“Progress” is a continuously operating process, one that occurs without us even recognizing it, that is until we become one of its victims. Progress claims its victims and creates its winners and losers while the people who are destroyed by it are forgotten. In his 1941 novel Out of this Furnace, Thomas Bell brings us one step closer to understanding the lives that were sacrificed in the name of progress. It is a story of immigrants coming to the United States in pursuit of the American Dream, only to disappear into the industry that beckoned them. Through the lives of Kracha, Mike, Mary, and Dobie we are able to view the life of the immigrant worker in the evolving industrial society. Bell stresses the idea of consumption throughout the novel to reveal the themes of the novel and illustrate the lives of his characters.
The novel begins with an immigrant, Kracha, making his way to the Unites States from Hungary. Not having spent more then a few days away from his wife, Kracha is tempted by a fellow traveler, Zuska, on the boat ride to America. This temptation can be justified not only by Kracha s character but also by the desires that the new nation created in him. At this point Kracha is tempted more by his chance at a bright future then by the woman herself. Zuska merely represents all the opportunities that face Kracha in his new life. In order to satisfy his need for Zuska, Kracha splurges and throws Zuska a birthday party. This party leaves Kracha, prophetically, penniless and unable to afford a ticket to White Haven where he is to meet his sister. Though he is broke, he is optimistic for his future when he separates from Zuska and her husband. When talking about meeting again in the future he says, “Who knows? We may all be millionaires by then. Then they depart, dreams intact, for an unknown future. Bell begins his description of Kracha s departure form the city by stating, “With the river at his back there was only one way to go. He walked until he was out of the city, in the countryside, by that time it was getting dark.”
By describing the beginning of his long journey as walking from the city and river towards darkness we are given our first real image of consumption. Kracha faces America and walks into the darkness, disappearing into a country from which he will never emerge.
Bell returns to the image of consumption in his description of Dubik s death. The death of Dubik stands as one of the most visual scenes of the novel. The physical and mental anguish of Dubik, who was burnt when a furnace “slipped,” is made vividly clear through Bell s physical descriptions. The mental suffering of his best friend, Kracha, is made apparent through Bell s use of juxtaposition. Although he is trying to soothe his best friend, Kracha is overwhelmed by what is going on around him. “Foremen and straw bosses were already bustling about, ordering the men back to their jobs” (52). This image is quickly followed by Kracha s realization that the “sun had come up; the hills on the other side of the river were bright with it” (52). These observations illustrate that despite all the pain and suffering experienced by Dubik and Kracha, life is continuing around them, relatively unaltered. Both of these images are in direct contrast with the emotions being felt and not only amplify the horrible image of Dubik s death but present its uselessness. The harshness of this scene is multiplied when Bell testifies that though the death of the workers was officially ruled an accident, the company had known the furnace was “hanging,” and “in a larger sense it (Dubik s death) was the result of greed, and in part of the education of the American steel industry.” (54) Rationalizing Dubik s death as part of the process of education dehumanizes him and the others who died in the mill. Bell s use of juxtaposition highlights the futility of the tragedy and makes Dubik s consumption by the industry apparent.
If Dubik s death were truly to serve as testimony of the education of the steel industry, the death of Mike would have been entirely unnecessary. In this novel, Mike represents our first real opportunity for hope. He begins as a man with dignity, hopes, and aspirations. He proudly becomes an American citizen and exercises his right to vote, he falls in love and is faithful husband, and proudly raises a family. In many ways, Mike epitomizes the American dream; however, despite all his efforts Mike is unable to achieve the lifestyle he desires. Sadly enough, all he truly wants is to be able to make a decent living and support his family. In one of Bell s most climactic scenes we see that the Mike we knew and loved has been destroyed by his entrapment in the steel industry. In a drunken testimony he declares,” there is no God and it doesn t matter when we live or when we die. Our work and our dreams, the good we did, the evil we suffered, and the hope we kept alive in our hearts- none of it matters” (197). The idealistic Mike has been devoured, a fact that is perhaps made even clearer through Bell s lack of details in describing Mike s death. The last visual image we are given of Mike is his approaching of the “mill gate” which appeared to be just a “black hole in the wall” (206). This image is disturbingly similar to the description of Kracha entering darkness. It is this representation of Mike, entering blackness from which he would never emerge alive, that gives us the final image of Mike being consumed by the mill and mill life.
Mike leaves behind a wife and a family to carry on his dreams and ideals. If this book were just a story of the evolution of the steel industry, the section on Mary would have been unnecessary. Instead Bell depicts the life and struggles of a widow. Mary is given thirteen hundred dollars in compensation for Mike s death. This money is not enough to provide Mary with a secure future for herself and her children. She takes in her father as a border, mends clothing, and watches as her oldest son makes his way into the workforce to help make ends meet. Though her life with Mike wasn t financially secure, her life without him shows a rapid deterioration of not only her standard of living but also her health. All her efforts to maintain her family result in her becoming ill. She and her children, except John (Dobie) who can live on his own, are sent to the sanitarium in an effort to contain her disease. During her last months in the sanitarium we can see that Mary s state of mind is deteriorating as well. She begins to find her only solace in reliving the past and imagining the future. She recalls Mike in all his daily activities and relives them. She sees herself watching her children grow, ” Johnny and Mikie would be young men coming home from work in the evening, tall, handsome young men, with good jobs”(256). And in her final moments she thinks about “the contrast between what she and Mike had been and what they had become, between the dreams of their youth and the hard reality that the dreams had brought them” (258). She dies thinking about the contrast between what she had wanted her life to be and what it had become. More importantly she dies alone. Mary s death is followed by the death of her daughter, Pauline. After a lifetime of dreams and ambitions, the fact that Mary and her daughter die alone in a sanitarium makes it quite apparent that Mary made no true social “progress” in her life. . In actuality, Mary s death represents regression; any steps that the characters had made thus far “Out of this furnace” are diminished by the painfulness in Mary s death. Bell s decision to have both Mary and Pauline die of consumption is very interesting as well. By playing on the word consumed, once again, Bell heightens the image of Mary being consumed by her life and her dreams.
In following the daily lives of Dobie and Julie, Bell allows us to look at the word consumption from a different angle as the escalation of the consumeristic attitude becomes apparent in their lives. Julie s declaration, “we need so many things. Refrigerator, sewing machine, vacuum cleaner, good silverware,” (337) is just one instance in which the growth of technology and this consumeristic attitude is made clear. This attitude is amplified by their reliance on technology and the hope that they think it promises. When Dobie states, “There s a lot of good jobs over there. And there s going to be a lot more if they keep building those new automatic mills,” (333) Bell is using irony. He uses irony in this circumstance to show us that although the growth of technology and the nation s reliance upon it is oppressing these people, they too cannot see technology as the culprit and actually hope for its continued growth. They have been consumed by the idea of progress.
Through the lives of Dobie and Julie, Bell also offers a conclusion on Kracha s life. Bell follows Kracha from his boat ride to America to his death. His description of Kracha s grave sight is important in that it shows that Kracha s life in America ended the same way it began. ” The last light died out of the west and then it was dark on the hill where Kracha lay; only on the horizon s rim the Bessemers continued to flicker restlessly against the sky.” (377) Kracha came to America with hopes of success and was immersed in darkness and he died unsuccessful in eternal darkness. In describing the continuous flicker of the Bessemers Bell reminds us of the strength of the industry that when everything else is silent the mills are still operating. They are indestructible.
The last scene in this book is a final testament to Dobie s condition. Dobie went to Washington and testified in a trial that ultimately brought the unions to Braddock. This mild success achieved by Dobie allows him to invest in the future. Throughout their marriage, Dobie and Julie had waited to start a family until they felt they could provide for one. The fact that the couple does conceive a baby is a sign of Dobie s hope for the future. Though he is excited about the upcoming birth of his child, the fact that Bell chooses not to show us the birth of the child or reveal its sex is fairly important. Children usually represent our ultimate dreams for the future, by leaving the reader questioning the birth of the child we are reminded not to place too much hope in the future for Dobie or his family.
Throughout the novel Bell plays on the idea of consumption to get the reader thinking about the lives of his characters but the word focuses on the overall theme of the book as well. The steel industry and the technology that we have been focusing on must literally consume raw materials like coke and ore to operate and in the end produces a product. Bell s characters are consumed like raw materials and this process changes them. When Dobie states that he is “Made in the USA”(410) he is right, he is a product of society. This society, based on technology and progress, consumes and produces a society unaware of its effects.