Life in the Iron Mills

by

Rebecca Harding Davis

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Deborah Character Analysis

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 a cramped house. Like Hugh’s life, Deborah’s life is full of pain and suffering. Despite this, Deborah consistently acts with love and selflessness, since her unrequited love for Hugh propels her existence, much as Hugh’s love of beauty propels his. Deborah is self-conscious about her physical deformity (she has a slight hunchback) and she knows it is one of the reasons why Hugh doesn’t love her. Out of love, she struggles to bring Hugh meals at work and, ultimately, steals money from Mitchell on Hugh’s behalf, which leads both her and Hugh to go to prison. After Hugh dies in prison, Deborah’s life is transformed by the Quaker woman, who helps Deborah escape from industrialized city life and shows her the healing power of nature and Christian love. Away from the vice and hardship of the city, Deborah becomes happy, calm, loving, and humble.
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Deborah Character Timeline in Life in the Iron Mills

The timeline below shows where the character Deborah appears in Life in the Iron Mills. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Life in the Iron Mills
The City vs. The Country Theme Icon
...narrator explains that the story follows a furnace tender named Hugh Wolfe, and his cousin Deborah, a cotton picker. In fact, the narrator resides in the same house that Hugh and... (full context)
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...grab onto objects around them to keep their balance. A few of the women urge Deborah, one of the other cotton pickers, to attend a party that is happening later that... (full context)
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Deborah enters her home, which is a dark, damp cellar room coated with moss. Sleeping on... (full context)
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As she eats, Deborah hears a small noise behind her and sees that hidden in a pile of torn... (full context)
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The narrator returns to Deborah, hurrying through the city to the mill that sits a mile below the city. After... (full context)
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The mill looks “like a street in Hell,” spilling with fire. Deborah thinks to herself that the mill looks like it belongs to the devil, and the... (full context)
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Deborah finds Hugh and waits for him to have a spare moment to eat his dinner.... (full context)
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The narrator also points out that underpinning Deborah’s selflessness is a deep, enduring love for Hugh and years of trying to please him.... (full context)
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Deborah knows that Hugh can’t stand the sight of her deformed body. Unlike his peers, Hugh... (full context)
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The story returns to Hugh, tending to the furnaces, while Deborah looks on from her pile of ash. The usually rowdy workers suddenly go quiet as... (full context)
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...rise.” Mitchell tips his hat politely to Hugh, and Kirby throws a little money at Deborah. (full context)
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...and rest in the countryside, but tonight he feels too angry and agitated. Turning to Deborah, he dejectedly asks her if it is his fault that he leads such a lowly... (full context)
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...Janey and Hugh’s father are both asleep, though Hugh’s father has clearly been drinking since Deborah left earlier that evening. When Hugh sees little Janey, he decides to finally let go... (full context)
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Deborah quietly asks Hugh if he heard what Mitchell said about money—that money “wud do all.”... (full context)
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...stolen money. The next day, Hugh finds the money hidden in his pocket. He tells Deborah firmly that he will return it to Mitchell, but Deborah tells him it is his... (full context)
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Haley says Deborah was pegged as Hugh’s accomplice and was sentenced to three years in prison. She has... (full context)
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Deborah sees a “gray shadow” on Hugh’s face and knows he is dying. She pleads with... (full context)
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Haley returns to bring Deborah back to her cell. Deborah says to Hugh that she knows he will never see... (full context)
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Back in her own cell, Deborah crouches down by the crack in the wall to listen into Hugh’s cell. All she... (full context)
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...now-sharpened piece of tin, Hugh calmly cuts his arms and commits suicide. In her cell, Deborah can sense what is happening and tries to convince herself that Hugh “knows best.” Over... (full context)
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...arrives and stays longer than the other visitors. She tenderly cares for Hugh’s body as Deborah watches her closely. Eventually, Deborah begs the Quaker woman to bury Hugh in the countryside... (full context)
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Putting her arm around Deborah, the Quaker woman points at the hills and stream in the distance and says she... (full context)
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...Quaker woman was true to her word. The combination of nature and Christian love transforms Deborah into the most loving, calm, humble person in the entire Quaker community. Though her focus... (full context)