Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Although “Life in the Iron Mills” predates the emergence of American realism, the story includes some of the features of realism, including a stark portrayal of urban existence. Davis portrays industrial America in vivid detail, beginning with grim descriptions of the smoke and stench dominating the mill town. The factories invoke images of hell. Furious engines clamor incessantly, producing fiery pools of metal. Workers, exhausted after twelve-hour shifts, return home to dark cellars, slimy with moss. Davis confronts readers with the dreary and demeaning realities of immigrant life, acknowledging the poverty, disease, and substance abuse.

Adopting a narrative structure reminiscent of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, Davis frames Hugh’s story with scenes of an affluent man talking to an auditor. Like Browning’s poetry, readers not only learn about the people being discussed but also come to know the narrator and his auditor and to discern injustices implicit in urban America. The narrator acknowledges that he is separated from the immigrant world and insulated from the grime, but he points out possessions tainted by smoke and soot. Driven to share his knowledge, he offers insights that would otherwise never be acquired. Davis interrupts Hugh’s story several times, returning to the narrator who challenges the auditor to enter the laborer’s world, to dare to learn the truth.

Davis additionally suffuses the work with biblical...

(The entire section is 465 words.)