What is the thematic role of death in this short story? The theme seems to be about death, but I have been to told to think about the role of death.

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sagetrieb's profile pic

sagetrieb | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

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Both of these responses explain but do not call specific attention to the imporantance of class and gender in understanding the role of death in the story. John’s fate was determined by the fact that he was born into the mining class and to his gender role as a male.  Similarly,Elizabeth, woman and miner’s wife, lived in her husband’s shadow, knowing neither him nor herself because of the circumstances (pressures) of gender roles and being the wife of a miner. (Consider how different the story would be if she had been, say, a middle-class woman married to a banker.) Just as Walter is smothered by a fall of coal, his wife has been smothered by him and the odor of chrysanthemums, which is associated with her marriage to him. The story suggests that only when he dies does Elizabeth discover that she is a person with unique thoughts, passions, and fears and that the same no doubt held true for her husband.  Because he was a man and a miner, and she a woman and a miner’s wife, they never knew each other beneath the surface, never knew each other as human beings. Their class and their gender roles interfered with such intimate knowledge. In this way, death enables Elizabeth's growth as an individual.

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bmadnick | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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The relationship of life and death represents Elizabeth's relationship with her husband. Life and death are as opposite of each other as lightness and darkness. In life, Elizabeth and her husband were as far apart and as opposite as life and death and darkness and light.

Elizabeth resents her husband for making her live in "this dirty hole". She hates his work as a miner and the community they live in because she considers herself meant for a better life than the one her husband has given her. She distances herself from everyone around her except her daughter. It is only through her husband's death that she realizes she never knew him, and she learns too late to value him for the man he was. His death separates him from her, and it is only then that she understands their differences in life should have given their marriage deeper meaning. Instead, she failed Walter in life. Elizabeth "knew she submitted to life, which was her immediate master. But from death, her ultimate master, she winced with fear and shame."

The role of death then is to make Elizabeth aware of her failure to her husband in trying to change him. Elizabeth will live the rest of her life hoping to meet her husband in the afterlife, but while she's alive, she will spend the remainder of her life no longer trying to change or criticize people. She can certainly be closer to her son John, who looks so much like her husband.

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brendawm | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

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Death is central in the story and seems to be anticipated from the beginning.“ The arrival of Walter Bates’s dead body at his home introduces the story’s major theme--the relationship between death and life, in light of a consideration of the relationship between men and women.” Darkness and gloom permeate the story,along with a sense of dread that oppresses Elizabeth Bates. The mine and its train are presented as life-destroying forces.Aware of the dangers of underground work,Elizabeth and her neighbors seem aware that Walter may have died in the mine. “In addition to the sense of melancholy fatalism that pervades the beginning of the story, readers learn that in the recent past,Elizabeth Bates’s father has been widowed.” All the different elements foreshadow the focus on death that is to come at the end of the story and the way it will affect Elizabeth’s future life. Lawrence depicts, Elizabeth Bates as nearly worshipping her husband’s corpse as she pictures a future meeting with him in the afterlife. Death brings dignity and finality, and she realizes that she has been misguided in her futile attempts to criticize and change her husband. “The story implies that she will spend the rest of her life attempting to incorporate this realization, achieved through an encounter with death, into her life.” It is implied that she will live her life in anticipation of a meeting with her husband in the realm of the dead.

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nramani | Student | eNotes Newbie

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While I agree that it is only through death that Elizabeth gains some level of understanding, I dont think she has gained it through surpassing societal roles of her class or gender. In the end, she does not bemoan the idea of never becoming something more than a wife or mother. That is, she does not have realizations of her own life, but what she as a wife failed to do. Her thoughts revolve only around her husband's and she sacrifices not only this life but eternity to him. Even after his death, her thoughts are on the children and her maternal roles. It seems as an individual Elizabeth is no longer.

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