Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Born into the upper middle class in the nineteenth century in the industrial city of Wheeling, Virginia, Rebecca Harding Davis witnessed huge influxes of immigrants and a corresponding rise in nativist movements. In “Life in the Iron Mills,” Davis responded to these social conditions by excoriating affluent classes for the oppression of factory workers and confronting readers with the grim conditions endured by laborers who produced the materials that helped build the new nation.

Davis vividly illustrates class separation in antebellum America. Protections of the gentle life insulate the middle and upper classes from learning how immigrants live. Prosperous citizens live in separate areas of the city, communing with a nature unknown to laborers who are restricted to dank cellars and suffocating factories. The narrator repeatedly cajoles his auditor, and therefore the reader, to look at and digest the horrors. Even when they witness these realities, wealthy Americans cannot understand. The factory visitors, for example, exude a sense of superiority, embodying a well-deserved privilege. To them, the factory is a nightmarish inferno, and its workers are nothing more than brutes.

Davis contradicts notions that the United States welcomes newcomers and guarantees them limitless opportunity. The nation has long been described as a melting pot. By subjecting immigrants to a metaphoric smelting process, the United States purportedly removes Old World impurities, creating a finer metal. According to this model, men and women who possess ambition and drive will invariably prosper. Adherents to the American Dream are excused...

(The entire section is 672 words.)