Life in the Iron Mills, and Other Stories Characters

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Life in the Iron Mills, and Other Stories Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion and a Free Quiz on Life in the Iron Mills, and Other Stories by Rebecca Harding Davis.


Deborah, or Deb, is a young woman in the story "Life in the Iron Mills," who works in the cotton-mill and lives in the same boarding house as Hugh Wolfe, his father, and Janey. Deb is in love with Hugh and will often take him his dinner while he is working the night shift at the iron mill, even if it means missing her own dinner. The night on which the story takes place, Deb goes to the mill to bring Hugh his dinner and then lies down on a pile of ash to sleep. A group of men come to visit the mill because it is not as intolerably hot at night. Deb listens to these men as they talk, especially after they discover one of Hugh's sculptures and discuss its artistic merits. Deb is saddened when she hears them talk about Hugh's talent and the unfortunate fact that he will never be able to market his talent.

The next morning, Deb shows Hugh a money purse she took from one of the visitors. Hugh is angry that Deb would do such a thing, saying that they are better than thieves. Hugh intends to take the money back, but when he begins to dream of what the money could do for him and his family, he gets sidetracked. Hugh and Deb are caught. Deb is only given three years, but Hugh is given nineteen years, which is a lifetime for him. Deb knows that Hugh is depressed and plans to kill himself, but all she can do is sit in her cell and wait for it to happen. Deb is allowed into Hugh's cell after his death and she watches the investigation unfold and a Quaker woman watch over Hugh's body. The Quaker promises Deb she will bury Hugh on a hill where he will be in fresh air. The Quaker also asks Deb to come live there with them when she is released from jail. At the end of the story the narrator implies that Deb did this and remained with the Quakers for the rest of her life.

Hugh Wolfe

Hugh Wolfe is a puddler at an iron mill in the story "Life in the Iron Mills. Hugh works hard over the hot fires but makes very little money to provide for himself and his family. During his free time at the mill Hugh creates sculptures out of the korl left from the iron-works process. Often Hugh will destroy these sculptures when he is finished, disappointed with his efforts. On the night the story takes place, a group of visitors come to see the iron mill. While resting near Hugh's fire, these men see his latest creation, a woman whose body is hard with heavy work but whose arms are reaching out as though searching for something. Hugh tells them the woman is hungry. When these men complain that the woman's body does not look as though she suffers from starvation, Hugh explains that her hunger is an emotional one, that she is hungry for a change in her circumstances.

The men believe Hugh is incredibly talented, but they are unwilling to do anything to help him become an artist. Hugh is devastated by this, especially when he realizes that he will never be anything more than a puddler because of a lack of money. Deb, however, has taken some money and she gives it to Hugh to help him pursue his dreams. Hugh is upset by this and intends to give the money back, but the longer he thinks about it, the more Hugh begins to believe that he has every right to keep the money. However, Hugh is caught with the money and is sentenced to nineteen years in jail. Convinced he will never be released, Hugh commits suicide in his jail cell.


Janey is a young girl in "Life in the Iron Mills," who lives with Hugh and his father. It is never explained to the reader who Janey is, but it appears she is either an orphan Hugh has taken under his wing or an illegitimate child of either his or his father's. Hugh feels responsible for Janey, and when Deb gives him the money, his first thought is of what it would mean for Janey. Janey is very young, but she is quickly reaching the age at which she will be expected to go to work either in the iron mills or the cotton mills. Hugh wants a better life for Janey and hopes the money and his talent in art will help give her a much better life. Janey is not mentioned again when Hugh and Deb find themselves in jail for the theft of the money.


Hester is a young woman in "The Wife's Story," who married a man who is much older than she. This man already has five children, one of whom is grown, but the others are young enough that they are still living at home. On top of raising these children, Hester gives birth to a daughter. Hester is not prepared for the work involved in having a small child and is quickly overwhelmed by her daughter. Added to this, Hester had wanted a boy, so having a girl just adds to her stress and unhappiness. Hester gives the little girl to a nurse and believes this action causes her to lose the love of her husband.

Hester learns that her husband has lost his money in a bad investment and has decided to move the family from New York to Newport. Hester is saddened by this because she has built up her home and she loves it, Leaving to go to a life where she will have to fight for every meal she is able to put on the table only adds to her sense of stress. On top of this, Hester likes to write music, which she has been doing in secret, but believes the move will make it impossible for her to continue this pursuit. Soon Hester finds herself forced to make a choice between pursuing her dream of song writing and staying with her husband. Having already lost her husband's love, Hester believes the choice is clear. However, an illness helps Hester to see the error in her thinking and she finds happiness in her marriage once more.

Dr. Manning

Dr. Manning is Hester's husband in "The Wife's Story." Dr. Manning is an older man who has five children before he marries his second wife. Hester is warned that Dr. Manning has been hurt in the past and will not allow another woman to hurt him again. Hester believes that when she gives away her daughter she has caused an unforgivable hurt to Dr. Manning. Soon after Hester gives the infant away, Dr. Manning brings in a young woman to help take care of the children. Hester sees how close the girl is to Dr. Manning and she begins to believe that Dr. Manning is in love with this young lady.

As the story goes on, the reader learns that Dr. Manning's first wife was addicted to opium and that it caused her to have a sour personality. This woman was cruel to her husband and caused him a great deal of heartache even though he loved her deeply and attempted to make her happy. It is because of this experience that Dr. Manning's children are concerned about his future happiness and the effect Hester could have on him. It turns out, however, that Dr. Manning loves Hester dearly and understands her better than she understands herself.


Jacky is Dr. Manning's ward in "The Wife's Story." Jacky is a young woman, a few years younger than Hester. Jacky is an enthusiastic woman who is always happy, trying to see the good side of everything, even the decision to move from New York to Newport. Hester comes to believe that Jacky is in love with Dr. Manning because of her overwhelming affection toward the older man. When Jacky tells Hester about Dr. Manning's first wife, this only seems to prove to Hester Jacky's affection for her husband. However, at the end of the story the reader learns that Jacky is actually in love with and plans to marry Dr. Manning's oldest son, Robert.


Anne is a young, beautiful girl in the story "Anne." Anne has a gorgeous voice and believes she can have any man she wants. However, the one man Anne wants is in love with another woman. Anne ends up marrying a different man, but in her heart she will always love George and will always wonder what her life would have been like had she married George.

Mrs. Nancy Palmer

Mrs. Nancy Palmer is an older woman in the story "Anne," who has a dream recalling her younger days that leave her sad and wondering what would have happened if her life had taken a different direction. Mrs. Palmer and Anne are actually the same person, but Mrs. Palmer is the older version of Anne who has lived a lifetime and begins to wonder what her life would have been like had Anne had her way and married George. George became a poet whom Mrs. Palmer admires greatly. Mrs. Palmer decides to run away from her children who are overwhelmingly protective of their mother and to meet the intelligent people with whom she had always wanted to surround herself. However, Mrs. Palmer encounters George and a couple of other humanitarians on a train and discovers they use the misfortune of others to increase their own fortunes. Mrs. Palmer discovers that she made the right choices and that Anne would not have been happy with the life she had wanted for herself.

George Forbes

George Forbes is the man in the story "Anne" that young Anne wanted to marry. George was a good looking young man who charmed young Anne and made her happy. However, George was in love with another woman who was older than both he and Anne. Anne always wondered what her life would have been like had she married George. After having a vivid dream in which she is Anne once again, Mrs. Palmer decides to run away and meet some of the intellectual people she has always admired. On a train, Mrs. Palmer encounters George along with two other humanitarians and discovers they are not the people she always imagined them to be. George is a fat old man who overindulges in everything and has been married multiple times. Mrs. Palmer discovers that George is not the person she always imagined him to be and that she really had the better life with her husband, Job.

Susy Palmer Tyrrell

Susy Palmer is Mrs. Palmer's adult daughter in the story "Anne." Susy lives with her mother as she is being courted by a local man whose biggest concerns are the social advantages a marriage will make for him rather than love. Susy adores her mother and believes her to be a strong woman but believes the business decisions her mother has made over the years that have made them all rich were just luck. Susy does not believe her mother is an intelligent business woman. Susy worries about her mother and often treats her like a small child, reminding her to take her coat with her whenever she leaves the house. Mrs. Palmer resents Susy's concern until she runs away and discovers the world is not as she had always imagined it to be. Mrs. Palmer returns home happy to have Susy continue to fuss over her as she has always done in the past.

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