Realism in Western Virginia
by William Dillard


Rebecca Harding Davis’ Life In the Iron-Mills explores the lives of the lower class immigrant workers in a mining town. The fictitious town is based on Davis’ western Virginia hometown of Wheeling, which is now a part of West Virginia. The narrator focuses on two British immigrants and the fate of their lives, as they struggle to make ends meet under harsh working and living conditions. Davis’ purpose is to both, educate her predominately middle class readers of the conditions of which these lower class workers must persevere, and to expose the hopelessness that surrounds the workers lives.

To help create a better understanding of Davis’ point of view as an author, one must take into consideration the social circumstances surrounding her at the time she wrote Life In the Iron-Mills. Davis submitted her story to an editor of a prestigious magazine based in Boston in 1860. Once published, Davis’ work was claimed to be ahead of its time. Other American realist writers primarily did not start publishing work that portrayed the lower class laborers in American industry until about ten years later than Davis did. Davis herself was never a member of the lower class; in fact her father was an immigrant businessman who made his fortune in Alabama, before moving the family to Wheeling. Davis was actually considered in the upper class of society. As far as the country was concerned, immigrants saw America as a place with many job opportunities due to industrialization and urbanization. In the 1840’s the nation received 1.7 million immigrants, and then 2.6 million in the 1850’s. Many owners of industrial plants and mills became rich by exploiting the immigrant workers in order to provide cheap goods. Davis was said to have, "sought to make her readers aware that their material comfort was enabled neither by palliative classical gods nor by cheap coal and river barges but by real human beings, who ate, slept, and toiled in unspeakable conditions" (4).

As Davis starts the story, the narrator describes some characteristics of the dingy town. This quickly gives the reader a feeling of hopelessness towards the town and it’s inhabitants with a description of, "a little broken figure of an angel pointing upward from the mantel-shelf; but even its wings are covered with smoke, clotted and black" (39-40). She then goes on to a description of a canary in a cage and says that, "Its dream of green fields and sunshine is a very old dream -- almost worn out, I think" (40). Both of these uses of imagery could sum up Davis’ message, in that most of the laborers did have talents of which they could never use because they would never be given the chance, and that they all dream of having a better life.

The main character, Hugh Wolfe, holds both of the above characteristics. Although he has worked most of his life in the iron mill, he has a great artistic talent for molding. The narrator said that it wasn’t uncommon to find Hugh, "working at one figure for months, and, when it was finished, breaking it to pieces perhaps, in a fit of disappointment" (48). This illustrates Wolfe’s utter disdain for the environment around him. Due to his overwhelming hunger for beauty, Wolfe holds a fierce contempt for, "whoever it is that has forced this vile, slimy life upon him" (49).

As the narrator begins with the plot of the story Deborah, Hugh’s cousin, travels to the mill to deliver dinner to him. She arrives and decides to stay until Hugh’s shift is over and the rain dies down. As she waits and Hugh works, five men of the upper and middle classes arrive on a tour of the mill. As they discuss the hellish appearance of the mill and it’s inhabitants, one of the men notices a sculpture of a woman Hugh had been working on. They discuss the sculpture and one man says she has a, "half-despairing gesture of drowning" (53). Wolfe explains that she has a hunger for a better life. As the men converse further about the statue it seems symbolic of Hugh in that she also seems trapped. Hugh has the same hunger, but has no means of a way to escape his environment and class. One of the men exclaims, "look at her! How hungry she is!" (55). This statement is ironic, because the man notices the hunger in a sculpture but not in all of the laborers that surround him. Another example of irony is displayed later when one of the men tells Hugh that he has a God given gift that could help him, "to live a better, stronger life" (56). When Hugh asks the man for help, he denies him, claiming he does not have enough money to help. Once again Hugh is trapped, but now worse than before. His talent has now been acknowledged and he has been told that it is very possible for him to be successful. This makes Hugh’s hunger much worse than before.

As the two cousins arrive at their home, Deborah gives Hugh a wad of money she took out of the pocket of one of the men they met at the mill. The sum of money is enough for Hugh and his family to start a new life and live very comfortably for a short period of time until he can get established as an artist. The money symbolizes happiness and is the one thing that can quench the hunger. However, Hugh decides to take the money back to the man because he believes in being an honest man. As he goes to return it, Hugh has second thoughts about the money. In the end Hugh and Deborah are tried for grand larceny. Hugh was sentenced to nineteen years of hard labor, and Deborah was given three. After several escape attempts, Hugh decides that he will never be able to disrupt his long sentence of solitude. After being cut off from any hope of freedom, Hugh decides to take his own life. When Hugh is found and pronounced dead in his small cell, a group of people came to pay their respects. Deborah recognized them all except for a woman who outstayed the entire group. She felt Deborah’s pain and promised to give Hugh what he would have wanted most, a burial on a hillside where the grass was green and the sun shined. As for Deborah, after her sentence she joined this woman and her religious sect of The Society of Friends and lived out her live on the hillside also. The narrator says she was a, "woman much loved by these silent, restful people; more silent than they, more humble, more loving. Waiting: with her eyes turned to hills higher and purer than these on which she lives, -- dim and far off now, but to be reached some day" (73).

Davis’ story is aided by her strong use of imagery, symbolism, and irony, as illustrated above. The imagery used to explain the conditions, in which the immigrant laborers both work and live, is Davis’ strongest literary tool. She describes the smoke that inhabits the town as rolling, "sullenly in slow folds from the great chimneys of the iron-foundries, and settles down in black, slimy pools on the muddy streets" (39). Also, Davis illustrates the Wolfe’s home life as living in a cellar where the, "earthen floor (is) covered with a green, slimy moss" (43). At one point Hugh falls asleep at home and Deborah brings, "some old rags to cover him with" (61). This imagery helps Davis to reach her goal of showing her readers the conditions of which these workers are forced to live in everyday. Through the story of Hugh Wolfe’s life, Davis reaches her other goal of showing the hopelessness of the immigrant laborers.

Overall, I think Davis’ Life In the Iron-Mills is a rather informative story. It provides the reader with a good sense of what life was actually like in Virginia and much of the south during the middle to late 1800’s. The story moves pretty quickly because Davis seems disinterested in boring the reader with unnecessary details, as did many authors of her time. I found it much more interesting knowing that people actually had to endure conditions such as the ones Davis describes.

last updated: 02/07/2008
maintained by: Rick Van Noy