Life in the Iron Mills

by Rebecca Harding Davis

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In her novella "Life In The Iron Mills," Rebecca Harding Davis exposes the horrific working conditions in the industrial and textile mills of nineteenth-century America. Then, the Industrial Revolution precipitated the rise of urbanization and a new, prosperous middle class.

For factory workers, however, life was less than ideal. Many workers were new immigrants who could barely afford to keep body and soul together. They were forced to work long hours for little remuneration and were exposed to toxins in their working environment. Harding Davis draws attention to "masses of men" who must breathe "air saturated with fog and grease and soot" on a daily basis. The narrator of the story tells us that we must descend "into the thickest of the fog and mud and foul effluvia" in order to understand the conditions that lead a human being to despairing actions.

In the story, the Wolfes live in a rented house with a half dozen other families. In fact, the Wolfe family must live in the cellar, where they have two rooms to themselves. Even at home, the Wolfes are deprived of comfort and beauty. Also, like other impoverished immigrants, the Wolfes must subsist on scant food (and that of the poorest quality). The rather dismal mood of the story underlines the narrator's sympathetic tone toward the main characters, Hugh and Deborah.

In Hugh, we see a man desperate to retain the last shreds of his humanity. The iron factories, with their caldrons of boiling fire and "unsleeping engines" that "groan and shriek," are symbols of machine terror. The fires remind the narrator of a street in Hell. Dehumanized masses facilitate the growth of the Industrial Revolution, but they have no access to its material rewards. To reclaim his humanity, Hugh carves painfully realistic korl statues with intense facial expressions. A man's efforts to extract meaning out of his desperate existence is a testament to humanity's innate need for physical and spiritual preservation.

In the story, women and children are not spared their share of suffering. While the men work in iron factories, women and children toil in textile mills. The adverse working conditions strip women of their health and feminine beauty, and for those who can claim neither of the two, the lack thereof is all the more painful. Hunchbacked and in poor health, Deborah knows that she can never hope to marry. Most men are repulsed by her physical deformity. Like Deborah, Hugh also suffers from poor health; he has tuberculosis, an illness exacerbated by conditions in the factory.

In the story, Mitchell represents the voice of the social reformer. He flings the phrase "de profundis clamavi" (in full it reads "De Profundis Clamavi Ad Te Domine," which means "out of the depths I have called on you, O Lord") at Dr. May and the young Kirby. Kirby is irritated at Mitchell's insinuation. Although May is more sympathetic to Mitchell's position, he is reluctant to expend his limited resources on Hugh. Harding Davis thus presents the dilemma of the ages: even though many are willing to effect change, money (and lots of it) is necessary to bring about that change. The narrator suggests that we are put in the ironic position of petitioning those we condemn for their lack of humanity: the industrialists themselves.

Nevertheless, Harding Davis's short story clearly highlights the social disparities engendered by the Industrial Revolution.

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