The novella is prefaced by a quote that asks if this is “the end” of a hopeless, pointless life, or if hope and change exist.
The quote is adapted from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.” The quote points to the theme of coping and relief, which resonates throughout the novella.
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 this industrialized city—even the narrator’s pet canary is dirty with ash and hopelessly dreams of the countryside.
As a frame narrative, the novella begins with the outer story of the unnamed narrator whose gender is unspecified. The town, too, is unnamed but is based off of Rebecca Harding Davis’ hometown of Wheeling, Virginia.
Looking out the window, the narrator points out how the river is also dirty and sluggish. When the narrator was young, he or she used to enjoy the look of the muddy, lethargic river. The people outside the window are also muddy and lethargic, subjected to a life of constant labor, substance abuse, and poor living and working conditions. Calling the reader an “amateur psychologist,” the narrator asks the reader to reflect on the kind of existence iron workers lead.
The river illustrates industrialization’s negative impact on nature, as the river looks dull and sickly within city limits. The river also symbolizes the industrial revolution’s negative impact on humankind’s mind, body, and spirit. Personified as a human worker, the river feels tired, overworked, and drained of its energy. The narrator also appears to be an expert on mill-workers without actually being one.
The narrator notes that the slimy, brown river knows that once it stretches beyond the city limits, it will find itself in the pure, beautiful countryside. For the iron workers (who are mostly Welsh immigrants), there is no such hope of nature, fresh air, or sunshine. After their deaths, the iron workers will be buried under thick layers of mud and ash.
Besides showing the negative impacts of industrialization, the river also introduces the key theme of the city versus the country, emphasizing that true health and healing only come from leaving the city limits for the countryside. The fact that the workers have no hope of finding such healing reveals how the city is a trap that is difficult to escape.
The narrator reveals that he or she has an important story to tell. The story may seem insignificant, as it is “only the outline of a dull life” in the midst of thousands of others like it. However, the narrator urges the reader to ignore his or her feelings of “disgust,” put aside all notions of what a proper story should entail, and instead get sucked into the narrative. Hidden amidst the narrator’s story is a secret question that has driven men mad—or even to death. The narrator can’t straightforwardly ask this question, but if the reader looks deep into the story, he or she will find the question and maybe even an answer.
The narrator’s insistence that the reader put aside his or her preconceptions of what makes proper literature points to the way that Rebecca Harding Davis was a pioneer of literary realism. Life in the Iron Mills went against the cultural grain of what kinds of people and places were considered worthy of appearing in literature by focusing on an average industrial town and its workers. The reader, used to conventional literature, is likely privileged. The narrator’s insistence that the reader be open minded reveals that the narrator is empathetic and nonjudgmental.
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 same house that Hugh and Deborah lived in thirty years prior along with Hugh’s father and about six other families. Back then, the Wolfes just rented out two of the rooms in the cellar.
The detail that the narrator lives in the entire house—which used to be rented out to six families—is a clue that the narrator is privileged. This detail also emphasizes the Wolfes’ poverty and the poor living conditions for workers in an industrialized town, forging a contrast between the quality of life of the rich and that of the poor.
According to the narrator, Welsh immigrants, like the Wolfes, are dirtier and frailer than other immigrants. Welsh immigrants have angular, bony bodies, and a tendency to “sulk along like beaten hounds” when they are drunk. In this city, Welsh immigrants—and all those in the working class—are subjected to constant labor, live and work in terrible conditions, and make frequent trips to prison for their drinking habits. The narrator asks if this is all there is to an immigrant’s life.
The narrator paints the lives of Welsh immigrants in a dreary light that seems to mirror the dreary description of the city from the novella’s opening. The detail about the workers’ drinking habits introduces the theme of coping and relief: the workers are trapped in a cyclical pattern of suffering, covering up their suffering with substance abuse, and then suffering some more.
The story of the Wolfes begins on a late, rainy night, as a group of female cotton pickers walk home from their shift. Many of the women are barely clothed and have to 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 night. Deborah declines, and the other women wander off.
The women are tired and weak after a long and laborious shift at the cotton mill but still plan to spend the whole night partying—and likely overindulging in alcohol—rather than resting. This builds on the way the workers rely on temporary means of coping rather than seeking lasting relief from their suffering.
Deborah enters her home, which is a dark, damp 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 even more sickly and has a hunchback. Quietly passing the sleeping man, Deborah fixes herself a dinner of cold potatoes and ale. She is relieved that there is enough food 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 or hope. Without that stimulant, she would indulge in alcohol.
The combination of Deborah’s pond-like living quarters, meager dinner of cold potatoes, and ashen complexion gives a clear indication of what day-to-day life is like for the working class. This is the underbelly of the Industrial Revolution that the narrator (and Rebecca Harding Davis herself) seeks to expose and change. The narrator’s comment about Deborah eventually turning to whiskey highlights that for a worker in an industrial town, substance abuse is inevitable because life is intolerable without something to numb the pain.
As she eats, Deborah hears a small noise behind her and sees that hidden in a pile of torn coats is Janey, a young Irish girl from the neighborhood. 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 working the night shift at the mill. Upon hearing this, Deborah jumps up and frantically begins preparing a meal to take to Hugh. Although Janey urges Deborah to stay home and keep out of the storm, Deborah is insistent upon bringing Hugh his dinner and sets off through the dark, wet city.
Janey calls the prison “the stone house,” as if it were a second home rather than a jail, implying that her father serves frequent stints in prison. There is also an abdication of responsibility implicit in the phrase “the stone house,” as it seems to suggest a place of lodging rather than a place to atone for one’s wrongdoings.
The narrator pauses the story momentarily to discuss the way industrialized cities work. Like “sentinels of an army,” workers relieve one another’s shifts, so someone is always on duty and work goes on constantly. On Sundays, the work pauses and “fires are partially veiled,” but at midnight, the work picks up again at full force.
By comparing the workers and their schedules to “sentinels,” or watchmen in an army, the narrator suggests that this industrialized city seems more like military camp or an army base—even a forced-labor camp—than a standard town where everyday people work and live.
The narrator returns to Deborah, hurrying through the city to the mill that sits a mile below the city. After every block, she pauses to rest. She’s exhausted from standing for twelve hours during her shift, the mill 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 her.
The narrator rehashes Deborah’s poor mental and physical condition to emphasize her selflessness in bringing dinner to Hugh every single night without being asked. The meager thanks that Deborah knows she will receive from Hugh is the first characterization of him, suggesting he may be ungrateful, rude, aloof, or shy.
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 narrator interjects in agreement, noting, “It did,—in more ways than one.”
Deborah’s simile paints the iron mill as an evil, otherworldly place rather than just Hugh’s workplace, reaffirming the connection between the industrial city and forced-labor camps, like those that were at the time imprisoning Native Americans or enemy soldiers. The narrator’s interjection suggests that the industrial city doesn’t just look evil—it is evil, and the Industrial Revolution is at the core of that.
Deborah finds Hugh and waits for him to have a spare moment to eat his dinner. She is exhausted, cold, wet, and in severe pain, but she waits patiently for him. Hugh forgets that Deborah is waiting, and when he remembers, all he says is, “I did no’ think; gi’ me my supper, woman.” He eventually tells her to rest in a pile of warm 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 of ash to find warmth—is one of “hopeless discomfort and veiled crime.”
It seems impossible for Hugh to forget Deborah is waiting for him since she brings him dinner every night. His words and behavior make him seem standoffish and a little insensitive but not cruel. However, it’s obvious that Hugh and Deborah’s care for one another is not evenly matched. In addition, the narrator sharply—and clearly—criticizes industrialization by labeling the mills as places of “veiled crime,” building on the earlier characterization of the mills as hellish, evil places disguised as places of work.
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 that it is just because he is a kind person (he’s even kind to the cellar rats). Her unrequited love gives her face a look of “apathy and vacancy.” The narrator notes that it’s the same “dead, vacant” expression that is sometimes found on the faces of delicate ladies. Under that expression, and “hid beneath the delicate laces and brilliant smile,” is a deep, crushing heartbreak.
It is now entirely clear the narrator is addressing a privileged audience. Instead of simply discussing Deborah’s emotional state, the narrator forges a comparison between Deborah’s heartbreak and that of upper-class ladies with their “delicate laces” and “brilliant smile.” This comparison makes it clear that the narrator is trying to encourage an upper-class reader to relate to and empathize with Deborah.
Deborah knows that Hugh can’t stand the sight of her deformed body. Unlike his peers, Hugh is moved by beauty and art, making Deborah seem all the more distasteful to him. Bitterly, Deborah thinks about the way Hugh obviously prefers Janey, the 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 universal: “The note is the same, I fancy, be the octave high or low.”
By asserting that “the note is the same…be the octave high or low,” the narrator highlights the way some emotions, like heartbreak (“the note”), are part of the human experience regardless of one’s social standing (“the octave”). Drawing upon the power of art to express ideas and elicit emotions from the viewer, the narrator uses music as a metaphor to convey the importance of empathy to the reader.
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 carving intricate statues out of korl (a byproduct of making iron) makes him effeminate.
A fuller picture of Hugh emerges. Up until this point, we’ve mostly seen Hugh through the lens of Deborah’s desire. Here, readers see him as the workers do—weak, peculiar, and separate from the rest of them.
For Hugh, carving statues out of korl is “almost a passion.” He works on each figure for months at a time, but when the figure is finally finished, he usually smashes it into pieces out of frustration.
Hugh’s hobby of carving statues is referred to as “almost a passion,” implying that there is no such thing as true passion in such a dismal place as the industrialized city. Instead, creating art is more of a coping mechanism for Hugh—the way Hugh destroys his statues upon their completion shows that this coping mechanism, just like alcohol, is temporary.
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 of long years of constant labor. These years are particularly agonizing because of the way Hugh longs for beauty. Although he sometimes finds little bits of beauty in his life—like a ray of sunlight or a friendly smile—such moments are maddening because they only emphasize how “vile” and “slimy” the rest of his existence is. The narrator points out how this intense conflict between Hugh’s inner artist and dismal outer life as an iron-mill worker is important for understanding the “crisis of his life” that is about to unfold.
Hugh’s dissatisfaction goes beyond his art to his whole life, which is an important characterization that will linger throughout the narrative. Art elicits strong emotions from High, like the way small moments of beauty drive him mad.
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 a small group of men enter the mill. Hugh recognizes a couple of the men: Clarke Kirby (the overseer and the son of one of the mill owners) and Doctor May (a local physician). Among them is a newspaper reporter and another gentleman, both of whom Hugh doesn’t know. Hugh is drawn to the group of men because of their obvious privilege and he wants to figure out what makes them different from himself.
Unlike the other workers, Hugh pays careful attention to the visitors because of their obvious privilege, showing Hugh’s preoccupation with class and status. Hugh seems to think that finding out what makes him different from the men will help him find relief from his difficult life.
One of the strangers compares the mill to Dante’s Inferno. Kirby laughs, while one of the other men suggests that many of the workers will probably end up in hell anyways. The men decide to sit and wait out the rain, as their conversation shifts to business, profits, and worker politics.
The direct reference to Dante’s Inferno shows that the men are cognizant of how terrible the working conditions are in the mills, but they are ultimately flippant about it, using the comparison between Inferno and the mill as means for a laugh. Drawing upon Inferno is also a way for the visitors to safely voice their shock at the bad conditions while in the presence of Kirby, the son of one of the mill owners, who likely wouldn’t take kindly to pointed criticism about his operation. The reference to a literary classic also emphasizes the men’s privilege and education.
The gentleman that Hugh doesn’t recognize is Kirby’s brother-in-law, Mitchell, who is visiting a Slave State “to study the institutions of the South.” He is a gymnast, an intellectual, and a “thoroughbred gentleman.” Hugh is fascinated with Mitchell—even his voice sounds like beautiful, refined music.
The narrator mentions that Mitchell is in town “to study institutions of the South” in a Slave State, which is one of the only indications of the time in which the story is set. Appearing as a “thoroughbred gentleman,” Mitchell has the air of a man well versed in art in philosophy—the type of man Hugh longs to be. Hugh’s brief comparison between Mitchell and music shows how for Hugh, art expresses ideas that are too difficult to articulate using language—in this case, Hugh’s deep and immediate admiration of Mitchell and his longing to be a learned, upper-class man.
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 Mitchell is cultured and well bred, Hugh is grimy with a “filthy body” and “stained soul.” Hugh knows that he can never be like Mitchell, as there is a “great gulf” separating them.
Hugh likens the class divide to a “great gulf,” emphasizing his hopelessness for upward mobility. However, the phrase “great gulf” alludes to Luke 16:26, a biblical parable of a beggar named Lazarus and a rich man: “…between us and you there is a great gulf fixed.” The “great gulf” is what separates heaven, where Lazarus finds peace, from hell, where the rich man suffers. This implies that contrary to Hugh’s belief, Hugh’s suffering will be eventually reversed, and Mitchell’s cushy life will eventually fall away.
After an hour, Mitchell, Kirby and Doctor May prepare to leave. As they turn the corner to exit the mill, they are startled by a giant woman crouching in the middle of the pathway with both of her arms frantically stretched out, as if in a “gesture of warning.” Upon closer examination, the men realize that the woman is a statue. One of the lower overseers at the mill tells the men that the statue is made of korl, a byproduct of iron, and was carved by one of the workers.
The statue, which is the main symbol in both the inner and outer stories, is the first glimpse of what Hugh’s art actually looks like, teeming with pent-up energy and longing. Korl is flesh colored, which is why the statue initially appears alive to the visitors. The implicit warning in the statue’s outstretched arms points to the way that the narrator (and Rebecca Harding Davis, herself) seeks to covertly warn the reader about the dangers of industrialization.
Mitchell is captivated by the statue’s “poignant longing” and “one idea” that seems hidden in the woman’s limbs and expression. Doctor May is more preoccupied with the statue’s accurate musculature. Flippant about the statue’s artistry, Kirby says the workers “have ample facilities for studying anatomy,” motioning to the half-clothed furnace tenders.
Each of the men’s preoccupations with the statue is reflective of themselves, showing the way that they struggle to see beyond themselves and empathize with people like Hugh. Mitchell, an intellectual well-versed in art and philosophy, senses a deeper meaning hidden in the statue but ignores how that “poignant longing” also manifests in the workers. Doctor May, a physician, primarily notices the statue’s detailed anatomy and fails to recognize any deeper purpose. Kirby, the son of the mill owner, does not care about the statue and instead makes a dehumanizing remark about the workers.
Doctor May is 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 put on, when talking to these people,” Doctor May calls Hugh over. Gently, Doctor May asks Hugh what the statue means. Staring at Mitchell, not Doctor May, Hugh answers that the woman is “hungry.” Doctor May thinks this can’t possibly be true—the woman is too strong and sturdy to be hungry.
Doctor May continues to be unable to see the statue through any other lens than that of a physician, pointing out that the statue’s body is too muscular and bulky to be “hungry.” In addition, Doctor May seems to treat Hugh more like a child than a man, speaking extra gently to him and smiling at him.
Hugh answers that the statue of the woman isn’t hungry for food. Kirby sneers at Hugh’s answer and asks what the statue is hungry for. Hugh is “bewildered” by the question and answers, “I dunno…It mebbe. Summat to make her live, I think,—like you. Whiskey ull do it, in a way.” Kirby laughs rudely, and Mitchell exclaims that the statue obviously “asks questions of God, and says, ‘I have a right to know.’” He affirms that the statue is, in fact, hungry.
Hugh’s obvious struggle to use language to articulate the meaning that underpins his statue is reflective of his poor education but also shows the power of art. The novella asserts here—and throughout the course of the narrative—that art is special for the way it expresses the ideas that language can’t.
Doctor May asks Kirby how many of the other workers are artists and what Kirby plans to do with their talents. Kirby replies in French that it is none of his business what the workers do, and it is not his job to cultivate his workers’ artistic talents. Either God will grant them salvation, or they can work for it on their own.
By responding to Doctor May’s question in French, Kirby flaunts his privilege and education and sets himself apart from his workers. The novella implies that this disregard for fellow humans is one of the problems of the Industrial Revolution.
Kirby rants about the concept of liberty, ultimately stating that he is not responsible for any social problems—all he is responsible for is paying his workers in a timely manner. Trying to get Kirby worked up further, Mitchell quotes scripture and compares Kirby to Pontius Pilate. Mitchell also quotes scripture for Doctor May, reminding him that in the Bible, Jesus says, “Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these, ye did it unto me.” Doctor May calls Mitchell a “mocking devil” for his remarks.
In Matthew 27:24, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, claims no responsibility for Jesus’ death, despite allowing Jesus to be crucified. By comparing Kirby’s abdication of responsibility to that of Pontius Pilate, Mitchell conflates Hugh with Jesus. To Doctor May, Mitchell references Matthew 25:40, which once again aligns Hugh (“one of the least of these”) with Jesus. However, Mitchell seems to make these references and comparisons for the sake of agitating Doctor May and Kirby out of amusement.
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 leader, stating, “Make yourself what you will. It is your right.”
Hugh is moved by the encouragement and asks Doctor May to help him. Doctor May quickly shrinks back, claiming he doesn’t have the finances to be of actual help. Mitchell interrupts with a snide remark, and Doctor May sharply responds that helping Hugh would be pointless, for “Why should one be raised, when myriads are left?”
The novella’s critique of those who fail to back up their positive words with positive actions is seen most clearly here, since Doctor May’s entire disposition seems to change for the worse once Hugh directly asks for help. Doctor May also dehumanizes Hugh and the workers by comparing them to infants or livestock that must be “raised,” pointing to his true view of the workers.
Hugh latches onto the idea that money is what can save him. Cynically, Mitchell agrees, calling money the solution to all the world’s problems. He sarcastically tells Doctor May to preach “Saint-Simonian doctrines” to the workers the following day so that they will revolt on their own.
Mitchell’s snide remark to Doctor May is a reference to the founder of French socialism, Henri de Saint-Simon. This reference is complicated, because although Saint-Simon sought to improve lives of the poor, he was overwhelmingly pro-industrialization, wanting an industrialized state headed by leaders in science and technology who would even take the place of religious leaders.
As Mitchell, Kirby, and Doctor May wait for their coach, Mitchell asserts that the workers must produce their own leader and revolt without outside help. 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 to revolt.
Even though Doctor May scoffs at the idea that the workers must revolt on their own, his refusal to help Hugh and his prayer later that evening show that he actually accepts this idea. Just like Mitchell and Kirby, Doctor May takes no responsibility for the social problems that unfold right before his eyes.
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 Kirby throws a little money at Deborah.
Just as each man had a characteristic response to the statue, each man departs in a characteristic way. Doctor May, with his preoccupation with words, leaves Hugh with another encouraging phrase. Mitchell, a gentleman, tips his hat, while Kirby once again dehumanizes his workers, this time throwing money at Deborah as if he were throwing food to a dog.
After the men depart, Hugh is in agony. Somehow the conversation with Mitchell and Doctor May made him see his life in a new, terrible light, and all of his pain and experiences feel unbearably real. He particularly thinks of Mitchell, whom he considers “all-knowing, all-seeing, crowned by nature, reigning”—the kind of man Hugh wants to be.
Hugh usually longs to get out of the city 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 life. Deborah begins to sob, and the two slowly make their way home for the night.
Hugh’s longing for the countryside foreshadows events later in the narrative. His willingness to entertain the thought that his dismal life is his fault is a clear contrast from Kirby, Mitchell, and Doctor May’s refusal of responsibility for social ills.
When they return, 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 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.
The mention that Hugh’s father has been drinking is a reminder that while Hugh’s world seemed to stop with the visitors at the mill, all of the other workers are still partaking in their regular, inescapable cycle of drinking and working. It is also clear that Hugh has been entertaining the thought of marrying Janey, mirroring the “stimulant” of Deborah’s love that keeps her going.
Deborah quietly asks Hugh if he heard what Mitchell said about money—that money “wud do all.” Exhausted, Hugh ignores Deborah, but she persists, asking if he would take her and Janey with him if he had the money to escape the city. Sobbing hysterically, she thrusts a small wad of money into his hand, admitting that she is guilty of robbing Mitchell. Hugh simply replies, “Has it come to this?”
The novella doesn’t necessarily praise Deborah for stealing the money, but the theft is portrayed as a mostly selfless act—Deborah stole Mitchell’s pocketbook as a desperate attempt to give Hugh a better life, even if that life also contains Janey.
The narrator emphasizes that Hugh is an honest man and has no intentions of keeping the 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 “right to keep it,” echoing what Doctor May said about it being his right to rise up.
The narrator’s firm insistence on Hugh’s upright moral character implies that the upper-class audience may identify more with Mitchell out of habit. The novella emphasizes the way Hugh’s words and actions align, as he plans to return the money even though it could save him.
For the rest of the night, Hugh is torn about what to do with the money. He feels “mad with hunger,” craving a better life brimming with beauty and kindness. He also thinks about how God feels real but distant, like “what fairy-land is to a child.” He thinks that God created money for his children to use and that God loves all of his children equally. The divide between the wealthy and the poor is just manmade.
Just like the “hungry” statue, Hugh is “mad with hunger,” yearning for a more satisfying existence. Hugh’s conception of God also reveals that he is spiritually starved, a concept that will be revisited near the end of the novella.
With newfound hope, Hugh looks around and sees his surroundings in a more beautiful, artistic light, feeling “somehow” transported to “somewhere” that is filled with beauty and peace. He decides that he is free, and that he will keep the money.
Repeating the words “somehow” and “somewhere,” Hugh struggles to find the words to describe art (in this case, his surroundings that he sees in a new, artistic light), as well as the strong emotions and sense of freedom that art incites in him.
Later that night, Hugh roams around the city, saying a mental goodbye to all of its sites. He stumbles into a Gothic church and feels moved by its architecture. The sermon is also beautiful but feels irrelevant. Hugh feels that the kindly old preacher, a Christian reformer, speaks empty words, since he has never experienced starvation, substance abuse, or poverty firsthand. To Hugh, the sermon is “a very pleasant song in an unknown tongue.”
Once again, Hugh feels moved by art in ways he can’t explain. The preacher’s sermon sounds like art—“a very pleasant song”—but language gets in the way, making the “song” sound like it is in a foreign language. For Hugh, this is because the preacher’s words aren’t reinforced by action or experience.
The narrator interjects, revealing that Hugh was convicted of theft by morning. A month later, Doctor May reads in the newspaper that Hugh was sentenced to nineteen years in prison. Doctor May finds the punishment appropriate, claiming to his wife that Hugh was deeply ungrateful for all the kindness Doctor May showed him. The narrator reminds the reader that nineteen years is “half a lifetime.”
The narrator’s comment that nineteen years is half a lifetime—making thirty-eight years the duration of a full life—is a reminder of the low quality and brevity of life in nineteenth-century industrial America. Doctor May’s approval of Hugh’s nineteen-year punishment (and the fact that he is still full of himself for speaking kindly to Hugh) shows the very lack of empathy among the privileged that the narrator seeks to critique.
Haley, the jailer in charge of Hugh, gives a brief synopsis of Hugh’s conviction, trial, and early days in prison. He says that at the trial, Hugh simply said that the money was “his by rights.” Haley finds Hugh’s nineteen-year sentence too harsh and knows it’s meant as an example to keep the other workers in line. He also notes that the night after the trial, Mitchell visited Hugh in jail out of curiosity.” Since then, Hugh has been quiet and growing increasingly sickly, though he still tries to escape whenever possible.
Haley’s perception of Mitchell aligns with that of the narrator, highlighting that Mitchell is interested in Hugh only for the sake of “curiosity” and amusement. This seems to be a warning from the novella to its privileged audience to not find the story simply amusing, but rather to increase one’s empathy and take action to alleviate the lives of the poor and undo the negative effects of industrialization.
Haley says Deborah was pegged as Hugh’s accomplice and was sentenced to three years in prison. She has been begging incessantly to see Hugh, so Haley finally complies and brings her to Hugh’s cell. Deborah immediately sees that Hugh has gone mad, which brings her to tears. She confesses her love for him, but he ignores her and scrapes a piece of tin across the metal bars.
The sixteen-year difference in Hugh and Deborah’s sentences is reflective of nineteenth-century conceptions of gender. Since Deborah is a woman, she must have only been an accomplice and must only be capable of serving a small sentence. This moment in prison is the first time Deborah verbalizes her love for Hugh, aligning all of her past, loving actions toward him with loving words.
Deborah sees a “gray shadow” on Hugh’s face and knows he is dying. She pleads with him not to die, but Hugh is distracted by the market outside of the window. The sounds of the market make him realize that his life is coming to a close and that he won’t live to step outside again. He notices Neff Sanders, a worker at the mill, and tries to whistle for his attention. Neff doesn’t hear him, and Hugh feels forgotten by the outside world.
Hugh’s artistic sense turns the noisy market into a symphony of city sounds. Once again, music elicits deep emotion from Hugh and expresses ideas that can’t otherwise be articulated. It is the song of the market—not his growing sickness, his nineteen-year jail sentence, or any pleading from Deborah—that makes him realize he will die soon.
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 intently, Deborah pleads with him, saying, “Hugh, boy, not THAT!” Hugh responds that “It is best,” and tells her to say goodbye to Hugh’s father and Janey for him.
Whether it is because of Hugh’s strange behavior or Deborah’s close connection to him, Deborah somehow instinctively realizes that Hugh plans to commit suicide (which she calls “THAT”) to find relief from his bitter life and long prison sentence. Her vehement objections reveal that she thinks it is the wrong way to find relief.
Back in 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 bars. Meanwhile, Hugh is captivated by the people walking past his window. He sees Joe Hill, the friendly lamplighter, and is suddenly overcome by the desire to be spoken to one last time. Hugh calls out, but Joe doesn’t hear him, which leaves Hugh feeling crushed. One of the jailers yells at Hugh to be quiet, and Hugh knows those are the last words he will hear.
Until now, Hugh has tried to cope with his life through art, theft, alcohol (occasionally), and love. With all of those coping mechanisms stripped from him, he tries to temporarily cope with his pain with a moment of human connection by calling out to Joe.
Using his 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 the next hour, Hugh dies slowly and silently. His face seems to ask the question, “How long, O Lord? how long?”
Deborah’s all-consuming love for Hugh makes her convince herself that he “knows best” in his decision to commit suicide, which seems a way of coping with her helplessness about the situation.
The following morning, a crowd gathers at Hugh’s cell, including the coroner, a group of reporters, and Kirby. Later, a Quaker woman 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 so that he doesn’t have to be stuck in the city under layers of mud.
It is interesting that Kirby shows up, begging the question if Kirby showed up out of curiosity, duties as an overseer, guilt, or a miraculous, newly developed empathy. In addition, when Deborah pleads with the Quaker woman to bury Hugh in the countryside, it is important to note that Deborah is asking for help not for herself but for Hugh—showing that she is still selflessly committed to Hugh even after his death.
Putting her arm around Deborah, the Quaker woman points at the hills and stream in the distance and says 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, when she has completed her prison sentence. Then, Deborah will go with the Quaker woman to live in the countryside with the Quakers and experience a new beginning.
The Quaker woman’s empathy and willingness to help Deborah in a significant way makes the Quaker woman a foil to Doctor May. Quakers typically emphasize harmony, altruism, simplicity, and nature, making the Quaker woman the perfect mouthpiece for the novella’s critical views of industrialization and indifference to human suffering.
The narrator skips forward three years and says the 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 in life now is God’s love, she still holds in her heart a deep, enduring love for Hugh.
The novella suggests that the Quaker woman is the exemplar of positive words backed by positive action—unlike Doctor May, the Quaker woman showed no ethical back-and-forth and no change of temperament upon being asked for help.
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 in the narrator’s library. Tonight, the curtain is slightly drawn, and the narrator studies the statue, which seems to ask questions like, “Is this the End?...nothing beyond?—no more?”
The narrator pauses from his or her writing and looks around at objects strewn around the library. Although it’s the middle of the night, a “cool, gray light” shines through the room and rests on the statue. The narrator thinks the statue’s outstretched arm seems to point to the “far East,” where God will make the sun rise once again.
The “gray light” that falls upon the statue feels reminiscent of the “gray shadow” that fell upon Hugh’s face as he was dying—a reminder of the way that art preserves Hugh’s life, even after death. In addition, by ending the outer story with the notion that sunrises come from God, the narrator underscores the way spirituality brings new beginnings.