Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 894
Set in a rural coal-mining village, this dynamic portrayal of family life among laborers revolves around an able young housewife, Elizabeth Bates. A strong, handsome woman, she has been disappointed in her husband’s recent inclination to go drinking regularly, depleting her meager household finances. The time frame of the story is from late afternoon, when the miners are walking home from their shift, until just before midnight.
Elizabeth and her husband, Walter, are both natives of the region; the story opens with a visit by Elizabeth’s father, a widower who operates one of the locomotives that carry coal from the Brinsley Colliery. He announces to Elizabeth that he intends to marry again, and she questions whether it has been long enough since her mother’s death. The subject of marriage is a sore point for Elizabeth because of her own experience: She is a woman who has been disillusioned, and she is bitter over Walter’s behavior. However, she prepares bread and butter for her father, in addition to the cup of tea he requests, and after he leaves, she prepares supper, listening for Walter’s footsteps among the miners passing on the lane outside the kitchen on their way home from work.
When Walter does not come, she assumes that he has sneaked past to the local pub, and she fears that his usual Saturday night drinking spree is to become a twice-a-week routine. As she feeds the children, John and Annie, the deep emotional bonds between mother and children are presented in the rich simplicity of a typical domestic scene. This simplicity is complicated by their mutual concern for the father’s absence. However, Elizabeth refuses to allow the children to become upset; she banters with them over lighting the lamp and over a sprig of chrysanthemums, which Annie discovers Elizabeth had placed in her apron strings earlier in the afternoon. The children are delighted that their mother has decorated herself with the flowers, and they remark on their beautiful smell. Elizabeth declares, however, that the chrysanthemums do not smell beautiful to her: She says, with a short laugh, that these were the flowers of her wedding, the flowers of the children’s births, and the flowers her husband wore the first time he came home drunk.
After supper, the children play while Elizabeth sews, and a balance is struck in Elizabeth between her satisfaction with family life and the anger she feels toward Walter. The first section of the story closes with Elizabeth putting the children to bed, with them hiding their faces in her skirts for comfort from the distress that the father’s absence has caused.
The second section of this two-section story begins a short while later with Elizabeth deciding to go look for Walter. She believes that he is at the pub, but her anger has now assumed a tinge of fear for him. Not wishing actually to seek Walter in the pub herself, she goes to the home of one of his coworkers, where she learns that Walter has not been to the pub; the coworker, alarmed at Walter’s absence, tells her that he will look for Walter.
Elizabeth returns home to wait, and in the silence of the night, she hears the winding-engine at the pit as the cage descends, and her fear increases. Within the hour, her mother-in-law appears with the news that something, indeed, has happened to Walter in the pit, but that she does not know exactly what. The men had sent her to wait at Elizabeth’s home.
During the wait, Walter’s mother tells of Walter’s life as a child, of his happiness and his high spirits, and she apologizes to Elizabeth for the trouble that Walter has caused Elizabeth with his drinking. Within the hour, the miners carry in Walter’s body: He had been trapped by a cave-in at quitting time, and his fellow workers had not known that he had never come up to the surface.
The scene in which the body is carried into the house is one of gripping realism. The pit men, deeply moved and emotionally upset by the accident, are awkward in the presence of the women, Elizabeth and Walter’s mother. When the young daughter, Annie, awakes upstairs, and Elizabeth goes up to keep her from coming downstairs and discovering Walter’s body, the men quietly, discreetly, leave.
As Elizabeth and her mother-in-law lay out the body, washing the pit dust from it and dressing it, Elizabeth has a deep emotional experience whereby she is able to evaluate her life with Walter with a new clarity. She suddenly realizes how separate Walter and she were in life: “Each time he had taken her, they had been two isolated beings, far apart as now.” Their marriage had not been the spiritual joining of a true marriage, and she now knows how wrong she had been never to see him for himself, rather than in terms of him being her husband. As a mother Elizabeth is secure in herself, but “how awful she knew it now to have been a wife. And he, dead now, how awful he must have felt it to be a husband.” Their marriage has been a failure. However, now, for Elizabeth, the bitterness is gone, and she is “grateful to death, which restored the truth.”
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