A major theme in ‘Life in the Iron Mills” is the desire to overcome the unfair social limitations that exist in society. Hugh feels that his status as a poor cotton mill worker unfairly hinders his ability to reach his full potential and yearns for a more fulfilling life. Similarly, the gender inequality during this time period prevents Hugh’s cousin, Deborah, from realizing her full potential and she desperately longs to be viewed as more than just an expendable member of her community.
Hugh is tremendously unhappy with his life on the mill because he knows that he is capable of achieving so much more for himself. While explaining the misfortune in Hugh’s life, the narrator says, “Think that God put into this man’s soul a fierce thirst for beauty,—to know it, to create it; to be—something…”(Davis 2770). Hugh is desperate to live a beautiful life in which he can become an integral contributor to society. However, he feels that he will never have the opportunity to achieve this life because he has been poor all of his life. When Hugh decides to keep Deborah’s stolen money, “A consciousness of power stirred within him. He stood up. A man,—he thought, stretching out his hands,—free to work, to live, to love! Free! His right!”(Davis 2780). Now that Hugh has money, he feels as if all his previous limitations have been lifted and he is now free to achieve his dream life. Hugh feels so limited by his lack of money that he commits a crime in an effort to fully reach his potential in life.
As a poor woman, Deborah is viewed as an insignificant member of her community. When Deborah arrives at the mill with Hugh’s dinner, Hugh exclaims, “I did no’ think; gi’ me my supper, woman” (Davis 2768). Hugh’s disrespectful response suggests that he has little regard for Deborah. Deborah is so in love with him that she goes out of her way to make sure he is happy, yet Hugh treats her as if she exists merely to meet his demands. Deborah steals money for Hugh in order to prove to him that she is more than just a body to cook his dinner and that he needs her. In stealing this money, Deborah is attempting to rise above the gender inequality in her community that labels her as worthless.