Life in the Iron Mills: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and experience teaching.

While other books like ''Uncle Tom's Cabin'' or ''The Jungle'' may be more famous, ''Life in the Iron Mills'' is a great example of a book that drew attention to social conditions in the 19th century.

What was Life in the Iron Mills

During the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was sweeping through much of the United States. With the greater progress from industrialization also came glaring social questions about how the workers were treated. Life in the Iron Mills is a work that was written in no small part to call attention to the lives upon whose backs so much of that progress was being made. In it, the story of a single transgression by someone who shouldn't have been in the mills anyway becomes the end to an otherwise virtuous life.


It all starts with a forgotten lunch. Deborah is the type to seemingly invent a reason to go see her cousin Hugh at work, and a left lunch provides just such the opportunity. She takes it to him and finds him with a work of art he has created from waste products from the milling process. A group of wealthy observers, including the embittered son of the factory owner, named Mr. Kirby, come through. One of them, Dr. May, offers some pretty stale words of encouragement to Hugh, which makes him feel like he is being patronized. Meanwhile, Deborah steals Mr. Kirby's wallet.

The two get home that night and Hugh is furious that he'll never amount to anything. Deborah decides that this is the perfect time to mention that she stole Kirby's wallet and that there is a blank check in there. Hugh is convinced to keep the check.

Fast forward a few months and we learn that both Hugh and Deborah are both in jail for it. Hugh gets despondent about how miserable his life is and commits suicide. Meanwhile, Deborah bonds with the Quaker Woman who comes to visit the less fortunate.

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