”Life in the iron mills” is a story by Rebecca Harding is that tries
to portray the various injustices in the society for people in the low
social status,but at the same time tries to show that there is hope for
social class reform. The story focuses on how uneducated women and men
in the nineteenth century worked in the iron milling factories under
deplorable conditions which reveals the bleak lives of the industrial
workers in America’s mills and factories back then.
Symbolisms in the narrative depict a story written to be more than just
fiction work. This is because Harding’s ideas regarding Christian
Capitalism are envisaged thought “life in the iron mills”. With
this, she shows how corrupt and flawed the existing economic and social
models were. The omniscient narrator of the story looks out of the
window and sees smoke and the toil of the iron workers. Though the
narrator’s gender is not told, it’sarguably correct to assume that
he/she is also in the middle class according to how the story unfolds.
The narrator however advises the reader to be objective and not to be
quick in judging the actors in the narrative.This affects our
interpretation of the story in that being a middle class, the narrator
is bound to favor the middle class in his narration, hence the need for
the reader to remain objective.
“Life on the iron mills” is a tale packed with deeper meanings that
are symbolic in the manner in which they are depicted. A formalist
argument about the symbolic meanings depicted in the story requires that
we highlight the specific images in the story that will help explain all
aspects of symbolism in the story. The use of symbolism helps a lot in
the understanding of the story since they connect the activities that
were taking place on the ground. In connection with this we are going
to look at some of the symbolism and literary devices used in the story.
The symbols employed in the Korl Woman, who is in this case, an
important representation of “life in the iron mils” by symbolizing a
number of things were. Hugh who is one of the main characters describes
Deborah as hungrily looking out for something to enable her to survive.
Additionally, the Korl’s woman ostensible longing, as well as, her
appearance as a wild, muscled laborer is parallel to Hugh’s own
desires. He is a poor laborer but is also a bystander within the working
class just like the Korl’s woman
Money is a symbolism used in the story to relay certain significant
information. In this case, it is the money stolen by Deborah is still
the reason that Hugh gets caught. To Deborah, the money was her ticket
out of misery but it essentially ends up being the cause of Hugh’s
death. The stolen money in this case serves a symbol of how those in
the working class develop socially, in a system that does not value
equality as much as it claims.
Fire symbolism is seen whereby the iron mills create a scene that
appears to symbolize“a highway in hell”. Fire in this case portrays
Hugh and his fellow laborers as living and working in hell like
conditions that do not inspire any hope. These kinds of conditions could
also be used to symbolize the expectations of those people in the upper
class for the low class worker’s eternal destiny.
Themes that come out in view ofthe symbols used. As such the theme of
social redemption is evident in the story is evident whereby hope exists
at different levels in the whole story. At firstthere is anoverall
sense of hopelessness for Hugh which peaks upon his death. The writer,
Davis suggests that if the current social class form remains, thenthere
will be no earthly hope for people like him. The ending of the story,
however, highlights Davis belief in the existence of an afterlife and
even emphasizes the thought that Deborah will be socially redeemed when
she gets to heaven.
Gender symbolism is used in the story whereby Davis is seen as a
strongactivist of women’s rights. She went further to use issues, such
as the korl sculpture and Hugh’s femininity as a wayof symbolizing the
struggle experienced by womankind. Additionally, the Quaker woman plays
asignificantpart as the story’s heroine which alludes to David’s
hope in gender equality in the future (Davis 52).
The presence of smoke in the story can also be seen as symbolic in two
complementary approaches. The storyteller in a way claims that the
characterization of the town is smoke. The narrator emphasizes the fact
that smoke is something that the lower class are doomed to live with and
are continually, unwillingly breathing it (Davis 52). This is further
likened to their social status in the society in that no matter how hard
they work, there is not much that can be done to increase social
standing. Still in the same smoke symbolism,members of the upper class
on the other hand who live in more pleasant homesteads, far from the
smoke do willingly breathe the smoke from their cigarettes. This can be
seen as a frail attempt by the upper class members tocomprehendwhat the
iron mill workers experiencein their everyday lives.
The narrative thus shows that the existing social situations do not
provide any hope for the majority of the characters on earth that are
symbolized in the story. This saw Davis greatest desire being a wish for
a serious adoption of Christian morals(Davis 51). The manner in which
the korl made statute is described in this story lacking any ray of
beauty in it is in every sense symbolic of how those in the upper class
in the society are culturally blind. This can further be alluded to the
case of the Doctor in the story, who is a member of the social class
seems so detached with the plight of the suffering laborers. By
portraying to us the deplorable living conditions that these laborers
live in, a call for a change to such atrocities was a primary symbolic
element that Davis emphasized in her narrative.
Davis,R,H. “A Faded Leaf of History.” The Atlantic Monthly, 1873:
44-52. Google Books.Web.16th Feb, 2014.
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