Life in the Iron Mills

by Rebecca Harding Davis

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In Life in the Iron Mills, how does the use of "light" and "dark" influence the text?

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"Life in the Iron Mills" is ultimately a story about the dehumanization and misery inflicted by industrialization on the working class. It is heavily descriptive, and imagery of light and darkness serves as a key to the symbolism within the book.

The darkness is ultimately tied up with industrialization. Industrial society is described in detail, with the filth and smog, the mud and smoke, which hangs over everyone residing within the town. It is described as suffocating, and one of the central symbolic motifs that runs across the story is that of small pockets of light being snuffed out by the darkness. This is an image which represents dehumanization, of how workers are ultimately chained by industrial society, denied the ability to be what they can be and what they should be.

We see this imagery surrounding the scene of the statue, where Hugh has a moment of hope, and the narrative itself says as much, that he could be a great artist. We see in this scene the longing for something more than what industrialization allows him to be: that is the ultimate meaning of the statue, what it thirsts for, and it is at the core of Hugh's characterization. But in the end, despite the ability and the words of praise, Hugh remains trapped in his condition, for no one will help him escape it, and in that scene, his own internal turmoil, of hope being snuffed out, is paralleled in that imagery of light and darkness.

For all that, however, the story is not entirely hopeless, even though Hugh himself is imprisoned and dies in misery. Ultimately, it ends with an image of light overcoming darkness, reflected in the Quaker woman. Throughout the story, as said before, light is a symbol of humanity, but it is also a symbol of Christianity, and restoration in the face of that dehumanization.

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The "dark" condition in which Hugh and Deborah live represents the challenges that economically depressed individuals faced in the midst of Industrialization.  Harding makes it clear that there is a note of "dark" around Hugh and Deborah and those who reside at the bottom of the capitalist enterprise see more dark than light.  The home in which they live is dark, he suggests to her that she sleep on a heap of ashes, and the cellar dwelling that encompasses their physical being and their emotional one is darkness.  Light comes in the form of the fluttering hopes of transcendence.  The korl statue attracts the visitors from a distance, at night, almost calling out to them as light.  The statue being the result of Hugh's craftsmanship, one can see it as a temporal moment of light in a perpetual state of darkness.  While he wanders the street, the light of dreams impacts Hugh, to a point where he only sees the hope that such symbolic light.  Again, one sees the presence of light in a world of darkness, something that comes crashing down on him as a reminder when he and Deborah are incarcerated.  Hugh's outstretched hands from his jail cell while he is dying is another example of where "light" in terms of the outstretched hands collides with the "dark" of the prison cell. The presence of the korl statue at the end of the story reflects how there can be light in a world of darkness.

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