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Detailing Horrible Conditions of Urban Cities in Life in the Iron Mills

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Life in the Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis is a story about two people living in poverty in an industrialized town that makes iron. What I’ll be focusing on is the portrayal of the Factory town. The town itself is not in the best of shape as described by Davis. “It rolls sullenly in slow folds from the great chimneys of the iron-foundries, and settles down in black, slimy pools on the muddy streets. Smoke on the wharves, smoke on the dingy boats, on the yellow river,—clinging in a coating of greasy soot to the house-front..” In this passage, one can see that the environment is cloudy and dirty. It sounds polluted due to the fact of all the factory work that goes on. 

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Davis portrays the town as unhealthy and as a hole you can’t get out of. It has an effect on the people who live there. “Only the outline of a dull life, that long since, with thousands of dull lives like its own, was vainly lived and lost: thousands of them, massed, vile, slimy lives, like those of the torpid lizards in yonder stagnant water-butt.” In this part of the story, Davis states that just like her, the majority of them lived a dull life. As if she meant that they were just living with no fulfilling purpose. It can show the lack of motivation and will to live a proper life. The overall tone towards the town and people is hopeless and clouded. 

As if it’s a cycle that cannot be broken and shows no possibility of trying to switch things around. Kirby is the son of one of the owners of the mill, to which he doesn’t have any sympathy towards the workers except for what his father owes them. He’s also not affected by the condition of the workers. Mitchell is a character whom is very smart, and he views the workers in an intellectual and lofty way as if they were unusual to analyze. Dr. May is very compassionate towards the workers but feels as if it’s too much to try to help them because of the fact that there’s too many of them, so consequently he can only feel bad for them.

This has a connection with Katherine Boos’ “Life, Death, and hope in a Mumbai Undercity.” The correlation is how the towns are lower class citizens living in poverty. She states how she visited a slum in Mumbai and described their way of living. She saw how these people lived due to the lack of wealth and resources. So both of these stories are based on the conditions these people live in and a call for social change. Emphasizing on the struggles and challenges faced in a society where even basic human needs are scarce. It ties in with how society as a whole works and how these people are viewed because of their status. It brings awareness to the perception of social classes and highlights how a society overall can flourish, but yet how some areas are left in the dark. Both of these authors had a message they were trying to send in creating these stories.

I believe that Davis was trying to emphasize on the society and societal conditions that these people go through based off how and where they live. It can come as a shock to the upper classes because one doesn’t really know how good they have it until they see or read about people living in these bad conditions. Realism is a tool for social change because it outlines conditions of the given class that is trying to be portrayed, which in this case is the lower class. It draws attention to the subject, which in the end could possibly bring change. It could be the reason she used strong emphasis on describing the town and setting throughout the story. She wanted to create an image out of the story that would captivate the readers. One that would cause people to talk. With a strong use of realism, Davis was able to create a story in which could cause social change.  

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