Life in the Iron Mills

by Rebecca Harding Davis

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Struggle of the Lower Class

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 undervalued and treated as mere products to be used into the ground. 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. In sum, the conditions that Hugh and Deborah worked in—as well as countless others who aren’t characters in a story—were horrendous and inhumane.

The Power of Art

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. His art is particularly interesting because it is made from korl, a waste product from smelting. His art is literally a side project, then, born only from the energy and resources that are not completely spent by his hard work in the iron mills. The main art piece of the story is the figurine of a woman. When asked about what the korl statue represents, Hugh simply says, “She be hungry.” In this instance, Hugh’s art certainly imitates life. He and others in his position are hungry in many ways—both literally lacking food and also longing for a life that is more fulfilling. His art is powerfully symbolic even though he is not given the opportunity to substantially pursue it. 

Law and Order versus Justice

Deborah's theft and Hugh's complicity in keeping the money invite 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. Before deciding to take the money that Deborah stole, Hugh considers the morality of the decision. While theft is certainly frowned upon, Hugh concludes that God did not create the divide between the wealthy and the poor. This is an entirely human-made categorization. God instead created resources for all His children to use, Hugh thinks, and therefore he is merely taking what he deserves. He believes there is justice in finally obtaining some money that is more than enough to get by. According to the law, though, he is guilty while the owners of the mills—who perpetuate poverty and dangerous working conditions—carry on as normal.

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