Life in the Iron Mills

by

Rebecca Harding Davis

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Narrator Character Analysis

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 the whole house, while the Wolfes only inhabited two of the cellar rooms). Living in the Wolfes’ old house means that the narrator possesses the statue of the hungry woman that Hugh carved, which is the catalyst for the narrator telling Hugh and Deborah’s story. The narrator positions him- or herself as an expert on factory workers, even though the narrator doesn’t seem to be one. As the house suggests, the narrator seems somewhat privileged, and his or her nuanced and articulate observations about industrial life position him or her to reach an equally privileged middle-class audience to warn them about the dangers of industrialization. The narrator holds firm moral positions about industrial cities being inhuman and believes that high- and low-class people all have the same desires and emotions, they just relate to different experiences. The narrator is nonjudgmental and wants the reader to be, as well.
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Narrator Character Timeline in Life in the Iron Mills

The timeline below shows where the character Narrator 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
As a frame narrative, the novella begins with the outer story. The unnamed narrator describes an unnamed industrialized city, which specializes in making iron. Smoke coats every inch of... (full context)
The City vs. The Country Theme Icon
Looking out the window, the narrator points out how the river is also dirty and sluggish. When the narrator was young,... (full context)
The City vs. The Country Theme Icon
Coping and Relief Theme Icon
The narrator notes that the slimy, brown river knows that once it stretches beyond the city limits,... (full context)
The Power of Art Theme Icon
The narrator reveals that he or she has an important story to tell. The story may seem... (full context)
The City vs. The Country Theme Icon
The narrator explains that the story follows a furnace tender named Hugh Wolfe, and his cousin Deborah,... (full context)
The City vs. The Country Theme Icon
Coping and Relief Theme Icon
According to the narrator, Welsh immigrants, like the Wolfes, are dirtier and frailer than other immigrants. Welsh immigrants have... (full context)
The City vs. The Country Theme Icon
Coping and Relief Theme Icon
...tonight, as she often goes hungry. Unlike her companions, Deborah does not drink alcohol. The narrator interjects, suggesting that Deborah must have some other “stimulant” that keeps her going, like love... (full context)
The City vs. The Country Theme Icon
The narrator pauses the story momentarily to discuss the way industrialized cities work. Like “sentinels of an... (full context)
The City vs. The Country Theme Icon
Words vs. Actions Theme Icon
The narrator returns to Deborah, hurrying through the city to the mill that sits a mile below... (full context)
The City vs. The Country Theme Icon
...thinks to herself that the mill looks like it belongs to the devil, and the narrator interjects in agreement, noting, “It did,—in more ways than one.” (full context)
The City vs. The Country Theme Icon
Words vs. Actions Theme Icon
...ash while he goes back to tending to the furnaces, and she does so. The narrator notes that this scene—with the hellish-looking mill, half-clothed workers, and Deborah lying in a pile... (full context)
Coping and Relief Theme Icon
The narrator also points out that underpinning Deborah’s selflessness is a deep, enduring love for Hugh and... (full context)
Coping and Relief Theme Icon
The Power of Art Theme Icon
...young, helpless girl with dark blue eyes. In the midst of Deborah’s painful thoughts, the narrator interjects, asking the reader to realize that these feelings of heartbreak, pain, and jealousy are... (full context)
The City vs. The Country Theme Icon
The Power of Art Theme Icon
The narrator urges the reader to abstain from judging Hugh and to see Hugh fully by understanding... (full context)
Words vs. Actions Theme Icon
...Doctor May scoffs at this idea, although it is a concept he privately accepts. The narrator notes that later that night, Doctor May prays for the workers to find the strength... (full context)
Coping and Relief Theme Icon
...let go of any hope he had of making a better life with her. The narrator interjects, noting that Hugh’s soul “never was the same” after this moment. (full context)
Coping and Relief Theme Icon
Words vs. Actions Theme Icon
The narrator emphasizes that Hugh is an honest man and has no intentions of keeping the stolen... (full context)
The City vs. The Country Theme Icon
Words vs. Actions Theme Icon
The narrator interjects, revealing that Hugh was convicted of theft by morning. A month later, Doctor May... (full context)
The City vs. The Country Theme Icon
Coping and Relief Theme Icon
Words vs. Actions Theme Icon
The narrator skips forward three years and says the Quaker woman was true to her word. The... (full context)
The Power of Art Theme Icon
Transitioning to first person, the narrator says that the only sign that Hugh ever lived is the statue of the korl... (full context)
Coping and Relief Theme Icon
The Power of Art Theme Icon
The narrator pauses from his or her writing and looks around at objects strewn around the library.... (full context)