Life in the Iron Mills Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

A first-person narrator relates the story of ironworker Hugh Wolfe to an auditor. The narrator lives in a house whose two cellar rooms thirty years earlier had been home to the Wolfe family—Hugh, his father, and his cousin Deborah.

Deborah returns home after a twelve-hour shift at the cotton mill and prepares to eat a supper of cold boiled potatoes. She learns that Hugh is still working, and she gathers bread, salt pork, and her share of ale to take to him, walking through hellish scenes of smoke and flame at the iron mills to deliver his meal. Although Hugh is not hungry, he eats to please Deborah. Taking pity on her, he suggests that she sleep on the nearby ash heap. Deborah loves Hugh but also acknowledges that he is repulsed by her hunchback. An outsider among the ironworkers, the artistic Hugh feels compelled to create; his passion prompts him to sculpt.

Before the midnight shutdown, a group of affluent men survey the ironworks, discussing the heat and the rough-looking workers. Attracted to the promise of the visitors’ lives, Hugh draws closer to them but realizes that the gulf between him and them can never be breached. The visitors see a large sculpture of a woman, carved from what the workers call korl, the material that remains after the iron ore is smelted. At first, the visitors mistake the sculpture for a real woman and soon are captivated by the work’s poignant power. They call Hugh over to ask what emotion he intended to...

(The entire section is 595 words.)