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...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Life in the Iron Mills: Or, The Korl Woman is a long-neglected literary classic, written by a woman who in a number of her works rejected the sentimental stance that was expected from her gender and class in favor of uncompromising realism. By focusing on one tragic episode, Rebecca Harding Davis exposes the hypocrisy of a society which pretends to offer opportunities to all but in actuality exploits and oppresses the many in order to preserve the privileges of the few.

In early 1861, when Davis submitted Life in the Iron Mills to the Atlantic, she was uncertain whether to call her work a short story or an article. Although the editors who accepted it chose to classify it as a story, twentieth century critics have been unhappy with that designation. Davis’ biographer Jane Atteridge Rose gives a plausible explanation for their reactions: She suggests that the work is so dense with symbolism and significance that it seems longer than the typical short story. In her edited collection Life in the Iron Mills and Other Stories, Tillie Olsen italicizes the title work, arguing that it has the “weight” of a novella. In contrast, she classifies as short stories both “The Wife’s Story,” which is very nearly as long as Life in the Iron Mills, and the briefer “Anne.”

There is ample justification for looking at Life in the Iron Mills as a novella. In form, it is complex. The central plot is framed and punctuated by the comments of a narrator, who, by describing past events that he or she could not have...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In Life in the Iron Mills, which was her first published work and is still considered her finest, Rebecca Harding Davis focused primarily on a class issue, rather than one of gender. In the works that followed, however, such as “The Wife’s Story,” she turned to the situation of women, especially those with artistic aspirations. Told by their society that they could find fulfillment only in being wives and mothers, women were not sure that they had any right to lives of their own; however, if they suppressed their creative urges, they were unhappy and made their families miserable.

In the female protagonists of her later stories and novels, Davis seems to have fused the salient characteristics of Hugh Wolfe and Deborah. Like Hugh, these characters have a need to create, but like Deborah, because they are women they are expected to sacrifice themselves gladly for the men they love. Thus they are faced with external pressures, with internal conflicts, and, if they do pursue their dreams, with a sense of guilt no less real than that of Hugh. Rather than money, however, they are stealing time and attention from their husbands and children.

By the end of the nineteenth century, writers such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman would assert that women do have the right to put themselves first. Rebecca Harding Davis was not yet ready to make such a radical statement. Instead, she took refuge in ambivalent conclusions or in happy endings which affirm that only in self-abnegation can women find themselves. Yet, even in the sentimental fiction that Davis wrote in order to support her own family, there is evidence that this early realist saw the deplorable predicament of nineteenth century women far more clearly than she was willing to admit to her readers—or perhaps, to herself.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Boudreau, Kristin. “‘The Woman’s Flesh of Me’: Rebecca Harding Davis’s Response to Self-Reliance.” American Transcendental Quarterly n.s. 6 (June, 1992): 132-140. Argues that “The Wife’s Story” is an indictment of Emersonian ideas. Davis sees women as not only trapped in a patriarchal society but also blocked by their own bodies from attaining intellectual independence.

Davis, Rebecca Harding. Life in the Iron Mills and Other Stories. Edited by Tillie Olsen. New York: Feminist Press, 1985. An expanded edition which also includes “The Wife’s Story” and “Anne.” Tillie Olsen’s well-documented and perceptive “Biographical Interpretation” provides an excellent overview of Davis’ life and works.

Harris, Sharon M. Rebecca Harding Davis and American Realism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991. A major study of the author, placing her within the larger context of intellectual history. Also contains useful biographical materials.

Molyneaux, Maribel W. “Sculpture in the Iron Mills: Rebecca Harding Davis’s Korl Woman.” Woman’s Studies 17 (January, 1990): 157-177. Assuming that the narrator in Life in the Iron Mills is female, Molyneaux sees her as the primary character of the story. As a woman artist and a reformer, the narrator defies custom and enters the province of men. The korl woman thus represents both the woman worker, demanding a better life, and the woman writer, insisting on a place in literary history.

Rose, Jane Atteridge. “Images of Self: The Example of Rebecca Harding Davis and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.” English Language Notes 29 (June, 1992): 70-78. Uses Davis’ “The Wife’s Story” and Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1899) to indicate a “change in female self-perception” between the 1860’s and the 1890’s. Although both women writers felt the tension between their domestic duties and their art, Davis was influenced by the ideal of feminine “self-abnegation,” while Gilman rejected it, maintaining that each woman has the right to an independent identity.

Rose, Jan Atteridge. Rebecca Harding Davis. New York: Twayne, 1993. A much-needed book-length biographical and critical study. Rose’s interpretations of the various works are based on careful readings of the texts. Contains a chronology, voluminous notes, and an annotated bibliography.

Shurr, William H. “Life in the Iron Mills: A Nineteenth-Century Conversion Narrative.” American Transcendental Quarterly 5 (December, 1991): 245-257. In this interesting essay, Shurr attempts to prove that the mysterious narrator is the dilettante Mitchell, whose religious conversion may have been modeled on that of the British reformer John Ruskin.