Just Teach One

Deconstructing Binaries in Sarah Savages’s The Factory Girl

Leigh Johnson
Marymount University

The Factory Girl by Sarah Savage replaced Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills on my spring syllabus for EN 350, The American Dream, a liberal arts core advanced literature class for non-majors. Students found Mary’s story less than thrilling, but by the end of our discussion, we had mined the text to fascinating results.

Clearly, the story is didactic literature at its finest, and students grasped the values on offer. Breaking the text into the binaries helped students to structurally organize the elements of the text. Brianstorming such binaries as prosperity/debt, piousness/immorality, work/leisure, youth/age, and education/ignorance among others allowed students who had been confused by the nuances of Mark Twain’s Puddn’head Wilson (which we had just finished) to comprehend the ways that one half of a binary is often privileged in a text. Examining this underlying structure served to clarify the moral teachings of the text and opened up space for us to explore how these binaries might not be as stable as the text suggests.

When Dr. Mandeville describes his concerns to Mr. Seymore, he seems to care about the welfare of the children of the town. However, his unease betrays him in this passage:

In these establishments the labours of children are so useful, as to render their wages a temptation to parents to deprive their offspring of the advantages of education; and, for an immediate supply of pressing wants, to rob them of their just rights—the benefit of those publick schools, which were founded peculiarly for the advantage of the poor. These thoughtless parents do not consider that they are taking from their children an essential good, for which money cannot compensate. Ignorance will necessarily lessen their future respectability in society, and check the stimulating hope of rising into eminence, which, in a free county like ours, may and ought to be cherished, for next to religion it is the best security for honest industry and laudable exertion. (13)

Mary quickly reveals her desire to teach these youngsters, but as the class discussed this passage, we came to conclusions about the instability of the binaries of the text. For instance, the privileging of work over leisure in this case becomes a false binary in that for some families of this era, there choice to send children to work is not a choice at all; rather it is a reaction to the financial necessity of an emergent industrial economy. Furthermore, Mary’s eagerness to help undermines her own ability to secure her financial future. She works to support an unequal system of wealth distribution, seeing it as her Christian duty, but this sacrifice ultimately plunges her into debt.

This class, with its focus on exploring issues related to the concept and mythos of the American Dream, had also encountered Benjamin Franklin’s short essay “The Way to Wealth.” With some prompting, students were able to see how the adages that Franklin questions in his essay appear to be unreasonable standards of behavior in The Factory Girl. These texts—“The Way to Wealth,” The Factory Girl, Puddn’head Wilson, and Daniel Venegas’s The Adventures of Don Chipote—formed the basis for a productive unit centered on the question, “Does hard work and good luck contribute more to achievement of the ‘American Dream’?”

Supplementary Materials:
Reading Quiz Questions:
1. How does Mary differ from the other factory workers?
2. Several characters die. Explain one death’s impact on the plot.
3. What happens when William is made foreman?
4. What is Mary’s dream occupation?
5. How does Mary get so in debt?

Paired with “Textile Life” a poem by Mary Branch.

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