Life in the Iron Mills | Study Guide

Rebecca Harding Davis

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Life in the Iron Mills | Themes


The Evils of Industrialization

Davis paints a very unpleasant picture of the type of life men and women living and working in industrialized towns. Workers go "breathing from infancy to death an air saturated with fog and grease and soot," which Davis judges as "vileness for soul and body." Like canaries, they may "dream of green fields and sunshine," but such thoughts are merely fancies, for all that waits for them in the future is "to be stowed away ... in a hole in the muddy graveyard."

The working class flocked to cities during the industrial age in pursuit of a better life than farm labor could provide. On the whole their lives did improve, even though factory conditions were dangerous, dirty, and dreary. Davis wrote her story with the aim of shining a light onto these conditions and pleading the case for the inherent worth of human life. The economies of industrialization meant human bodies were seen as capital—mere cogs in the machine. Factories rarely shut down, their "unsleeping engines groan[ing] and shriek[ing]," forcing men to work in shifts of 12 hours or longer. These long hours afforded little time for the pursuit of education, religion, or any kind of hobby that might nurture the soul. Davis speaks of the horror of "soul-starvation, of living death" seen every day in the "besotted [drunk to a great degree] faces on the street."

Indeed, Wolfe's "nature starts up with a mad cry of rage against God, man, whoever." He understands he has been trapped in his "vile, slimy life." Despite his desperate hopes that his love of beauty could elevate him to a better life where he could feed his soul, Wolfe takes his own life in resigned anguish. Through the Quaker woman's salvation of Deborah, however, Davis suggests much needed reforms could lead to a more fulfilled life for all.

Entrapment and Freedom

Davis's narrator's story is a tale of entrapment in terms of a person's situation in life and social class. The narrator uses Hugh Wolfe as an example of the type of person who is most negatively affected by industrialization. Wolfe is mostly uneducated, but he has an artist's eye and skill, which allow him to express feelings he has no words for. His sculpture makes it evident that he is hungry for a better sort of life, one that offers time for rest and relaxation. Wolfe is like the "dirty canary" that "chirps desolately" in the cage in the narrator's house. The narrator observes that the canary's "dream of green fields and sunshine" is very old, "almost worn out." Likewise, Wolfe is trapped in a cycle of stultifying workdays that leaves him too worn out to pursue personal edification. The iron mill is presented metaphorically as a kind of hell the workers are trapped in. When the visitors come to the mill, they equate it with Italian medieval poet Dante Alighieri's Inferno, and Davis uses their dialogue to evoke powerful imagery such as ghouls with glowing eyes among the heat and ashes.

When Deborah steals Mitchell's money, she does so with the intention of giving Wolfe the means to pursue a better life. But Wolfe is instead paralyzed by the inner turmoil the theft creates. He believes himself to be an honest type, and so his first inclination is to return the money. However, he has also clung to the hope inherent in Doctor May's parting words to him to "remember it was his right to rise." Wolfe's statue articulates his soul's question of how it can be saved from soul starvation, and this stolen money seems to offer an answer. Wolfe knows that with this amount of money, he will not have to work at the iron mill again and can devote his life to art. His thoughts stumble upon the idea that God intended humankind to be equal, and in such a world laws against stealing are petty. In an instance of situational irony, it is this type of thinking that entraps him for good.

He is caught with the money and sentenced to 19 years behind literal bars. At this moment, however, the theme is clarified for the reader as Wolfe, from prison, realizes there are perhaps varying degrees of freedom. This is highlighted when Wolfe observes people walking by in the market below his cell's window, and through Wolfe's observations, the reader may realize Wolfe's life in the mill was a hellish trap but he still had a fair amount of freedom compared to being in prison and being condemned. Wolfe's life and all the things he will never do again, simple and grand, such as walking in the market or getting married, come to his mind. The moment is punctuated when Wolfe sees a dog that though walking with his master, "could go backwards and forwards just as he pleased." Davis seems to be arguing, that rich or poor, life is a trial of the soul, and if a person fails, they will lose their soul, choices, freedom, and any future opportunities, the ultimate trap, from which there is no return and death is the only release. Unable to muster the strength to bear such punishment, Wolfe commits suicide, finally freeing his soul.

The Power of Art

Wolfe's statue of a woman made out of korl is a major point of focus in the story: it represents the power of art to articulate the desires of the human soul. Wolfe has no words for his feelings of "soul hunger," but because of his yearning for beauty, he takes time to mold figures out of the korl at the iron mill. He is "untaught" and "unled," so his figures are crude and hideous, much like himself. His giant white woman statue gains him the attention of gentlemen on tour of the iron mill. His piece is not refined or beautiful, but it is effective in getting its message across to both the gentlemen in the story and to the reader. As Mitchell remarks, the woman's face "asks questions of God" and demands answers. Mitchell is touched by "how hungry it is," just as the reader must sympathize with how hungry Wolfe himself is.

Similarly, Davis uses the art form of a fiction story as a vehicle to convey the need for social reforms amid rampant industrialization. Detailing the bitter lives of her characters, Davis can raise real-world concerns less provocatively by couching them in fiction. Her inner story of Wolfe and Deborah is framed by an outer story of a wealthier narrator living in the Wolfe house 30 years later. This narrator keeps the korl statue as a reminder of Wolfe's longing to live and desire for salvation. Wolfe's mortal life is over, but his immortal spirit lives on in his art.

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