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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...

(The entire section contains 2369 words.)

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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 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 half a 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.

Style and Technique

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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 allusions, surrounding Hugh with images of Christ-like suffering. When the factory visitors see the korl statue, they instinctively recognize its creator’s genius but refuse to nurture that talent. One of the men openly states that he washes his hands of all social obligations, suggestive of Pontius Pilate’s denial of responsibility for Christ. Although Christ withstood Satan’s temptations in the wilderness, Hugh, a flawed human being, does not have the strength to reject temptation. His blood flowing and life ebbing, Hugh positions his body with his arms outstretched as if he is being crucified and his life sacrificed to an unjust system. When the Quaker woman tends his body, the scene conjures up images of Michelangelo’s sculpture La Pieta, in which the Madonna holds Christ’s head in her lap. Like the Madonna, the Quaker woman mourns the loss of human potential and life.

In this overwhelmingly dark piece, Davis nonetheless suggests that the future can hold promise. The korl statue has long waited behind the curtain, hidden from view, cordoned off from middle-class comfort. The narrator suggests that people can understand the reality of laborers’ existence and that this knowledge can make a difference. He reveals the statue to his friend as the dawn breaks over the korl woman’s face. Her yearnings could be fulfilled in a new day, and others like the Quaker woman can facilitate redemption through love, gentle understanding, and kindness.

Form and Content

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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 witnessed, takes on the function of an omniscient author. Moreover, instead of concentrating on one protagonist, as she does in “The Wife’s Story” and “Anne,” in Life in the Iron Mills Davis gives equal importance to two characters, Hugh Wolfe and his cousin Deborah. Their function is also complex. Though they are individualized, they also represent, separately, their respective genders and, jointly, an entire social class.

The plot itself is simple. In an introduction, the narrator proposes to tell about events that occurred thirty years before, most of them during a single night. After a twelve-hour workday in a cotton mill, Deborah prepares some food and takes it to her cousin Hugh Wolfe at the iron mill where he works. After she has delivered his supper, she lies down in a warm area of the mill to rest for a while before returning home. When young Kirby, the mill owner’s son, arrives with the mill overseer and some prominent friends, they hardly notice Deborah. They do notice, however, the carving of a woman which Hugh has made out of ore refuse, or korl. They first compliment him on his talent, then callously refuse to help him develop it. Desperate to help the man she loves, Deborah steals a pocketbook from Mitchell, young Kirby’s brother-in-law, which she later gives to Hugh. Although he knows that he should return it, he cannot force himself to do so.

The story now moves forward a month. One of the men who had spoken to Hugh that night, Dr. May, reads his wife the newspaper report of Hugh’s sentence. Quickly the scene shifts. In jail, Hugh says goodbye to Deborah, cuts his wrists, and bleeds to death. Hearing about the tragedy, a Quaker woman comes to the jail and befriends Deborah. After she emerges from prison, Deborah is taken to a Quaker settlement in the mountains, where she regains her health and gains religious faith.

At the end of the novel, the narrator returns to the present and to his or her library. There, behind a curtain, stands the statue of the korl woman, who represents all the agony and the yearning of the helpless poor. Sometimes, however, when the narrator draws aside the curtain just before sunrise, the korl woman seems to gesture toward the coming dawn.


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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.


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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.

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