Life in the Iron Mills

by Rebecca Harding Davis

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Unnamed Narrator

The omniscient narrator of the story begins by telling us that they live in a town dominated by ironworks. It is through them the audience learns the story of the Wolfe family. At present, the narrator lives in the house that was occupied by the Wolfe family thirty years earlier. The narrator seems to feel something like a fondness or connection with the Wolfes, evidenced by their possession of Hugh’s korl statue of the female figure.

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. She is attracted to Hugh in the story, but he does not share her feelings. She goes out of her way to make sure he has his supper, for instance, even though he receives it in no special manner. 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 byproduct. From his art, Hugh receives the validation that his life's work has not been wasted. He is treated poorly by the other men in the iron mills, called “Molly Wolfe” for, presumably, not portraying himself in a masculine enough light. 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 is a neighbor child who occasionally sleeps at the Wolfe residence when her father is not home.

Clark Kirby 

Clark Kirby is the son of one of the mill owners. The young Kirby is mostly indifferent to the suffering his father's ironworkers endure on a daily basis. When Dr. May compliments Hugh's workmanship, Clark makes a derogatory comment about the intelligence of ironworkers. 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 he does not have the financial means to do so. He is reluctant to invest his limited means in someone like Hugh.


Mitchell, a reporter from a Northern newspaper, 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.

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