Essay on The Taint of Money in “Life in the Iron Mills”

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Rebecca Harding Davis wrote “Life in the Iron Mills” in the mid-nineteenth century in part to raise awareness about working conditions in industrial mills. With the goal of presenting the reality of the mills’ environment and the lives of the mill workers, Davis employs vivid and concrete descriptions of the mills, the workers’ homes, and the workers themselves. Yet her story’s realism is not objective; Davis has a reformer’s agenda, and her word-pictures are colored accordingly. One theme that receives a particularly negative shading in the story is big business and the money associated with it. Davis uses this negative portrayal of money to emphasize the damage that the single-minded pursuit of wealth works upon the humanity of those…show more content…
Learning that Hugh has not been home yet, Deborah rushes off to the mill with food for him, her fatigue vanished in the face of her desire to care for Hugh. It soon becomes even more apparent to infer from Deborah’s “painful eagerness” to please him that she is in love with Hugh (8). In these opening pages we see not only Deborah’s affection for Hugh, but that this affection is merited: for we see also Hugh’s gentle nature as he does what he can to protect Janey and to care for Deborah by sending her to sleep on the warm iron ash until he can take her home at the end of his shift (8). Yet, as Deborah watches Hugh work, she acknowledges that “in spite of all his kindness, . . . there was that in her face and form which made him loathe the sight of her. . . . [D]own under all the vileness and coarseness of his life, there was a groping passion for whatever was beautiful and pure” (9). The initial use of Deborah as a focal character, then, allows the revelation of Hugh as a kind human being who is loved by those to whom he shows kindness; it also establishes his artistic love of beauty and thus strengthens the effect of his kindness to the hunchbacked Deborah.

It is Deborah’s love for Hugh that prompts her theft of Mitchell’s wallet. A silent observer during the rich men’s conversation about Hugh’s talent, the woman has overheard Mitchell’s somewhat

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