Of Iron and Men: The Quest for Masculinity in Rebecca Harding Daviss Life in The Iron Mills
Of Iron and Men: The Quest for Masculinity in Rebecca Harding Daviss Life in The Iron Mills
Of Iron and Men: The Quest for Masculinity in Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in The Iron Mills
What is a Man?
“A cloudy day: do you know what that is in a town of iron-works? The sky sank down before dawn, muddy, flat, immovable. The air is thick, clammy with the breath of crowded human beings” (Davis 11). This is how the short story Life in the Iron Mills begins. The author, Rebecca Harding Davis, sets the scene of an environment that is harsh, depressing and dark. What kind of character would live in such a dismal place? One would expect it to be a person of both mental and physical toughness, someone strong and bold, with a very course personality. Perhaps a male character that is a real man’s man.

This sets the stage for the irony of the main character Hugh Wolfe. He is nothing like the previously mentioned manly type character. He is described in less than manly ways, even to the point of being called one of the “girl-men.” It is my assertion that from a very early stage in the short story Hugh seems to be on a quest to find his own maleness. It is this quest to find something in his nature that exemplifies his maleness that drives the entire story. This quest not only exemplifies his lower class hunger to prove he is a man, but it also bespeaks of the lower class need to be accepted in society. A desire of the lower classes to feel a though they are as human as their upper class counterparts.

But, manliness isn’t something that can just be given to him as a result of him being a male human being. He has to earn that distinction. In his book Manhood in the Making, David D. Gilmore asserts that, “In contemporary literary America, too, manhood is often a mythic confabulation, A Holy Grail, to be seized by long and arduous testing” (Gilmore 19). Masculinity is more a right of passage for Hugh that a mere physical construct. He has something to prove and he goes to great lengths to prove it.

The Quest Begins
Hugh uses various devices like his work, his art, protecting his female cousin, Deb, and eventually his own death to attempt to reclaim a societal view of his lost masculinity. His quest seems to begin with the first description of Hugh; “Physically, Nature had promised the man but little. He had already lost the strength and instinct vigor of a man, his muscles were thin his nerves weak, his face (a meek, woman’s face) haggard, yellow with consumption. In the mill he was known as one of the girl-men: �Molly Wolfe’ was his sobriquet. He was never seen in the cockpit, did not own a terrier, drank but seldom; when he did desperately. He fought sometimes, but was always thrashed, pummeled to a jelly” (Davis 24). His physical description is void of any masculine attributes. He is “thin,” “meek,” and has a “woman’s face.”

In her essay, “Representing and Self-Mutilating the Laboring Male,” Caroline S. Miles uses part of this same passage to show her view of the loss of Hugh’s masculine persona. She writes, “This disquieting, unromantic, and feminizing portrait of Wolfe prepares the reader for a text that represents the worker’s identity as necessarily embodied, but that fails to reconcile the laboring body’s materiality with a nineteenth-century American rhetoric that equated white manhood with transcending and replacing the material body” (Miles 89). Miles recognizes that Hugh’s sense of self is tied into his physical appearance; however, she sees this as way of representing the actual physical body with the idea of manhood. I agree with this assertion, but I feel that she overlooks the fact that Hugh is trying overcome his shortcomings by overstating himself through the markers of masculinity created by society.

He is making an overt effort to show his manliness. He drinks “desperately,” trying to prove his male attribute of a hard drinker, but one gets the impression that by doing it in a desperate manner he looses the point he is trying to make. He also tries to show his manhood by fighting, but once again he falls short. He gets beaten up every time. I believe that it is at this point Hugh realizes that he needs to find a more powerful way to prove that his male self does exist.

Art as Masculinity
When Hugh sees several visitors in the iron mill one day, he seems to feel that this is his opportunity to learn something that could help him in his journey to a better life, but once again he is disappointed. As they are touring the iron mill the group settles down near the forge where Hugh and the other puddlers are working where, “Wolfe, seeing them stop, suddenly

Get Your Essay

Cite this page

Irony Of The Main Character Hugh Wolfe And Male Character. (May 31, 2021). Retrieved from https://www.freeessays.education/irony-of-the-main-character-hugh-wolfe-and-male-character-essay/