Rebecca Harding Davis

Life in the Iron Mills

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Life in the Iron Mills Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 23-page guide for the short story “Life in the Iron Mills” by Rebecca Harding Davis includes detailed a summary and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 15 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Connection Between Art and Privilege and Types of Religious Feeling.

Life in the Iron Mills is a novella written by Rebecca Harding Davis. It was first published anonymously in The Atlantic Monthly in 1861 and was later reprinted as a part of a story collection by The Feminist Press in 1985. At the time of its first publication, audiences assumed the unnamed author was male. This collection is called Life in the Iron Mills and Other Stories and contains notes and a short biography of Davis by Tillie Olsen.

Life in the Iron Mills is set in an unnamed Virginia mill town that is similar to Wheeling, where Davis grew up. The story begins with an unnamed narrator—perhaps an authorial stand-in—who is also not named in gender but later presumed to be female, describing the scene outside the window of her house, which is one of fog and desolation. From her window, she can see the mill workers trudging to their jobs: “Masses of men, with dull, besotted faces bent to the ground, sharpened here and there by pain or cunning; skin and muscle and flesh begrimed with smoke and ashes” (12). The narrator then states her intention to tell the story of one of these workers, Hugh Wolfe. She tells us that Wolfe, along with several other mill workers, once lived in her house, which was at the time a boarding house. The reader therefore has an understanding that the narrator herself is upper-class and detached from her grimy surroundings. Her relating Wolfe’s story is an attempt to enter into this life and to try to imagine the circumstances of people like him.

The story then shifts focus to the character of Deborah. The narrator relates the thoughts and feelings of other characters, similar to third person omniscient yet with occasional direct addresses to the reader. Deborah is a mill worker and is also hunchbacked. She is on her way home from a grueling long day at work, along with several of her female co-workers. Her co-workers implore her to go out for a drink with them, but Deborah demurs, as she must feed the other boarders in her household. Once home, she finds Janey, a frail young girl, and Mr. Wolfe, a sleeping elderly man, but not Hugh Wolfe, who also works at the mill. Janey tells Deborah that she is staying at the house temporarily, as her own father has just entered “the stone house” (18), that is, prison. She also tells Deborah that Hugo has still not returned home from work.

After feeding Janey, Deborah returns to the mill with food for Hugo. We understand her to be in love with Hugo, although she realizes that he can never love her back due to her unsightly physical condition; she also realizes that he is slightly in love with Janey. Our introduction to Hugo—the story’s main character—comes with the sight of him standing at work, heaping coal on top of a furnace. His job title is what is called a “puddler.” He is described as a loner, from whom his co-workers keep a distance, sensing a mysterious otherness in his nature. His separateness has to do with his identity as an artist; in his spare time, he creates sculptures out of “korl,” the malleable and light colored “refuse from the ore” (24).

Hugo greets Deborah with his usual kindly detachment, accepts the pail of food from her and urges her to lie down on a bed of iron refuse: “t was not a hard bed; the half-smothered warmth, too, penetrated her limbs, dulling their pain and cold shiver” (21). She watches him standing at his furnace, brooding over his evident lack of love for her. The story then switches to Hugo’s point of view, as a group of upper-class male visitors…

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