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.

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