Life in the Iron Mills


Rebecca Harding Davis

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Themes and Colors
The City vs. The Country Theme Icon
Coping and Relief Theme Icon
The Power of Art Theme Icon
Words vs. Actions Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Life in the Iron Mills, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

The City vs. The Country

Life in the Iron Mills mainly takes place within the city limits of an unnamed Southern mill town that is based on Rebecca Harding Davis’ hometown of Wheeling, Virginia. In this town, which is meant to stand in for industrial cities in general, immigrant workers live brutal lives, as shown through a cotton-picker named Deborah and her cousin, an iron worker (“puddler”) named Hugh. Ultimately, the novella is highly critical of the city (and…

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Coping and Relief

Life in the Iron Mills details the horrible working and living conditions that pervade industrialized cities, like the unnamed city that protagonists Hugh and Deborah reside in. To cope with such hardships, residents of industrialized cities turn to substance abuse or crime to ease their pain. However, the novella asserts that such coping mechanisms don’t actually lead to relief—they only cover up the problem temporarily. Instead, relief from city life can only be found when…

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The Power of Art

While most of Life in the Iron Mills is about the dismal, heartbreaking lives of immigrants who work in the iron mills in the American South, the novella is also about the power of art. Throughout the pages of Life in the Iron Mills, art appears in many forms and is a powerful means for telling and preserving stories, as well as for expressing and eliciting emotions. Art is also a means for illustrating…

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Words vs. Actions

Life in the Iron Mills considers the power of positive words and actions to fix bad situations and change lives for the better. Ultimately, the novella asserts that words alone are an ineffective means for creating positive change—only the combination of positive words with positive actions has true power and authenticity.

Davis suggests that positive, encouraging words that aren’t backed by actions are empty and meaningless. Using Doctor May and the preacher as examples, the…

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