“Life in the Iron Mills” was Rebecca Harding Davis’s first published story. She would go no to publish over 500 works. The story was an immediate sensation when it was first published in the April 1861 Atlantic Monthly (the same month that the Civil War broke out!). It retains its status as a major landmark in the development of American literary realism.

Plot Summary

Life in the Iron Mills begins with an omniscient narrator who looks out a window and sees smog and iron workers. The gender of the narrator is never known, but it is evident that the narrator is a middle class observer. As the narrator looks out the windowpane, an old story comes to mind; a story of the house that the narrator is living in. The narrator cautions the reader to have an objective mind, and to not be quick to judge the character in the story he/she is about to tell the reader. The narrator begins to introduce Deborah, Wolfe’s cousin. She is described as a meek woman who works hard, and has a hump in her back. Deborah finds out from Janey, that Hugh did not take lunch to work, and she decides to walk many miles in the rain to take a lunch for Wolfe. As she walks up to the mills, Deborah begins to describe it as if it were hell, but she keeps going for Wolfe. When she arrives Wolfe is talking among friends and he recognizes her. The narrator explains his affection for her, but also describes his affection as loveless and sympathetic. Hugh finds no time to eat his dinner and goes back to do a day of labor in the mills. Deborah, who is exhausted, stays with Hugh and rests until his shift is over. In the meantime, the narrator further explains that Wolfe does not belong in the environment of the iron mill workers. He is known as “Molly Wolfe” by other workers because of his manner and background in education.[10]

When Wolfe is working he spots men that do not look like workers. He sees Clarke, the son of Kirby, Doctor May who is a physician, and another two men that he does not recognize. These men stop by to look at the working men, and as they are talking and observing, they spot a weird object that has the shape of a human. As they get closer, they see that it is an odd shaped statue built with korl. They begin to analyze it and wonder who created such a statue, one of the workers points at Wolfe and the men go to him. They ask him why he built such a statue and what it represents. All Hugh says is that “She be hungry”. The men begin to talk about the injustice of labor force, and one goes as far as to say that Hugh can get out of the meager job he is in, but that he unfortunately cannot help. The men leave, but not before Deborah steals one of their wallets, which has a check for a substantial amount inside. They go back home and Wolfe feels like he is a failure and feels anger towards his economical situation.[10]

Once home, Deborah confesses to stealing from Mitchell, and shamefully gives the money to Wolfe to do with it what he pleases. Wolfe decides to keep the money believing he is deserving of it because after all they are all deserving in God’s eyes. The narrator transitions to a different scene with Dr. May reading the newspaper and seeing that Wolfe was put in jail for stealing from Mitchell. The story goes back to Hugh and he is in prison with Deborah. The narrator explains how terrible their situation is, and goes on to give detail of Wolfe’s mental disintegration. Hugh ends up losing his mind and killing himself in prison. The story ends with a quaker woman who comes to bless and help with the body of Hugh. She talks to Deborah and promises her that she will give Hugh a proper burial, and come back for her when she is released from jail. 1 

Notes & Quotes

  • Davis refuses to provide the reader with any clear solutions to the problems surrounding industrialization that she raises. However, she does problematize and challenge some assumptions surrounding the urban poor. For example, after Hugh returns the wallet which Deborah stole, Doctor May discusses Hugh’s arrest with his wife. “His wife said something about the ingratitude of that kind of people, and then they began to talk of something else.” However, because the reader has followed Hugh and Deborah, we know that it has nothing to do with Hugh’s ingratitude, but rather with his innocence and honesty. She refuses to allow her reader the option to agree with Mrs. May, that the poor are the poor because they are less moral or civilized than their rich counterparts; instead, we are shown the fatalistic circumstances that lead to his arrest and we are made to sympathize with them.
  • The opening of the story takes on a gothic tone and Davis does an incredible job creating the suffocating and heavy atmosphere of the factory town.

I want you to hide your disgust, take no heed to your clean clothes, and come right down with me, here, into the thickest of the fog and mud and foul effluvia. I want you to hear this story. There is a secret down here, in this nightmare fog, that has lain dumb for centuries: I want to make it a real thing to you. You, Egoist, or Pantheist, or Arminian, busy in making straight paths for your feet on the hills, do not see it clearly,—this terrible question which men here have gone mad and died trying to answer. I dare not put this secret into words. I told you it was dumb. These men, going by with drunken faces, and brains full of unawakened power, do not ask it of Society or of God. Their lives ask it; their deaths ask it. There is no reply. I will tell you plainly that 1 have a great hope; and I bring it to you to be tested. It is this: that this terrible dumb question is its own reply; that it is not the sentence of death we think it, but, from the very extremity of its darkness, the most solemn prophecy which the world has known of the Hope to come. I dare make my meaning no clearer, but will only tell my story. It will, perhaps, seem to you as foul and dark as this thick vapor about us, and as pregnant with death; but if your eyes are free as mine are to look deeper, no perfume-tinted dawn will be so fair with promise of the day that shall surely come.

  • Finally, the reader is also made to confront the fact that the capitalist system does not actually allow those with talent and morality to rise or to live the American dream. Instead, we see Hugh, with his obvious artistic talent and moral mind, unable to escape his dreary fate and class, even when he refuses to steal.
  1. Plot summary from Wikipedia.

Life in the Iron Mills (1861) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.