Wolfe’s Ethical Dilemma: Economics, Rights, and Religion in Rebecca Harding Davis’s “Life in the Iron-Mills”

by Ken Fukumoto

Written for Ethics and Environment in American Literature (LARTS 448, Spring 2014)                                                  

The short story “Life in the Iron-Mills” by Rebecca Harding Davis discusses the ethical dilemmas experienced by iron-mill workers during the 19th century. First published in The Atlantic Monthly in April 1861, the story revolves around iron-mill worker Hugh Wolfe, who receives a pocketbook containing money from his cousin Deborah, stolen from the brother-in-law of the iron-mill owner’s son. Given the repressive nature of Wolfe’s environment and his dire economic status, he struggles in deciding whether to keep the money or return it. By reframing ethics, rights, and religion, Davis justifies Wolfe’s decision to keep the money, explaining that he and other mill workers are victims of a repressive economic system that must be changed for the sake of preventing exploitation of the working class by the wealthy elite.

Although the money found within the pocketbook was modest in physical value, its figurative value was immensely greater. When describing the money, Davis described a check within the pocketbook as “an incredible amount, as it seemed to the poor puddler [Wolfe]” (18). Davis further denounces the money’s value as “a little blotted slip of paper, nothing in itself” (19). Clearly, the money is of relatively little value as described by Davis. Especially with the adjectives “little slip of paper” and “nothing,” Davis makes a clear distinction that the money is of little physical value. However, she then provides a figurative description of the money as “something straight from God’s hand” and something “used to raise [Wolfe] out of the pit” (Davis 19).  Even though the money has little physical value, it has great figurative value because Davis associates the money with divine intervention and destiny; it symbolizes the ticket necessary to escape Wolfe’s current occupation and lifestyle. Just the mere “God” associations imply the great difficulty for working class citizens to rise up economically within society; the likes of Wolfe would need a supernatural force to free them from their helpless situation. The monetary symbolism also raises the issue of privileges for working class citizens. Shouldn’t ordinary people have the privilege to live the upper-class lifestyle? If willing to work hard, shouldn’t mill-workers have the opportunity to work their way up in society?

As Davis initially raises these questions with both the figurative connotation and literal denotation she attaches to the stolen money, she also addresses the fine line of ethics and rights. Wolfe was prepared to rightfully return the wallet to its owner: “[Wolfe] had then no thought of keeping this money” (Davis 18). Clearly, Wolfe maintains his Christian faith, as he initially plans to return the stolen wallet. However, reflecting on his desperate situation, he keeps the money rather than return it: “Theft! That was it. At first the word sickened him; then he grappled with it. . . . This money! . . . If he gave it back, what then?” (Davis 18). The short interjections mixed among long, ongoing sentences create the impression of internal thought. The word “sickened” describes Wolfe’s uneasiness in keeping the money. Then, the choice of “grapple” creates an effective transition from a set ideology towards contemplation. Finally, Wolfe poses the “what then” question to signify his full uncertainty regarding what to do with the stolen money. Davis summarizes his rationale: “God made this money—the fresh air, too—for his children’s use. He never made the difference between the poor and rich” (19). After a period of contemplation, Wolfe justifies his “theft” by explaining that God created the money for all humans to possess. He believes he has rightful ownership of the stolen money due to his physical deterioration, his lack of opportunity for societal ascension, and ultimately his status as one of God’s creations. Although many would criticize Wolfe’s reasoning, the same argument could be made against the owners of the iron-mill. Should the owners provide higher wages for laborers rather than hog all the financial profits from the iron production? Should workers be rewarded with improved working conditions and reasonable benefits? Why do the owners insist on maintaining an economic system that prevents working class people from ascending within society? Because iron-mill workers are not provided higher wages, better working conditions, and reasonable benefits, Wolfe seems to have a legitimate and valid right to keep the valuable, yet modestly valued money. In his mind, he realizes that the upper class essentially steals from the working class by depriving them of adequate wages and reasonable working conditions. Thus, Wolfe believes things must change for the benefit of his fellow workmates.

While Wolfe experiences a philosophical change, his faith in Christianity also shifts. Wolfe, a devout Christian, lived up to a high code of conduct, as it was “his nature to be kind” (Davis 6). As a dedicated worker, Wolfe underwent many difficult years of labor. Wolfe is described as having “already lost the strength and instinct vigor of a man, his muscles were thin, his nerves weak, his face haggard” (Davis 7). Exacerbating his deteriorating form are the many years of labor Wolfe has endured. Davis sums Wolfe’s career as “slow, heavy years of constant, hot work.” Then, she adds his personal thoughts: “[Wolfe] thinks he has worked [in the iron-mills] for ages. There is no hope that it will ever end” (7). For many years, Wolfe lived an honest life trying to make ends meet while coping with the hardships of iron-mill work. In order to cope, he maintained his faith in Christianity, believing that he would be rewarded with positive immortality by working hard and maintaining a pure, sin-free life. However, Wolfe has lost great faith in the Christian ideal, due to his lack of economic and social progress after many grueling years of difficult labor. Although he does not abandon Christianity altogether, Wolfe does, interestingly, alter his view of God, particularly his view on the resources provided by the lord: “God made this money—the fresh air, too—for his children’s use. He never made the difference between the poor and rich” (Davis 19). Rather than holding his previous Christian beliefs, Wolfe is convinced economic disparity is a man-made problem and that in order for one to become wealthy, one must claim rights to God-given resources. As a result, Wolfe now believes that he has rights to such resources that the privileged wealthy traditionally possess.

In justifying Wolfe’s decision to keep the stolen money, Davis reframes his situation to make him seem like a more sympathetic figure. Utilizing a logical appeal, Davis rhetorically questions the audience to achieve such effect. Although he commits a sin by taking the stolen money, Davis justifies his decision by providing contextual circumstances supporting it. Davis questions the audience with crucial points:

You laugh at the shallow temptation? You see the error underlying its argument so clearly,—that to him a true life was one of full development rather than self-restraint? That he was deaf to the higher tone in a cry of voluntary suffering for truth’s sake than in the fullest flow of spontaneous harmony? I do not plead his cause. I only want to show you the mote in my brother’s eye: then you can see clearly to take it out. (19)

First, Davis challenges the audience by ridiculing their initial reaction to Wolfe’s claim of the stolen money. Then she poses rhetorical questions to instill the philosophy that people should live freely without restraint. Finally, Davis utilizes the idiom of the “mote in the eye,” with special attention given to her choice of the word “brother.” By using “brother,” she characterizes Wolfe as an ordinary person and one of many commoners among society. As a whole, the “mote in the eye” idiom asks readers to imagine being Wolfe, having worked many arduous hours for irrationally low wages and then suddenly receiving a relatively large sum of money. By empathizing with Wolfe’s dilemma, many would agree his “theft” was reasonable because of his daily strenuous work and his inability to upgrade his status within a repressive economic system.

Within “Life in the Iron-Mills,” Davis’s intentions were to reveal the cruel realities that iron-mill workers like Wolfe and Deborah endure daily. Overall, Davis convinces readers to sympathize with the likes of Wolfe, who are victimized by a repressive social and economic system established by the influential wealthy. Davis not only reveals the environmental horrors of the industrial age, but also exposes the lack of social justice and progress among working class Americans within such environments. Today, the progression of natural environmental protection as well as social justice is promoted by Environmental Justice activists, who “integrate histories and relationships of people and their natural environments” (Di Chiro 317). In other words, Environmental Justice activists include social issues within environmental problems as they view human relations as a component of the environment. By revealing the atrocities of industrialism and capitalism, Rebecca Harding Davis and those like her aimed to raise awareness of environmental pollution, poor working-conditions, and low labor wages in an effort to promote progress among impoverished and oppressed working class citizens. As a result, many labor unions formed both within the United States and abroad, enabling workers to negotiate wages and better working conditions with their employers. Although such aforementioned work environments still exist in nations like China and Bangladesh, much improvement has been made since Davis’s publication of “Life in the Iron-Mills” approximately 150 years ago.


Works Cited


Davis, Rebecca Harding, Life in the Iron-Mills. EBook. Originally published in The Atlantic Monthly (1861).

Di Chiro, Giovanna. “Nature as Community: The Convergence of Environment and Social Justice.” In Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. Ed. William Cronon. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 1996. 298-320. Print.


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