Life in the Iron Mills Themes
by Rebecca Harding Davis

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Life in the Iron Mills Themes

Rebecca Harding Davis's 1861 novel of social realism explores many themes through the setting and the intertwined lives of the characters.

The setting of the iron mill and the squalid conditions in which Hugh and Deborah live provide the early-nineteenth-century backdrop to explore the living hell of the lives of the proletariat, many of whom have left Europe and Great Britain in hope of better lives. In the industrialized North of America, their lives are similar in many ways to slaves in the American South. As the wealthy entrepreneurs who own the factories of the industrial revolution prosper, the workers endure physically dangerous and soul-destroying servitude which denies their essential humanity. Davis hopes to point out that the disconnect between these two social classes is as incomprehensible as slavery in a nation that calls itself Christian. In fact, the only overtly Christian character is a Quaker woman who looks after Deborah and helps her lay Hugh decently to rest.

Hugh's artistry and desire to pursue it recognizes the paradox the arts often offers; he is capable of creating great beauty but cannot afford to live a life that would enable him to devote his life to it. Instead, he toils in a mill and is seen as an anomaly by both his co-workers and the affluent men who witness what he is capable of. His death is that of a despairing soul who has the imagination to understand what his life circumstances have denied him.

Deborah's theft and Hugh's complicity in keeping the money invites readers to contemplate questions about law and order versus justice. Few would agree that his excessive prison sentence is warranted for the damage done to Mitchell.

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Born into the upper middle class in the nineteenth century in the industrial city of Wheeling, Virginia, Rebecca Harding Davis witnessed huge influxes of immigrants and a corresponding rise in nativist movements. In “Life in the Iron Mills,” Davis responded to these social conditions by excoriating affluent classes for the oppression of factory workers and confronting readers with the grim conditions endured by laborers who produced the materials that helped build the new nation.

Davis vividly illustrates class separation in antebellum America. Protections of the gentle life insulate the middle and upper classes from learning how immigrants live. Prosperous citizens live in separate areas of the city, communing with a nature unknown to laborers who are restricted to dank cellars and suffocating factories. The narrator repeatedly cajoles his auditor, and therefore the reader, to look at and digest the horrors. Even when they witness these realities, wealthy Americans cannot understand. The factory visitors, for example, exude a sense of superiority, embodying a well-deserved privilege. To them, the factory is a nightmarish inferno, and its workers are nothing more than brutes.

Davis contradicts notions that the United States welcomes newcomers and guarantees them limitless opportunity. The nation has long been described as a melting pot. By subjecting immigrants to a metaphoric smelting process, the United States purportedly removes Old World impurities, creating a finer metal. According to this model, men and women who possess ambition and drive will invariably prosper. Adherents to the American Dream are excused from any social obligation to help those in need because they are convinced that the poor have created their own miseries by falling short in their efforts to succeed. The factory visitors voice this philosophy; one proclaims that Hugh can make anything of himself. When Hugh asks for help, the men feel no responsibility for his condition and no need to provide assistance. As a result, the ironworker cannot succeed despite his remarkable talent and drive. Such portraits imply that the United States denies true justice to its people and that its wealthy citizens lack compassion.

People in nineteenth century America believed that capitalism was...

(The entire section is 952 words.)