(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 797 words.)