Analysis of Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron-Mills

Life in the Iron-Mills, an account of the squalid life, blighted aspirations, and aborted potential of the Welsh mill worker and primitive artist Hugh Wolfe, is rightly celebrated as both a powerful indictment of unrestrained industrial capitalism and a superior example of the initial phase of American realism. However, for all its evocative documentation of the dismal, polluted mills of Wheeling (in what is now West Virginia) and the spiritual degradation of generations of laborers, Rebecca Harding Davis’s story derives much of its continuing poetic impact from its deployment of allegorical strategies perfected by older contemporary American writers: emblematic characters representing clearly demarcated social functions and spiritual conditions, ambiguous and often ironic deployment of Christian scripture, and objects that emerge from their ostensibly realistic contexts to acquire the status of complex moral, aesthetic, and spiritual symbols.

The events of the story are told in retrospect by an unidentified narrator unusually familiar with the daily and lifelong misery of the workers: “Not many even of the inhabitants of a manufacturing town know the vast machinery of system by which the bodies of workmen are governed” (909). The intimate knowledge displayed by the narrator is conveyed in a sympathetic manner that distinguishes him/her from would-be reformers who have “gone among” the abject and vice-ridden workers “with a heart tender with Christ’s charity, and come out outraged, hardened” (907). This intimate knowledge and sympathy are displayed in the way the workers’ manner of speaking is accurately and sensitively reproduced without any intent to caricature and ridicule. The linguistic contortions of the ethnic working class—the twisted and severely truncated pronunciation that renders the Virgin Mary into “the Vargent” (907)—is reproduced as an index, for the middle-class reader, of the thwarted capacity to be or to communicate their being to others exemplified by the sickly, frustrated Hugh and his physically deformed cousin, Deborah.

The opening paragraphs describe “a town of ironworks” (904)—a phrase that suggests the unyielding nature of its social structure and economic undergirding. The perpetual gloom of “thwarted sunshine” possesses a gravitational pull that nothing is sufficiently dynamic to withstand: “The sky sank down before dawn, muddy, fl at, immovable” (904, 906). The atmosphere of adjectives and adverbs—foul, sullenly, slimy, dingy, greasy, reeking, dull, sluggishly, tired (905)—is similar to that evoked in the widely disseminated British chronicles of urban slums by Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew (whose London Labour and the London Poor was published in the same year as Davis’s story). So, too, the mills are described with similarly gothic overtones as the site of “hopeless discomfort and veiled crime”—“a city of fires” with “liquid metalflames writhing in tortuous streams” and “ghastly wretches . . . looking like revengeful ghosts in the red light” (910). However, the description of the “weary, dumb appeal upon the face of the negro-like river slavishly bearing its burden day after day” (905) clearly identifies the distinctively American political context in which the story was written and originally read—not just the war over racial emancipation but also the raging debate over so-called wage slavery in the North. Nevertheless, the fact that Hugh’s father is said to have already worked half his life in Cornish tin mills establishes a generalized, transatlantic continuity with regard to labor relations under capitalism. This idea of continuity is more explicitly stated by a generic description of past generations of Welsh workers followed by a reference to “their duplicates swarming the streets to-day” (907).

The narrator takes the reader on a Dantesque descent into a living hell to retrieve the unknown lives of two of the mills’ myriad anonymous denizens in order to answer the mocking rhetorical question regarding the ostensible depravity of the working class, “Is that all of their lives? . . . nothing beneath?— all?” (907). Wolfe and his fellow workers have been dehumanized by the factory system into creatures that “skulk along like beaten hounds” and sleep in “kennel-like rooms” (907). He has also been emasculated by his fellows, who think of him “as one of the girl-men” and call him “Molly” because, in keeping with the American tradition, they suspect that his (limited) education and artistic inclinations are effeminate (912). Hugh is more abject than the abject, having been ostracized from the brutal society of his kind, in which “to be alive” is nothing but “a drunken jest, a joke—horrible to angels perhaps, to them commonplace enough” (905). However, he is tended to by someone even more abject, the patient yet painfully eager, self-sacrificing Deborah, who “watche[s] him as a spaniel its master” from an unrequited love bordering on worship (912). Although Hugh feels tugs at his conscience, Deborah’s “thwarted woman’s form” offends his innate aesthetic sensibility, which desperately gropes among the surrounding “grossness” for a modicum of beauty and purity that might bring his latent spirit into being and feed the “soul-starvation” that afflicts him and his class as a “disease” (910–911). Deborah’s “waking stupor . . . pain and hunger” (910) might be thought the partial inspiration for the “hideous, fantastic” woman Hugh hews from korl, the flesh-colored refuse of the iron-making process: “a woman, white, of giant proportions, crouching on the ground, her arms flung out in some wild gesture of warning . . . the powerful limbs instinct with some one poignant longing.” Yet this woman is also a self-portrait, its “clutching hands, the wild, eager face, like that of a starving wolf’s” (916). This allegorical figure is described as mutely posing “the awful question, ‘What shall we do to be saved?’ ” (918).

Rebecca Harding Davis/Encyclopedia of Alabama

The turning point in Hugh’s life is his encounter with members of what to him is a “mysterious class that shone down on him perpetually with the glamour of another order of being” (913) and whose existence vexes him with the enigma why his lot should be so different from theirs, a gulf “never to be passed” (915). He overhears a conversation between Kirby, an owner of the mill, who is guiding his companions Dr. May and Mr. Mitchell on a tour. Listening “like a dumb, hopeless animal” (915), Hugh fails to understand their conversation, as all of the men express different contemporary attitudes about what can or should be done about the poor. Each of the men is an allegorical representation and as such an object of the author’s satire. Mitchell, a “thoroughbred gentleman” and scoffing, dilettantish aesthete, represents the head, an overly refined, essentially frigid, and uncommitted intellect “not rare in the States” (915). He gazes upon the infernal labor fancifully as if it were a theatrical spectacle, and when he turns his scrutiny on Hugh, his “cool, probing eyes” are “mocking, cruel, relentless” (917). However, he is the only one capable of recognizing that Wolfe’s sculpture represents spiritual hunger, that it is asking “questions of God,” demanding “I have a right to know” (917). And he repeatedly, though always sardonically, refers to Wolfe in terms that identify him with Christ.

According to the acerbic Mitchell, Kirby represents “the pocket of the world”—which is to say, “Money” speaks its ideology through him (918–919). Kirby states that had he been God he would have made “these men who do the lowest part of the world’s work” machines, adding, with an appalling logic, that this would be beneficent, since “What are taste, reason, to creatures who must live such lives as that?” (918). Mitchell designates Dr. May “the heart,” although, as his name suggests, that heart is not dependable. May wants to be benign but cannot help revealing the patronizing superiority of his class when he addresses Hugh in tones normally used with a child and displays “the affable smile which kindhearted men put on, when talking with these people” (917, 919). May asks the author’s question, “God help us! Who is responsible?” (918). But to save himself the expense of taking responsibility for Wolfe, he begs off by asking another: “Why should one be raised, when myriads are left?” (920). He satisfies himself that prayer is his only responsibility, and in praying for “these degraded souls” he recognizes his “accomplished duty” (920). He also gives voice to the ideological platitude that the American system provides equal opportunity, assuring Wolfe (and himself), “A man may make himself anything he chooses.” Allaying his guilty unease, and “glowing with his own magnanimity,” May further assures Hugh that “it is his right to rise” (919, 921), although he labels it ingratitude when Hugh eventually acts on a self-ordained conviction that he deserves “to live the life God meant him to live . . . to live as they” by the exertions of his “unused powers” (924). The narrator concurs, comparing Hugh to the biblical Esau in his having been “deprived of his birthright” (935).

Within the terms of this allegory, and as Kirby himself indicates, Hugh represents the hands; thus the text is replete with references to hands and hand gestures, as when Dr. May asks the crucial question of Kirby, “Have you many such hands as this? What are you going to do with them?” (917). Hugh is no more than hands because he is an intuitive sculptor lacking the guidance of a critical intellect and, more pointedly, because as a factory hand he sells these parts of his being in a fetishistic process analyzed by Davis’s contemporary, the philosopher Karl Marx. After being imprisoned for possessing a wallet stolen by Deborah in the hope of giving him the means of liberating himself, Hugh lies “with his hands over his eyes,” a man completely “cut down” (927). This metaphorical reference to castration and execution is meant to be linked to Hugh’s artistic activity. As if in fulfillment of Kirby’s tacit curse, “if they cut korl, or cut each other’s throats . . . I am not responsible” (918), Hugh ultimately achieves freedom through suicide, using an implement reminiscent of those he has used to carve his artwork, which he sharpens by scraping against the iron bars of his prison cell. Davis derives additional irony from iron, as Hugh ceases to “fight like a tiger” once shackled in the very material his labor has produced.

The narrator repeatedly addresses the reader as if to shame him or her: “I want you to hide your disgust, take no heed to your clean clothes, and come right down with me,—here, into the thickest of fog and mud and foul effluvia. I want you to hear this story” (905). Direct address is also used to articulate a claim for justice that Hugh is too inarticulate to make for himself: “I want you to come down and look at this Wolfe . . . and see him just as he is, that you may judge him justly” (912). The mocking tone of some of these direct addresses suggests that Davis suspects that some readers, having been compelled to identify with a criminal, might be so discomfited as to seek refuge in the comforting ideological platitudes of their class: “You see the error underlying its argument so clearly,—that to him a true life was one of full development rather than self-restraint? that he was deaf to the higher tone in a cry of voluntary suffering for truth’s sake” (925). Davis concludes this passage with pointed ambiguity by blurring whether she is referring to Wolfe or to the reader when she writes, “I only want to show you the mote in my brother’s eye: then you can see clearly to take it out” (925).

Davis deploys her allegorical realism as a challenge to traditional American Calvinist ideas about sin and salvation, particularly the deeply entrenched conviction that economic failure manifests spiritual unworthiness. This conviction is implicitly challenged as Davis induces the reader to identify with Hugh’s puzzlement regarding the source of his seemingly eternal punishment: “His nature starts up with a mad cry of rage against God, man, whoever it is that has forced this vile, slimy life upon him” (913). Similarly, she induces the reader to repudiate Kirby’s washing his hands, like Pontius Pilate, “of all social problems” (918). Challenging this Calvinist conviction from the perspective of radical contemporary ideas about economic and environmental determinism, while establishing a pattern of biblical allusions, Davis’s story constitutes a harbinger of the social gospel movement of the 1880s–1920s, which sought authority in Christian scripture for governmental regulation of industrial practices, notably labor reform, and for publicly financed protection and rehabilitation of the socially abject or abused.

In significant respects Davis’s story is also a radical departure from the sentimental magazine fiction of the period, which generally focused on self-sacrifice, secret emotions, and moral scruples confined within the narrow contexts of familial and courtship relationships. Such fiction served to endorse tacitly an ideology of individual responsibility, the conviction that willpower and rectitude, or lack thereof, is what establishes a person’s condition in life. There are, of course, sentimental elements in Davis’s story of “what might have been and was not: a hope, a talent, a love” (934). These are most evident with regard to Deborah’s conventional womanly devotion to the preoccupied Hugh: “Was there nothing worth reading in this wet, faded thing . . . no story of a soul filled with groping passionate love, heroic unselfishness, fierce jealousy? of years of weary trying . . . to gain one look of real heart-kindness from him?” (911). The narrator deliberately equates these feelings with those of her readers by adding, “One sees that dead, vacant look steal sometimes over the rarest, finest of women’s faces . . . and then one can guess at the secret of intolerable solitude that lies hid beneath the delicate laces and brilliant smile” (911). But these familiar, easily recognizable sentiments function to augment and make more acceptable what is Davis’s larger set of concerns related to societal indifference and its deleterious effects.

In a sense, the interplay between sentiments and scruples takes place at the site of those challenging addresses to the “you” of the reader: “You laugh at it? Are pain and jealousy less savage realities down here in this place I am taking you to than in your own house or your own heart—your heart, which they clutch at sometimes?” (911). The narrator’s reminder of the “unawakened power” of the masses that Hugh represents serves to make the story a cautionary tale of progressivism, a contemporary political movement founded on the recognition that industrialization had enabled a massive accumulation of wealth by a few and that that, practically speaking, had made untenable the constitutional promise of equal opportunity in the pursuit of happiness. The progressives clung to the hope that structural reform would protect the capitalist system from the radical assault posed by union organizers, socialists, communists, and anarchists. Anxieties of this sort are registered throughout the conversation of the visitors to the mill. Kirby, for example, declares, “Let them have a clear idea of the rights of the soul, and I’ll venture next week they’ll strike for higher wages” (920), and he asks defiantly, “Do you want to banish all social ladders and put us all on a fl at table-level” (917). Taking no sides, Mitchell observes that “reform is born of need, not pity. No vital movement of the people’s has worked down, for good or evil”; ferment from below has always “carried up the heaving, cloggy mass” (920). Contemporary anxieties about the revolutionary potential of the rootless urban mob can also be registered in the description of Hugh’s delirious, short-lived experience of freedom as “the madness that underlies revolution, all progress, and all fall” (925). Davis provides a warning in Hugh’s insistence, upon hearing his prison sentence, that “the money was his by rights, and that all the world had gone wrong” (927). At the end of the story Hugh’s work of art is still asking its “terrible” questions, as Davis’s own work of art goads the reader to take action: “Is this the End? . . . nothing beyond?—no more?” (935).

Davis, Rebecca Harding. “Life in the Iron-Mills.” In The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert. New York: W. W. Norton, 1985.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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