“Life in the Iron Mills” is a short story by Rebecca Harding Davis that tells us about industrial iron mill working life in the mid nineteenth century. I feel the need to point out what James C. Austin missed out in his article “Success and Failure of Rebecca Harding Davis”. From my perspective from what Austin has written is that he is very shallow and surface level with what he has to say in relation to the short story.
Yes Davis wrote a story showing the grim lives of the industrial workers in Americas Mills, which in one way shows realism, but nowhere in Austin’s article truly describes how she does that, and I in this essay will use articles from other journalists to show that she did so, I want to make say that his points have relevancy regarding Austin’s description of the setting, but that isn’t the purpose of the article, the purpose of the article is to show the pitfalls and achievements of Davis
From reading Austin’s article he states these narrow minded claims “The story depicts in realistic detail the lot of mill workers whose only hope is in pitying God” (Davis 45). I agree with this statement that this story shows the lows of mill workers but realistically it is much deeper than that. There are many different traits that stood out to me, even religious assumptions that I will build up on, this helps the story develop, not just plot wise, but through Deborah and Hugh Wolfe.
At the start of the short story Rebecca Harding Davis describes Deborah as a lady that has spiritual destitute, this from my perspective shows poverty in both lacking spirituality and economically. Harris 1989, “From Romanticism to Realism” addresses a good point that Austin missed, “Davis’s purpose in this narrative frame is to lure readers into this new form of fiction without alienation them before they decent into the lower realms” I agree with Harris this type of writing definitely caught my attention.
It clearly shows Davis at her best, describing the setting in the first couple pages, not only sets the tone and mood of the story, but it gives the reader the allusion of this is what the setting is, and here is what happened. Many stories tend to start with surface level plots and characters, whereas Davis has set a dark miserable setting giving us the notion that this book isn’t going to be a happy fun reading short story. Austin describes the gloominess was presented, but it wasn’t just that, because there was a reason for the gloominess.
I want to say that Austin’s article is important on a level of plot and simple summary of the story, but that wasn’t the purpose of why I was writing, I felt his article had some importance but on a deeper level of analysis he failed to argue the realistic vs. romantic side of the story. Austin’s goal was to show the pitfalls of Davis, whereas Harris’s goal was to show the reasoning behind realism and romanticism. Readers can assume that everyone that worked in the iron mills had a rough life, but from what Harris says in 1989 (page 7) Davis emphatically joins this distortion of nature with that of human life, now a “slow stream … reeping past, night and morning, to the great mills. I came to a conclusion that this is much deeper than just showing a day to day life of these mill workers that were pretty much in some form of slavery. I saw it as something that these iron workers don’t have a choice to do, they not only have a zero percent chance of making it out of here, but they will inevitably die here, yes, it is that sad. Nevertheless I viewed this in light of how Davis showed this through her writing as a way of showing the bleak narrow future of the workers.
She did this though the “slow stream”; I interpreted just these two words as a slow, boring, and never-ending life of the iron workers. This overall reflects the purpose of Harris’s works due to the fact that it depicts the realities of Iron mills and the relation to reality versus romanticism. Moving on to the idea of romanticism and realism, it clear that Austin 1962 overall had a more romantic trait to what he viewed Life in the Iron Mills was like, I disagree, due to the fact that, the short story is more realistic, than the idea of romanticism.
Yes there are parts of the story that give you intentions of that, but I feel Davis wrote like that to not give that idea, but to make the readers feel more compelled that her writing was more realistic than romantic. “It knows that beyond there waits for it odorous sunlight, quaint old gardens, dusky with soft, green foliage of apple-trees, and flushing crimson with roses,–air, and fields, and mountains. ” These two lines in my mind suggest that hope of escape, but then harsh realities sink in that no, there is no way in hell that they can even ruly dream, that, which inevitably brings them back to the realm of realism. I estimated that many readers expected this story to end well, and everything will be all jolly and happy. No, I knew from the beginning, but had the feeling that this story was going to be sad all the way through, from the lives they lived, from the korl woman that Hugh sculpted, finally to his death by suicide. From Hugh creating that woman, from my own interpretation of that sculpture it was an escape for Hugh from the hard work he does every day.
Even though he may have suffered from criticism from the mill owners, you could tell that he knew what the true meaning of that was, that he wanted the manly woman to live, he wanted the woman to reflect him and his life, the woman is brave yet we know Hugh is weak due to the fact that he is stuck in the cyclical life of daily hard work that not just him and his close family went through but most likely everyone in the lower class in America during this time period.
The Korl woman not only reflects Hugh’s desires and his stance in the cities social class structure, but also his spiritual life in relation to reality. When James C. Austin says that the short story depicts “in realistic detail the lot of the mill workers, whose only hope is a pitying God”, we know that Davis is a realist, so you think she wants her readers to think that, then why does she present that idea then?
I feel that she wants the readers to think that through a Christian ideal of including religious terminology she wants us, the readers, to understand that through god we can be saved, in the eyes of Hugh we all know that praying isn’t going to do much, due to the fact that once again he is stuck in this life of hard work forever, there is hope from another world, God, but realistically we know it will not happen.
Doctor May, in this short story from my perspective is like Christ, I draw this conclusion because he is the one that knows Hugh has hope, he knows what he is going through and is there to comfort him, I draw this conclusion because May is human like, yet has words of wisdom that Christ and God would have. “The money,–there it lay on his knee, a little blotted slip of paper, nothing in itself; used to raise him out of the pit, something straight from God’s hand. Hugh knows that theft is wrong, realistically he knows if somebody finds out that he is in possession of the money that his cousin stole from Kirby, that he would be punished, what Deborah must have been thinking is that the money is key to escape out of this miserable life, the money will save them monetarily and socially.
The importance of this shows that Hugh knows the reality of what he’s doing whereas his cousin is trying to do anything and everything to help them, in reality we all know that it won’t happen, the significance of this shows that to the iron mill workers, that money is a form of evil, it not only shows how much they want to care, but also how much they would rather earn it that steal it, this significance of this shows that money in this case shows hard work, and not easy earned money. What I inevitably concluded was that Hugh would rather earn the money than steal it because he knew that it wouldn’t get him far.
As Hugh went to the church to reflect on what had just happened I learned from this that the Christian reformer didn’t help him at all, he didn’t provide any physical traits that related to Hugh, which inevitably didn’t help Hugh decide what to do, these Christian beneficiaries didn’t help Hugh due to the fact that Christians didn’t need the spiritual needs of the poor. As Hugh is being buried, the Quaker woman once again brings the parallel back to Christ, she is giving hopes to Deborah that the grass is greener on the other side, even though Hugh committed suicide, your life will be rejuvenated.
This has been shown through Harris 1989, but what Sharron Harris points out that Quakers often represent her alternative spiritual perspective. I feel like the point of this story isn’t really to believe in God, I am not saying that don’t believe in God, but from my own interpretation believing in God there is no wrong, but when you come to reality praying to God will gain you spiritual freedom, but not realistic freedom, praying wont magically draw you out from the iron mills and then you’ll live happily ever after.
To conclude the main idea I can draw from these two articles and from Life in the Iron Mills is that the spiritual connection with reality is very unreal, I know God has made miracles happen, but in context of this story it just gives hopes to Deborah and Hugh. From this story I can say that it shows America is socially corrupt and that is shown through the work force, this has some potential to be fixed, but not through asking God. The realities that are posed in this short story are the true and realistic grim lives, and through the analysis of Harris and Austin I have shown the underlying message of many contexts in Life in the Iron Mills.