"Life in the Iron Mills" by Rebecca Harding Davis Analysis and Summary
In her short story, “Life in the Iron Mills,” Rebecca Harding Davis takes her reader down, “into the thickest of the fog and mud and foul effluvia” (2), in order to illustrate class conflict in American culture. Davis originally published this short piece of fiction anonymously, which gave her the freedom to illustrate the oppression of the lower class in a vivid and moving way. This story is written to members of the upper and middle classes in order to create change within the American class structure.
The image of the functioning iron mill is described to be mechanical in many aspects. Davis uses this imagery to allude to the commonly unnoticed, systematic structure of classes within our culture:
Not many of even the inhabitants of a manufacturing town know the vast machinery of system by which the bodies of workmen are governed, that goes on unceasingly from year to year. The hands of each mill are divided into watches that relieve each other as regularly as the sentinels of an army. By night and day the work goes on, the unsleeping engines groan and shriek, the fiery pools of metal boil and surge. (4)
This machine-like image and hellish description of the iron mill allows the reader to see the constant oppression of the lower class. This system leaves the oppressed so distracted by their need to work for the necessities, that they are blinded to the possibility of social mobility. While listening to the upper-class men read the newspaper, Wolfe realizes “that between them there was a great gulf never to be passed” (8). He is constantly confronted with the issue that God has placed him in the social structure as nothing more than a lower-class citizen until May explains that Wolfe’s talent for craving korl could be used to move up the social ladder.
Mitchell attempts to discourage May’s enthusiasm for the korl statue and says, “The Lord will take care of his own; or else they can work out their own salvation. I have heard you call our American system a ladder which any man can scale. Do you doubt it? Or perhaps you want to banish all social ladders, and put us all on a flat table-land,—eh, May?” (10). These members of a higher class cannot understand the torment of our class structure. They see the talent in Wolfe’s statue and its power to create social mobility for Wolfe, but, only one of them can see the true meaning of the statue. May “cannot catch the meaning” (10), while Mitchell is written to have seen “the soul of the thing” (10). This statue shows a strong, working woman, reaching out to escape social oppression. She is hungry for freedom, but since the upper-class men do not know how it feels to be oppressed, they cannot see this image in the statue.
Kirby and Mitchell describe the mill as a “den”; for Kirby, this is too much to handle: “Come, let us get out of the den. The spectral figures, as you call them, are a little too real for me to fancy a close proximity in the darkness,—unarmed, too” (9). The upper-class citizens are able to ignore class inequalities, because they are blinded by the light of their success in the American social structure. In contrast, the lower-class workers cannot overlook their oppression, because they are constantly being reminded of it. Davis illustrates this by describing the effort that Wolfe has put into carving his statue on his “off-time,” which is a direct symbol his oppression.
Davis writes a perfect narrative to the class inequality that is still evident in today’s American culture. She writes to the free-man, begging them to open their eyes as wide as she. Her imagery allows the reader to connect with the “reality of soul-starvation, of living death, that meets you every day under that besotted faces on the street” (6). Her story shines with truth and misery for the forever-struggling, working-class and will live on to illustrate the unjust conflicts within the American class structure.