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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496

"Life in the Iron Mills" is a short story about Hugh Wolfe, a furnace-tender in one of Kirby & John’s iron mills. Hugh's main job is to tend large vats of molten pig-iron. The tale is told from the perspective of an anonymous, omniscient narrator. The narrator tells us that...

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"Life in the Iron Mills" is a short story about Hugh Wolfe, a furnace-tender in one of Kirby & John’s iron mills. Hugh's main job is to tend large vats of molten pig-iron. The tale is told from the perspective of an anonymous, omniscient narrator. The narrator tells us that the house in which he is living was home to the Wolfe family three decades ago. The family had consisted of Hugh, his father Old Wolfe, and his cousin Deborah.

Deborah is described as a mild, plain woman. She has a slightly humped back, which makes her unattractive to most men. The narrator tells us that Deborah has just returned from a long shift at the cotton-mill and discovered that Hugh had not taken his lunch that morning.

Despite her weariness, Deborah sets out with some provisions for Hugh. At the iron-mill, Hugh eats his lunch with little fanfare. The narrator reveals that Deborah loves Hugh but knows that her love can never be requited. For his part, Hugh is a broken man. His nickname is "Molly Wolfe" because the other workers think him effeminate and ineffectual.

For his part, Hugh despises his work. His only happiness in life seems to be his art. In his spare time, Hugh sculpts beautiful figures from korl, which is a byproduct of smelted iron ore. His preferred hobby earns him mostly contempt from his male co-workers. One night, a group of illustrious-looking men visit the iron-mill. Among the men are Clark Kirby (the son of one of the mill-owners), the overseer, Dr. May (a doctor), and Mitchell (a reporter from a Northern newspaper).

Before they leave, the men stumble across one of Hugh's korl sculptures. Dr. May thinks that the female figurine resembles a working woman with the face of a "starving wolf." Hugh maintains that the korl figurine is hungry, but not for "meat." Before the men leave, Dr. May tells Hugh that he can make something of himself, if he chooses. For his part, Hugh asks if the doctor will help him, but the doctor replies that he has "not the means."

Later, Deborah reveals that she picked Mitchell's pocket. She gives Hugh the large wad of money, but he is initially afraid to accept it. Eventually, after much rationalization about his "right" to the money, Hugh succumbs to temptation. His decision leads to his conviction for grand larceny, and he is sentenced to 19 years in prison. As his accomplice, Deborah must serve 3 years. The narrator reveals that Hugh died in prison, after slashing his wrists. Deborah eventually leaves prison after serving her term, and she begins a new life among the Quaker community.

The story ends with the narrator returning to the present. He reveals that he has the korl statue of the mill-woman hidden behind a curtain. While he is writing, he has a fanciful thought: that the outstretched arms of the korl figure are pointed to the East in welcome of the dawn.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 595

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 portray with the sculpture. He replies that the figure is hungry not for meat, but for life. Although they acknowledge Hugh’s potential greatness, none of the visitors respond when he asks for help. One suggests that Hugh can make of himself anything he chooses.

After fetching the visitors’ coach driver, Hugh understands the squalid reality of his life. Despairing, he returns to the cellar with Deborah, who confesses that she picked one of the men’s pockets. Although Hugh initially intends to return the money, as he wanders the streets in search of the man, he begins to envision the possibilities of a different life offered by the stolen money. For the first time in his life, he becomes aware of the power of money and yearns for the freedom to create. Unaffected by a sermon he happens on, Hugh yields to temptation. He is eventually arrested, convicted of grand larceny, and sentenced to nineteen years in prison. Also prosecuted, Deborah receives a three-year term.

Having begged to see Hugh in jail, Deborah tells him that she is responsible for their plight, but her actions were prompted by love. When she sees specks of blood on Hugh’s clothes, she realizes that his tuberculosis has worsened and that he is seriously ill. She pleads with him not to die. Observing the contrast between his cell and the bustling marketplace below, Hugh ponders what his life might have been. He suddenly calls out to a passer-by on the street and slashes his veins with a piece of tin. Arms outstretched, Hugh feels stillness creeping over him, and he dies. A Quaker woman tends Hugh’s body, promising Deborah that she will bury him in a pleasant place and vowing to guide the woman when she is released. After leaving the prison, Deborah lives a pure and loving life among the Friends.

At the close of his story, the narrator draws back a curtain, revealing the korl statue. The woman seems to hold out her arms as dawn breaks.

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