The major theme conveyed by this text is that we all have a responsibility to help one another in times of trouble or need. Tempy Dent, the woman who died, spent her whole life serving others even though she had relatively little herself. She was industrious and generous, and, even in death, her friends feel as though she is encouraging them to "'put some more wood into the stove'" or to eat a little more of her food because "she'd like to have us comfortable now, and would urge us to make a good supper." Even as she lay dying, she comforted Sarah Ann by telling her that it only felt like getting sleepier and sleepier.
Tempy also seems to have purposefully arranged to have these two dear friends of hers—who have not always gotten along in the past and who come from two different classes—come together so that they can learn to better understand one another and, perhaps, offer the same kind of help to each other that she did. They even feel that "they are being watched themselves," perhaps by Tempy's spirit. Despite the fact that Miss Binson and Mrs. Crowe "belonged to opposite parties, and had at one time come as near hard feelings as they could, and yet escape them," Tempy manufactures a scenario wherein Mrs. Crowe can learn the value and necessity of helping others and in which Sarah Ann can offer the kind of emotional support that Mrs. Crowe needs. When the watchers grow tired,
Sister Binson closed her eyes first, to rest them for a minute; and Mrs. Crowe glanced at her compassionately, with a new sympathy for the hard-working little woman. She made up her mind to let Sarah Ann have a good rest, while she kept watch alone.
Early on in the night, Mrs. Crowe expressed her belief that a person can give away too much and that individuals have a "duty to ourselves," and Sarah Ann "looked up in a half-amused, unconscious way, and then recollected herself." By the end, it is as though these two have become as close as they were with Tempy, having unburdened themselves of "statements that either [woman] would have found impossible by daylight." Mrs. Crowe comes to feel that Tempy "has been a constant lesson to [her]." Sarah Ann already has a very giving spirit, as Tempy did, and now Mrs. Crowe will, we assume, join the ranks of those who assume the responsibility to help others however they can.
In terms of the major symbol, the number of times that the narrator refers to the brook and its noise is a big clue. The narrator first says,
There was a brook which ran down the hillside very near the house, and the sound of it was much louder than usual. When there was silence in the kitchen, the busy stream had a strange insistence in its wild voice, as if it tried to make the watchers understand something that related to the past.
The brook is noisy and sounds "louder than ever" through the night, and only the brook "seems awake." In the end, however, "the brook's voice was not nearly so loud as it had been in the midnight darkness." It seems that the brook courses loudly as the two watchers share their memories of Tempy and put their past disagreements behind them. Then, the brook is finally quiet once they have come to understand what Tempy seems to have hoped they would: that they can be there for one another just as she has been there for both of them and that they really have an obligation to do so—just as Tempy felt called to help anyone and everyone she could. The brook seems to want them to understand that their differences are not nearly as important as they may once have seemed.