Life in the Iron Mills: Realistic and Sentimental Fusion

The narrator of the story uses direct address to the reader in order to manipulate the reader’s emotions with the use of sentimental language. The narrator says, “I want to tell you a story” (41.) The redundancy of informing the reader that the narrator wants to tell a story after the story has already begun is a sentimental writing technique used to reassert the importance of the story that is being told. By assuring the reader that the story is not going to waste his or her time, the narrator is attempting to manipulate the reader into believing the story through the narrator’s use of authoritative language. The narrator is attempting to achieve verisimilitude by informing the reader that there is something important that is about to be told. Therefore, when used properly, this technique achieves a reality effect by entreating the reader to believe that the story is real. In this story, the sentimental techniques are reinforced by nearly two full pages of beautiful concrete imagery that falls more firmly into the realism school of writing. The author uses phrases like: thick clammy air- Irishmen puffing Lynchburg tobacco- and black, slimy pools on the muddy streets (39.) These phrases bring the story to life in a vivid visual way, and further allow the reader to be drawn into the sentimental manipulation of the narrator’s want to tell the reader a story.


Life in the Iron Mills: Reference to Sentimental Genres

As an early example of realism, Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills holds onto many of the conventions of earlier sentimental styles of writing while exploring the new genre. This story uses many of the conventions of the slave narrative, but instead of following the memoirs of a real person on his or her journey from enslavement to freedom, Life in the Iron Mills follows its fictional characters from relative freedom to imprisonment and death. Like the slave narrative, the characters have been uprooted from their native land and exploited and abused by the people in power. But the characters in Life in the Iron Mills have moved from their native lands presumably of their own freewill. Also there is no law forcing the characters of this story to continue working in these abject conditions. In fact, the doctor says to Wolf, “A man may make himself anything he chooses” (Davis 56.) The major difference between the characters in this story and the characters in a slave narrative is that the characters from Life in the Iron Mills are free and as freemen they should have no reason to subjugate themselves to the owners of the iron mill but they do anyway. It is the understanding of the intangible difficulties of life that are evidenced in this story that make it stand out as an example of realism rather than just a holdover from earlier literary tendencies.

Should You Use Racial Slurs in Your Writing?


I know this show is horribly out of date, but I was watching a clip on YouTube from Politically Incorrect where Sarah Silverman was being told to apologies for a racially insensitive word that she had used in a joke that aired on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 2001. The Joke involved the use of the word “chink,” and the Politically Incorrect clip can be watched in full here:

Sarah Silverman’s joke is about how some people miss the point about what is and isn’t racially offensive, and she uses irony to bring the point across. The joke posits that the phrase, “I hate chinks” is offensive while the phrase, “I love chinks” isn’t offensive. The irony of the joke is that the Sarah Silverman as the speaker of the joke and the audience that hears the joke all know that the offensive part of both phrases is the racial slur and not the words leading up to it. Therefore, I fully understand Sarah Silverman’s irritation when Guy Aoki tells her that she is racist for simply using a racial slur in her act.

A comedian’s act is much like any other form of writing for entertainment. The point of the writing is entertainment. As entertainment, the comedian’s act or the writer’s story no longer reflects the writer’s beliefs. Therefore, Guy Aoki was wrong to claim that Sarah Silverman is a racist because of a joke that she told, but he was perfectly within his rights to complain about the usage of racial slurs in her act. While I do not condone censorship of people’s intellectual properties, I do feel that discussion about what offends people is healthy and necessary. I believe that a writer has a right to offend if he or she wants to, but has a responsibility to understand exactly what kind of hornet’s nest he or she is planning on stepping in to. Tell me what you think. Does a writer have the right to offend? Do you use offensive words or ideas in your writing? Is there a difference between offending to offend and being offensive to get people to see a larger point?

The Law of the Road

9 December 2014

The biblical allusions in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are fairly evident. The story follows a father and a son. The father in The Road follows a vengeful path, and the son advocates to temper the father’s wrath (McCarthy 256). The father and the son are on a pilgrimage of sorts searching for the Promised Land. This is very much like the Israelites who wandered forty years in the desert.  And like Moses who led the Israelites, the father does not get to enter the Promised Land. The allusion to Moses is particularly interesting because he was known for giving the law to the Israelites, and the father and the son in The Road are on a mission to find a community that follows some semblance of law. Francesco Casetti’s concept of fields of discourse allows McCarthy’s book and John Hillcoat’s film The Road to work together using subtle hints to show that even in the seemingly lawless world, the rule of law still holds sway.

In Hillcoat’s film, the father and the son encounter much less danger once they reach the coast. The cannibalistic communes that hunt the woods for human prey and the armed bands of cannibals roaming the roads on broken-down vehicles are no longer seen. And the roads are safe enough for an old man to wander the roads alone without fear from cannibals (The Road 2009). Although they have seen little to prove it at this point in the film, the father feels safe enough in this area to approach another person on the road. As the father and the son approach, Ely does not attempt to hide from them or hide in any way. Instead he drops his bag and offers to let the father and son search his things but informs them that he has nothing to take (The Road 2009). This interaction shows that while there is definitely the possibility of bandits on the road looking to take things they do not want to eat the victims. Their encounter with the man that stole their things on the beach shows the same thing. Even though the thief catches the boy asleep and the father away, he only steals their things (The Road 2009). If there had been no law he would have likely killed the boy and taken his corpse along as additional food.

Both the theif and the man that comes to help the son after the father dies have fingers missing. While this could be seen as one more proof that there is law along the coast, this missing digits do not register in the film like they should. The depiction of the world in which these fingers were lost is an unforgiving and violent one. The opportunities in which one could lose a finger are likely numerous. But the book shows that fingers are removed from people who have been ejected from the communes and the thief is ashamed to show the hand without the fingers (McCarthy 255). But with this knowledge gleaned from the book, the missing digits are a strong indication of an existing law in the film.

In fact, the film’s version of things could be an indication of a more nuanced and widespread law than the one explained in the book. In the book, all of the fingers are removed from one hand and the bearer of this mark is expelled from the commune. But the way that the thief from McCarthy’s book tries to hide his maimed hand shows that having been punished puts him at risk by anyone that comes into contact with him. This indicates two things. The crimes that receive punishment are horrific ones, and the only law is that which exists within the individual communes. However, in Hillcoat’s film, only the thumbs were cut from the thief and he was not reluctant to show them. Even the man that comes to save the son after the death of the father has one of his thumbs missing. The lack of stigma against having had fingers removed shows that there are more than just laws forbidding the most grievous of crimes. Less stigma means that more people run afoul of the law because there more laws covering a variety of offenses both large and small. More laws means a safer society. Therefore, the film’s ending is a more hopeful one than the books because the son has a much safer society because even the good guys sometimes run afoul of the law.

But even in the anarchic world away from the coast, laws existed. Any form of social construction is governed by laws even if they are loosely constructed, informal, or unspoken laws. The communes of cannibals and the bands of cannibals hunting the roads would not be able to function together as a group if they were not constrained by laws. When the father and the son encountered the truck full of men on the road, the men looked dirty, tired, and hungry. The man that they stumbled upon their hiding spot could not restrain himself from staring at the son. He is so hungry that even though the father threatens to kill him if he looks at the son, the man attempts to capture and kill the son (The Road 2009). Once the father and the son returned to see if there were any of their belongings left behind, the camera pans over the road to reveal a pile of intestines sitting by the broken-down car, and a burned out fire pit with that contains the charred remains of human ribs that showed signs of sawing and hacking. If the roving band of cannibals do not follow any form of law they would not wait for one of their own to be killed before eating them. The man that stumbled upon the father and the son would have been more likely to find an alternative course of action that would not have resulted in his death at the hands of the father because they would have just eaten one of their own band before they had gotten that hungry.

Even the relationship between the father and the son works because they are governed by laws. The father and the son have two basic laws that control their relationship. While the father remains alive the son must obey his commands, and if the father dies the son must kill himself. The first law, the son must obey the father’s commands is an unspoken law but the film does not make the law evident by the many times that the son obeys the father as by the two times that the son disobeys him. But when the son runs after the kid that he saw when the father was in his childhood home, and when the son falls asleep on the beach and allows their things to be stolen, the father punishes him by yelling at him (The Road 2009). The father’s yelling is punishment for breaking the law, but Laws that are not enforced or are unenforceable typically do not hold sway.

The second law that the son must kill himself if the father dies is passed down by ritual and conversation between the father and the son. After the father and the son find the bodies hanging in the barn, the father opens the chamber of the revolver and shows the bullets to the son. The father says, “Two left. One for you, and one for me. Put it in your mouth and point it up just like I showed you.” The father then proceeds to demonstrate by putting the gun in his mouth (The Road 2009). But these measures only work to inform the son of the law and when it comes time for him to put the suicide law into practice, the son cannot do it. When the cannibals come back to the house and the father and the son are hiding in the bathroom, the father instructs the son to put the gun in his mouth and prepare to kill himself, but the son cannot do it (The Road 2009). However, when they escape, the father does not punish the son because he could not uphold his end of the law. And when he is on his death bed, the father decides that he cannot bear for his son to kill himself and he changes the law.

In both McCarthy’s book and Hillcoat’s film, the only laws that seem to be irreparably broken are the laws of nature. The worldwide ecosystem has been so misused that crops and animals no longer reproduce. But amidst this chaotic, dying world the laws, the seeds of civilization are still viable and have been planted in certain areas of the world. But McCarthy’s book ends with a hopeful vision for the future. The book ends with a scene of brook trout swimming in a stream (McCarthy 286-287). This idyllic scene ends the story with the hope that if the seeds of civilization, the laws can still take hold maybe the laws of nature can take root again as well.

Work Cited

Casetti, Francesco. “Adaptations and Mis-adaptations: Film, Literature, and Social Discourses.” A Companion to Literature and Film. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004. Print.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage, 2006. Print.

The Road. Hillcoat, J. Dimension Films. 2009. Film.

Are You Afraid of Poetry?

It wasn’t long ago that I was afraid to write a poem. I wrote fiction, and I was not afraid to write a poetic line here and there. But the prospect of going out of my way to actually write a standalone poem was daunting. I had tried my hand at writing poems when I was younger, but I was always too constrained by trying to get eight perfect syllables in the line and a rhyme at the end of every line that my poetry felt stagnant. I tried again a time or two once I understood a little more about how to create a coherent thought, but the constraints of a strict form still forced me to write to fit the form rather than to write to get my point across.

I knew that poetic forms existed that allowed the poet to deviate from regular rhythm, meter, and rhyme, but I still did not quite understand what made a free-verse poem any more than prose written in verse form. And my English teachers did not help to alleviate my confusion about this point. I was told the proper way to read a poem was to read from punctuation to punctuation ignoring the line breaks. Since I was taught to ignore the line breaks they seemed arbitrary. I could not get my mind around this sticking point because for me nothing about writing is arbitrary. So I gave up on trying any more poetry because it made no sense to me.

But at the same time my fiction writing became more poetic. I began to use dense imagery coupled with alliteration to bring out emotions in my fiction. The wind through the leaves in the trees was no longer just a small detail to add to the realism of the story I was creating. It was a clue to the emotion of the character strolling below those trees. The long moaning breeze shifted the branches of the willow if the character was sad, or the quick shifting blasts of wind whistled and rattled a jaunty tune through the branches overhead if the character was elated. But for some reason I did not know how to translate this type of writing into verse, or at least I was afraid to try. But I got over my fear by forcing a confrontation. I signed up for a poetry writing class. Instead of trying to explain exactly what constitutes a poem, my instructor gave specific instructions for creating our first poem that allowed me to create a short and concise poem that would not be too daunting for a beginning poet. And I will list the instructions for anyone who may need that extra nudge to begin down the path to becoming a poet:

This is a subject poem. Think about someone who you have seen from afar or have met in passing and come up with a purely fictional history for him or her. Choose someone who you don’t fully relate to like the homeless man in town or the mean old lady from church that no one talks to and write their story as you imagine it.

Make the poem between eight and fifteen lines in length. This length allows you to start with a short poem of less than one page in length, but you have enough space to let yourself explore the working of your poem. In this initial drafting of the poem, you want to free yourself to write anything that comes to mind.

Don’t worry about trying to rhyme.Try to focus the language you use as much as possible. Try to use the most specific descriptive words possible. Use sensory and action words as much as possible. Use words that invoke the senses. Use sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell words to describe your chosen character’s short history. Use active verbs whenever possible.

When drafting the poem, remember to read the lines out loud to hear the natural rhythm of the language you chose. Remember that the beginnings and endings of each line are accentuated and beginning or ending lines at different spots can change both the rhythm of the poem and the meanings of the lines themselves.

Once you are finished with the first draft, read it out loud to friends and family and ask them to discuss their most and least favorite parts of the poem. When you have their perspectives on your poem, you can begin the revision process. At this point you can begin to second guess every single word choice you made or not. And during this revision process you can disregard the eight to fifteen line limit and make your poem as long or as short as the poem requires. Just don’t get too caught up on perfecting this first poem just yet. I know there are plenty more poems you are just itching to try out now that you are no longer afraid.

Feel free to link your poems back to this post so I can see what you have come up with.

What do you think? Was this post helpful? What advice would you have for first time poets?