Life in the Iron Mills Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1861

Type of work: Novella

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: The mid-nineteenth century

Locale: An industrial town

Characters DiscussedThe narrator

The Life in the Iron Millsnarrator, an unnamed individual of unspecified gender, obviously a member of the privileged class. For some reason, this person has settled in a working-class area of a mill town, in the house where the two protagonists of the story once lived. He or she owns the statue of the “korl woman.”

Hugh Wolfe

Hugh Wolfe, a nineteen-year-old iron mill furnace tender. Born into poverty and a mill worker since childhood, he is undernourished and tubercular. Because he does not indulge in vicious pastimes, he is considered effeminate by his fellow workers. His kindness has earned him the love of his cousin Deborah and the young Janey. When upper-class visitors to the mill praise his skill at carving, Hugh thinks that a better life might be possible, and he keeps the stolen money Deborah gives him. Arrested for the theft and sentenced to prison, he commits suicide.


Deborah, Hugh’s cousin, a cotton mill worker. She is called “the hunchback” because of her deformity. Her love for Hugh is the central truth in her life. To help him, she steals a pocketbook from the wealthy Mitchell. As Hugh’s supposed accessory, she receives only a short prison sentence. After her release, she is taken in by a Quaker woman and spends the rest of her life in a mountain settlement.


Janey, a young Irish girl. She is important primarily as the focus of Hugh’s dreams. Although he knows that she will soon lose her health and her beauty, he imagines having enough money to make a decent life with her. Meanwhile, he is her protector.

Young Kirby

Young Kirby, the son of the man who owns the iron mill where Hugh works. He despises and fears his employees, whom he views as subhuman, and believes that his only responsibility to them is to make sure that they are paid.


Mitchell, young Kirby’s brother-in-law. A wealthy dilettante, he has no convictions and sees the world as a place constructed solely for his amusement. Mitchell refuses to help Hugh fulfill his artistic ambitions and later prosecutes him for the theft of his pocketbook.

Doctor May

Doctor May, a friend of young Kirby. A sentimentalist, he thinks that by speaking kindly to Hugh, he is fulfilling his duty to humanity. He refuses to give Hugh financial backing. Reading of Hugh’s sentence, he is offended by what he terms the young man’s ingratitude.

BibliographyBoudreau, Kristin. “‘The Woman’s Flesh of Me’: Rebecca Harding Davis’s Response to Self-Reliance.” American Transcendental Quarterly n.s. 6 (June, 1992): 132-140. Argues that “The Wife’s Story” is an indictment of Emersonian ideas. Davis sees women as not only trapped in a patriarchal society but also blocked by their own bodies from attaining intellectual independence.Davis, Rebecca Harding. Life in the Iron Mills and Other Stories. Edited by Tillie Olsen. New York: Feminist Press, 1985. An expanded edition which also includes “The Wife’s Story” and “Anne.” Tillie Olsen’s well-documented and perceptive “Biographical Interpretation” provides an excellent overview of Davis’ life and works.Harris, Sharon M. Rebecca Harding Davis and American Realism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991. A major study of the author, placing her within the larger context of intellectual history. Also contains useful biographical materials.Molyneaux, Maribel W. “Sculpture in the Iron Mills: Rebecca Harding Davis’s Korl Woman.” Woman’s Studies 17 (January, 1990): 157-177. Assuming that the narrator in Life in the Iron Mills is female, Molyneaux sees her as the primary character of the story. As a woman artist and a reformer, the narrator defies custom and enters the province of men. The korl woman thus represents both the woman worker, demanding a better life, and the woman writer, insisting on a place in literary history.Rose, Jane Atteridge. “Images of Self: The Example of Rebecca Harding Davis and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.” English Language Notes 29 (June, 1992): 70-78. Uses Davis’ “The Wife’s Story” and Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1899) to indicate a “change in female self-perception” between the 1860’s and the 1890’s. Although both women writers felt the tension between their domestic duties and their art, Davis was influenced by the ideal of feminine “self-abnegation,” while Gilman rejected it, maintaining that each woman has the right to an independent identity.Rose, Jan Atteridge. Rebecca Harding Davis. New York: Twayne, 1993. A much-needed book-length biographical and critical study. Rose’s interpretations of the various works are based on careful readings of the texts. Contains a chronology, voluminous notes, and an annotated bibliography.Shurr, William H. “Life in the Iron Mills: A Nineteenth-Century Conversion Narrative.” American Transcendental Quarterly 5 (December, 1991): 245-257. In this interesting essay, Shurr attempts to prove that the mysterious narrator is the dilettante Mitchell, whose religious conversion may have been modeled on that of the British reformer John Ruskin.
Categories: Characters