In the initial pages of Life in the Iron Mills, Rebecca Harding Davis asserts that her work is intended not only to expose the evils of industrial society but also to promise a better future. Her hope for change is based not on the good will of the ruling classes, which she reveals as empty posturing, but on the human aspirations of the downtrodden, which their exploiters have not been able to eliminate.
The industrial overlords have chosen to insulate themselves from any appeal to sympathy or call for justice by believing that society consists of two worlds: their own, which is inhabited by “civilized” people, and another world filled with vicious creatures who can hardly be classified as human. The upper-class characters who visit the mill voice this attitude in rational, persuasive terms. Davis’ method of proving how wrong they are is to show her readers the truth before they are presented with the falsehood.
Thus she begins the novel by proving that the mill workers do not in fact dwell in a separate world. In long descriptive passages, she shows that the smoke from the mills permeates the entire town, that the polluted river flows out of the mill town into distant fields and gardens. At this point, the narrator abandons a vantage point at the window, which has kept him or her both detached from the workers and above them, in order to negate the second part of the argument. No one can enter the Wolfe household and look into the hearts of its inhabitants, as the omniscient author now does, and still contend that mill workers are less than human.
Both Hugh Wolfe and Deborah are sensitive, virtuous individuals. Deborah is kind to Hugh’s aged father; she shares her food with young Janey, who has fled to the Wolfes for refuge; and even though she is exhausted after a twelve-hour day in a cotton mill, she ventures out nightly to take Hugh his supper. Admittedly, in all of her actions Deborah is motivated less by her conscience than by her love for Hugh. For that reason, she does not hesitate to steal the money. Yet Deborah does nothing for herself. Realizing that Hugh does not love her, she is willing to see him marry Janey; all she wants in life is for him to be happy.
It is suggested that Hugh’s temperate conduct, which sets him apart from the men who work beside him, may be the result of his schooling. His generosity cannot have been learned, however, nor can his passion for creation, which drives him to transform refuse into beauty. As for Hugh’s honesty, one wonders whether young Kirby is ever tormented by his conscience when he does for profit what Hugh does out of desperation.
Yet, even though she is sympathetic with the mill workers, Davis is too much of a realist to show them as totally good or the upper classes as totally evil. For every Hugh or Deborah, she indicates, there are dozens of workers who live in degradation and vice. Similarly, while she has no time for the heartless young Kirby, the self-centered Mitchell, or the hypocritical Dr. May, the author does admit the existence of such upper-class people as the sympathetic narrator, who hopes to effect social reform by influencing public opinion, and the Quaker woman, who takes direct action to help at least one of the victims of industrialism.
Through her extensive use of symbolism, Davis defines not the workers but their environment as being inhuman. Even the river that passes through the mill town is enslaved,...
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she says, as the workers are: Bound to their jobs until they die, they are in essence slaves. They are also tormented souls. Young Kirby admits that his mill resembles Dante’s Hell; however, he indicates that because they are “bad” and “desperate,” the workers deserve to be there.
By the time that she shows Dr. May pontificating at his breakfast table while Hugh is deciding to kill himself, Davis has proven that nineteenth century industrial society is based on the callous exploitation of one set of human beings by another. Less clear, however, is exactly what she sees as grounds for hope. It has been argued that the social reform that is so clearly needed may come through the narrator or through the establishment of communal groups such as that in which Deborah ends her life. What is not so obvious, however, is how Davis’ ending offers hope to artists such as herself. Hugh has been denied help and destroyed, and the only remaining evidence of his genius has become a mere conversation piece in a private apartment. The ambivalence of Davis’ conclusion may well reflect her uncertainty about her own future in art.