and Kirby laughs. The men talk, and Wolfe watches them with pleasure. The voices of the gentlemen touch Wolfe "like music." Clarke and the reporter leave, but the other three men stay and talk. Wolfe does not understand them, but he is certain that between his life and their lives is a "great gulf never to be passed."

When Kirby, Mitchell and Doctor May finally decide to leave, they run into a sculpture of a giant white woman. Wolfe formed it out of korl, a by-product of ironworking. At first they jump back from it, but then begin to examine it with interest. Doctor May praises the "sweep of the muscles in the arm and the hand." They ask Wolfe what he intended to say with the piece. Wolfe tells them the figure is hungry—not for food but for something "to make her live." Doctor May seems to suggest Kirby should nurture such artistic talent, but Kirby says it is not his responsibility. Kirby believes each man should make his own way; he has no interest anything but the men's usefulness as "machinery." Doctor May tells Wolfe he could be "a great sculptor, a great man" and exhorts him to "make yourself what you will," because it is his "right" to do so. Wolfe asks him for help, but Doctor May declines, saying he does not have the money. As the men leave, Doctor May and Mitchell acknowledge Wolfe, and Kirby throws money at Deborah.

A Turning Point

After the men depart, Wolfe tears at his filthy clothes, anguished by the clear difference between his "squalid daily life" and the lives of the "pure" and "delicate" gentlemen. Through his art Wolfe has been "day by day" making his "hope a real thing to himself." He wishes to raise his fellows "up with him," even though most of the time he settles for wishing to escape. He is struck with the urge "for life." Wolfe cries out, asking if it is his fault that he is no better. Deborah cries, and they return home. Wolfe looks at Janey and loses the hope of ever being able to offer her a better life. Deborah confesses that she stole Mitchell's money and gives it to Wolfe. He falls asleep for many hours, and when he wakes, he knows he must return the money. Deborah tells him it is his right to keep it.

Wolfe goes out to think about his dilemma. The money could help him build a better life, but he knows it is theft and that theft is wrong. On the other hand, "God made this money ... for his children's use" and "never made the difference between poor and rich." Wolfe seems to decide to keep the money and realizes, if he does, he must never go to work again at the mill. He visits his "old haunts" to say his goodbyes to them. He enters a church, where a preacher talks about love and sin, but Wolfe does not understand the words. He leaves and wanders the town some more.

Punishment and Redemption

A month later Doctor May reads the newspaper aloud. Wolfe has been sentenced to 19 years for grand larceny. Wolfe sits in the prison in ankle irons because he has tried to escape twice. Haley, the jailer, explains that Wolfe is very weak and bleeding and that Deborah is in jail as well, sentenced to three years as an accomplice. Haley allows Deborah to visit Wolfe. She confesses to him that everything is her fault. Wolfe does not respond, and she is horrified by the look on his face. She seems to understand he intends to commit suicide, and she begs him not to. Wolfe looks out the window at the street. It is market day, and he sees his fellow worker, Neff Sanders. Wolfe whistles to get Sanders's attention, but Sanders does not look up. Wolfe bids Deborah a good night, and she remarks he will never see her again. He agrees. Again she begs him to reconsider suicide, but he tells her it is for the best. She listens as he rasps a piece of tin against his bars.

Wolfe takes in the sounds of the evening. He sees Joe Hill and calls out to him. Wolfe is disappointed that he gets no answer. The tin is sharp. He cuts himself and bleeds out slowly, welcoming the release of death. The next day Wolfe has many visitors, including a Quaker woman. The Quaker woman promises Deborah she will bury Wolfe where "the winds of God blow all the day" in the countryside. The Quaker woman also promises to take Deborah to the countryside when she is released and expresses her sorrow that she was too late to save Wolfe.

Nearly 30 years later Deborah is an old, saintly woman in the Quaker community. The narrator describes the korl statue in the library of the house, hidden behind a curtain. On some nights, such as the one in question, the curtain "is accidentally drawn back" and the imploring face and outstretched hand can be seen. The rest of the room is "steeped in heavy shadow," but light touches the statue like a "promise of the dawn."

Analysis

The Narrative Frame

There is much evidence that the narrator is not human and is likely an angel visiting hellish Earth from heaven, or perhaps trapped on Earth but able to remember that heaven exists. The narrator seems more an observer of humans than a part of humanity from the outset of the story. In the first paragraph of the story, the narrator says, "The air is thick, clammy with the breath of crowded human beings. It stifles me." The narrator describes the view out of the window as smoky, foggy, desolate, crowded, and smelling foul. Of the men in the mills, the narrator observes that life is "a drunken jest, a joke" to them, but "horrible to angels perhaps."

The narrator sees the future and the past simultaneously, which takes some time for Davis to reveal to the reader. First, the narrator says, "The future of the Welsh puddler [a worker whose job is to convert iron from one form to another by heating it in a furnace] passing just now is not so pleasant. To be stowed away, after his grimy work is done, in a hole in the muddy graveyard, and after that, not air, nor green fields, nor curious roses." The narrator knows Hugh is going to die and is not going to heaven, having just ruminated on remembering that after life comes green fields and sunshine. In the next paragraph the narrator switches to describing "fragments of an old story" that float up into the narrator's memory. The narrator then begins to tell what happened to Wolfe in the past. Davis structures this purposely to position the narrator as someone who can see the past and the future together, which is key evidence for the reader in discerning that the narrator is otherworldly, outside of time, and perhaps even an angel. Further, it is significant that the narrator does not live in the house. The story—"of this house into which I happened to come today" simply floats into the narrator's mind.

The Seeming Futility of Working-Class Life

Davis begins with an epigraph that questions the nature of life. Her story specifically questions the nature of a working-class life as it pertains to industrialized towns. Davis asks the reader to grapple with the presumption that some people are worthier of a good life than others merely based on the accident of their birth. In order to examine the seeming futility of a working-class life, Davis depicts the struggles of mill workers. She focuses her attention on one man in particular: Hugh Wolfe.

The narrator asserts they do not know the reason why they chose to tell Wolfe's story rather than another from the "myriads of these furnace-hands." Davis's choice of Wolfe is deliberate, however. Although Hugh Wolfe typifies the average filthy, uneducated, working-class immigrant, his artistic sensibilities set him apart from others of his class. He is meant to exemplify the kind of sensitive soul that is entrapped beneath the layers of grime brought on by the evils of industrialization. Davis means to show that such lives could hold more meaning if given the proper opportunity.

While Wolfe becomes a casualty of his harsh city reality, his cousin Deborah is given the chance to escape a similar fate by moving to the countryside with the Quakers. In setting up the conclusion of her story this way, Davis is clearly advocating for the type of reforms that would allow the working class a cleaner, more peaceful life. The last image of the story, the korl statue lit up like a "promise of the dawn," is a hopeful one. With this image Davis seems to suggest she believes humanity can and will help usher in a new age of equality and prosperity for all.

Yearning and Redemption

The narrator speaks of the "disease" of the lower class, which Davis describes as a kind of "soul-starvation" or "living death." The lower classes have no time or opportunity for self-actualization. Their main release from toil and drudgery is overindulgence in alcohol. But Davis suggests their lives could be more meaningful if others could act toward them with charity.

Through Hugh Wolfe's artistic eye Davis illustrates that his soul seeks out a more meaningful life, even if Wolfe cannot put this yearning into words. The narrator points out that Deborah understands Wolfe's "finer nature," which seeks "whatever was beautiful and pure." Wolfe is not popular with his fellows because of his habit of molding figures out of korl, "a light, porous substance, of a delicate, waxen, flesh-colored tinge." His art is "hideous, fantastic enough, but sometimes strangely beautiful." In this way his art is like he is. Wolfe is unpleasant to look at, described as both haggard and "yellow with consumption." He is a gloomy fellow, "untaught, unled," and yet his soul yearns for beauty. The narrator says, "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." Like the korl statue of the woman he molded, Wolfe hungers for a fulfilling life, to be seen as worthy of human dignity rather than as merely a cog in the machine of industrialization. But he has no one to help him achieve his human potential.

Deborah, who does not possess an artistic eye, is also motivated by an ideal higher than mere animalistic instinct. Though no one has cared to notice, not even the object of her affection, Deborah is in love with Hugh. Because Hugh does not love her back, "there was no warmth, no brilliancy, no summer for [her]." Davis suggests that Deborah's seemingly "colorless life" actually contains a "story of a soul filled with groping passionate love, heroic unselfishness, fierce jealousy." That is, although refined society might dismiss her as not worth saving, Davis clearly disagrees. Davis asserts that all mankind is essentially the same inside, regardless of class and outward appearance, and thus all are worthy of a meaningful life.

The visit of the Quaker woman who comes to the prison to comfort Deborah shows the sort of redemption that might lie ahead for the wretched people of Earth if divine grace could be extended to them through the hands of their fellow humans. The Quaker woman buries Hugh in the hills, and then at the end of Deborah's prison term takes Deborah to live there peacefully, where she turns her eyes "to hills higher and purer than these on which she lives." The allusion is to Psalm 121, "I lift up my eyes to the hills— / from where will my help come? / My help comes from the Lord." The psalm, like the Quaker woman herself, is a guarantee of protection and love. With this ending, Davis shows that holding any religious viewpoint without taking social action or actively helping people to rise spiritually is not of much worth. The well-heeled characters can quote the Bible all they want, but to Davis, "faith without works" has no value.

The Great Gulf between Rich and Poor

Thanks to Kirby's tour of the iron mill, the refined gentlemen of the upper class are juxtaposed with the grimy puddlers. It is in this hour Wolfe that realizes "in all the sharpness of the bitter certainty" there is a "great gulf" between his station in life and theirs. Davis demonstrates this gulf in her descriptions of both the men's appearance and their speech. Whereas the workers are described as "a desperate set," "filthy," and with "dull" expressions, the gentlemen are compared to thoroughbreds who shine with "the glamour of another order of being." The gentlemen discuss newspaper articles and math figures and literature, while the workers grunt and speak almost unintelligibly.

Kirby admits to being afraid of the workers, saying he does not "fancy a close proximity [to them] in the darkness,—unarmed, too." Kirby also insists that tending to minds and souls of his workers is not his responsibility. He proposes that if the American way is indeed "a ladder which any man can scale," then "they can work out their own salvation." Kirby suggests that perhaps Doctor May would like all men to be socially equal, but Kirby believes that cannot be because of the sad state of the wretches. He declares that if he were God, he would make these workers mere machines and nothing more. Kirby says he does not get involved in social problems; his only duty is to pay his workers. Doctor May wonders who is responsible if not Kirby and, in doing so, acts as the voice of Davis herself. Davis is too restrained to be overtly accusatory, but it is clear from the exchange between Kirby and Doctor May that she believes the upper classes owe the working class a certain amount of assistance in order to help them achieve more meaningful lives. Wolfe later ponders that God "never made the difference between rich and poor," which seems to confirm Davis's belief that the gulf between them is human-made and should be solved by humans as well.

The City versus the Country

Davis depicts the city as a foul place of unceasing labor and misery and the country as a sunny place of rest and cheer. These are not meant to be literal depictions but rather representative of the contrast between an industrialized society that values humans only for their labor and Davis's idealized vision of a society where everyone is recognized for their inherent worth. Kirby, Mitchell, and Doctor May represent the types of upper class people who thwart social equality. Kirby may feel some sympathy for his workers' pain, but he essentially sees them as machines rather than human beings. He takes no responsibility for their social welfare. Mitchell and Doctor May come closer to seeing their worth, but for them social justice is theoretical. Doctor May gives lip service to Wolfe, reminding the man it is "his right to rise," but he offers no practical help in doing so. When Doctor May reads later of Wolfe's arrest, he is quick to absolve himself, blaming Wolfe for being ungrateful "after all [his] kindness."

The Quaker woman from the country, however, represents a reform movement that offers practical help to the lower classes. She laments being too late to help Wolfe in life but offers him a dignified final resting place befitting his inherent worth as a human being. In life Wolfe had longed "only for one moment of free air on a hill-side" as a balm to his "sick soul." This represents his desire to be seen as worthy. When Deborah asks the Quaker woman if she knew Hugh Wolfe, the Quaker woman answers, "I know Hugh now." Wolfe's inherent worth has been recognized, and he can rest in "another world" in a "depth of quiet and rest and love." The Quaker woman is also able to offer Deborah more tangible assistance. She takes Deborah to live in a "homely pine house ... whose windows overlook broad, wooded slopes ... where the light is warmest." Deborah is finally free from a life of abused misery in the city to live out a peaceful existence in Davis's idealized countryside.

Life in the Iron Mills Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Deborah brings Hugh his dinner at the iron mill.

Rising Action

2 Kirby leads a tour of the mill and discovers Hugh's art.

3 Mitchell praises Hugh's talent.

4 Deborah picks Mitchell's pocket and gives the money to Hugh.

5 Hugh debates keeping or returning Mitchell's money.

6 Hugh and Deborah are arrested and sentenced for theft.

Climax

7 Unable to face imprisonment, Hugh commits suicide.

Falling Action

8 The Quaker woman promises to bury Hugh in the country.

Resolution

9 Deborah goes to live with Quakers in the country.

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