Life in the Iron Mills

by Rebecca Harding Davis

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Who or what does "Life in the Iron Mills" hold responsible for the situation, in response to Doctor May's question?

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In Rebecca Harding Davis's short story "Life in the Iron Mills," Doctor May asks a vital question that foreshadows Deborah's theft and ensuing consequences later in the story: "Who is responsible?" Leaving the iron mill, Deborah pickpockets some money from the educated-class men who visit the mill that night. Though Hugh had imagined the money would help him build a different life for himself, Deb's theft eventually leads to their arrests; Hugh is imprisoned for 19 years and dies in jail of tuberculosis, while Deb is imprisoned for 3. While Deb blames herself for the consequences, Doctor May's question, "Who is responsible?," expresses and develops the most dominant theme in Davis's short story--social responsibility.

In her short story, Davis portrays the hardships of lower, working-class Americans. Hardships are clearly portrayed in Hugh's struggles working in an iron mill, the most dangerous industry even today. One of the educated-class strangers visiting the mill that night thoroughly expresses the hardships of working in the mill when he notes that the works in the mill "look like Dante's Inferno." It is these sorts of hardships that make lower-class workers like Hugh believe they are worthless human beings and drive them to acts of desperation, such as Deb's act of theft.

Yet, despite observing the terrible conditions the working class are subjected to, Kirby, the son of one of the owners of the mill, says that it is not his business to care about those in need. As he phrases it, "The Lord will take care of his own; or else they can work out their own salvation"; in other words, he sees it as either God's responsibility to care for those in need or the responsibility of those in need to care for themselves. Kirby further states, "I wash my hands of all social problems,--slavery, caste, white or black."

Davis is using her character Kirby to show that it is really oppressors like Kirby who are responsible for Deb's actions and her consequences. As we see through her character Hugh, lower class citizens are trapped; they have no way of reaching the higher social positions without assistance from the higher classes, and it is the responsibility of the higher classes to give that assistance.

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