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"Life in the Iron Mills" by Rebecca Harding Davis Analysis and Summary

In her short story, “Life in the Iron Mills,” Rebecca Harding Davis takes her reader down, “into the thickest of the fog and mud and foul effluvia” (2), in order to illustrate class conflict in American culture. Davis originally published this short piece of fiction anonymously, which gave her the freedom to illustrate the oppression of the lower class in a vivid and moving way. This story is written to members of the upper and middle classes in order to create change within the American class structure.

The image of the functioning iron mill is described to be mechanical in many aspects. Davis uses this imagery to allude to the commonly unnoticed, systematic structure of classes within our culture:

Not many of even the inhabitants of a manufacturing town know the vast machinery of system by which the bodies of workmen are governed, that goes on unceasingly from year to year. The hands of each mill are divided into watches that relieve each other as regularly as the sentinels of an army. By night and day the work goes on, the unsleeping engines groan and shriek, the fiery pools of metal boil and surge. (4)

This machine-like image and hellish description of the iron mill allows the reader to see the constant oppression of the lower class. This system leaves the oppressed so distracted by their need to work for the necessities, that they are blinded to the possibility of social mobility. While listening to the upper-class men read the newspaper, Wolfe realizes “that between them there was a great gulf never to be passed” (8). He is constantly confronted with the issue that God has placed him in the social structure as nothing more than a lower-class citizen until May explains that Wolfe’s talent for craving korl could be used to move up the social ladder.

Mitchell attempts to discourage May’s enthusiasm for the korl statue and says, “The Lord will take care of his own; or else they can work out their own salvation. I have heard you call our American system a ladder which any man can scale. Do you doubt it? Or perhaps you want to banish all social ladders, and put us all on a flat table-land,—eh, May?” (10). These members of a higher class cannot understand the torment of our class structure. They see the talent in Wolfe’s statue and its power to create social mobility for Wolfe, but, only one of them can see the true meaning of the statue. May “cannot catch the meaning” (10), while Mitchell is written to have seen “the soul of the thing” (10). This statue shows a strong, working woman, reaching out to escape social oppression. She is hungry for freedom, but since the upper-class men do not know how it feels to be oppressed, they cannot see this image in the statue.

Kirby and Mitchell describe the mill as a “den”; for Kirby, this is too much to handle: “Come, let us get out of the den. The spectral figures, as you call them, are a little too real for me to fancy a close proximity in the darkness,—unarmed, too” (9). The upper-class citizens are able to ignore class inequalities, because they are blinded by the light of their success in the American social structure. In contrast, the lower-class workers cannot overlook their oppression, because they are constantly being reminded of it. Davis illustrates this by describing the effort that Wolfe has put into carving his statue on his “off-time,” which is a direct symbol his oppression.

Davis writes a perfect narrative to the class inequality that is still evident in today’s American culture. She writes to the free-man, begging them to open their eyes as wide as she. Her imagery allows the reader to connect with the “reality of soul-starvation, of living death, that meets you every day under that besotted faces on the street” (6). Her story shines with truth and misery for the forever-struggling, working-class and will live on to illustrate the unjust conflicts within the American class structure.


Brittany Kennedy (author) from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on December 12, 2011:

Thank you, Deirdre, for your comments. I love that you referenced Marx. I recently did a hub on his ideas on capitalist society, values and artistic aura. Thank you again for sharing and reading.

Derdriu on December 12, 2011:

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Brittany, What a clear, insightful, provocative analysis of working class life! The living conditions are deplorable, the job prospects limited, and the vista narrow. Karl Marx said that art needs to be analyzed completely apart from the socio-economic system since it can be beautifully uplifting but always is based on false consciousness and false hope because of the cruelty of the haves and the suffering of the have nots. That observation rings true in regard to the above-referenced hideous factory conditions which were so brutal and fatal to the workers, so destructive to their families and hopes, and yet so responsible for the profits which ironically paid for the enduringly beautiful architecture, art and clothing of the upper class.

Thank you for sharing, etc.,


Brittany Kennedy (author) from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on December 11, 2011:

Agreed, HSB. Thank you for reading/commenting.

Cindy Murdoch from Texas on December 10, 2011:

This story sounds very profound and quite applicable to the struggles that many find themselves in today. Most have very little hope.

Brittany Kennedy (author) from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on December 10, 2011:

Stephanie, thank you for commenting. I agree that Davis' work is timeless and can be easily applied to today's class structure. I read this for an English course my freshmen year of undergraduate education. It should be required reading as it is a piece that overlaps on many subjects. Thanks again for reading.

Stephanie Bradberry from New Jersey on December 10, 2011:

While I did not truly appreciate Davis' narrative when I first read it, I completely have an appreciation for it now. I think this should be a must-read for many undergraduates, even if they are not in the humanities. Wolfe's potential for mobility being based on the yea or nay of the upper-class would speak to many today. and creating art and beauty from filth and refuge is telling.

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