This article bridges the cultural and aesthetic critiques of sentimental fiction by turning to a rhetorical model of reading, a model that allows us to recognize both the cultural significance and aesthetic complexity of sentimental fiction. More specially, I use Rebecca Harding Davis's “Life in the Iron Mills” as a case study to illustrate how Davis devised her narrative strategies to move her reader to change the social reality they both faced. In other words, her strategies arise in response to specific historical and cultural circumstances even as they lead to an aesthetically accomplished novella. At the same time, the paper also seeks to make the theoretical intervention that sentimental fiction, “Life in the Iron Mills” in particular, prompts further refinements of the rhetorical model. That is, we can further discriminate the audience positions Peter Rabinowitz proposes in order to better account for the varied and complex reading situations in sentimental fiction.

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