Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

The Search for the Artist in Man and Fulfillment in Life - Rebecca Harding Davis's 'Life in the Iron Mills.'

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

The Search for the Artist in Man and Fulfillment in Life - Rebecca Harding Davis's 'Life in the Iron Mills.'

Article excerpt

Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills can be read as Davis's expression of confusion regarding her own perception of the artist. The character of Hugh Wolfe, presented with characteristics of both sexes and divided between the entrapment of his life's situation and the desire for an unspecified "something else," can be seen as a reflection of Davis herself. John Conron suggests that Davis "makes [Wolfe] an exemplary type of the man of feeling, whose feelings have been repressed by his environment," but Davis is in fact more concerned with the nature of the artist as restricted by humanity and environment (493). Furthermore, the narrator and obvious references to other artists frame the novella, and these aspects of the text serve to further broaden the search for the nature of man as artist.

Throughout the novella, Wolfe is presented foremost as an artist, introduced amidst a "scene of hopeless discomfort and veiled crime," and is thus depicted primarily within an environment that would surely not be conducive to developing artistic ability (Davis 9). The hunchback Deb first calls the reader's attention to the individual nature of Wolfe as artist, perhaps fittingly so, as Deb's physical characteristics distinguish her from the rest of society just as Hugh's "difference" causes him to be isolated:

She felt by instinct, though she could not comprehend it, the finer

nature of the man, which made him among his fellow-workmen

something unique, set apart. She knew that, down under all the vileness

and coarseness of his life, there was a groping passion for whatever was

beautiful and pure. (10)

This hint of difference in Wolfe is not clearly defined, but Deb can sense the unique element within Hugh, without necessarily being able to pinpoint exactly what it is that constitutes this difference. She seems aware (and thus makes the reader aware) that Hugh is superior to the other men in the mill and that this special quality he possesses manifests itself in a yearning for more from life. Wolfe can look beyond his current situation and maintain his depressing existence only with the belief that there are other options available to him.

Wolfe, with his "meek, woman's face," is isolated not only by physical characteristics that do not conform to the expected standards of the male physique, but furthermore by the fact that he has received a certain amount of education, no matter how minimal, and thus "had the taint of school-learning on him" (10, 11). He is decidedly "not one of themselves" in the opinion of the other workers, due to his "foreign thoughts and longings breaking out through his quietness in innumerable curious ways," and Wolfe in fact expresses himself through art as an escape from the confines of his existence (11). At this point, Davis interrupts her own narrative in the form of the feeling narrator, and reiterates for the reader that Wolfe is to be regarded as extraordinary:

Think that God put into this man's soul a fierce thirst for beauty,--to

know it, to create it; to be--something he knows not what,--other than he

is. . . . With all this groping, this mad desire, a great blind intellect

stumbling through wrong, a loving poet's heart, the man was by habit

only a coarse, vulgar laborer, familiar with sights and words you would

blush to name. (11)

Davis seems here to be "groping" toward her own definition of what an artist is and toward the characteristics that distinguish Wolfe from other men. Yet she too is groping and cannot overcome the insurmountable barrier of defining the indefinite. She can only identify that Wolfe is searching for an alternative, for something else, without either Davis or Wolfe knowing themselves exactly what it is they are seeking. Wolfe clings to the hope that there are alternatives to his present situation in order to go on living, and when this hope of difference is taken from him by his later imprisonment, the only option he sees remaining is to take his own life. …

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