Life in the Iron Mills Characters
by Rebecca Harding Davis

Start Your Free Trial

Download Life in the Iron Mills Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Life in the Iron Mills Characters

The unnamed narrator: the omniscient narrator of the story begins by telling us that he lives in a town dominated by ironworks. It is he/she who tells us the story of the Wolfe family. At present, the narrator lives in the house that was occupied by the Wolfe family thirty years earlier.

Deborah Wolfe: Deborah is Hugh's cousin. She works as a picker in a cotton mill. Most men find Deborah unattractive because she is slightly hunchbacked. In the story, she is attracted to Hugh, but he does not share her feelings. It is Deborah who steals a wad of cash from Mitchell to give to Hugh. We learn that she serves three years in prison for larceny. After she is released, Deborah goes to live with the Quakers.

Hugh Wolfe: Hugh is Old Wolfe's son. He works in one of Kirby and John's iron mills. Hugh's overriding ambition in life is to escape the terrible iron mills and to enjoy a better existence. His favorite pastime is carving figurines from blocks of korl, an iron ore by-product. From his art, Hugh receives the validation that his life's work has not been wasted. Later, he takes the money Deborah stole from Mitchell. Because the money was found on his person, Hugh is sentenced to serve nineteen years of hard labor in a penitentiary. Sensing that his tuberculosis may be incurable, he commits suicide in prison.

Old Wolfe: Old Wolfe is Hugh's father. Like Hugh, he also works in one of Kirby and John's iron mills. Old Wolfe is described as a pale, timid man.

Janey: Janey is a neighbor child who occasionally sleeps at the Wolfe residence when her father is not home.

Clark Kirby (the son of one of the mill-owners): The young Kirby is mostly indifferent to the suffering his father's iron workers endure on a daily basis. When Dr. May compliments Hugh's workmanship, Clark makes a derogatory comment about the intelligence of iron workers. He shows obvious disdain for Hugh, both as an iron worker and a sculptor. Clark is the stereotypical factory owner's son, perhaps even a caricature of bourgeois arrogance and apathy.

Dr. May: Dr. May is one of the town physicians. He is fascinated by Hugh's talents. However, when Hugh asks for help to pursue his passions, Dr. May says that he does not have the financial means to do so.

Mitchell (a reporter from a Northern newspaper): Mitchell is Clark's brother-in-law. As a student of the institutions of the South, Mitchell has a keen eye for observation. It is Mitchell who equates the mill's smoldering fires to the "half-shut eyes of wild beasts." Mitchell is the most open-minded of the mill visitors, and he prides himself on his anatomical eye. Of the visitors, Mitchell is the first to correctly interpret the meaning of the sculpture's facial expression.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

The narrator

The narrator, an unnamed individual of unspecified gender, obviously a member of the privileged class. For some reason, this person has settled in a working-class area of a mill town, in the house where the two protagonists of the story once lived. He or she owns the statue of the “korl woman.”

Hugh Wolfe

Hugh Wolfe, a nineteen-year-old iron mill furnace tender. Born into poverty and a mill worker since childhood, he is undernourished and tubercular. Because he does not indulge in vicious pastimes, he is considered effeminate by his fellow workers. His kindness has earned him the love of his cousin Deborah...

(The entire section is 883 words.)