Life in the Iron Mills

by Rebecca Harding Davis

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Who do you sympathize with more in "Life in the Iron Mills": Deborah or Hugh?

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The author shows both characters as having a number of negative factors operating in their lives, which makes it is difficult to rank their relative situations. Both Deborah and Hugh commit crimes, but Hugh receives a much harsher sentence. Deborah serves a short sentence and, after her release, seems to find a peaceful, meaningful existence. Hugh, in contrast, despairs upon receiving a long sentence, which leads to his taking his own life.

Deborah apparently steals money because she is motivated by her love for Hugh. Believing in his talent as an artist, she hopes to enable him to leave the oppressive, dangerous work behind. She earns sympathy based on altruistic motives, but the reader may wonder if she is trying to buy his love with these ill-gotten gains.

Hugh is not only suffering because of the limits placed on his artistic expression, but also is physically ill with tuberculosis. It is clear that staying in the mills is bad for him in every way and that no easy solution presents itself. Employment is scarce, and the owners have tremendous power. Nevertheless, Hugh accepts the gift from Deborah although he knows that she does not have any money of her own. Through this acceptance, he willingly makes himself an accomplice. While suicide may seems to be an extreme reaction, he would have been aware that remaining incarcerated would ultimately take his life.

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