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.
Coping and Relief Theme Icon

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 one makes both a physical and spiritual change, moving to the countryside and turning to religion.

True relief from the horrors of industrialized city life cannot be found through temporary coping mechanisms. Such solutions provide only momentary escapes and usually make one’s problems much worse. For example, many of the workers turn to alcohol to dull the pain. The way Hugh talks about the statue of a worker that he makes reveals how central alcohol is to their lives, as he believes that the statue wants something to make her live, which could be whiskey. Although Hugh drinks infrequently, the narrator points out that when he does, he drinks “desperately,” frantically trying to cover up his problems. The narrator notes that Deborah’s love for Hugh is her coping mechanism of choice, and “When that stimulant was gone, she would take to Whiskey.” Although Deborah does not currently indulge in alcohol like her peers, the narrator notes how she is likely to do so in the future, simply changing her means for dealing with her difficult life from one temporary solution to another. In addition, Deborah tries to find relief from city life for herself and Hugh by stealing money from Mitchell. Deborah’s theft only momentarily alleviates Hugh’s pain—he only has the money for one night, during which he dreams about how much better his life is about to be. The plan quickly backfires, leading to Deborah and Hugh’s imprisonment, revealing that stealing was not a lasting solution.

Taking refuge in the purity of nature is the first step to finding true relief. The novella argues that relief from the evils of industrialization can only begin to happen if a person physically removes himself or herself from the city. Deborah begs the Quaker woman to bury Hugh outside of city bounds, claiming that that being buried in the city under thick layers of “mud and ash” will “smother” him, even in death. When Deborah leaves the city to live with the Quakers, her mental and physical health is transformed, and she finally finds relief from her suffering. The narrator specifically notes that such transformation is partially due to “long years of sunshine, and fresh air…where the light is the warmest, the air freest”—all elements “needed to make healthy and hopeful this impure body and soul.” None of these elements are found in the smoke-clogged, disease-ridden city.

While leaving the industrialized city for the countryside is necessary for finding relief, the novella highlights that ultimate relief is found when one turns to religion and spirituality. Once in the countryside, the other part of Deborah’s relief stems from the “slow, patient Christ-love” she is shown by the Quakers. Her time with the “silent, restful,” and loving Quakers transforms her into the most loving, calm, and modest person in the community. This is a dramatic contrast from how exhausted and sickly Deborah was before her time spent immersed in a religious community. The narrator closes the novella by talking about the sunrise “to the far East, where, in the flickering, nebulous crimson, God has set the promise of the Dawn.” The narrator underscores the way that sunrises, like new beginnings, come from God. By closing the inner narrative with Deborah’s newfound peace from being a Quaker and closing the outer narrative with the narrator’s attribution of sunrises to god, the novella draws attention to the way spirituality brings relief.

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Coping and Relief Quotes in Life in the Iron Mills

Below you will find the important quotes in Life in the Iron Mills related to the theme of Coping and Relief.
Life in the Iron Mills Quotes

What if it be stagnant and slimy here? It knows that beyond there waits for it odorous sunlight,—quaint old gardens, dusky with soft, green foliage of apple-trees, and flushing crimson with roses,—air, and fields, and mountains. The future of the Welsh puddler passing just now is not so pleasant.

Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

Their lives were like those of their class: incessant labor, sleeping in kennel-like rooms, eating rank pork and molasses, drinking—God and the distillers only know what; with an occasional night in jail, to atone for some drunken excess. Is this all of their lives?—of the portion given to them…?—nothing beneath?

Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

You laugh at it? Are pain and jealousy less savage realities down here in this place I am taking you to than in your own house or your own heart,—your heart, which they clutch at sometimes? The note is the same, I fancy, be the octave high or low.

Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

“I dunno,” he said, with a bewildered look. “It mebbe. Summat to make her live, I think,—like you. Whiskey ull do it, in a way.”

Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

I wash my hands of all social problems,—slavery, caste, white or black. My duty to my operatives has a narrow limit,—the pay-hour on Saturday night. Outside of that, if they cut korl, or cut each other’s throats, (the more popular amusement of the two,) I am not responsible.

Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Something of a vague idea possessed the Doctor’s brain that much good was to be done here by a friendly word or two: a latent genius to be warmed into life by a waited-for sun-beam. Here it was: he had brought it…“Make yourself what you will. It is your right.”

Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

…a wan, woful face, through which the spirit of the dead korl-cutter looks out, with its thwarted life, its mighty hunger, its unfinished work. Its pale, vague lips seem to tremble with a terrible question. “Is this the end?” they say,—“nothing beyond?—no more?”

Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis: