Essay: We Are All Just Prisoners Here -

Essay: We Are All Just Prisoners Here

“Country things are the necessary root of our life – and that remains true even of a rootless and tragically urban civilization. To live permanently away from the country is a form of slow death.”
— Esther Meynell

A fable by Aesop tells of an anthropomorphic country mouse’s visit to her city cousin – and is frightened off by the dangers of the town (in this case, two large dogs) (“The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse”). The moral of this story is to be grateful for the safety that simplicity provides, over the hazards of attaining luxuries. In retrospect, the country mouse should have just been thankful that he was able to leave the city at all. Aesop was not the first (nor the last) author to paint the city as a trap, an entity that imprisons all who dwell within its borders in a neverending series of inescapable circumstances. It is an especially common trope for Western nineteenth century authors who lived during the explosion of urbanization. For country writers, suburban life was destroying Nature, while city writers felt civilization was being destroyed by industrialization. The latter may seem like a paradox, but working class life was so utterly wretched that being poor was often tantamount to a death sentence. City workers were treated little better than the agrarian slaves, the only difference being legal freedom – not that anyone could ever leave, of course, especially the poor. Two authors that depict this grim loop quite effectively are Herman Melville and Rebecca Harding Davis, who wrote Pierre: or, The Ambiguities and Life in the Iron Mills, or the Korl Woman, respectively. When both protagonists are in the city, they are poor, in bad circumstances, attempting to improve their situation, and failures (mostly due to pride). To them, the city is an endless cycle of desolation and powerlessness.

Generally, everyone must answer to a higher power. In Pierre, however, it seems possible to live in the country alone, virtually only obeying the government and God. Pierre Glendinning himself, the main character, has power and wealth, and there are those who answer to him. Despite technically belonging to the idle rich (that is, he does not personally contribute to his wealth), he is influential and respected in his community. Pierre even dabbles a bit in the literary trade, though more as a hobby than a career. Indeed, Melville refers to the country as “the most poetical and philosophical, [and] the most aristocratic part of this earth” (19). Utilizing that logic, the “plebian portion” (Melville 19) of earth (e.g. the city), therefore contains the peasants, dependent on hierarchies; or rather, a caste system. Hugh Wolfe, Life in the Iron Mills‘s protagonist, is at the bottom of the fiscal grapevine. He works horrid hours, lives with three other people in a humid cellar, and his only talent is raw and untrained, thus unable to be used for monetary purposes. When Pierre leaves his home in the country and enters the city, he finds himself in nearly identical circumstances as Hugh. His power and wealth are gone, and he must rely on what little skills he has to keep from starvation.

There is hardly any hope or optimism in these two men’s lives, and the desolate environment merely compounds their depression. Melville describes Pierre’s entrance into the city in bleak, oppressive prose:

“[T]he twinkling perspective of two long and parallel rows of lamps was revealed – lamps which seemed no so much intended to dispel the general gloom, as to show some dim path leading through it, into some gloom still deeper beyond – when the coach gained this critical point, the whole vast triangular town, for a moment, seemed dimly and despondently to capitulate to the eye” (268).

Moreover, Melville makes the significance of transition from country to city obvious by describing the country lane as “remarkably wide and winding” and the city pavements as if covered by “cannon-balls of all calibers” (268). The city of Harding Davis, too, is dark and confusing, and the people even worse: “Masses of men, with dull, besotted faces bent to the ground, sharpened here and there by pain or cunning; skin and muscle and flesh begrimed with smoke and ashes; stopping all noight over boiling caldrons of metal, laired by day in dens of drunkenness and infamy; breathing from infancy to death an air saturated with fog and grease and soot vileness for soul and body” (199). Being in the city automatically makes Pierre and Hugh part of the system; that is, the chains of capitalism and industry. Starting at the bottom means powerlessness and little to no chance of getting to the top: if he wants to eat, he has to work, and the odds of ever leaving poverty are slim to none.

Status mobility in the city is restricted by money and talent, the former being much more desirable and influential. Pierre decides that his talent is writing, since he is ill-suited for any other type of work, especially physical labor. In the country, no one minded him being a part of the idle rich: his family was of a good stock, and personality-wise, he was quite generous and pleasantly social (Melville attributes being raised in the country for the “right royal grace and honor to Pierre; attesting him a man and a gentleman” [23]). In the city, however, idleness leads to impoverishment. Pierre comes to the city expecting to live off his relatives; such hospitality was expected in the country. Instead, his cousin, Glen, ignores his plea for assistance (due to Pierre’s ignominious social state) and leaves him hung out to dry (278-9). Glen is not entirely to be blamed for his indifference, though. In the country, Glen is part of the prestigious Glendinning family; in the city, he is simply another member of the upper class, a nobody without status and money. To be associated with the likes of Pierre, whom Glen feels has shamed his family, would be an embarrassment. Glen is accepted in the city, and he knows very well a fall from power is all too easy. Pierre, on the other hand, does not understand this at first. His well-cultured upbringing immediately pegs him as abnormal: he saw nothing wrong in finding lodgings for his female companions, but the officer that helped them with a impertinent cabbie “eyed Pierre in the dubious light with a most unpleasant scrutiny; and he abandoned the ‘Sir,’ and the tone of his voice sensibly changed . . .” (Melville 273). It is only after the nasty confrontation with Glen that Pierre realizes the rules and regulations that will now govern his new life, leaving him with no personal control. He has to conform if he wants to survive.

For Hugh, conformity is the problem. Living below the poverty line means doing whatever it takes to keep from starvation. Unfortunately, he’s part of the labor force in a iron mill, where there is little scope for originality. Hugh wants to break free of this drudgery, but he is powerless, as people depend on him and he upon them. Not that he has the real ability to orchestrate an escape; in the city, capitalism thrives on the uneducated and downtrodden. The narrator demands, “You, Egoist or Pantheist, or Arminian, busy in making straight paths for your feet on the hills, do not see it clearly, – this terrible question which men here have gone mad and died trying to answer. […] These men, going by with drunken faces and brains full of unawakened power, do not as it of Society or God. Their lives ask it, their deaths ask it” (Davis 199).  The point here is that workers like Hugh have more menial worries than the afterlife: they are not even sure from where their next meal is coming or if they will survive the day. Hugh knows and accepts this, but he does in fact make use of what little talent he has, which is sculpting. Making korl figures (korl is refuse from the process of converting pig iron into wrought iron – “a light, porous substance, of a delicate, waxen, flesh-colored tinge” [Davis 205]) allows him to pass the time that would be otherwise occupied by intellectual thoughts in an educated man, or so he believes. So ashamed is he at his unworthy work, he breaks all of his creations once they are finished, and is left “[a] morbid, gloomy man, untaught, unled, left to feed his soul in grossness and crime, and hard, grinding labor” (Davis 206).

Pierre and Hugh need money, one to survive and one to rise above his circumstances. Both decide to try to use their talents and leave poverty behind. Pierre decides to take up writing again: he had been met with some critical acclaim for his scribblings back home, and he figured similar success could be had with a longer work. Feeling that his experiences represented some grand allegory on the search for Truth, he “resolved to give the world a book, which the world should hail with surprise and delight” (Melville 330). His arrogance (albeit coupled with naivety) is duly noted by Melville who remarks that Pierre “congratulated himself upon all his cursory acquisitions of this sort [readings]; ignorant that in reality to a mind bent on producing some thoughtful thing of absolute Truth, all mere reading is apt to prove but an obstacle hard to overcome; and not an accelerator helpingly pushing him along” (330); thus, ultimately powerless to influence anybody.

For Hugh, his sculpture turns from a hidden hobby to a displayed craft. His superiors speculate and philosophize about a figure Hugh makes, a korl-woman: “Some terrible problem lay hid in this woman’s face and troubled these men” (Davis 211). They dismiss the true meaning of her expression and gesture: that of a starving, working class woman, probably inspired by Hugh’s sister. The more savvy of the men realize Hugh’s untapped potential: “’Do you know, boy, you have it in you to be a great sculptor, a great man? – do you understand?” (talking down to the capacity of his hearer: it is a way people have with children, and men like Wolfe) – “to live a better, strong life than I . . . ?’” (Davis 212). Even this foresighted gentleman could not help him, though, because of money (“’Yes, money, – that is it . . . You’ve found the cure for all the world’s diseases’” [Davis 213]). The others are equally strapped for cash, with no desire for “nursing infant geniuses” (Davis 211). It seems, then, that Hugh shall continue to be powerless, stuck in a rut for the remainder of his life. His sister, however, filches money from one of the men, and presents it to Hugh, seeing the bill as a magic ticket out of their hellhole. Hugh knows better, but even he falls for the lure of the American Dream, that the “American system [is] a ladder which any man can scale” (Davis 211).

In the end, it is pride that leads to both men’s downfall. Pierre’s attempt to something new and insightful fails mostly because he tries to write to like as though he was in the country, even though his circumstances have clearly changed. He is also extremely bitter due to the fall from wealth to poverty: “With the soul of an Atheist, he wrote down the godliest things; with the feeling of misery and death in him, he created forms of gladness and life. For the pangs in his heart, he put down hoots on the paper. And every thing else he disguised under the so conveniently adjustable drapery of the all-stretchable Philosophy” (Melville 393). With new anxieties like rent, food, and failing health, Pierre cannot return to writing for public desires, and “[t]herefore, was his book already limited, bound over, and committed to imperfection, even before it had come to any confirmed form or conclusion” (Melville 392). In fact, the book is rejected because it does not fit in with city norms, with the publication company accusing him of writing “sheets of a blasphemous rhapsody” (Melville 413). Pierre was too prideful to lower his standards, even if literary fluff would grant him means of survival. Pride and a misplaced sense of honor are also what kills him, as he cannot take an insult lying down, nor accept his fall from power. Hugh, too, asserts his miniscule masculinity by deciding to keep the money. It is unknown what would have happened if he had returned it, but it is likely that he would not have ended up with nineteen-year prison sentence (Davis 220). Hugh saw the money as a way “to raise him out of the pit; something straight from God’s hand” (Davis 218). Instead of perhaps skipping down with his newfound funds, he skips work and wanders the city, drunk with a sense of identity and freedom: “Wolfe forgot himself, forgot the new life he was going to live, the mean terror gnawing underneath. (…) He meant to cure this world-cancer with a steady eye that had never glared with hunger, and a hand that neither poverty nor strychnine-whiskey had taught to shake” (Davis 219). Not unsurprisingly, Hugh is caught and commits suicide in his jail cell, leaving his sister to deal with her own problems. Ultimately, then, it is both men’s powerlessness to change their circumstances alone and the lack of humility to ask the help of others that leads to their respective demise.

Works Cited

  • Aesop. “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.” 2011. Web. 26 Nov 2011.
  • Davis, Rebecca Harding. “Life in the Iron-Mills.” The Oxford Book of Women’s Writing in the United States. Ed. Linda Wagner-Martin and Ed. Cathy N. Davidson. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1995. 198-228. Print.
  • Melville, Herman. “Pierre: or, The Ambiguities.” Herman Melville. Ed. Harrison Hayford. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1984. 1-421. Print.



Oh, Melville. How I didn’t miss you. 😄 My professor for this class (The American Novel – 19th Century) as I’ve mentioned before was easily one of best professors I had my whole time at school. But he was a tad obsessed with Herman Melville. I never got the appeal at all, but his teaching style and enthusiasm for literature was so infectious, I ended taking another one of his classes later, an entirely Melville-oriented one. Still boring, but we had some fascinating discussions. And I’m afraid I don’t remember Life in the Iron-Mills at all. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ And I don’t have the feedback for this one!

“Winter in New York City” by Anthony Quintano is licensed under CC BY 4.0.


4 thoughts on “Essay: We Are All Just Prisoners Here

    • Yeah, I think everyone can say that, at least a little. It’s a little sad, I suppose, but usually such limitations inspire us to continue living and creating and in turn, inspiring others.


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