D. H. Lawrence’s achievement in this story, his first major short story published, is to view the laboring class from the inside. Previous great English writers—Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy—had written of laboring people, but always from the framed viewpoint of the middle class, which made up the reading public in England. Lawrence was the first great writer from the working class who wrote of working-class people in their own terms, using their own dialect; he did not “translate” the characters and their situations for a middle-class audience.
In addition to the brilliant portrait of working people, this story develops the classic Lawrentian theme of the nature of the sexual relationship between men and women. Lawrence explores that relationship on a spiritual level; he views as profound the failure of Elizabeth and Walter to achieve the deeper life that marriage can offer. Walter’s death leaves Elizabeth unreconciled to the larger spiritual forces of life, for “she knew she submitted to life, which was her immediate master. But from death, her ultimate master, she winced with fear and shame.” Her fear and shame reside in her sense of failure in her life with Walter.
To some readers, placing such value in the relationship between man and woman has seemed an imbalance, but to others, Lawrence’s genius in presenting that relationship is one of the highest achievements in modern letters.