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“Life in the Iron Mills” by Rebecca Harding Davis

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In “Life in the Iron Mills” Rebecca Harding Davis reveals a growing industrial America in the nineteenth century, where an unbelievable level of poverty and limited opportunities of achieving success can cause individuals to take extreme risks to attain a descent lifestyle. Through the novella, Davis illustrates the distinct differences between upper and lower class lifestyles. Immigrant workers, Debora (lovingly called Deb) and Hugh, take the reader to a time when people were used as production machines and poverty was a state into which most people were fated to be born and die. By using techniques such as strong language and symbolism, a narrator who helps create a sympathetic bias towards the working class and an innocent character who the reader is aware of to be pre-destined to doom, Davis illustrated the harsh realities of urban industrialization and made the reader sympathize with the lower class and their ways of survival.

Davis begins the novella with an outline and description of the period and environment, dirty, unhealthy, and not very fair. The narrator then goes on to tell the story of a particular worker, Hugh Wolfe. Wolfe worked at a steel mill, and never got hurt before and was a very reliable worker, yet he still got paid extremely low salaries. One day his cousin, Deb Wolfe, goes to the Iron Mill to give Hugh his meal, she feels very drowsy and decides to rest before returning home. Her husband is at the same time making his “masterpiece,” the hungry lady, right when the mill owners, followed by other friends take a tour of the factory.

They see the statue and decide to comment Wolfe on it. Deb hears them speaking and conversation take a turn when the doctor says he is a good artist and art could solve all of his problems. Deb then decides to steal money from the cellars of the factories. They get caught and get sentenced 3 years in jail. When in jail, Deb and Hugh get separated and Deb does not know what has happed to her dearly beloved Hugh. In jail, only a Quaker women helps her over come her depression state and when released from prison, she searches for Hugh, only to find out that he died in prison. The book ends with the narrator telling us she still has that statute, and keeps it as a memorial to Hugh Wolfe.

The rapid growth of new technology in Great Britain during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries led to the period which was known as the Industrial Revolution. New machinery and rising demand for products quickly led to the growth of the factory system. Factories required massive numbers of workers, and jobless rural workers flocked to the cities to fill these positions, making about a dollar a day. The owners of these factories had a huge labor supply available to them and no incentive to look out for the employees’ safety or health. The need for laws and change sparked writers such as Davis to expose the horrible conditions of the factories to the public. In the opening sentence, of the novella, Davis describes a cloudy day in the Iron Mills.

“The sky sank down before dawn, muddy, flat, immovable. The air is thick; clammy with the breath of crowded human beings….I open the window, and looking out, can scarcely see through the rain.” The narrator uses very strong descriptive language to help the reader understand the lurid, grimy atmosphere in which the story took place. The narrator not only describes the visual appearance of the mills but has the reader use all 5 senses and places the reader amongst the mills. “The long train of mules, dragging masses of pig-iron through the narrow street, have a foul vapor hanging to their reeking sides.” This allows the reader to fully visualize the environment and setting of the story.

“Smoke everywhere A dirty canary chirps desolately in a cage beside me. Its dream of green fields and sunshine is a very old dream,–almost worn out, I think.” This is one of the most powerful passages in the novella, preaching how the old way of life is dying, and the new way of the machine has started and sums up the overall grim theme of the story. The language is simple purposely, to capture the essences of the mind of the common housewife, uneducated, but still a human, and in need of simple human necessities. The green fields and sunshine symbolize the lifestyle of the rich, who where probably the ones reading the novella. This contrast it to the horrid conditions the steel workers were in, and trying to make the reader evoke feelings of sorrow and pity for the characters.

This is because the rich where the ones that had a green field, or a nice clean sky, as opposed to smoke and steel, embedded into the lives of the steel mill workers. The author also makes the comparison of the mills to hell on earth. When visiting the mill that night, one of the men accompanying the mill owner’s son comments on its resemblance to hell; “If it were not that you must have heard it so often, Kirby, I would tell you that your works look like Dante’s Inferno,” and “The terrible grinding of the machinery sounds to her like “Gods in pain. The author also makes it a point to use very simplistic and uneducated language for the workers conversations. This can be differentiated when the reader sees the interaction between Wolfe and the Iron mill owners.

Davis makes a bias towards the working class by using a narrator to dictate the story in of life in the iron mills. From the beginning of the story the reader is dependent upon the narrator to provide them with all the required details. This dependence also causes the reader to share a common feeling towards Hugh Wolfe. Yet the reader is unaware that a bias is being formed, since everything Davis said benefits only the workers, and does not shed light on the owners of the mill. For example, out of all the upper class characters in the book, only one (the Quaker Women) helps our major characters. However, the novella also shows that the upper classes themselves thought that labor laws had to be changed, and this is symbolized in the doctor. The Doctor is a man who supports helping the workers, but because of there high numbers, does not push for it. This was very true during the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s, but people did not show the support in public. Davis also makes it apparent that the narrator is not a field hand, but a middle class observer.

This makes the reader feel the experience is a first for both the narrator and the audience, and allows them to be more comfortable when reading the novella (since the reader and narrator have common knowledge of the subject). This can be confirmed from the narrator’s dialect not matching that of the main characters thick Welsh dialect and simpleton language. The Narrator does not simply set up a plot, but leads the reader to share a common sympathy towards the Wolfe’s. Davis falls short in showing a crime is at the end of the day, a crime, and cannot be justified and instead she shows that in dire circumstances crime is a necessity for survival. Davis uses the narrator as “propaganda” to make us pity labors of the iron mills, and wonder if the industrial revolution had only good effects. The passage on the canary shows that their world is destined to doom, as everything is coated in dirt, and slowly, but surly suffocating by the smog.

The final element Davis uses to “top off” her expose of the working class would be the Doom awaiting the innocent Deb and Hugh Wolfe. Systematic oppression, abuse, and the destruction of the people was the world in to which the Wolfe’s where born into, lived in, and except to die in. When we are first introduced to both Hugh and Deb’s character the narrator makes it a point to describe both of them as being weak and miserable. The reader is first introduced to Deb as being deformed, hunchback who looked lifeless. When we are introduced to Hugh the narrator describes him as worthless. Nature had promised the man but little. He had already lost the strength and instinct vigor of a man, his muscles were thin, his nerves weak, his face (a meek, woman’s face) haggard, yellow with consumption. He fought sometimes, but was always thrashed, pommelled to a jelly.

By setting up the characters as being weak and unworthy Davis was foreshadowing that the characters were going to be doomed in the story. From the beginning with the statement, “My story is very simple,–only what I remember of the life of one of these men,–a furnace-tender in one of Kirby & John’s rolling-mills,–Hugh Wolfe. You know the mills? They took the great order for the lower Virginia railroads there last winter; run usually with about a thousand men. I cannot tell why I choose the half-forgotten story of this Wolfe more than that of myriads of these furnace-hands.” Davis is trying to justify the Wolfe was special from the beginning, but was doomed from the beginning. Or, in simpler thought, there had to be some reason why she remembered him over the other workers.

The korl statute also used in the text had symbolic value which foreshadowed the doom awaiting the main characters. The statue was a symbol of the laborers hunger. Davis indicated that the statue was naked and made out of waste. The men at the mills try to interpret the statues purpose of life and ignore the symbol of the statue as a representation of the working class. This shows that there was no hope for the laborers lives to improve because no one was willing to take into consideration the changes that needed to be made for the working class. She be hungry. Wolfe’s eyes answered Mitchell, not the Doctor who responded with; Oh-h But what a mistake you have made, my fine fellow You have given no sign of starvation to the body. It is strong,–terribly strong. It has the mad, half-despairing gesture of drowning. This told Wolfe that his art is good, but the profound depth of the statue did not affect anyone else’s feelings on the topic.

As you can see, Life in the Iron Mills is a story on how symbolism, use of language and a sympathetic bias towards the working class can affect the people views. Also by adding a plot in which the main characters fall into doom, the cocktail of ideas ensure that the reader will agree with the author’s ideas. Not only is it the truth, it is also very persuasive. It is agreed that Life in the Iron Mills started a sensation, and almost over night had people arguing for laborers rites.

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