Paper Topic: Out of This Furnace by Thomas Bell
Requirements: The steel mill plays a crucial role in the lives of the immigrants in “Out of This Furnace,” both the men who work there and also their wives and children. Describe how the factory shapes the lives of characters, and also how the characters deal with these conditions.
The literary piece at study is a story of an immigrant family who left their homeland Slovakia for the US seeking a better life and fortune. While this is a fictional story, it actually creates a completely realistic plot, to which many families could subscribe as their own familial drama. Let alone that it addresses some issues whose historical authenticity and importance is difficult to deny. The rare feature this book exhibits is the unique experimental environment it has to offer by allowing the reader to eyewitness the cross-generational evolution of a particular family’s attitudes, mind, and stance as citizens.
Back in the late 1880s, the more attractive (in terms of job creation rates) sectors were the railroads and the mills in Western Pennsylvania that employed a large army of migrant workers eager to work longer hours for lower wages. Upon assimilating, they believed, they would assure a decent status in the American society for themselves and for their families, and would enjoy every bit of the American Dream.
These industries did tend to lure migrants by promising some of the highest hiring rates. However, all the aspirations and plans the workers had ex ante were soon to evaporate. Instead of earning a living to lead a decent life of a bourgeois, the workers ended up in a trap, a vicious circle of barely earning enough to support their families, and get some sleep after the shift. Long working hours that were growing even longer did not even leave them enough time to reassess the stakes, and even consider making another choice regarding their employment. Since one’s life is determined by everyday schedule, their lifetime was inevitably to balance on the verge of existence. By that we may not necessarily mean threat to physical existence, but the very inability to exercise what constitutes the inherent human faculties, such as discretion (freedom of choice), leeway for self-development, and social life per se.
We’re now beginning to see just how “important” a part the mills played in the workers’ lives. In a sense, their importance could be viewed akin to the influence characteristic of a “black hole.” Indeed, this story is about the role of giants, relative giants controlling it all. The capitalists versus the labor owners: were they really symmetric players? Hardly until these labor owners became able to pool together (unionize) so as to exercise a higher bargaining power. Otherwise, the immensely asymmetric bargaining power the capital owners commanded acted to degenerate the very distribution of the freedom of choice: the giants had the whole discretion, they controlled the institutions (and change thereof), and captured politics in particular.
On the other hand, the more important characteristic of the “black hole” is its gravity, which is so intense nothing can escape it. The workers progressively found themselves trapped in this vicious circle of drudgery, survival, and inability to even think of escaping it all. On second thought, it would be somewhat awkward to deny the capitalists’ striving toward progress in technology. There is no denying that the factories and mills were exhibiting an ever growing productivity, and if labor was a factor complimentary to technology, labor was accordingly being put a higher pressure upon, in terms of longer hours. Deteriorating social security (working and living conditions) was, however, but one ‘by-product’ of the technical progress, the other being the severe damage done to the environment (which could be viewed as indirect ‘importance” of the mills). In this light, one would question whether progress like that could be of net benefit to society when it comes at so high a cost. Does the mere increase in productivity justify the deteriorating standards of living? Any such level of development not analyzed with respect to benefits and costs might well turn out to be just another Pyrrhic victory.
It is now about time to get back to the symmetry (equality) issue. These migrant workers might well have some freedom of choice ex ante, i.e. before they chose to get hired by the mills. However, once at it, they no longer exercised effective discretion, whether it be in terms of employment or political power. While formally they were allowed to vote, the realization of infinitesimal bargaining power resulted in something that appears as apathy for all practical purposes. They felt unable to affect the institutional framework by exercising their constitutional (contractual) rights before unionization took off. And even since, they still exhibited a psychological inertia and loss of confidence. After all, unionization as supported by Dobie was no major achievement, but rather it regained ground by restoring the pre-progress situation: normal hours, lesser occupational risks. The technological progress thus was closely accompanied by institutional regression. Not surprisingly, a growing gap like that could mature over time from apathy to a major revolt-be it a political coup or a more substantial societal change which could not be implemented gradually and continuously.
The workers’ wives were stuck in this bad equilibrium as well. If families (dependencies) were to accompany their providers, that implied they too ended up subject to that vicious circle, their health deteriorating and minds being depressed further. A reader can literally observe Mike lose his natural optimism and turning cynical about life and opportunities distribution. His and Dubik’s deaths were to perceived as a routine and only minor part of the tragedy of the working class in those days. Mike’s family wasn’t exactly financially secure with him; however, after his death, his wife Mary gradually loses her hope for a better future for her sons.
The mere difference between how she had imagined it happening and the way it promised to work out could alone suffice for a mental disease to develop. Mary and Pauline die slowly enough to appreciate this hell. They die all alone, lock in the mills’ “black hole.” There’s little doubt that The Mills could be the historical proper name labeling this whole institutional environment that made so many people’s lives a tragedy, one they had no control over. In the dynamic perspective, however, the implication is more sanguine, as the next generations seem to possess and create more and more bargaining power for themselves, enough to intervene with the Mills that were predestined to collapse by their intrinsic controversy.
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