H. E. Bates's "The Ox" is a story that lingers disturbingly in the reader's mind because of the deprivation and the final quiet desperation of Mrs. Thurlow, a character who is tragically symbolized as an ox.
A large beast of burden of great strength that is rather dull, the ox is not an animal to which an owner gives much attention. Therefore, the ox is an apt symbol for the constantly laboring Mrs. Thurlow, who is generally ignored by her husband and sons and portrayed as possessing a singleness of thought. This thought is the goal of saving a hundred pounds in order to secure a better future for her boys.
The money is also symbolic since for the emotionally neglected Mrs. Thurlow, it represents the sustaining force of her motherhood. With the money that she saves, she hopes to provide her sons the opportunity to be successful and have more fulfilling lives.
To her the money was like a huge and irreplaceable section of her life. It was part of herself, bone and flesh, blood and sweat. Nothing could replace it. Nothing, she knew with absolute finality, could mean so much.It symbolized the future, another life, two lives. It was the future itself.
The importance of the money to Mrs. Thurlow becomes apparent when she is later asked to accompany the police to town because of her husband's arrest. Significantly, it is the lost money about which Mrs. Thurlow asks the police. She asks nothing about her husband or his crime.
Another symbol connected to Mrs. Thurlow is her bicycle, which she uses as a cart in which to carry her laundry and cleaning supplies for her work as a charwoman. The bicycle symbolizes security as it carries her means of making money. In addition, the bicycle is virtually her only companion throughout her long hours of work. Moreover, her reluctance to leave the bicycle behind when the police offer to transport her in their vehicle demonstrates the added meaning attached by Mrs. Thurlow to this ordinary object of transportation, especially since she does not even ride it.
In yet another instance, the significance of the bicycle is again apparent. After she returns home from the police station in town, she fully expects her husband to be there splitting kindling wood. Also, she expects the money to be upstairs under the mattress. When neither her husband nor her money is in the house, Mrs. Thurlow decides to go to her brother's and ask him to take care of her boys until the trouble with Thurlow is over. For the four-mile trek, she takes the bicycle, upon which she leans her arms as she guides it along.
Though she did not ride the bicycle, it seemed to her as essential as ever that she should take it with her. Grasping its handles, she felt a sense of security and fortitude.
Further in the narrative, after the trial and death of her husband, she returns to her brother's home with her bicycle in the spring in order to reclaim her sons.
She had some dim idea, heavily dulled by the sense of Thurlow's death, that the loss of the money was not now so great. Money is money; death is death; the living are the living. The living were the future. The thought of the boys' return filled her with hopes for the future...strong enough to surmount the loss of both Thurlow and the money.
As Mrs. Thurlow pushes her bicycle toward her brother's house, "she felt she was pushing forward into the future." However, when she learns that her sons wish to stay in their uncle's home, Mrs. Thurlow departs with her head down, holding the handlebars of her bicycle.
Whereas, coming, she had seemed to be pushing forward into the future, she now felt as if she were pushing forward into nowhere.
When Mrs. Thurlow hears the air leaking from a tire, she stops at the bicycle shop, but it is closed. By the time she starts up the hill to her house, the tire's air is all but gone. She feels that she will not reach the house. Her boots are mired in the mud, and she hears the air leaving the tire. All is now lost, as even her object of security has failed her.
One symbol of another character in Bates's story is the silver plate that has been placed in the head of the war veteran, Mr. Thurlow. This silver plate symbolizes his loss of mental strength. He has become a drinker, and he is apparently irrational at times since he kills a man from London in an argument over this silver plate and its value when the Londoner contends it is only aluminum. After his arrest, Thurlow is asked by his wife what he has done with her money, but he does not know and seems detached from reality.
There are many details that can be understood as symbolic in the story. For example, Thurlow's silver plate, the result of a war wound, is symbolic of a kind of lost or false pride. The isolated house on stilts is symbolic of Mrs Thurlow's separateness; the flat tire is symbolic of her life of endless toil or perhaps of the emotional emptiness of her life.
All of these symbolic details are in service to the central conceit of the story, which is the comparison of Mrs Thurlow to an ox. Like an ox, she is mostly emotionless and silent; like an ox, she labors constantly, performing the same routine every day. Bates describes her as looking like an ox, and there is an emphasis on Mrs Thurlow's physicality, the heavy movements of her body, which are also like an ox. Her bicycle, which she insists on pushing everywhere, is a kind of yoke.
Like an ox, Mrs Thurlow does not work for herself. The money, saved over many years, is for her children—not herself; it symbolizes a potential future that she will not see. It's telling that the money, which is the only thing (other than her work) that she cares about, disappears without a trace—not unlike her children, who decide to leave her and live with her brother instead. The ending suggests that, even so, Mrs Thurlow will keep plodding on.
The central symbolism in Bates's story is implicit in the analogy between Mrs. Thurlow and the ox. Right from the title itself to all the details like her 'lumbering' movement, her bi-cycle as the cart, her upturned skirt as the bony tail of the ox, the story develops this symbolism. Mrs. Thurlow's impassivity, her apparently thoughtless resignation and her silent and selfless fortitude are the complex ways her character differs from an ox. She merely uses that instinctive and blank mind as a defence mechanism in situations of acute adversity where her husband is of no help and her children, for whom she does everything, do not care for her.
The bi-cycle is another symbol of sole companionship for her. She dreams about it and cannot walk without it. The bi-cycle is an object that externalizes the sway of emotions that lie suppressed in her.
Mr. Thurlow's silver plate in the head is another sad emblem of a lost selfhood and it is the assertion of its material value that creates the self-sustaining fantasy for him. His last image in the story in that oversize shirt beautifully symbolizes her flight.
The location of Mrs. Thurlow's house and the movement of seasons and also the moment when she feels great psychic disintegration in the police van, sans her bi-cycle and finally the last scene where all alone, she has serious doubts about making it to her hilltop house as there is an irreparable puncture in the back-tyre of her bi-cycle are all symbolic of a symbolic image of the human condition of gloom, despair and suffering where someone like Mrs. Thurlow symbolizes a Sisyphus-like existentialist fortitude and stoicism which makes her go on amid all the misery.