Life in the Iron Mills opens with a description of an unnamed industrialized town in the American South, which primarily produces iron. The account is given by an unnamed narrator, who is a resident of the town. Perched at his or her window, the narrator looks out over the town, noticing the drunken workers smoking tobacco, the muddy river flowing sluggishly along its course, and the workers trudging to or from work in the mills.
Watching the world inch by out the window, the narrator is reminded of a story that took place in this very town. The narrator knows the reader may be skeptical of the importance of a story of one worker who led a dreary existence just like thousands of other workers. However, there is a dangerous secret hidden in this particular story that has driven people to insanity or even death. This secret can only be uncovered if the reader listens to the narrator’s story with an open mind, putting aside all preconceptions of what kinds of people and places are acceptable subjects for literature. The reader must follow the narrator down into the grimy, dirty city to meet a Welsh immigrant named Hugh Wolfe, a furnace tender at Kirby & John’s iron mill. Thirty years prior, Hugh lived in what is now the narrator’s house. Back then, the single house was rented out to six families, but the two cellar rooms were rented out to Hugh, Hugh’s father, and their cousin, Deborah.
Narration shifts from first person to third person, and the story of the Wolfes begins. On a stormy night after work, a cotton-picker named Deborah returns to her home, which is a small, dark cellar room coated with moss. Hugh’s father, a small, frail man, is asleep in the corner on some straw, so Deborah quietly fixes her dinner. Deborah is pale and little sickly with a slight hunchback. Unlike her peers, she does not drink alcohol. The narrator speculates that she must have something else in her life keeping her afloat—perhaps a far-flung hope or love. When that thing is gone, the narrator speculates, she will likely indulge in whiskey like everyone else.
As she eats, she hears a faint noise and realizes that hidden within the old coats on the floor is Janey, a young Irish girl from the neighborhood. Janey says she is sleeping the night at the Wolfe’s home because her father is in prison. She mentions that Hugh is working the night shift at the mill. Immediately, Deborah jumps up and begins throwing together a meal to bring to Hugh (including her own portion of ale). Although it is pitch black, pouring rain, and nearing midnight, Deborah makes her way to the mill with Hugh’s dinner, just like she does almost every night, usually with little thanks from Hugh. She thinks about how the mill looks like it belongs in Hell, with its roaring fires and shadowy figures of half-clothed men.
Once at the mill, Hugh eats his meal and tells Deborah to rest and warm up by lying on the pile of ash. The narrator lingers on the image of Deborah, overwhelmed by pain, exhaustion, and cold, lying in the bed of ash. The narrator asks the reader to take a closer look at Deborah and see not just her filth and dismal state, but to recognize her selflessness, envy, and consuming love for Hugh. The narrator points out how her face looks lifeless—an expression carved out from years of unrequited love for Hugh and knowing that he is kind to her because he is kind to everyone (even the cellar rats). Deborah recognizes in Hugh a longing for beauty, which she thinks makes him repulsed by her physical deformity and drawn to little Janey. The narrator reminds the reader to have empathy, since these feelings of heartbreak and envy are universal.
The narrator briefly describes Hugh, noting that the other iron workers have deemed him effeminate and strange. Sick with tuberculosis, Hugh has yellow skin and weak muscles. He does not regularly drink or fight like the other men—when he does, he gets beaten up badly. In addition, he has an odd hobby of carving statues into korl, a byproduct of making iron. He works on each statue for months at a time only to destroy the figure upon its completion. The narrator implores the reader to not be quick to judge Hugh as the story unfolds, since his personality and choices are the result of a lifetime of hard labor, years of disease, and overwhelming feelings of hopelessness, dissatisfaction, and pain.
Back in the mill, a small group of visitors enter the mill. Hugh recognizes a few of the men: the overseer named Kirby, the son of one of the mill owners; and the local physician, Doctor May. Among them is a newspaper reporter and another gentleman. The men talk of profits and politics and make passing remarks about the mill’s striking resemblance to Dante’s Inferno. After the reporter leaves, Kirby, Doctor May, and the other stranger (named Mitchell) remain to wait out the rain. When the men finally depart, they are startled to come across a giant, lifelike statue of a woman carved out of korl. Mitchell guesses that Hugh is the artist, and Doctor May asks what Hugh meant by the statue. Hugh says the woman is “hungry” for life. Doctor May is confused by this answer, but Mitchell seems to understand. Kirby is flippant about the statue, asserting that he has no interest in nurturing his workers’ artistry. In fact, no social problems are his problems—he is only responsible for is paying his workers on time. Doctor May decides to encourage Hugh and tells him that he has extraordinary potential. When Hugh asks Doctor May to help him, Doctor May quickly recoils and says he does not have the money to do so and that there is no point in helping one person if he can’t help everyone. Kirby, Doctor May, and Mitchell wait for the coach, as Mitchell asserts that reform needs to happen from within, rather than being spurred by outside help.
Once the three men leave, Hugh is overcome by feelings of inadequacy and anger. When they return home, Deborah reminds Hugh about what the visitors said back at the mill about money being what could save them. Growing increasingly hysterical, Deborah thrusts a large wad of money into his hands that she has stolen from Mitchell. Hugh simply asks if life has come to this.
The following day, Deborah reminds Hugh that he has the right to keep the money. He debates this for an entire day but eventually decides to keep the money. He walks through the town saying a mental goodbye to all its sights, knowing that a new life is before him. He stumbles into a church and appreciates the preacher’s rich language but deems the sermon irrelevant to him and meant for privileged people. The narrator suddenly interjects, revealing that Hugh was found guilty of theft by the morning. When Doctor May sees Hugh’s conviction in the paper, he angrily mutters to his wife about how ungrateful Hugh was for all of the kindness Doctor May showed him.
The jailer, Haley, notes that Hugh’s nineteen-year sentence is the harshest punishment the law allows. Haley also says that the man Hugh stole from, Mitchell, visited Hugh in jail out of “curiosity” the following day. Since then, Hugh has been quiet and growing increasingly sick but he still tries to escape whenever he can. Hugh’s accomplice, Deborah, only has a three-year sentence. Haley says she begs him every day to see Hugh, and Haley finally complies. When Haley lets Deborah into Hugh’s cell, Deborah immediately realizes that Hugh is dangerously sick and losing his mind. Crying, Deborah confesses her love for Hugh. He ignores her, instead captivated by scraping a piece of tin across the bars. Deborah can see on Hugh’s face that he is dying.
Meanwhile, the sounds of the market outside the window make Hugh realize that his time on earth has come to a close. When Haley comes to return Deborah to her cell, Deborah tells Hugh that she knows he will never see her again. Hugh agrees and tells her to say goodbye to his father and Janey for him. Later that night, Hugh uses his now-sharpened piece of tin to cut his arms and commit suicide. From her cell, Deborah can sense what is happening and repeats to herself that Hugh “knows best.”
The next day, a crowd gathers at Hugh’s cell, including a coroner, reporters, and Kirby. Later, a Quaker woman arrives to tend to Hugh’s body. Deborah begs the woman to bury Hugh out in the countryside so that he doesn’t have to remain trapped in the city, buried under thick layers of mud and ash. The Quaker woman says she lives out in the countryside and will bury Hugh there the following day. She also promises to return to fetch Deborah and take her to the countryside after Deborah has served her three-year sentence.
The narrator affirms that that thee years later, the Quaker woman was true to her word, and that the combination of nature and Christian love transforms Deborah into the most calm, humble, loving person among all of the Quakers. The narrator also notes that Deborah’s love for Hugh still endures.
The narrator says that the only sign that Hugh ever lived is the korl statue, which the narrator now keeps in his or her library behind a curtain. The statue asks questions like, “Is this the end?...nothing beyond?—no more?” A glimmer of light breaks through the room and shines on the statue. The narrator notes that the statue’s arm seems to point to the east, where God will make the sun rise once more.