Life in the Iron Mills

by

Rebecca Harding Davis

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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 overwhelming feeling of being stuck. Despite his sad and unsatisfying life, Hugh possesses an intense craving for beauty and art, which he satisfies somewhat through carving statues out of korl (a byproduct of making iron), as well as through his affections for Janey, a young Irish girl who frequently leans on Hugh for comfort and friendship. Hugh’s admiration for beauty prevents him from returning the affections of his cousin, Deborah, whose devotion to him leads her to steal money so that he might have a better life. Hugh’s desire to live a more beautiful life leads him to keep the stolen money, but this ultimately leads to Hugh’s downfall when he’s sentenced to nineteen years in jail for theft. Hugh quickly goes mad in prison, eventually committing suicide with a piece of tin that he sharpens on the barred windows.
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Hugh Character Timeline in Life in the Iron Mills

The timeline below shows where the character Hugh 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
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The 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... (full context)
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...cellar room coated with moss. Sleeping on a pile of straw in the corner is Hugh’s father, who is small and pale. Deborah looks somewhat similar to him, although she is... (full context)
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...Janey says she’s staying the night here because her father is in prison—“the stone house”—and Hugh told her to never be alone when that happens. Janey also mentions that Hugh is... (full context)
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...is a long way away, and she is sickly, but she is committed to bringing Hugh his dinner—as she does almost every single night. She knows that he will barely thank... (full context)
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Deborah finds Hugh and waits for him to have a spare moment to eat his dinner. She is... (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. Although Hugh is kind to her, Deborah knows... (full context)
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Deborah knows that Hugh can’t stand the sight of her deformed body. Unlike his peers, Hugh is moved by... (full context)
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The other men who work at the mill refer to Hugh as “Molly Wolfe,” because they think his delicate face, lack of muscle, and penchant for... (full context)
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For Hugh, carving statues out of korl is “almost a passion.” He works on each figure for... (full context)
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The narrator urges the reader to abstain from judging Hugh and to see Hugh fully by understanding how his entire life has been made up... (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... (full context)
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The gentleman that Hugh doesn’t recognize is Kirby’s brother-in-law, Mitchell, who is visiting a Slave State “to study the... (full context)
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The reporter leaves the mill, but Mitchell, Kirby, and Doctor May remain. Hugh begins to compare himself to Mitchell and grows increasingly upset by their apparent differences. While... (full context)
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...confused about the statue’s meaning. Mitchell tells him to ask the artist himself, pointing to Hugh (somehow knowing Hugh is the one responsible). Putting on the extra-kind smile that “kind-hearted men... (full context)
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Hugh answers that the statue of the woman isn’t hungry for food. Kirby sneers at Hugh’s... (full context)
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Doctor May thinks that “much good” can come out of speaking to Hugh encouragingly. He tells Hugh that he has extraordinary potential both as an artist and a... (full context)
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Hugh is moved by the encouragement and asks Doctor May to help him. Doctor May quickly... (full context)
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Hugh latches onto the idea that money is what can save him. Cynically, Mitchell agrees, calling... (full context)
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Mitchell, Kirby, and Doctor May prepare to leave. As a parting word, Doctor May reminds Hugh that “it was his right to rise.” Mitchell tips his hat politely to Hugh, and... (full context)
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After the men depart, Hugh is in agony. Somehow the conversation with Mitchell and Doctor May made him see his... (full context)
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Hugh usually longs to get out of the city and rest in the countryside, but tonight... (full context)
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When they return, Janey and Hugh’s father are both asleep, though Hugh’s father has clearly been drinking since Deborah left earlier... (full context)
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Deborah quietly asks Hugh if he heard what Mitchell said about money—that money “wud do all.” Exhausted, Hugh ignores... (full context)
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The narrator emphasizes that Hugh is an honest man and has no intentions of keeping the stolen money. The next... (full context)
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For the rest of the night, Hugh is torn about what to do with the money. He feels “mad with hunger,” craving... (full context)
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With newfound hope, Hugh looks around and sees his surroundings in a more beautiful, artistic light, feeling “somehow” transported... (full context)
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Later that night, Hugh roams around the city, saying a mental goodbye to all of its sites. He stumbles... (full context)
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The narrator interjects, revealing that Hugh was convicted of theft by morning. A month later, Doctor May reads in the newspaper... (full context)
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Haley, the jailer in charge of Hugh, gives a brief synopsis of Hugh’s conviction, trial, and early days in prison. He says... (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 been begging incessantly to... (full context)
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Deborah sees a “gray shadow” on Hugh’s face and knows he is dying. She pleads with him not to die, but Hugh... (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 her again, and Hugh agrees. Looking at Hugh... (full context)
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...her own cell, Deborah crouches down by the crack in the wall to listen into Hugh’s cell. All she hears is the sound of his piece of tin scraping across the... (full context)
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Using his now-sharpened piece of tin, Hugh calmly cuts his arms and commits suicide. In her cell, Deborah can sense what is... (full context)
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The following morning, a crowd gathers at Hugh’s cell, including the coroner, a group of reporters, and Kirby. Later, a Quaker woman arrives... (full context)
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...she lives out in the countryside where the “light lies warm.” She promises to bury Hugh there the following day. She also promises to return to fetch Deborah in three years,... (full context)
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...now is God’s love, she still holds in her heart a deep, enduring love for Hugh. (full context)
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Transitioning to first person, the narrator says that the only sign that Hugh ever lived is the statue of the korl woman, which now sits behind a curtain... (full context)