Life in the Iron Mills


Rebecca Harding Davis

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Life in the Iron Mills Characters


Hugh Wolfe, one of the novella’s protagonists, is a 32-year-old furnace-tender in an iron mill in the American South. Hugh leads a dismal life of constant labor and terrible living conditions, and he has an… read analysis of Hugh


Deborah, a protagonist of the novella, is a cotton picker in an unnamed industrial city in the American South. Deborah lives with her cousin Hugh, his alcoholic father, and six other families in… read analysis of Deborah


The unnamed narrator, who tells the novella’s central story from thirty years in the future, lives in the same house that Hugh, Deborah, and Hugh’s father lived in (although the narrator lives in… read analysis of Narrator

Quaker woman

The Quaker woman is the gentle and kindly older woman who visits the prison to tend to Hugh’s body after his death. During this time, she meets Deborah and promises to return in three… read analysis of Quaker woman

Doctor May

Doctor John May, known as Doctor May, is the local physician who visits the mill with Kirby, Mitchell, and the reporter. He is unable to step out of his mindset as an… read analysis of Doctor May
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Mitchell is Kirby’s brother in law, who is in town to study the institutions of a Slave State. He is one of the men who visits the mill with Kirby, Doctor May, and… read analysis of Mitchell


Clarke Kirby, known just as Kirby, is the overseer and the son of one of the mill owners. He only cares about his mill’s profits and is blatantly uninterested in the workers who make his… read analysis of Kirby


The preacher gives a sermon on the night that Hugh stumbles into a church and decides to keep the money that Deborah stole from Mitchell. Hugh thinks the preacher’s words are beautiful and emotionally… read analysis of Preacher


Janey is a young Irish girl who frequently stays with Deborah and Hugh when her father is in jail. Helpless, young, and pretty, Janey is the object of Hugh’s affections and Deborah’s jealousy. Janey is… read analysis of Janey
Minor Characters
Hugh’s father
Hugh’s father is an old, frail man who is only seen sleeping throughout the course of the novella. He lives in the cellar with Hugh and Deborah, drinks frequently, and works in the mills.
Haley is the jailer who oversees Hugh and Deborah while they are in prison. Haley is gruff and no-nonsense, though he is sympathetic to Hugh’s overly harsh sentence of nineteen years and he arranges for Deborah and Hugh to see one another.
Joe Hill
Joe Hill is the kindly lamp lighter who Hugh calls out to one night in prison when he is overcome by the urge to be spoken to one last time.
The newspaper reporter visits the mill with Kirby, Doctor May, and Mitchell. He only speaks when asking Kirby for details regarding the mill’s finances for the sake of his newspaper report.
Neff Sanders
Neff Sanders is one of Hugh’s fellow workers. While in prison, Hugh notices Neff out the window and tries to whistle to get his attention. When Neff doesn’t notice him, Hugh feels forgotten by the entire outside world.