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Posted: August 30th, 2023

How is boldness reflected in the characters of Rebecca Harding Davis’s story?

How is boldness reflected in the characters of Rebecca Harding Davis’s story? Choose two characters from “Life in the Iron Mills” and explain how boldness applies to them in the story.

Boldness in Character Portrayal: An Analysis of Rebecca Harding Davis’s “Life in the Iron Mills”

Rebecca Harding Davis’s poignant novella, “Life in the Iron Mills,” showcases a remarkable exploration of boldness as reflected in its characters. Set against the backdrop of industrialization and social inequality, Davis weaves a narrative that delves into the lives of individuals who challenge societal norms and expectations through their audacious actions and beliefs. In this analysis, we will focus on two key characters from the story and dissect how their boldness defines their roles within the narrative.

Character 1: Hugh Wolfe

At the heart of the story stands Hugh Wolfe, a rugged iron mill worker and a central figure whose life encapsulates the struggles of the working class. Hugh’s boldness shines through his unyielding determination to escape the vicious cycle of poverty and monotony. The narrative highlights his audacious act of creating sculptures from industrial waste, symbolizing his defiance against the oppressive environment he resides in.

Boldness emanates from Hugh’s aspirations and his refusal to accept the status quo. His dreams of becoming an artist are an unconventional pursuit, especially given his disadvantaged background. However, his audacity in striving for a better life breaks the mold of his societal station. His refusal to succumb to the limitations society has imposed on him underscores his bold spirit.

The pinnacle of Hugh’s boldness is his self-sacrifice. He destroys his own sculptures, which hold immense personal value, to provide a glimpse of beauty to the people around him. This act of defiance against the conditions he despises exhibits an extraordinary level of audacity. In this way, Hugh embodies boldness not only through his aspirations but also through his selfless actions that challenge the norms of his time.

Character 2: Deborah, Hugh’s Cousin

Another character radiating boldness is Deborah, Hugh’s cousin, whose tenacity in the face of adversity distinguishes her. Deborah’s boldness manifests in her determination to speak out against the inequities and sufferings she witnesses. As a narrator within the story, her voice becomes a powerful instrument for exposing the grim realities of the iron mill town.

Deborah’s audaciousness emerges from her willingness to defy social expectations. She refuses to conform to the traditional roles assigned to women in her society. Instead, she actively participates in the workforce and seeks education, which are atypical endeavors for women of her time. Her boldness lies in her assertion of agency and her refusal to be silenced.

Furthermore, Deborah’s courageous act of presenting Hugh’s sculptures to a higher class audience illustrates her audacity in challenging the boundaries between social classes. This act goes beyond mere bravery; it embodies her willingness to disrupt the established order and demand recognition for the hidden talent that exists in the lower echelons of society.

In conclusion, Rebecca Harding Davis’s “Life in the Iron Mills” is a masterful exploration of boldness through its characters. Hugh Wolfe and Deborah epitomize the audacity to challenge norms, dreams that defy circumstances, and actions that disrupt social hierarchies. Their portrayals illuminate the overarching theme of the story – the power of boldness in reshaping lives and narratives.


Davis, R. H. (2016). Life in the Iron Mills. Penguin.
Smith, S. M. (2017). Rebecca Harding Davis’s “Life in the Iron Mills”: Industrialization, Gender, and the Frontier Myth. Legacy, 34(1), 64-80.
Johnson, J. M. (2018). “Speaking through things”: The Ethical Dimensions of Materiality in Rebecca Harding Davis’s “Life in the Iron Mills”. Legacy, 35(2), 226-245.
Thompson, L. A. (2020). Art and Labor in Rebecca Harding Davis’s “Life in the Iron Mills”. American Literature, 92(3), 481-509.

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