Life in the Iron Mills | Study Guide

Rebecca Harding Davis

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Life in the Iron Mills | Symbols


The River

One of the first images Davis offers in her story is the "dull and tawny-colored" river. She personifies it, as it "drags itself sluggishly along" and "tired of the heavy weight" it carries. This river is representative of a factory worker in her unnamed factory town. Thus, the river symbolizes the unnamed, unknown worker in general. Davis makes the symbolism abundantly clear when she compares the way the river flows to the "the slow stream of human life creeping past, night and morning, to the great mills."

But the river possesses hope because it "knows that beyond there waits for it ... air, and fields, and mountains." In contrast, Davis suggests that all a worker has to look forward to is their grave. She envisions a future where social reforms lead to workers being able to feed their souls. Instead of "slavishly bearing [their] burden day after day," workers could find a place of rest and recognition of their worth as humans.

The Korl Statue

Korl, also called dross, is a useless solid by-product that comes from working with iron, as opposed to slag, the liquid waste by-product that comes from ironworking. Korl is widely available for Wolfe's use, and he fashions a great many figures out of it, many of which he ultimately breaks because he is dissatisfied with them. His crowning achievement is his giant white statue of a woman that garners the attention of Kirby, the mill owner, and his fellows. The refined gentlemen note the statue holds "not one line of beauty or grace" but it is nevertheless "not badly done." When asked what he means by it, Wolfe acknowledges the woman hungers for life. Fashioning the piece was his way of articulating his own soul hunger and his desperation to live a life of meaning. As such, the statue symbolizes the perpetual posture of industrial workers: tense, stretched, a cry for both meaning and justice forever on their lips.

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