Life in the Iron Mills
Life in the Iron Mills
Life in the Iron Mills
REBECCA HARDING DAVIS
"Life in the Iron Mills," the first published work by Rebecca Harding Davis, was published in the Atlantic Monthly in April 1861. It is currently available in the 2002 edition of The Norton Anthology of American Literature.
"Life in the Iron Mills" is set mostly in the 1830s in an unnamed town that is based on the author's hometown of Wheeling, Virginia. It tells the tragic story of two Welsh immigrants. Hugh Wolfe is a young man who works long hours in the oppressive heat at the local foundry; his cousin Deborah works at the cotton mill. They live in poverty. Although uneducated and illiterate, Wolfe is a man of great artistic sensibility who longs to escape his daily drudgery and live a more meaningful life, but circumstances conspire against him.
The story is one of the earliest works of the realist movement in American literature, which did not reach its peak for another twenty years. In the early 1860s, the personal lives of the industrial workers who were helping to create the rising prosperity in America were not considered suitable subjects for fiction. But Davis, by examining the miserable, stunted lives led by these workers, shows the human costs of the industrial revolution.
"Life in the Iron Mills" was not part of the accepted literary canon until the 1970s. Though it appeared occasionally in anthologies after its initial publication, it was not rescued from obscurity until the Feminist Press reprinted it in 1972. Since then, it has become acknowledged as a powerful story of wasted human potential, a critique of industrial conditions, and the forerunner of a new literary movement in American literature.
American novelist and short story writer Rebecca Harding Davis was born on June 24, 1831, in Washington, Pennsylvania, the eldest of five children born to Richard and Rachel Harding. When Davis was five or six, the family moved from Big Spring (now Florence), Alabama, to Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia). Davis was educated by her mother and private tutors. As a child she loved reading the novels of the leading writers of the day, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Maria Edgeworth, Charles Dickens, and Sir Walter Scott. She also loved writing. Her formal education consisted of three years at Washington Female Seminary, in Washington, Pennsylvania, which she attended from 1845 to 1848. Excelling as a student, she was valedictorian of her class. After graduating, Davis returned to Wheeling, where she helped her mother manage the household and continued to develop her literary interests.
Davis's first publication was "Life in the Iron Mills," the story for which she remains best known today. The story arose from her observation of the lives of the workers at the iron mills in Wheeling, which was an industrial area. One of the first works of literary realism in the United States, the story was published anonymously in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly in 1861. Davis followed this with her first novel, Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day, which was published in 1862. The success of the novel prompted the editor of Atlantic Monthly, James T. Fields, to invite Davis to visit him and his wife in Boston. The visit took place in 1863, and Davis met many of the great literary figures of the day, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Bronson Alcott, his daughter Louisa May Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. On her way back from Boston, Davis stopped in Philadelphia, where she met L. Clarke Davis, a journalist with whom she had been corresponding. They quickly became engaged and married later that year.
The marriage produced three children, including Richard Harding Davis, born in 1864, who was to become well-known as a journalist and author. A second son, Charles, was born in 1866, and a daughter, Nora, in 1872.
While raising her family, Davis continued to write, including mysteries and romances for popular magazines, and, more importantly, serious works for literary magazines and journals. Her stories examine topics such as the Civil War, the aftermath of slavery, the conditions of African Americans, poverty, and the status of women. Her stories about the Civil War include "John Lamar" (1862), "David Gaunt" (1862), and "Paul Blecker" (1863). Among her stories that focus on the role of women in society is "The Wife's Story" (1864).
In 1869, Davis's husband became managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and she became a contributing editor for the New York Daily Tribune, an association that lasted for twenty years.
Davis published a total of ten novels, including Waiting for the Verdict (1867), Dallas Galbraith (1868), John Andross (1874), Doctor Warrick's Daughters (1896), and Frances Waldeaux (1897). Her published short stories number over 100.
After her husband's death in 1904, Davis went to live with her daughter, Nora. Her autobiography, Bits of Gossip, was published in the same year. She later went to live with her son Richard Harding Davis in Mount Kisco, New York, where she died on September 29, 1910, from edema of the lungs brought on by heart disease.
"Life in the Iron Mills" is set in an unnamed town that is based on the author's hometown of Wheeling, Virginia. The story begins with the unnamed narrator setting the scene. He looks out of his window on a foggy and rainy day and describes what the town full of iron foundries is like. Smoke from the foundries is everywhere. From the back window he sees the river, full of boats and coal barges. He looks on the stream of humanity that is making its way to the great mills, with dull faces, dirty with smoke, stooping all night over furnaces then frequenting "dens of drunkenness and infamy" by day. Then he tells the reader he is about to tell the story of the life of one of the men who, thirty years ago, used to work as a furnace tender at one of the Kirby & John's rolling-mills. His name was Hugh Wolfe, and he and his father and cousin Deborah lived in the cellar rooms of the house that the narrator now occupies. The Wolfes were immigrants from Wales.
At about eleven o'clock on a rainy night, Deborah arrives home from the cotton mill where she works as a picker (a worker who operates a machine which separates cotton fibers). Her two mill girl friends want her to go to a dance that night, but she does not want to go. As she enters the cellar rooms she sees Hugh Wolfe's father asleep on a heap of straw, and then walks into the next room where she eats her supper of cold boiled potatoes. She sees Janey, a young Irish girl who is staying for the night, and then goes out in the heavy rain to walk a mile to the iron mill to take Hugh his supper. She is tired from her twelve-hour shift, but she loves Hugh and always tries to please him. After she arrives at the mill and gives Hugh his food, she lies down on a heap of ash nearby and rests. She knows that, although Hugh is kind to her, he dislikes her deformed, hunchback appearance and prefers Janey.
As Deborah lies down, Hugh continues to work at the furnace. He is a "puddler"; his job is to stir iron oxide into a vat of molten pig iron as part of the process of making wrought iron or steel. He is weak from many years of working in these unhealthy conditions, and he has tuberculosis (known at the time as consumption). He is not popular with the other workers because they sense that he is not one of them; he has an artistic sensibility, and during his rest period he likes to chip away with his knife and mould figures out of korl (a waste product created in the process of making wrought iron). In spite of the many years he has labored in the furnace, he still has a passion and a thirst for beauty.
As it approaches midnight, a group of five or six men appears. They are visitors to the mill, and Hugh Wolfe watches them. They are Clarke Kirby, the son of one of the mill owners, Doctor May, a town physician, and others Wolfe does not know. The men sit down, and one of them remarks that the place resembles Dante's Inferno, but Clarke Kirby does not listen. (Dante's Inferno is the first part of The Divine Comedy by the medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri.) Kirby starts to talk about profits. One of the other men, a reporter from the North, takes notes. His name is Mitchell, and he is Kirby's brother-in-law, who is spending some time studying the institutions of the South. Wolfe admires him, recognizing him as a well-bred man. He also recognizes the gap between them, and knows it can never be bridged.
Over the next hour, Kirby, Mitchell, and Doctor May talk amongst themselves. Shortly after they get up to leave, Mitchell is startled to come across a large sculpture of a woman crouching on the ground, her arms spread out in a gesture of warning.
The three men examine the sculpture, which was made out of korl by Wolfe. The figure is not beautiful; it is muscular through labor, and the face looks like that of a starving wolf. May thinks it looks like a typical working woman. He asks Wolf what he had intended when he created the figure. The inarticulate Wolf replies only that "she be hungry." May tells him he has made a mistake, since the body is strong and shows no signs of starvation. Wolf replies that she is not hungry for meat, and when Kirby asks what she is hungry for, Wolfe can only give a vague answer: "Summat to make her live, I think." Kirby does not understand, but Mitchell does, saying that there is something about the face that "asks questions of God, and says ‘I have a right to know.’" May asks Kirby how many men he has working for him with talents such as these. Kirby replies that it is not his job to nurture "infant geniuses." He does not think about social problems, and his duty to his workers is simply to pay them on time. He accepts no responsibility for anything else. Mitchell comments to the effect that money is the ruler in Kirby's world, and he asks the doctor what he thinks. Doctor May speaks directly to Wolfe, saying he has a capacity to become a great sculptor and a great man. Wolfe asks if the doctor will help him, but the doctor replies that he lacks the means to do so. Mitchell's opinion is that it would do no good to try to help men such as Wolfe, because the push for real reform has to come not from above but from below, from the men themselves when their need reaches a certain point. Then a leader will emerge from within their ranks.
In despair, without hope for the future, Hugh and Deborah return to their cellar rooms in the early morning. Deborah reveals to him that she has stolen some money from Mitchell, picking his pocket as he leaned against some bricks. She gives Hugh the money and breaks down in sobs. To Wolfe, this seems an enormous amount of money, but he is an honest man and has no thought of keeping it.
He sleeps until late that evening, then says he must find Mitchell and give him the money back. Deborah, echoing something that Doctor May had said to Hugh, tells him that he has the right to keep it. Wolfe goes out, grappling with his conscience. He feels the temptation to keep the money, knowing that he needs it in order to live the life that God had meant for him to live. He decides that the money was made by God for the use of his creatures, that God did not make men rich or poor, and that the laws regarding property—who owns what—were petty. He decides to keep the money. That night he wanders around the lanes and alleys of the town. He wanders into a church and listens to a service, then continues to wander around in the damp and foggy night.
A month passes. One morning at breakfast, Doctor May reads to his wife a newspaper report which says that Wolfe has been convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to nineteen years of hard labor in prison. The doctor expresses his outrage at the crime, especially since he and his companions had shown such kindness to Wolfe.
Wolfe sits in irons in his cell, looking out of the window. The shackles have been put around his ankles because twice he tried to escape. Haley the jailer relates how Wolfe was found with the money on him and was given a harsh sentence as an example, to deter others. Wolfe merely said that he thought the money was his by right. After the trial, Mitchell visited Wolfe and they talked for an hour. It appears that Mitchell came out of mere curiosity.
The jailer also reveals that Wolfe is very sick. He has been coughing up blood and is not expected to live very long. Also, the jailer says that Deborah was convicted of being Wolfe's accomplice and was sentenced to three years in prison. She has been begging to be allowed to see Wolfe, and the jailer now lets her in to his cell. She blurts out to Wolfe that it is her fault that he is incarcerated. He does not seem to hear her and continues to scrape at the bars of the window with a piece of tin. Deborah worries first that he is going mad, and then, seeing a certain look on his face, that he may take his own life. As she leaves, she tells him that he will never see her again, a fact that he already knows. He tells her to say goodbye to his father, and to Janey, for him.
Deborah returns to her own cell, which is next to Wolfe's. That night Wolfe commits suicide by slashing his wrists with the piece of tin.
The next day, a crowd gathers in his cell. The coroner and his jury, newspaper editors, Kirby, and others come and go all day. Deborah is there too, since Haley let her in. Late in the day a Quaker woman arrives and stays longer than anyone. She helps to clean the cell and brings a vase of wood-leaves and places it by the pallet on which the dead Wolfe lies. Deborah does not want him to be buried in the town yard under mud and ash, and the woman promises to bury him near where she lives, which is beyond the river, where there are trees and hills.
The woman promises that when Deborah completes her prison sentence, she will help her to begin a new life, with God's help. The Quaker woman is true to her word. After she is released, Deborah goes to live with or near the Quaker, and she worships every week for many years at the Quaker meeting house. She is well loved by the other Quakers, and she pins her hopes on God.
Now that he has told Wolfe's story, the narrator returns to the present. He says that he keeps the sculpture of the korl woman hidden behind a curtain in his library. The curtain is accidentally drawn back, and he sees in the statue's face the spirit of Wolfe and his thwarted, unfinished life. He looks around at the various objects in his library, emblems of "eternal truth and beauty" that belong in the sunlight and then back to the face of the korl woman that belongs to the night. Then suddenly a ray of light touches the head, and the narrator notices that the arm of the figure points to the east, from where dawn is approaching.
Deborah is the cousin of Hugh Wolfe, and she lives with him and his father in their cellar rooms. Although young, Deborah is not a physically attractive woman. She is weak and deformed, almost a hunchback, and her face is extremely pale and carries a look of apathy and vacancy. Like Wolfe's father, she has "red rabbit-eyes." She is unhealthy because of overwork, lack of good nutrition, and poor living conditions. Unlike her companions at the mill, however, she does not drink much alcohol, never touching whiskey, and she has some strength of character. Even though she is exhausted after her twelve-hour shift as a picker at the cotton mill every night she takes Wolfe his dinner at the iron mill. She is in love with him and always tries to please him, although it pains her to realize that Wolfe, even though he speaks kindly to her, does not relish her company or her appearance. She knows he prefers Janey. The narrator encourages the reader to see that underneath Deborah's wretched appearance, there might be other, finer qualities to her nature: "Was there nothing worth reading in this wet, faded thing, half-covered with ashes? no story of a soul filled with groping passionate love, heroic unselfishness, fierce jealousy?"
It is Deborah who steals the money from Mitchell and gives it to Wolfe, thus inadvertently causing the tragedy that befalls him. She herself is sentenced to three years in prison as his accomplice, but while Wolfe dies, Deborah is saved by the compassion of the unnamed Quaker woman, who gives her a second chance in life following her release from prison. Deborah becomes a pious, well-loved Quaker and carries within her the hope of redemption. Because of her quiet religious faith, she looks to the eternal rather than the earthly hills, and the narrator comments that "There may be in her heart some latent hope to meet there the love denied her here,—that she shall find him whom she lost, and that then she will not be all-unworthy."
Haley is the jailer responsible for Wolfe. He does what his job requires, but does not seem a vindictive or bad individual. Indeed, he even seems to feel some compassion for Wolfe, and he allows Deborah out of her cell in order to visit him.
Janey is a young Irish girl who sometimes sleeps in the Wolfes' cellar room when her father is in jail or otherwise absent. She has a haggard and sickly face, but Wolfe is more fond of her than he is of Deborah. Deborah knows this and is saddened by it.
Clarke Kirby is the son of one of the mill owners and appears to be in charge of its operations. He takes no interest at all in the welfare of his workers; in fact he barely seems to notice them at all. He prefers to talk about profits. When he does notice his men, it is only to make sneering comments about them, such as when Wolfe says the woman depicted in the sculpture is hungry, and Kirby jeers that she must be hungry for whiskey. In the discussion he has with Doctor May and Mitchell, Kirby makes it clear that he feels no responsibility to alleviate social problems or to improve the lot of his men; as long as he meets the weekly payroll he is fulfilling his duty. As long as they do the work required of them, he does not care if they create sculptures or cut one another's throats.
Doctor May is a town physician who accompanies Kirby and Mitchell on their visit to the foundry. He prides himself on being an enlightened and compassionate man. He admires the korl sculpture, seeing in it a depiction of a typical working class woman. He is troubled by the expression on the woman's face, and he speaks kindly to Wolfe, trying to encourage him, although he talks down to him, as one might to a child. He tells Wolfe that he can make whatever he chooses of his own life, and it is his right to do so. But when Wolfe asks him for help, Doctor May claims he does not have the financial resources to help educate him. Doctor May's compassion, therefore, only goes so far. He speaks kind words but is not prepared to back them up with actions. When he reads the newspaper report about Wolfe's conviction and sentence, he is quick to condemn Wolfe for ingratitude.
Mitchell is a reporter from the North who is spending a few months studying the institutions of the South. A brother-in-law of Kirby, he accompanies Kirby and Doctor May to the foundry. Mitchell is a well-read man, an intellectual familiar with the work of Immanuel Kant (a prominent eighteenth century German philosopher), Novalis (one of the German Romantic poets) and Alexander von Humbolt, a German naturalist and explorer. Mitchell is also an amateur gymnast and a boxing fan. Wolfe immediately recognizes him as a thoroughbred gentleman and respects him for it. He guesses that Mitchell understands the meaning of his sculpture, and he is right. It is Mitchell who says: "Look at that woman's face! It asks questions of God, and says, ‘I have a right to know.’" But like Doctor May, he feels no desire to take any action to improve the lot of men such as Wolfe. He feels that they must produce their own leader rather than accept help from those above them in the social hierarchy.
Mitchell is robbed by Deborah. He visits Wolfe in prison, but does so, it appears, only out of curiosity, not a desire to help. Mitchell is a man who likes to observe things and write about them rather than taking any direct action. He adopts a detached attitude to life.
The narrator currently lives in the house that was formerly occupied by the Wolfes and tells the story of Hugh Wolfe and Deborah. The gender of the narrator is not identified, but it seems likely that he is a man, since he has a library to himself, which at that time, around 1860, would be more likely the possession of a man than a woman. The narrator is an educated, cultured man, sensitive to art and beauty. He is also compassionate and feels deeply for the dehumanized workers who toil day after day in the iron mills. By telling the story of Hugh Wolfe, the narrator hopes to arouse pity and compassion in the reader and also a hope of redemption. At the end of the story, the narrator reveals that he keeps Wolfe's sculpture of the korl woman in his library.
Hugh Wolfe is a young man of nineteen, the son of a Welsh immigrant. Wolfe has been working as a furnace-tender in the iron mill for perhaps as many as ten years. Physically weak, with a haggard face that is yellow from tuberculosis, Wolfe is effeminate in appearance and is known in the mill as "one of the girl-men"; his nickname is "Molly Wolfe." Unlike the other men, Wolfe does not drink much and whenever he gets into a fight, he always loses. He attended school for a few years, which marks him out from the other mill hands, who view him as an outsider. Another reason he is not popular with his fellow workers is because he has an artist's talent and sensibility. Whenever he has a break from his work, he chips and moulds figures out of korl with a blunt knife. Sometime he works on a piece for months and then destroys it when it is finished out of disappointment with what he has produced. His co-workers jeer at him for his interest in sculpting, but even they recognize that sometimes he produces work that is "strangely beautiful." In particular, he produces a huge statue of a woman that catches the attention of the visitors to the mill.
Wolfe has no hope that he will ever escape from the drudgery of his work in the mill to lead a more rewarding life. The hardness of his life wears him down; he is a "morbid, gloomy man, untaught, unled, left to feed his soul in grossness and crime, and hard, grinding labor." Yet in his soul he has "a fierce thirst for beauty," and sometimes he rages against God who forces such a difficult life on him, so unsuited to his nature. Wolfe has a vision of what his life might become if he had the means. When he sees Mitchell, the cultivated Northern intellectual makes a deep impression on him. Mitchell is the sort of man that Wolfe knows he could become. He takes seriously Doctor May's comment that he has a right to better himself, and it is this idea that influences him to keep the money that Deborah stole for him from Mitchell, even though as an honest man his first instinct was to return the money to its owner.
The Desperate Plight of the Industrial Worker
The plight of those who worked in the mills and factories that were helping to create the increasing wealth of the United States in the 1830s is the unrelenting focus of the story. The narrator, as he sets the scene, refers to "the terrible tragedy of their lives," and further characterizes these lives as "a reality of soul-starvation, of living death." The workers endure long hours of monotonous work for low pay. In the mill, the men work stripped to the waist in extremely hot conditions, surrounded by fiery furnaces. The female workers in the cotton mills receive even less pay. Some of the workers at the iron mill are homeless; they are forced to sleep at the mill on heaps of ash. Those who do have homes, like the Wolfes, live in cramped quarters where they sleep on straw. Their diet is inadequate. Deborah's dinner consists of cold boiled potatoes, and she often has to go hungry.
These people are not given the chance to live with any semblance of human dignity, and those in higher positions in society who might be in a position to help them invent various excuses that allow them to accept the status quo. The monied interests, represented by Kirby, do not accept that they have any responsibility to alleviate the suffering of their workers. The business of money is simply to make more money. As far as Kirby is concerned, his workers can cut one another's throats in drunken fights for all he cares. Doctor May seems to regard himself as a philanthropist—or so Mitchell thinks, as he refers to May as the "heart" as opposed to Kirby, who is the "pocket of the world." The doctor does indeed have a social conscience and recognizes the gravity of the problem. "God help us! Who is responsible?" he says, but he can offer no more than a well-meaning, sentimental idealism that will not commit to any social action. Mitchell, the "head" in the triumvirate of head, heart and pocket, offers nothing either. In his view, sophisticated ideas of reform offered from above are no use to the workers, who must give birth to their own leaders out of the desperation of their need. Mitchell thinks that the doctor's talk about the right of the workers to improve themselves smacks too much of socialism, and he mentions the name of Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), the founder of French socialism. But Mitchell thinks the dissemination of such views will only encourage the workers to go on strike for higher wages.
The great gulf between these three men of privilege and the mostly illiterate, inarticulate workers seems unbridgeable. They live in different universes, not only socially and economically but also linguistically. When the visitors sit near the furnace and talk, "Greek would not have been more unintelligible to the furnace-tenders." When the men of rank try to communicate with Wolfe, his inarticulateness, his inability to put what he feels and expresses through his sculptures into words, is emphasized. While they use language to justify their inaction, Wolfe can barely use language at all, as far as expressing his finer desires is concerned.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research the history of the labor movement in the United States. When did conditions for industrial workers begin to improve? What was the cause of such improvement? Was it action by the government, the adopting of more enlightened attitudes by owners, or the work of labor unions? Write an essay in which you discuss your findings.
- Read another story by Davis; perhaps "The Wife's Story" or "Anne," both of which portray women artists. What do these stories say about the role of women in the nineteenth century, and the tensions between creativity and domesticity? Compare and contrast these stories about women with the portrayal of the artist Wolfe in "Life in the Iron Mills." Conduct a class presentation in which you explain your conclusions.
- In Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day, a novel by Davis, the narrator tells the reader: "I want you to dig into this commonplace, this vulgar American life, and see what is in it. Sometimes I think it has a raw and awful significance that we do not see" (quoted in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, 1979). How might this statement serve as a manifesto for the realist movement in American literature? In an essay, describe the work of one realist writer with whom you are familiar and show how Davis's words might be applied to his or her work.
- Assume, as at least one critic has done, that the narrator of the story is Mitchell. Write a short story told in the first person, with Mitchell as the narrator. In the story, show how Mitchell changed from being a cool, detached observer into a man deeply affected by the sufferings of the industrial workers. What sort of event might change a man such as Mitchell, and what is he like now? Is he regretful, sad, hopeful? What does Wolfe's sculpture mean to him?
The Religious Hope for Redemption
The hope of redemption lies completely outside the sphere of the industrial world which, with its relentless pursuit of profit at the expense of human comfort and human potential, does not change. The scene presented to the narrator thirty years later is much the same as it was before. No progress has been made. No doubt the "Christian reformer[s]," one of whom was giving a sermon in the church that Wolfe entered on the night he decided to keep the stolen money, are still preaching, but social conditions have not altered. Instead, the main idea of redemption presented in the story takes place not in an industrial environment but a rural one, based on the simple Christian piety of the Quakers, who accept Deborah into their community. This is as a result of the kindness shown to Deborah by the unnamed Quaker woman. The model for redemption is therefore feminine rather than masculine. It results not from any great movement for social reform involving the likes of Doctor May or Mitchell but from daily acts of devotion and kindness, as presented by the Quaker woman who did not judge Wolfe harshly and did everything she could to ease Deborah's pain.
There is also a moment of redemption experienced by the narrator, an enlightened man with artistic interests who is troubled by the figure of the korl woman he keeps in his library. One night in the darkness he sees a shaft of light fall on the figure, which he takes as a divine promise that eventually, light and hope and peace will be brought to everything that is represented by the hunger and the desire in the face of the korl woman. This is a purely religious hope for the future, while the present remains the same.
The story is one of the earliest examples of the movement in American nineteenth-century literature known as realism. As M. H. Abrams puts it in A Glossary of Literary Terms, the realist writer "is deliberately selective in his material and prefers the average, the commonplace, and the everyday over the rarer aspects of the contemporary scene." Abrams explains further that the characters in realistic literature are middle class or sometimes working class; they live ordinary and often unhappy lives but "may, under special circumstances, display something akin to heroism." This description certainly applies to Hugh Wolfe in "Life in the Iron Mills," as Wolfe manages to rise above the oppressiveness of his environment to create in his sculptures things of strange beauty and profound meaning.
Realism attempts to present to the reader life as it is really lived. In this respect, Davis's realism can be seen in the accuracy with which she portrays her working-class characters and the environment in which they live: the gritty industrial setting; the poverty and squalor of the cellar rooms; the heat and hard labor in the mills, and also the use of dialect in the speech of Deborah and Wolfe, which helps to set them off against the three visitors to the foundry, who use more cultured speech.
According to C. Hugh Holman in A Handbook to Literature, the writer of realism is also "unusually interested in the effect his work has on the audience and its life," a statement which applies to Davis's story, since the narrator clearly wants to elicit sympathy from the reader for the protagonist of her story: "I want you to come down and look at this Wolfe, standing there among the lowest of his kind, and see him just as he is, that you may judge him justly."
The Frame Story and the Intrusive Narrator
A frame story is a narrative technique in which one story is embedded in another to create a story within a story. In "Life in the Iron Mills," the frame is provided by the narrator's introduction to the story he is about to tell, in which he carefully manipulates the reader into having a sympathetic attitude to the protagonists of the story he is about to tell. After he has finished telling the story of Hugh Wolfe and Deborah, he returns to the present, to the world he occupies in his library, and thus completes the frame of the story.
The story also adopts the technique, common in nineteenth century writing but much less so since, of the intrusive narrator. From time to time, an intrusive narrator will interrupt description of the plot and characters and address the reader directly, in order to express an opinion or to comment on the actions and motivations of the characters, thus encouraging the reader to adopt a certain attitude towards those characters. An example occurs as Hugh Wolfe wanders around town at night, wrestling with the temptation to keep the money Deborah stole from Mitchell. In an attempt to win sympathy for Wolfe and forestall certain objections, the narrator addresses the reader: "You laugh at the shallow temptation? You see the error underlying its argument so clearly. … I do not plead his cause. I only want to show you the mote in my brother's eye: then you can see clearly to take it out."
Industry and Labor
During the period in which the story is set, as well as when it was written, wages and working conditions for industrial employees in America were extremely poor. Mill and factory owners were able to keep wages down because there was an abundant supply of labor. For the most part, the workers themselves, whether they were men, women, or children, lacked organizations that protected their interests so they were unable to alleviate the often dangerous conditions in which they worked. The result of the rapid process of industrialization during this period was great wealth for the few and grinding poverty for the many. In the South during this period, many workers in the iron mills were slaves who were rented by the mill owners. Around 1820, in eastern Virginia, the majority of ironworkers were slaves, who worked alongside English and Welsh immigrants.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1830s: Literary theorists call for the establishment of a distinctively American literature, rather than literature based on English and European models.
1860s: After the Civil War, the realist period in American literature begins. Mark Twain and W.D. Howells begin their literary careers. Louisa May Alcott publishes Little Women in 1868.
Today: Much of the best American literature falls into the category of postmodernism. Postmodern literature explores complexity and contradiction, and often denies the possibility that an absolute meaning can be derived from human experience. Highly acclaimed postmodern writers include Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme, and Don DeLillo.
- 1830s: Women occupy a subservient role in American society. Men occupy all the important positions, and gender roles are rarely questioned.
1860s: Early feminists lobby for women's rights as well as rights for African Americans. Leaders of this early feminist movement include Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who campaign for women's right to vote.
Today: Women in the United States enjoy more career opportunities than ever before, although leadership positions in government and industry are still overwhelmingly occupied by men. Women also face daunting challenges in trying to balance their careers with the demands of raising a family.
- 1830s: The United States experiences rapid economic growth. With the growth of industrialization and urbanization, there is less dependence on an agricultural economy. There is an economic boom from 1835 to 1836, but by the end of the decade an economic recession sets in.
1860s: The Civil War stimulates technological development and new ways of transporting materials. In the years following the Civil War, industrial output in the United States increases dramatically.
Today: The U.S. economy is the largest in the world. It shows steady growth, with relatively low unemployment and inflation. American companies are at the forefront in technological advances, especially in computers and in medical, aerospace, and military equipment.
Government intervention in industry was minimal to nonexistent, since both government and capitalist owners believed it was in their interests to restrict the growth of labor unions and the ability of workers to practice collective bargaining and go on strike. One exception to this rule of government indifference came in 1859, when the state of Ohio passed a law limiting a woman's working day to ten hours. (In the story, set in 1830s Virginia, which borders Ohio to the southeast, Deborah works a twelve-hour shift in the cotton mill.)
The Civil War, which began in 1861 (in the same month that "Life in the Iron Mills" was published), led to an increase in industrialization to meet military demands. Because labor was now in high demand, workers began to realize the power they held and organized more labor unions. The National Labor Union, an organization of local unions, was formed in Baltimore in 1866. In 1867, there was a general strike in Chicago by trade unions demanding an eight-hour working day. However, several decades would elapse before workers like those depicted in the story would see significant improvements in their wages and working conditions.
The Religious Society of Friends, whose members are known as Quakers, was founded in England in the seventeenth century by George Fox. The sect soon spread to the American colonies and at first suffered from persecution. In the Puritan colonies, Quakers were imprisoned or banished and in a few cases executed. Other colonies, such as New Jersey and Delaware, were more tolerant. The state of Pennsylvania was founded by the Quaker William Penn, as a place where Quakers could follow their faith undisturbed.
Quakers practiced a simple faith, without creed or dogma. They believed in the presence of the light of God within each individual, and at their Friends' Meeting Houses they would gather for worship and sit in silence until someone felt moved by the spirit of God to speak. The description of Quaker meetings in "Life in the Iron Mills," is an accurate one: "Once a week they sit there, in their grave, earnest way, waiting for the Spirit of Love to speak, opening their simple hearts to receive His words."
Quakers were known for their opposition to slavery, their belief in equality between men and women, and their opposition to war. They also advocated more humane treatment of the mentally ill and of prisoners (hence the kindness of the Quaker woman to Deborah).
Although "Life in the Iron Mills" made an impact on readers of the Atlantic Monthly when it was first published in 1861, the story subsequently fell into relative obscurity. In 1949, it was mentioned briefly by Gordon S. Haight in Literary History of the United States, but is given a negative appraisal: "In her effort to rouse pity … Mrs. Davis violates her own rule of the commonplace. Few mill workers are hunchbacks, and except in a reformer's tract no consumptive could long be an iron puddler." In 1951, Clarence Gohdes, writing in The Literature of the American People, observes that the story presents "a grim picture, and it has made its way into the anthologies as a specimen of realism of the times," an assessment which implies that the story is of limited value because it belongs only to its time and place.
"Life in the Iron Mills," along with other stories by Davis, had long been out of print when it was reprinted by the Feminist Press in 1972. The volume included an appreciative introduction by the feminist writer Tillie Olsen, who describes the story as a "forgotten American classic." Olsen also declares: "Without precedent or predecessor, it recorded what no one else recorded; alone in its epoch and for decades to come, saw the significance, the presage, in scorned or unseen native materials—and wrought them into art."
After the 1972 publication, it became impossible to ignore either the historical importance or intrinsic literary value of "Life in the Iron Mills." It has since been regularly reprinted in anthologies, thus making it available to a new generation of readers.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English. In this essay, he discusses "Life in the Iron Mills" in terms of literary movements such as realism, sentimentalism, and romanticism.
Nearly 150 years have passed since the first publication of "Life in the Iron Mills." It might be hard for today's readers, accustomed to many different modes of realism in literature, to understand the impact the story had on the cultivated, educated readers of the Atlantic Monthly when it appeared on their desks in April of 1861. This uncompromising examination of the underside of the industrial revolution in America was not a common literary topic at the time, as Tillie Olsen points out in her introduction to the story in Life in the Iron Mills and Other Stories. If iron mills were mentioned at all in American literature, such as in the poetry of Walt Whitman, they were described in terms far removed from the gritty realism of Davis's story. How different, for example (as Olsen notes), are these lines from Whitman's "A Song of Joys," in which working in a foundry is presented as one of the many joys that a man might know: "O to work in mines, or forging iron, / Foundry casting, the foundry itself, the rude high roof, the ample and shadow'd space, / The furnace, the hot liquid pour'd out and running."
Needless to say, had Whitman been talking about real rather than idealized men and women and foundries, he might have written a different poem. While Whitman chose to celebrate the energy and expansion of the young country, America, it was left to Davis to put the spotlight on the human cost exacted by the growing industrialization that was at the root of the nation's emerging prosperity and progress.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Charles Dickens's novel Hard Times (1854) is set in the fictional Coketown, based on the new industrial towns of central and northern England. One of Dicken's goals was to enlighten his readers about the horrible working conditions in the factories, some of which he had visited himself.
- American Realism (2002), by Edward Lucie-Smith, traces the history of American realist art from the colonial period to postmodernism. It contains 250 illustrations and 115 full-color plates. Lucie-Smith examines many paintings and places them in a cultural and historical context, showing how American artists in different periods have given expression to the experience of everyday life.
- The Portable American Realism Reader (1997), edited by James Nagel and Tom Quirk, contains representative works from the realist and naturalist movements from the Civil War to World War I. Authors represented include Mark Twain, Henry James, Stephen Crane, Kate Chopin, Willa Cather, Jack London, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser.
- Germinal (1885), by French novelist Émile Zola, focuses on the grim lives of coal miners in northern France in the 1860s who do hard and dangerous work for wages that do not even allow them to feed their families. When an unemployed railroad worker is forced to take a job at a mine, he finds himself leading a strike that has tragic consequences.
However, "Life in the Iron Mills" is a complex narrative that has elements of more than one nineteenth-century aesthetic movement. In addition to its realism, it contains, as Jane Atteridge Rose points out in her book Rebecca Harding Davis, a strain of sentimentalism, a type of literature in vogue in the eighteenth century. The term sentimentalism has acquired a negative connotation for modern readers, since it implies an excessive attempt to elicit pathos and sympathy from the reader for the plight of the characters, but the sentimentalism in eighteenth century fiction also expressed an idealism that, as Rose puts it, "upheld traditional Christian values," often "linking the known material world with the unknown spiritual one" and presenting a benevolent image of God. It is this element of sentimentalism in "Life in the Iron Mills" that allows Davis to provide a doubly optimistic conclusion to her story. First, there is Deborah's redemption through the kindness of a Quaker community and its simple religious faith that she comes to share. Second, there is what the narrator interprets as the promise of redemption in the light that falls on the statue of the korl woman in his library, which makes him believe that somehow the longings and desires expressed in the face of the woman—the hunger for meaning and fulfillment in life—will indeed take place at some unspecified time in the future, because God is benevolent and will ultimately save His creatures.
Some readers may feel that such a conclusion blunts the force of the story, which is surely, at one level, calling for something practical to be done, by those who care, to effect lasting change in the system that creates unfortunate characters such as Wolfe. If the conclusion looks to the benevolence of God, the body of the story might be seen as an indictment of the ineffectiveness of God's Christian representatives on earth to live up to their responsibilities. The narrator makes it clear that in this one night of Wolfe's life, a crucial religious drama is being played out that will affect his soul forever; it is one of those "great turning-days of life…. Only a trifle, a little turn of the rudder, and the ship goes to heaven or hell," a belief that is restated later when Wolfe returns from the mill and is bereft of hope: "somehow, the man's soul, as God and the angels looked down on it, never was the same afterwards."
Other Christian beliefs and principles are mentioned several times in the story, most noticeably in the discussion between the three visitors to the foundry. The reference Mitchell makes to Dante's Inferno suggests that those who labor in intolerable heat in the foundry are already in a kind of hell fire from which they need a savior to redeem them. Mitchell is an educated man who certainly knows his scriptures. He compares Kirby's lack of interest in improving the lives of his workers to Pontius Pilate's statement, recorded in the gospels, renouncing responsibility for the crucifixion of Christ even though he saw no guilt in him. (Mitchell quotes Pilate when he says "I am innocent of the blood of this man. See ye to it!"). When Kirby shows his distaste for such a comparison, Mitchell produces another Biblical quotation: "Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these, ye did it unto me." This is a statement made by Jesus to the effect that anyone who performs an act of charity for another person does it for him, Jesus. The irony is that Mitchell, while fully aware of the scriptures, feels no need to act on the principles that those scriptures espouse.
The implications of this are drawn out by another allusion to the New Testament which occurs when the narrator points out that Wolfe realizes, although he has no words for it, that "between them [himself and Mitchell] there was a great gulf never to be passed." This is an allusion to a parable about Dives, a rich man, and Lazarus, a beggar who longs to eat the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table. When they die, Dives goes to hell and Lazarus to heaven. When Dives asks that Lazarus be sent to him with some water to cool his tongue, he is told that this would be impossible, since there is a gulf between them that cannot be crossed. The inference in Davis's story is that Mitchell, for all his worldly sophistication, may end up like Dives because he ignores the needs of the less fortunate, in this case Wolfe.
The imagery with which the two men are described confirms this gulf between them. Even though Wolfe believes that he feels an affinity with Mitchell, as the sort of man he might hope to become, they are described in completely opposite terms. Mitchell is associated throughout with cold. He has a "cool gray eye … with a temper yielding and brilliant as summer water, until his Self was touched, when it was ice, though brilliant still." When he turns to speak to Wolfe, "bright and deep and cold as Arctic air, the soul of the man lay tranquil beneath." Wolfe on the other hand is compelled to endure "heavy years of constant, hot work;" he is inseparable from the fiery furnaces at which he works. If Mitchell is a detached observer, an intellectual man who watches everything as if he is a spectator at a play, Wolfe is a man of deep feeling and passionate yearning. If Mitchell is a rationalist, Wolfe is a romantic.
The romanticism of Wolfe is the third aesthetic element in this story, in addition to realism, which dictates the setting, and sentimentalism, which produces the optimistic ending. Romanticism, a nineteenth-century literary and artistic movement in Europe and the United States, was in part a rebellion against limitations of all kinds. Romantics sensed the infinite potential of human life and they pushed against the boundaries of the unknown. They exalted the human imagination as a gateway to the fulfillment of the highest aspirations that humanity was capable of. If they did not always succeed in attaining their aims, they took sustenance from the grandeur of their attempt to triumph over circumstances that would otherwise restrict them. Seen in this light, Wolfe's sculpture of the nude woman, which reaches out like a tormented figure from one of William Blake's illuminated books—Blake was one of the great English Romantic poets and an artist as well—is a magnificent expression of the romanticism that animates his heart and soul. The description of Wolfe himself as "a morbid, gloomy man" even suggests something of the brooding nature of the Byronic hero, the restless, suffering hero in the poems of English Romantic poet Lord Byron, who is prepared to defy even God himself in order to live out his rebellious individualism, searching for meaning in a world that refuses to disclose it. Indeed, Wolfe's reaction when he glimpses some beauty in life, "a passion of pain,—when his nature starts up with a mad cry of rage against God," again sounds the cry of the Byronic hero, defying the curse of the Almighty who has forced him to live a life in which his desires cannot be satisfied and yet will not be quenched.
Many of the romantics, in search of wholeness in life, were fascinated by the idea of androgyny, the combining of male and female characteristics in one being. Wolfe in "Life in the Iron Mills" is a curiously androgynous character. Physically, he is not strong; if he gets into a fight, he invariably loses. Partly because of his artistic sensibilities, he is considered effeminate by his fellow workers, who think of him as one of the "girl-men" and nickname him "Molly Wolfe." Not only this, when this "girl-man" uses his artistic talents, he creates a remarkably androgynous figure. His sculpture of the nude woman is androgynous because of the muscularity of the body, its "powerful limbs." When Doctor May wonders at this, Kirby points out that Wolfe has plenty of opportunities to study anatomy, since the foundry workers, all men, are half-naked in the heat. So in creating a sculpture of a woman, Wolfe's models appear to have been men. If Wolfe himself is a "girl-man," his creation might be thought of as a "man-woman." It is as if he is subconsciously reaching for a wholeness of expression that would combine male and female elements to represent the great hunger of humanity to acquire the food that would nourish its soul.
If Wolfe emerges as a romantic figure, it is his romanticism that both gives him life and condemns him. His very ability to hope, to entertain a higher vision, proves his undoing. The vital moment takes place as he wanders the streets, trying to decide what to do with the money that Deborah has stolen and given to him. First, the narrator paints a picture of Wolfe's perceptions and thoughts in one of his finest moments, a description that is pure romantic longing:
There were times when the soft floods of color in the crimson and purple flames, or the clear depth of amber in the water below the bridge, had somehow given him a glimpse of another world than this,—of an infinite depth of beauty and of quiet somewhere,—somewhere,—a depth of quiet and rest and love.
As Wolfe wanders around at sunset, he is granted for a moment a similar perception. He watches the "rolling seas of crimson mist, waves of billowy silver veined with blood-scarlet, inner depths unfathomable of glancing light," and he interprets this as "the gates of that other world," a world of beauty beyond the everyday mundane reality. It is this vision that calls to him with such force that it compels him to transgress the moral code, to disobey the laws of society in pursuit of an ideal that he must have for the nourishment of his soul. Again, this is a very romantic notion, the call of the infinite, of beauty, that trumps all other demands and obligations that a man might have. Even Wolfe's suicide, when all is hopeless, might be seen as a last heroic, romantic gesture against the chains that by now literally, not only figuratively, bind him—a refusal to accept life on the terms on which it is now offered.
Thus "Life in the Iron Mills," although rightly known as a herald of the emergence of realism in American literature, also looks back to other literary movements, not only to eighteenth-century sentimentalism but also, in its protagonist Wolfe, to the essential ideals of romanticism.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on "Life in the Iron Mills," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following article, Morrison posits that Davis has a conflicted view of what an artist should be, and that this is reflected in her portrayal of Hugh.
Rebecca Harding Davis's "Life in the Iron Mills" can be read as Davis's expression of confusion regarding her own perception of the artist. The character of Hugh Wolfe, presented with characteristics of both sexes and divided between the entrapment of his life's situation and the desire for an unspecified "something else," can be seen as a reflection of Davis herself. John Conron suggests that Davis "makes [Wolfe] an exemplary type of the man of feeling, whose feelings have been repressed by his environment," but Davis is in fact more concerned with the nature of the artist as restricted by humanity and environment (493). Furthermore, the narrator and obvious references to other artists frame the novella, and these aspects of the text serve to further broaden the search for the nature of man as artist.
Throughout the novella, Wolfe is presented foremost as an artist, introduced amidst a "scene of hopeless discomfort and veiled crime," and is thus depicted primarily within an environment that would surely not be conducive to developing artistic ability. The hunchback Deb first calls the reader's attention to the individual nature of Wolfe as artist, perhaps fittingly so, as Deb's physical characteristics distinguish her from the rest of society just as Hugh's "difference" causes him to be isolated:
She felt by instinct, though she could not comprehend it, the finer nature of the man, which made him among his fellow-workmen something unique, set apart. She knew that, down under all the vileness and coarseness of his life, there was a groping passion for whatever was beautiful and pure.
This hint of difference in Wolfe is not clearly defined, but Deb can sense the unique element within Hugh, without necessarily being able to pinpoint exactly what it is that constitutes this difference. She seems aware (and thus makes the reader aware) that Hugh is superior to the other men in the mill and that this special quality he possesses manifests itself in a yearning for more from life. Wolfe can look beyond his current situation and maintain his depressing existence only with the belief that there are other options available to him.
Wolfe, with his "meek, woman's face," is isolated not only by physical characteristics that do not conform to the expected standards of the male physique, but furthermore by the fact that he has received a certain amount of education, no matter how minimal, and thus "had the taint of school-learning on him." He is decidedly "not one of themselves" in the opinion of the other workers, due to his "foreign thoughts and longings breaking out through his quietness in innumerable curious ways," and Wolfe in fact expresses himself through art as an escape from the confines of his existence. At this point, Davis interrupts her own narrative in the form of the feeling narrator, and reiterates for the reader that Wolfe is to be regarded as extraordinary:
Think that 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,—other than he is … With all this groping, this mad desire, a great blind intellect stumbling through wrong, a loving poet's heart, the man was by habit only a coarse, vulgar laborer, familiar with sights and words you would blush to name.
Davis seems here to be "groping" toward her own definition of what an artist is and toward the characteristics that distinguish Wolfe from other men. Yet she too is groping and cannot overcome the insurmountable barrier of defining the indefinite. She can only identify that Wolfe is searching for an alternative, for something else, without either Davis or Wolfe knowing themselves exactly what it is they are seeking. Wolfe clings to the hope that there are alternatives to his present situation in order to go on living, and when this hope of difference is taken from him by his later imprisonment, the only option he sees remaining is to take his own life.
Wolfe is aware of other options that life has to offer, even while simultaneously acknowledging that the differences evident to him are not necessarily available. He sees his superiors as a "mysterious class that shone down on him perpetually with the glamour of another order of being," and "the mystery of his [life]" is pronounced with one seemingly simple question: "What made the difference between them?" Wolfe envisions the visitors as suns casting their glorious light upon him, as an artist might depict them. Similarly, he can admire the aesthetic quality of the light catching Mitchell's ring and the "music" of his voice, two elements to which Wolfe "did obeisance … with his artist sense, unconscious that he did so." Wolfe sees his filth and occupation in reflection with the fine gentleman before him, becoming animalistic and ashamed as he considers "his more stained soul." His perceptions of the visitors are somewhat glamorous, but again emphasize the artistic element in Wolfe that is at the forefront of his initial evaluation and reaction.
Dr. May recognizes the uniqueness of Wolfe (having viewed his korl woman) and seems to promise all that Wolfe desires:
Do you know, boy, you have it in you to be a great sculptor, a great man?—do you understand? … to live a better, stronger life than I, or Mr. Kirby here? A man may make himself anything he chooses. God has given you stronger powers than many men.
May equates an artist's ability with the ability to be a better person, and confirms Wolfe's suppressed desire: that he does have the chance to escape from the life in which he is currently confined and that he can alter his existence. Yet May implies that this alteration is possible through Wolfe's artistic abilities, and Wolfe fails to see that his talents could be his route to change. May also refuses to help Wolfe, interpreting the latter's request for aid as a desire for monetary support, and thus categorizing Wolfe with the other workers as being satisfied by and desirous of only financial award.
When Wolfe subsequently has the opportunity to take Mitchell's money, after Deb has stolen that which he perceives to be essential in altering his circumstances, Davis presents images of Wolfe's life flashing before him in terms of an artist recounting his impressions: "Do you remember rare moments when a sudden light flashed over yourself, your world, God? When you stood on a mountain-peak, seeing your [life] as it might have been, as it is?" Appealing directly to the reader, Davis suggests that all people at some time desire to achieve more from life, to be able to go beyond their own situation. As Wolfe experiences this particular emotion, imagery containing light is again used, suggesting that Wolfe's perceptions of his surroundings are those of an artist in noticing distinct detail and are thus superior to those of common men.
Although Wolfe cannot define what it is in himself that makes him different from other men, he is aware that his mundane occupation as a mill worker has effaced the man he once was or perhaps could have been, but he nonetheless retains "a clear, projected image of himself, as he might become." Wolfe still hopes for the opportunity to better control his own future as he has been unable to direct his past, and he possesses the somewhat romanticized desire to "escape,—out of the wet, the pain, the ashes, somewhere, anywhere,—only for one moment of free air on a hillside, to [sit] down and let his sick soul throb itself out in the sunshine." Wolfe can fantasize of a dreamlike escape from his present, but he simultaneously rejects one conventional avenue of happiness in the reality of his [life], turning away from Janey's sleeping form and rejecting "some plan for the future, in which she had borne a part. He gave it up at that moment, then and forever … somehow, the man's soul, as God and the angels looked down on it, never was the same Afterwards." Wolfe is "stretching out his hands to the world," in an attempt to escape from "the pit" in which he feels himself to be confined, but as he chooses consciously to do wrong, he simultaneously condemns himself. As the sun sets over the hills and Wolfe chooses to partake in the theft of the money, his impression of the world is again presented from the perspective of an artist's appreciation: "inner depths unfathomable of glancing light. Wolfe's artist-eye grew drunk with color. The gates of that other world!" But despite Wolfe's appreciation of the scene before his eyes, the light is dying, and the imagery suggests that Wolfe's choice is an irrevocable step toward unfavorably altering his destiny.
Although Wolfe makes two escape attempts from the prison in which he is physically placed, it seems that he no longer has the will to attempt to escape from his mental impoverishment: "laid there on that pallet like a dead man, with his hands over his eyes. Never saw a man so cut down in my [life]," as Wolfe's jailer observes. The "curious gray shadow" that Deb observes spreads over Wolfe's countenance until the spark of life is almost extinguished. Yet even when Wolfe has despaired of his hopes for a different future, he can still appreciate the beauty in the world as he views the marketplace through the window of his cell: "How clear the light fell on that stall in front on the market! and how like a picture it was, the dark-green heaps of corn, and the crimson beats, and golden melons! … Then came the sudden picture of what might have been, and now." Perhaps the window acts as a frame for Wolfe's view, but it would again seem that Davis is casting Wolfe in the role of a painter evaluating the scene before his eyes, appreciating the subtle tones of color he perceives. Juxtaposed with the glimmer of perception that marks Wolfe's unique nature, Davis immediately emphasizes that Wolfe has rejected this aspect of himself and can no longer find solace in the belief that he has an alternative to his present. That alternative can no longer be satisfactory for Wolfe, as it has gone beyond the realm of dream and has become an impossibility, denied to him by the nature of his physical incarceration.
Thus for Wolfe the only remaining alternative is death: "It is best, Deb. I cannot bear to be hurted any more." No longer suffering under the illusion of his hopes, when Wolfe again notes external beauty, he stops his train of thought with an exclamation indicating that he no longer has any desire to look to a future that is empty for him: "The picture [of the mulatto leaving the market] caught his eye. It was good to see a face like that. He would try to-morrow, and cut one like it. Tomorrow!" The individuality of the mulatto's face and the impression of her image on his mind are responded to again by an artist's appreciation, but Wolfe curtails his train of thought as he recalls his current situation. For Wolfe, suicide is the last control he has over shaping his own destiny: his suicide is not an act of cowardice but rather a renunciation of a life he no longer desires to live.
The korl woman that Wolfe carves outlives him, and would seem to express his undefinable feelings. Other figures that he has carved have been destroyed: "working at one figure for months, and, when it was finished, breaking it to pieces perhaps, in a fit of disappointment." Thus his current work is all that remains of him after his suicide, and although it too is unfinished, the fact that Wolfe did not destroy it indicates perhaps that more than any of his other work, the korl woman comes closest to an expression of his soul's feelings. It is significant, too, that Wolfe is not working in forms that are familiar as tokens of classical beauty. Wolfe does not have access to the proper tools or materials of an artist, and his ability is further emphasized by the realization that his craft is in no way aided by tools or material. Thus the korl he uses, though not corresponding to the marble of the figures in the church that Wolfe so admires, is significant as a reflection of Wolfe's talent and innovation under constrictive conditions: "korl, an industrial waste product, as is, in a sense, Wolfe himself" (Hesford 74).
The figure is mistaken for a living being by Mitchell, and the narrator proceeds to accurately depict its form:
There was not one [line] of beauty or grace in it: a nude woman's form, muscular, grown coarse with labor, the powerful limbs instinct with some one poignant longing. One idea: there it was in the tense, rigid muscles, the clutching hands, the wild, eager face, like that of a starving [wolf].
The comparison of the figure to the animal whose name Wolfe shares is pointed, and, although the figure is that of a woman, the statue surely reflects Wolfe's own desires, and, by extension, those of the narrator. The figure seems to depict a mundane worker searching for more; hungry to grasp something further from life; and despite the narrator's assertion that the statue is not beautiful in any sense, the "poignant longing" indicates that the figure is successful in conveying an indescribable and indefinite emotion that is nonetheless clearly recognizable to man. May observes that the figure is "clutching: the peculiar action of a man dying of thirst," and when asked, Wolfe affirms that the statue is indeed desperately reaching for something: "She be hungry … Summat to make her live, I think." Even its creator cannot specify exactly what the statue is searching for, no more than the narrator or Wolfe can elucidate their own desires, but, like Wolfe, the statue depicts the search of a human being for ‘something’ out of [life]; for an indefinite improvement or alteration.
The questions being asked by the statue can have no easy answers, and although the mill visitors can dismiss the statue and the questions it raises by departing from the environment in which it is imprisoned, these questions remain unanswered for Wolfe. It is thus rather fitting that Wolfe should cut his wrists with "a dull old bit of tin, not fit to cut korl with," for just as he can no longer express his dreams through artistic endeavor, so he can kill himself with a piece of metal unfit for his craft and fit only to end his life. Indeed, as Mark Seltzer has noted, by killing himself Wolfe succeeds in making himself into a picture or image: "Wolfe's desire to ‘make himself’—cutting his body with the tin knife not fit to cut korl with—converts person into still [life]" (477).
Wolfe is thus presented primarily as an artist in his own right throughout the novella, but he can further be seen as a reflection of Davis herself, in the persona of the narrator. The novella is framed by the narrator's description of her own situation, and the narrator has no hesitation in interrupting the progression of the narrative to divulge her own thoughts and to direct the reader's attention specifically. The narrator justifies the novella by suggesting that she is recounting actual events, and that she was inspired to do so by her presence in the Wolfe house: "a story of this old house into which I happened to come today … this house is the one where the Wolfes lived." In describing the mill as Deb enters it in the narrative, the narrator belies her own abilities and actually calls attention to her own craft: "A reality of soul-starvation, of living death, that meets you every day under the besotted faces on the street,—I can paint nothing of this." Yet clearly the narrator is creating the scene and controls the detail depicted. The image of writer as painter of the scene parallels images of Wolfe's perceptions as being those of an artist, and both the narrator and Wolfe have eyes that discern the natural beauty and the specific elements that construct a scene and its impressions. It is the narrator who reflects on Wolfe's death and clearly indicates to the reader that this event should be endowed with the significance it deserves, as Wolfe's soul had undoubtable merit despite his crime: "something pure and beautiful, which might have been and was not: a hope, a talent, a love, over which the soul mourns." Thus the reader is directed to mourn over Hugh's soul, and to be aware that, despite his talent, he was nonetheless a human being with humane desires.
The narrator who was in the Wolfe house at the beginning frames the novella by bringing the reader back into her current situation. It is supposedly in her library that she has kept the korl figure with its "touches, grand sweeps of outline, that show a master's hand" hidden behind a curtain. Within the figure, the narrator sees the survival of Wolfe—a hint of the man remaining in his work: "the spirit of the dead korl-cutter looks out, with its thwarted life, its mighty hunger, its unfinished work … Only this dumb, woful face seems to belong to an end with the night." Wolfe is presented as the artist here as opposed to the mill-worker, and the soul of the artist embodied in the statue is stiff reaching out, still unfulfilled in its search for something better. The statue belongs to the night, just as Wolfe made his irrevocable decision to keep the money and thus choose the direction of his own fate as the sun set over the hills and upon his life. Similarly, the novella closes as the dawn breaks, and the narrator as artist once again notices the natural beauty of the scene before her eyes and feels that "God has set the promise of the dawn." At the close of the novella, the narrator seems to express the hope that a new day brings, perhaps indicating that the narrator (and, by extension, Davis herself) will not give up her search for satisfaction of the soul as Wolfe did.
Perhaps Wolfe finds expression in carving, in the occupation of an artist, principally because he cannot find satisfaction and happiness in the reality of the world around him. The figure he carves is the expression of his own emotions, and the sex of the figure could be seen to imply Wolfe's search for a wholly different alternative to his own situation, as Charlotte Goodman points out: "Hugh Wolfe's insatiable life hungers are embodied in the figure he sculpts of a woman laborer." In this sense, the figure he carves is not realistic: Jean Pfaelzer observes, "This is a woman whose body is not confined by bustle and bodice, whose existence is not defined by her maternal role, whose morality is not derived through avoiding the outside world. This is a working woman's body, strong, tired, and dissatisfied." The figure is not a depiction of Wolfe's ideal woman, but is rather a depiction of a person freed from any social constraints placed upon her, who is reaching out for more and thus, perhaps, reflecting Davis's own feelings more than Wolfe's. For Davis, too, the figure has attained a level of freedom that does not seem available to her. Even though Davis could veer from contemporary social norms in her writing, she subsequently succumbed to the traditional woman's role in marriage, and following this novella, she wrote only popular romances. Following acclamation of "Life in the Iron Mills" as an accurate depiction of contemporary social problems, Davis's marital situation and financial constraints compelled her to abandon her craft, and she succumbed to the temptation of writing popular romances in order to make money. But at least Davis made a successful attempt to achieve an "other," whereas Wolfe never even has the chance to escape from his situation.
Not only is the novella framed by the narrator's situation, thus lending the text a sense of closure, but it is also preceded by an epigraph taken from Tennyson's poem, "In Memoriam A. H. H.": "Is this the end? / O life, as futile, then, as frail! / What hope of answer or redress?" (Tennyson 56.25-27.) The text of the novella clearly attempts to respond to these pleas, but the answer to the last question in Tennyson's poem is said to lie "Behind the veil" (56.28), perhaps recalling Shelley's admonition to:
Lift not the painted veil which those
Call life …
…—behind, lurk Fear
And Hope, twin Destinies, who ever weave
Their shadows over the chasm, sightless and
drear. (lines 1-2, 4-6)
Shelley states that fear and hope are inextricably intertwined, and capitalizes both words to emphasize their importance. Thus, for Shelley, life is an illusion consisting of two omnipresent emotions through which humanity searches for an "other." The significance of the epigraph thus becomes clear, as Tennyson's [link] to Shelley seems to confirm that Wolfe's search can only ever be futile, just as Davis's search for self-definition through art is never fulfilled. Similarly, it would seem that Davis could have supplemented the framing of the novella with the narrator's situation by closing with another stanza from Tennyson's work. As the sun sets in Wheeling, the light is thrown on the head of the korl figure and its hand points out to the promise of the east, and surely the image Davis conveys can be seen to correspond to a further stanza in Tennyson's poem:
Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day. (50: 13-16)
Just as the korl figure in Davis's novella points toward the dawn and reminds the narrator of the inherent promise of a new day, so Tennyson desires support in his continuing life. Only by continuing to hope can the artist as human go on living.
Source: Lucy Morrison, "The Search for the Artist in Man and Fulfillment in Life-Rebecca Harding Davis's ‘Life in the Iron Mills,’" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 2, Spring 1996, 8 pp.
Richard A. Hood
In the following excerpt, Hood examines the overlapping narrative voice in "Life in the Iron Mills," and he identifies the narrator as Deborah. Hood also discusses the literature of "thwarted lives."
… Finally, the inference must be drawn that this narrator shares a great deal with the character of Deborah. She is a native of the town, a resident of the house, and intimate observer of all the crucial scenes of the story—yet a woman who has been saved from drowning in the smoky sea of the mills. Thus she anticipates Ishmael who, too, couches his narrative as a retrospective: "The drama's done. Why then here does any one step forth?—Because one did survive the wreck." Like Ishmael, only Deborah can claim both the experience of the story and the ability to tell about the story. The paradox, here, is embodied in the characterized narrator herself, who, by implicitly identifying herself as Deborah—yet not the degraded Deborah of the interior story—can at once embody the story's conditions and provide a critically distanced representation of the story's conditions.
The character Deborah has finally escaped the worst of this life, has gotten out of the street and into a safe place whence she can view this world as an observer, a narrator. From this point of reference she can assert just how different the reader and Deborah are while at the same time affirming their similarities:
One sees that dead, vacant look steal sometimes over the rarest, finest of women's faces,—in the very midst, it may be, of their warmest summer's day; and then one can guess at the secret of intolerable solitude that lies hid beneath the delicate faces and brilliant smile.
Deborah's escape has been accomplished, but she knows, and is driven to inform the reader, that the immunity she enjoys can be another kind of suffocation, an aseptic, enervating loneliness that drinks in stories of people we know nothing about.
The interrelationships among frames come full circle as the story returns to its narrative frame, in Hugh's house and in the reader's time. Among the former members of Hugh's world saved "now" in the interior of the narrator's room, transformed, too, from mill-worker's "den" to "library," are the korl woman, formerly mill scrap; the canary, formerly an industrial sacrifice; and the narrator herself, formerly Deborah. Canaries, of course, were used in the mines to detect methane gas. Thus the bedraggled bird, like Deb, has been saved from its sacrificial role, though it is still stained by the industrial world. "Its dream of green fields and sunshine is a very old dream,—almost worn out, I think." The ambivalence of "almost" is telling: like Deborah and the korl woman, the canary has been saved from the world of the mills only to be moved into a different kind of cage. The closing scene, as night comes, is like a museum, in which art, nature, and the narrator, who seems to represent Deborah as well as Davis, and the reader, seem trapped once more, "almost," but not quite, finished with dreams.
All this complex overlapping of narrative frames presents a far more complicated voice than currently accepted interpretations of the story would have it. Tillie Olsen sees Rebecca Harding Davis's "absolute identification" with "thwarted, wasted lives." To Charlotte Goodman, Hugh is a projection of Davis's artistic frustration: "In the yearning of Davis's sensitive protagonist for an environment which will nurture his artistic talent, one can detect Davis's own yearnings, and in the figure of the starving woman which Hugh creates, one can discern Davis's own frustrated hungers." Similarly, Jean Pfaelzer, recognizing the androgynous descriptions of Hugh, sees him as "a feminized projection of the rebel artist." These seem accurate enough as reflections of an aspiring female writer in nineteenth-century America. Still, it's true as well that a woman of Davis's perception would see the immense difference between her own sort of thwarted life—suffocated in bourgeois comfort and "taste"—and those of Hugh and Deborah, "massed, vile, slimy lives, like those of the torpid lizards in yonder water-butt." A woman who submits a piece to The Atlantic is not feeling thwarted in the same way as these characters. Still, it is significant that both author and narrator "submit" their observations anonymously.
Davis's brilliant overlapping of voice, made possible by the unification of narrator and character in Deborah, allows us to link the thwarted life of a bourgeois woman with those of nineteenth-century mill-hands, without either sentimentalizing or distorting the degrees of difference. As with other nineteenth-century narratives of "thwarted lives"—one thinks most immediately of writings by and about slaves—"Life in the Iron Mills" seems to create a narrative voice that moves continually along a dialectical thematic axis with beauty at one pole and horror at the other. Writings about slavery, for example, seem to recognize that the horrific context within which slaves must live exposes, in a way that is ineluctably withheld from the slaveholders, the beauty of their own passions, loves, furies. This theme doesn't romanticize the situation, though, because the moment of recognition of this beauty reconfirms the absolute horror of the situation. Liza, in Uncle Tom's Cabin, provides a perfect example of this dialectic in her response to her son, Harry. Recognizing his grace, his physical comeliness, and his talent, she is filled with horror: the beauty embodied in her son makes him more likely to "fetch a price," thus more likely to be sold. Here beauty is horror and the response can only be a twisted perversion of mother-love. When he is, indeed, sold, however, Eliza's horror at the situation becomes a medium for the legitimate reestablishment of her mother-love. Her recognition of her child's danger transforms her:
How the touch of those warm arms, the gentle breathings that came in her neck, seemed to add fire and spirit to her movements! It seemed to her as if strength poured into her in electric streams, from every gentle touch and movement of the sleeping, confiding child. Sublime is the dominion of the mind over the body, that, for a time, can make flesh and nerve impregnable, and string the sinews like steel, so that the weak become so mighty.
Similarly, the horror of Hugh's and Deborah's situations is a medium for a deeply felt sense of human beauty that is alien to those outside the situation. Seltzer is quite correct when he sees that Davis opposes "an aesthetics of self-realization" to "the self-cancelling machinery of system." Like Eliza, Deborah is transformed by her own recognition of the horror of her life. Early in the story, she is described as "deformed" and grotesque, but after her act of thievery (like Eliza, she is actually repossessing something stolen from her) we see her transformed: "He looked at her. She was young, in deadly earnest; her faded eyes and wet, ragged figure caught from their frantic eagerness a power akin to beauty."
As is often the case in American narratives about "thwarted lives," suicide becomes the ultimate gesture within this dialectic of beauty and horror. (Often, too, in slave writings, killing the children becomes the ultimate terrible beauty, expressing the mother's love and the children's horrible freedom.) Like the bourgeois woman's suicide that ends The Awakening, Hugh's self-destruction is a form of self-assertion: he is ultimately not the prisoner they think he is; he does take charge of his life. That this act of self-integration is an act of self-destruction leaves us again with the overlapping poles of the paradox, and with nowhere to go. The equivocal voice of Davis's narrator, seeming at once to speak as a member of Hugh's society and of the reader's as well, allows this ambiguity full play. Davis does not draw an absolute identification between Hugh's life and her own. To say so is to deny the complexity and power of this story, which seems to recognize that there are at least two ways of drowning in this society: one can drown in alcoholic squalor or in pristine bourgeois solitude. Hugh's world may lack dignity. The reader's may lack contact.
Source: Richard A. Hood, "Framing a ‘Life in the Iron Mills,’" in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring 1995, 8 pp.
William H. Shurr
In the following excerpt, Shurr, who believes that the narrator is Mitchell, explores the religious themes in "Life in the Iron Mills."
… The story can be placed in the long line of Christian conversion narratives, popular in America but stretching back to Luke's account of the conversion of St. Paul. But Davis's story is interesting as well for the contemporary religious debate to which she contributes. The author, it should be noted, carries on a continual polemic against conventional religious notions and institutions of her time.
Critics so far have had a difficult time dealing with these religious materials. Sharon Harris has taken the story as ironic, as offering really no hope at all, calling it "indeed a work of pure naturalism." According to Harris, Davis presents the Quaker way of life as the only ideal embodied in the story "to enact true reform" (19). James C. Austin says that "the only hope" which the poor workers can expect "is a pitying God" (45)—surely an entity brought in from outside the story. For Coppelia Kahn, "The sole weakness of the book, I think, is that Davis hints vaguely at some doctrinal, probably Christian answer" to the meaning behind such suffering (117). For Fetterly, the story operates in a more secular arena, as "a sweeping indictment of the ethical poverty of the middle class" (311). Hesford asserts that "The reader may finish "Life in the Iron Mills" without knowing exactly the revelation, the answer Davis intends to offer" (73-74).
Mitchell's conversion is obscure to modern readers, but it must have been an ideal familiar to the readers of The Atlantic Monthly in 1861. It has solid credentials in liberal religious thought of Rebecca Harding Davis's time. Ann Douglas has not given a place to Davis in The Feminization of American Culture. But she would have fitted nicely into the chapter on "The Lost of Theology," where Douglas documents the gradual liberalization of American religious thinking, away from the institutional and doctrinal roots towards a more personalized, emotionally involved, and action-centered religious practice. We can be still more explicit.
At the end of the story, the presence of the korl woman statue in Mitchell's library allows the question hinted at in the beginning of the story now to be articulated fully: "Is this the End? …—nothing beyond?—no more?" Several possible answers are tested in the story.
One possible answer is suggested in the third paragraph from the end, the Christian doctrine of personal immortality. This is probably the answer that Davis's original readers were expecting. Deborah has served her three years in jail as Wolfe's accomplice in the robbery and has been living and praying with the Quakers: "Waiting: with her eyes turned to hills higher and purer than these on which she lives … to be reached some day. There may be in her heart some latent hope to meet there the love denied her here."
But while this Christian hope for personal immortality may be a hope for the broken spirit of Deborah, it is no hope for the narrator. He continues: "Something is lost in the passage of every soul from one eternity to the other,—something pure and beautiful, which might have been and was not." Deborah mourns for her lost love "like Esau deprived of his birthright"—which, of course, was not regained. For Davis, Christian hope in personal immortality is merely a form of self-deception: "What blame to the meek Quaker, if she took her lost hope to make the hills of heaven more fair?" If there is any question about the kind of justice that Christians expect on Judgment Day, then such a solution is satirically wiped out by the "Judge Day" who gave Hugh Wolfe the stiffest of prison sentences allowed, equivalently a death sentence.
Another possible religious answer is posed in one of the overlooked set-pieces in the story. This is the sermon Wolfe hears during his nightlong vigil while deciding what to do with the stolen money. He enters a church and hears a sermon which has precedents in Melville's story, "The Two Temples." It recalls also Dimmesdale's sermon, which Hester was unable to hear clearly in The Scarlet Letter. The sermon is preached with fervor, intelligence, belief, and generosity. But it emanates from an unctuously wealthy clergyman to his similar audience; it sails across the head of the representative of suffering humanity who needs it the most. In Davis's religious world it shows that Wolfe did "have the Gospel preached to him"—the goal of the hundreds of missionary societies of her day but the preaching is totally ineffective. Once again, Davis is ruling out the effectiveness and the relevance of main-line religions to the problems of a newly-industrialized society.
The reader is pushed then to find a truer answer. It must be found in the narrator who has attained some wisdom which may now be formulated. At the very end of the story the arm of the korl woman now points, with all of the prophetic power it has gathered through the course of the story, "through the broken cloud to the far East, where, in the flickering, nebulous crimson, God has set the promise of the Dawn." The Story itself will tell us what this hope is for the workers.
Since this last sentence is quite vague in its import, we are forced to look further for Davis's wisdom. The truer answer must come from the heart of the story itself, through Davis's spokesperson and the characters she has created. The end of the story sends us back to its center. If personal immortality is ruled out, then what is the "Dawn" promised in the last word of the story?
Surely the answer is not some kind of Socialism, as is erroneously suggested by the Heath Anthology of American Literature. Davis rules that out by having Mitchell ridicule the "Saint-Simonian doctrines" of the obvious loser, Dr. May. It is true that the word "class" is used frequently in the story, and surely with new resonance from the revolutions of 1848 so recent in Davis's mind. Wolfe wears the "red shirt" of the workers too. But Davis's field of reference seems to be more religious than socialist, more biblical: her "classes" are represented rather by St. Luke's story of Dives and Lazarus in the New Testament, alluded to by Davis in the phrase "[Wolfe] knew now, in all the sharpness of the bitter certainty, that between them there was a great gulf never to be passed. Never!"—the King James version of Luke (16.26) records the "great gulf" between Dives and Lazarus, which neither can "pass."
Nor will the problems of industrial poverty be solved by any kind of missionary activity carried on by main-line Christian churches. At the end of the sixth paragraph the narrator laments, "so many a political reformer will tell you,—and many a private reformer, too, who has gone among them with a heart tender with Christ's charity, and come out outraged, hardened." The problems of the industrial poor are extremely difficult, not to be solved by current Christian missionary techniques. The answer must come rather from a religion of the heart, deeper and more transforming than the religions of the head, social Christianity, civil religion. It was obvious to Thoreau, to the Melville of "The Two Temples," that social Christianity was a dead form.
The sources are to be found, rather, in some current ideas of a leavening presence that can lift the masses to a better life or at least create the ambiance from which a savior will come—"out of their bitter need will be thrown up their own light-bringer." It is obvious as well, in Davis's story, that art will have a part in the leavening of this "heaving, cloggy mass" of the poor. The solution must involve some kind of worker's esthetic utopia, according to the symbols introduced in the last paragraph: "A half-moulded child's head," and so on …
Source: William H. Shurr, "‘Life in the Iron Mills’: A Nineteenth-Century Conversion Narrative," in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 4, December 1991, pp. 245-57.
Abrams, M. H., A Glossary of Literary Terms, 4th edition, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981, p. 153.
Baym, Nina, et al., eds., The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 2nd edition, Vol. 1, W. W. Norton, 1979, pp. 2484, 2486.
Davis, Rebecca Harding, "Life in the Iron Mills," in Life in the Iron Mills and Other Stories, edited and with a Biographical Interpretation by Tillie Olsen, Feminist Press, 1985, pp. 11-65.
Gohdes, Clarence, "The Establishment of National Literature," in The Literature of the American People, edited by Arthur Hobson Quinn, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1951, p. 662.
Haight, Gordon S., "Realism Defined: William Dean Howells," in Literary History of the United States, edited by Robert E. Spiller et al., Macmillan, 1949, p. 881.
Olsen, Tillie, Biographical Interpretation in Life in the Iron Mills and Other Stories, by Rebecca Harding Davis, edited by Tillie Olsen, Feminist Press, 1985, p. 10.
Rose, Jane Atteridge, Rebecca Harding Davis, Twayne's United States Authors Series, No. 623, Twayne Publishers, 1993, p. 11.
Thrall, William Flint, and Addison Hibbard, A Handbook to Literature, revised and enlarged by C. Hugh Holman, Odyssey Press, 1960, p. 398.
Whitman, Walt, "A Song of Joys," in Leaves of Grass, with an introduction by Gay Wilson Allen, New American Library, 1958, p. 160.
Davis, James, The Iron Puddler, Book Jungle, 2007.
Originally published in 1922, this is the autobiography of a Welsh immigrant to Pennsylvania who worked in the steel mills there for many years. Giving a rather different picture than the one that emerges from Rebecca Harding Davis's story, he tells how he enjoyed the work and thrived on it. In 1921, Davis became Secretary of Labor in the administration of President Warren Harding.
Harris, Sharon M., Rebecca Harding Davis and American Realism, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.
Among other topics related to Davis, Harris analyzes the story in terms of a movement from romanticism to realism, arguing that Davis strongly rejects American transcendentalism. Harris also examines the many layers of irony in the story.
Hesford, Walter, "Literary Contexts of ‘Life in the Iron Mills,’" in American Literature, 1977, pp. 70-85.
Hesford examines the story in the literary contexts of the achievement of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the tradition of the social novel, and the religious bias of mid-nineteenth-century American literature.
Pfaelzer, Jean, Parlor Radical: Rebecca Harding Davis and the Origins of American Social Realism, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.
In this analysis, Pfaelzer takes the narrator of the story to be female rather than male. According to Pfaelzer, the narrator is a frustrated woman artist, a representative of Davis herself, presented through images of female isolation and confinement.
Pizer, Donald, ed., The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: From Howells to London, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
This is an examination of the nineteenth-century literary movements of realism and naturalism and includes analyses of ten major texts, from W.D. Howell's The Rise of Silas Lapham to Jack London's The Call of the Wild.