Life in the Iron Mills

by Rebecca Harding Davis

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What is Davis' solution to the problem in Life in the Iron Mills?

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Rebecca Harding Davis' novella "Life in the Iron Mills" presents a moral dilemma plaguing a working class family. Through detailed descriptions of both factory and home life for proletarian characters, Davis, like Friedrich Engels, highlights the distress and hardships that industrial capitalism puts on the working class. As a solution to these ills, Davis implies that money needs to be more equitably distributed among people of all classes. In a moment of free indirect discourse, the protagonist Hugh thinks about whether or not he should keep money that his wife Deborah stole from a wealthy industrialist:

The money,—there it lay on his knee, a little blotted slip of paper, nothing in itself; used to raise him out of the pit, something straight from God's hand. A thief! Well, what was it to be a thief? He met the question at last, face to face, wiping the clammy drops of sweat from his forehead. God made this money—the fresh air, too—for his children's use. He never made the difference between poor and rich. The Something who looked down on him that moment through the cool gray sky had a kindly face, he knew,—loved his children alike. Oh, he knew that!

In this interior monologue, Hugh indicates that money ought to be shared in common for theological reasons: "God made this money." Because God recognizes no "difference between poor and rich," and money ought to, like "fresh air," be held in common, it should be distributed more equitably to reflect this divine truth. Thus, instead of criticizing capitalism as an exploitative mode of production—as Marx does—Davis contends that the problem with capitalism isn't production but the circulation of money, offering a solution of distributive justice to the capitalist ills symbolized by the iron mills.

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