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 Power of Art Theme Icon

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 ideas that language falls short of describing accurately, or ideas that are too dangerous to convey straightforwardly.

As a frame narrative, Life in the Iron Mills is a story within a story. The outer story—that of the narrator—is the means for telling the inner story of Hugh and Deborah. In this case, art in the form of literature functions as a way for stories to spread and endure. Both the outer story of the narrator and the inner story of Hugh and Deborah center on a physical piece of art: the sculpture that Hugh carves out of korl. This sculpture endures long after Hugh commits suicide and is the only sign that he ever lived, thus preserving his life story. The figure is also the catalyst for the narrator’s retelling of Hugh and Deborah’s story through literature—another level of storytelling and preservation.

Art is closely tied to emotions. In its many forms, art is a vehicle for emotional expression and a way to elicit emotions from others. For example, Hugh pours his pain and experiences into his korl figures. Although readers only gain insight into one of his sculptures (the “hungry” woman), Hugh is known for his penchant for making art out of korl, with final products that are clearly emotionally charged—“hideous, fantastic enough, but sometimes strangely beautiful.” Even the other mill workers (“puddlers”) secretly are moved by Hugh’s art. When visitors to the mill (Kirby, Doctor May, and Mitchell) stumble upon Hugh’s korl figure of the woman, they experience a variety of emotions in tandem. At first, they are startled and even scared. Then, awe sets in, as the men admire the statue’s attention to detail. The statue also elicits different emotions from each of the men: Kirby, the son of one of the mill owners, is flippant about the statue, caring more about his workers’ productivity than their artistic pursuits, Doctor May is confused by the statue, and Mitchell is moved by it.

Art’s power also lies in its ability to illustrate what can’t be described using language, as the korl figure evokes emotions that Hugh doesn’t quite have the words for. He is “bewildered” when the visitors to the mill ask him to describe what the sculpture means. “She be hungry…I dunno…It mebbe. Summat to make her live, I think,—like you. Whiskey ull do it, in a way.” Hugh’s struggle to find the words to describe the feelings that underpin his statue are reflective of his poor education but they also point to the way art is capable of describing what language falls short of. Similarly, when Hugh stumbles into a church while deciding what to do with the stolen money, the church’s artistic elements elicit from him a confusing range of emotions that words can’t capture. The architecture, stained glass, and marble figures “lifted his soul with a wonderful pain,” which feels confusing and paradoxical when put into words. When Hugh realizes that keeping the stolen money can give him a better life, he sees the world like an artist’s palette, bursting with rich colors. Seeing the world in this way “had somehow given him a glimpse of another world than this—of an infinite depth of beauty and of quiet somewhere,—somewhere,—a depth of quiet and rest and love.” The repetition of the words “somehow” and “somewhere” show Hugh’s inability to use language to accurately describe the strong feelings brought on by his artistic view of his surroundings.

Similarly, art also has the capacity to illustrate what shouldn’t be described—ideas that are too dangerous, radical, or risky to be conveyed by more direct means. The men touring the mill compare the mill to Dante’s Inferno, referencing a work of literature to allude to the conditions of the mill rather than explicitly stating that the mill looks dangerous, inhumane, and hellish. It would be incredibly polarizing were one of these privileged men to voice their discomfort with the puddlers’ working conditions outright (instead of through the lens of literature), considering they are in the presence of Kirby, the son of one of the mill owners. Similarly, the inner story is meant to pose a question that the narrator can’t straightforwardly ask. The narrator prefaces the story of Hugh and Deborah by asserting, “I dare make my meaning no clearer, but will only tell my story.” The inner narrative as a whole is a work of art that brings to life things that are too risky for the privileged narrator to articulate outright, namely the horrors of industrialization.

Life in the Iron Mills emphasizes that art comes in many forms and is a powerful means for storytelling, expressing emotion, and communicating ideas. Besides all of the different forms of art that appear throughout the novella, Life in the Iron Mills as a whole is also a work of art. Through her novella, Rebecca Harding Davis tells the story of two working-class immigrants whose lives are governed and destroyed (or nearly destroyed) by industrialization. Underpinning the novella is Davis’ desire to elicit empathy from her middle-class readership who are likely ignorant of what industrialization actually looks like. Davis is one of the first writers to partake in literary realism, as her novella’s realistic setting and characters were nontraditional subjects for literature at the time. As a whole, Life in the Iron Mills artistically criticizes American industrialization, an idea that may have been too risky for Davis to articulate through other means.

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The Power of Art 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 The Power of Art.
Life in the Iron Mills Quotes

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.

Page Number: 13
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:

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.

Page Number: 32
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:

Then flashed before his vivid poetic sense the man who had left him,—the pure face, the delicate, sinewy limbs, in harmony with all he knew of beauty or truth. In his cloudy fancy he had pictured a Something like this. He had found it in this Mitchell, even when he idly scoffed at his pain.

Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

…they sounded in his ears a very pleasant song in an unknown tongue. He meant to cure this world-cancer with a steady eye that had never glared with hunger, and a hand that neither poverty nor strychnine-whiskey had taught to shake. In this morbid, distorted heart of the Welsh puddler he had failed.

Page Number: 49
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: