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 industrialized cities as a whole), painting it as a toxic and dangerous place that destroys its inhabitants’ physical and mental wellbeing. Davis asserts that true healing of the body and mind can be found only in the countryside, where nature remains untouched by industrialization.
The city is characterized by the frantic hustle and bustle of its people and the stagnancy of its nature, both of which drain residents of their vitality. In the city, people are constantly at work; laborers are assigned to night or day shifts, mirroring the way “sentinels of an army” relieve one another so that someone is always on duty keeping watch. However, all of the workers are sickly from such constant, consuming labor. Even the machinery seems tired from the never-ending work: “the unsleeping engines groan and shriek,” as if they, too, are crying out in exhaustion. The unnamed narrator illustrates how the muddy brown river that cuts through the city “drags itself sluggishly along, tired of the heavy weight of boats and coal-barges,” “slavishly bearing its burden day after day.” Like the workers and the machinery, the river is in constant motion and is subjected to nonstop labor. As a result, the river looks dull and sickly. Even the air that blankets the entire city is “muddy, flat, immovable” and heavy with smoke. The narrator, who resides in the same house that protagonists Hugh and Deborah lived in thirty years prior, says nothing much has changed in the city in the past few decades. The city itself is still dirty, and the workers are still subjected to constant work in the mills.
Beyond simply draining workers of their vitality, the city is a dangerous place in terms of health and safety, and it’s riddled with social ills. The narrator notes that the mills look more like a “scene of hopeless discomfort and veiled crime” than a workplace, which suggests that the mills are disguised as productive businesses but are actually evil, corrupt places. On her nightly walk to bring Hugh his dinner, Deborah similarly notes that a walk through the mills is like traversing “a street in Hell.” In the opening, the narrator notes how the city’s residents are “breathing from infancy to death an air saturated with fog and grease and soot, vileness for soul and body,” meaning that the city’s environment is poisonous to its inhabitants’ physical and mental health. In addition, the city brims with alcoholism, physical fights, jeering, and crowded prisons. The workers are sent to prison so frequently that they refer to it as “the stone house,” as if it were their second home.
As a sharp contrast from the dirty, sluggish, dangerous city, the countryside remains untouched by industrialization, consequently making it a place of health, wellness, and healing. The narrator notes that “Man cannot live by work alone,” a parody of Matthew 4:4, “Man cannot live by bread alone,” when Jesus says that people need spiritual food in addition to physical food. Like Jesus urging people to look to deeper things to fill them up, the narrator suggests that people need to be filled by means outside of the city. The narrator contrasts the sluggish city and beautiful, restorative countryside by explaining the river’s course: “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 river is radically transformed as it exits city limits and enters the country, healed by the beauty and purity of nature.
Furthermore, the Quaker woman who tends to Hugh’s body—a country-dweller and the human embodiment of the virtues of rural life—is the story’s most peaceful, compassionate character. She tells Deborah of where she lives, saying, “Thee sees the hills, friend, over the river? Thee sees how the light lies warm there, and the winds of God blow all day?” I live there.” The Quaker woman’s own light and warmth seems a result of her life in the countryside. Similarly, the “sunshine, and fresh air, and slow, patient, Christ-love” that Deborah experiences in the countryside while living amongst the Quakers are what “make healthy and hopeful” her “impure body and soul.” She undergoes physical, mental, and emotional healing in the countryside, eventually shaping her into the most, calm, humble, and caring person in the entire Quaker community.
Life in the Iron Mills forges a sharp contrast between the city, which is blanketed by heavy smoke, exhaustion, disease, and corruption, and the countryside, which is marked by fresh air, nature, community, and wholesomeness. In making this contrast, Rebecca Harding Davis highlights to her middle-class readership that industrialization doesn’t necessarily mean progress, a better quality of life, and more money. In fact, for workers like Hugh and Deborah, industrialization means rapidly deteriorating physical and mental health, deep poverty, and overwhelming sense of feeling stuck. Davis urges her privileged readers to see industrialization more clearly and to look to nature to restore the wholesomeness and health that industrialization has smothered.
The City vs. The Country ThemeTracker
The City vs. The Country Quotes in Life in the Iron Mills
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.
This is what I want you to do. I want you to hide your disgust, take no heed to your clean clothes, and come right down with me,—here, into the thickest of the fog and mud and foul effluvia. I want you to hear this story. There is a secret down here, in this nightmare fog, that has lain dumb for centuries: I want to make it a real thing to you.
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?
Fire in every horrible form: pits of flame waving in the wind; liquid metal-flames writhing in tortuous streams through the sand…and through all, crowds of half-clad men, looking like revengeful ghosts in the red light, hurried, throwing masses of glittering fire. It was like a street in Hell.
There was not one line of beauty or grace in it: a nude woman’s form, muscular, grown coarse with labor, the powerful limbs instinct with some one poignant longing. One idea: there it was in the tense, rigid muscles, the clutching hands, the wild, eager face, like that of a starving wolf’s.
“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.”
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.