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 9, 2020.


Course Hero, "Life in the Iron Mills Study Guide," March 15, 2019, accessed August 9, 2020,

Life in the Iron Mills | Quotes


A cloudy day: do you know what that is in a town of iron-works?


The unnamed narrator directly addresses the reader as a way of taking the reader into confidence. The narrator sets up the story with a question and then promptly goes on to answer it. A cloudy day is a constant in the stifling atmosphere of an industrialized town. The narrator shows how unpleasant it is by offering an array of sights, sounds, and smells.


You call it an altogether serious thing to be alive: to these men it is a drunken jest, a joke.


Directly prior to this statement, the narrator addresses the reader as "amateur psychologist." This signals that Davis wants to impart some insight into the psychology of the working class. The educated upper classes understand their worth, but the lower classes have not been trained to do so. Self-actualization is too far out of their reach.


Perhaps the weak, flaccid wretch had some stimulant in her pale life to keep her up,—some love or hope.


Like Hugh Wolfe, Deborah is typical of the working class—a weary woman with only hard labor to give her purpose. As Davis says, however, "man cannot live by work alone," so Deborah and others like her must be driven by something deeper.


Looks like t' Devil's place!


The iron mill looks like hell—the "Devil's place"—"in more ways than one." In addition to the abundance of burning fires are the suffering souls of men as they stumble through their hard labor. Davis likens the conditions in the iron mill to a kind of hell on Earth.


The note is the same, I fancy, be the octave high or low.


Here, Davis suggests that all humans are essentially the same, no matter their class or station. She does so with a metaphor based on music, one of the arts, which further supports the theme of the power of art.


God put into this man's soul a fierce thirst for beauty.


Davis suggests that the soul, as God's creation, strives to be recognized for its inherent worth. Wolfe in particular is aware of a need for self-actualization and transformation, although he is not educated enough to translate this awareness into words.


These great turning-days of life cast no shadow before, slip by unconsciously.


The narrator is describing the turning point in Wolfe's life, the event that put him on the path to his death. He could not see it coming, and in fact Deborah meant her act of theft as a kindness rather than a condemnation. Wolfe himself could probably not grasp that his own hope of a better life is what sealed his unfortunate fate.


She be hungry.

Hugh Wolfe

Wolfe cannot express in words what is so clearly expressed in his art. The woman in the statue, like him, yearns for dignity and purpose beyond work.


Good God, how hungry it is!


Mitchell can understand the yearning for a worthy life, which Wolfe conveys. However, Mitchell is not compelled to do anything about it beyond giving Wolfe a pitying look of recognition. Doctor May goes a step further and offers Wolfe some kind words. In a bit of situational irony, this attempt to uplift Wolfe by encouraging him to recognize his "rights" only serves to make him believe he has a right to Mitchell's money. This only leads to his downfall.


What are taste, reason, to creatures who must live such lives as that?


Kirby is ultimately dismissive of the working class. Although he declares himself to be sympathetic to their pain, his solution would be ridding them of their souls instead of enriching their souls.


What am I worth, Deb? Is it my fault that I am no better? My fault? My fault?

Hugh Wolfe

This is Davis's central question to the reader, and she attempts to convey that a person's worth is inherent. She suggests that reforms need to be put into place so that the working class can find meaning in their lives beyond their work.


His soul ... was smothering to death; he ... thought so much, and knew—nothing.


Wolfe's lack of education leaves his mind unable to articulate that his soul needs to be fed. To live, he requires the "fresh air" of Davis's idealized countryside, a place where all people can pursue self-actualization.


What, in that world of ... Right, were the petty laws ... of mill-owners and mill hands?


Davis suggests something like socialism here: a society where everyone has the right to live equally. Wolfe pictures this ideal as a place where he would not have to steal to try to get ahead because his basic needs would be met so he might pursue a higher purpose.


There was coming now quiet and coolness and sleep.


Wolfe has been metaphorically trapped behind iron bars at the iron mill all his adult life. In jail he is literally trapped behind iron bars, and these make him see how hopeless his life has become. The only way for him to achieve the soul rest he desires is to die.


Something is lost in the passage of every soul from one eternity to the other.


This statement comes at the end of a long description of the transformation Deborah undergoes. She hopes she will one day be reunited with Hugh Wolfe, and the narrator does not begrudge her that hope, acknowledging that Wolfe's death brought real loss to Deborah.

Davis believes every human has inherent worth, no matter their station or class.

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