What is a brief summary of the short story "Life in the Iron Mills, by Rebecca Harding Davis?

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belarafon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Life in the Iron Mills" is a realist short story about two people living in poverty in the 19th Century, and how their desire for wealth harms their future.

A young, hunchbacked woman, Deborah Wolfe, brings lunch to her cousin Hugh at the iron mill where he works. She and he are alike, working people with little time to think on the future and only the constant, crushing jobs at hand to occupy their lives. Hugh loves Deborah, as she loves him, but he has an artistic soul, and is preoccupied with visions of beauty. Hugh finds Deborah's hunch repulsive, but ignores it to spare her feelings. A group of visiting upper-class men find a statue Hugh built from the cast-off korl from the iron foundry, and praise his ability; Hugh desires to live in their world but is ignored and similarly cast aside.

"I suppose there are some stray gleams of mind and soul among these wretches... I have heard you call our American system a ladder which any man can scale. Do you doubt it? Or perhaps you want to banish all social ladders, and put us all on a flat table-land?"
(Davis, "Life in the Iron Mills," gutenberg.org)

After they leave, Deborah shows Hugh the money of one of the men, which she stole while they were preoccupied. Hugh at first wants to return the money, but then is overcome with dreams of a future with money. However, he is caught and jailed for the theft. Already suffering from tuberculosis, Hugh commits suicide in prison, and Deborah is taken in by the Quakers.

At its core, the story is a tragedy about the follies of greed and the innate worth of hard work; it also serves to criticize the social structures of owner/worker and the pains suffered by the workers who are ignored by their employers (owners). The descriptions of the hazardous iron mill showcases the inherent dangers of manual labor, and how the upper-class is blind to the drudgery that makes their upper-class lives possible. Finally, it examines the nature of repentance and forgiveness, allowing Deborah a "happy" ending despite her crime, and showing how simple imprisonment can be a death sentence just as effectively as the firing squad.