Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 280

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...

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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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 672

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 beneficial to all under the system, an idea that Davis negates. The workers labor almost ceaselessly, yet they barely survive. The overseer, a representative of industry, repeatedly calls the laborers “hands,” reducing them to the only parts that matter to a system that devours its workers. Davis’s indictment of capitalism is most apparent when Hugh sits in jail and observes a thriving marketplace below. The bustle of affluence contrasts sharply with the forced inactivity of his cell. Always excluded from the benefits of American commerce, Hugh is now literally barred from participating. His anguish over lost opportunities is compounded as he witnesses the tantalizing possibilities. Hugh’s efforts to escape life in the iron mills have resulted in condemnation to a real cell, with his legs shackled. Davis argues that Hugh has been trapped by conditions beyond his control, within an economic system that benefits the affluent, not the workers.

In addition to offering didactic social commentary, Davis presents a timeless theme of wasted talents and thwarted lives. The korl sculpture, a symbol of artistic hunger and longing, reveals the intensity of human desire. She is an extension of her creator, imprisoned yet struggling to express inner feelings. Hugh’s gifts reveal themselves despite his mean existence; his obvious talent increases the poignancy of his story as his efforts are squelched and his life is surrendered. The hunger and longing expressed in both the statue and in the portrayal of Hugh could also be found in aspiring female writers of the nineteenth century, such as Davis herself. These young women yearned to create, yet social convention often circumscribed their ambitions. Even when their families endorsed these women’s passions, their subject matter and techniques were limited by cultural expectations. As a result, the established writing community openly ridiculed their efforts. In various private writings, Davis noted that she was among the few who flourished and lamented the suppression of others.

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