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.
Light and Darkness
The theme of light and darkness is of signifi- cance since most of the story takes place late in the afternoon and at night, and the narrative focuses on the relationship of life and death. Elizabeth Bates awaits her husband as shadows lengthen, her son emerges from dark undergrowth, and her daughter returns late from school. The family huddles in the house where the light is insufficient for Elizabeth’s son John, who, like his father, always craves more brightness and warmth than his home provides. The boy is even dissatisfied with his sister’s tending of the fire as if he may lose that light. When Mrs. Bates goes out to her neighbors to seek her husband, ‘‘there was no trace of light,’’ and even the helpful neighbors ominously suggest that their children, if unattended, may ‘‘set theirselves afire.’’ Elizabeth has said earlier that her daughter’s reaction to the chrysanthemums she wears in her apron is so extreme that ‘‘One would think the house was afire.’’ Fire which should bring light and warmth, and which is trapped in the coal the workers seek in the mine, is here insufficiently bright and even conveys a sense of danger. Awaiting her husband back in her own home, Elizabeth is unable to make a fire in the parlor where there is no fireplace. When the men arrive with the body of Walter Bates, Elizabeth carries an unlighted candle, and after the men leave, Elizabeth and her mother-in-law clean the body in the dim light cast by a single candle.
Only when Elizabeth is confronted with the naked reality of her husband does she realize that she never knew him: ‘‘they had met in the dark and fought in the dark.’’ The darkness signifies their inability to really comprehend and appreciate the separation. Now that she has gained an insight into this separation and now that the darkness of death, a death occurring in a mine’s darkness, is plainly before her, she sees clearly. The unrecognized gulf between herself and her husband has been as wide as that between light and darkness, life and death, and now she is left to wonder if she and her husband were to meet in the ‘‘next world’’ whether he would recognize her.
Appearances and Reality
Just as the darkness has obscured her vision, so Elizabeth’s anger has distorted her perception of her husband and she has failed to recognize the reality of his...
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