Though Elizabeth initially emerges as a long-suffering wife who deserves sympathy, her response to Walter’s death reveals that she is not as blameless for her unhappiness as she first appears. At first, Walter seems to be the clear cause of Elizabeth’s difficult life. He regularly comes home drunk after working in the mine, making the local pub more of a home than his actual home. Elizabeth is accustomed to the dull, dreary routine of waiting for him, but she still feels anger and annoyance when dinner must be delayed. Every comment she makes is said “bitterly,” and she herself is described as “bitter.” At times she seems so harsh that we may wonder whether she is capable of any other form of emotion. However, early in the story, Lawrence shows Elizabeth giving tea and bread to her father, which suggests that she is capable of nurturing. On the day on which the story takes place, her anger and annoyance change to anxiety as the night wears on with no sign of Walter. He seems to be a recognizable brand of “bad husband,” and Elizabeth, the put-upon wife and mother, seems to be a clear victim. Her frustration and harsh words about Walter seem fully justifiable. Elizabeth clearly sees herself as having wasted her life with Walter, missing out on a better life she could have had with someone else.
Elizabeth’s dismal view of her fate changes once Walter’s corpse is brought home. As Elizabeth and her mother-in-law undress and wash Walter’s body, Elizabeth confronts her role in the marriage’s failure. When she looks at the corpse, she realizes that for years, she has not really seen Walter. He was her husband but chronically distant from her, and she feels “ashamed” because she had not allowed him to be himself. Instead of feeling anger and resentment, she recognizes that her own expectations and refusals helped tear them apart. The pity she feels for Walter sharply contrasts with her earlier harsh view of him, serving as an epiphany—she suddenly recognizes Walter as a human being, rather than simply a difficult burden. Elizabeth realizes she has been culpable in her own unhappiness. At the end of the story, she submits to both life and death as her “masters,” humbled by her own mistakes and, we may assume, about to carry on with a new perspective.
Although Walter never appears in the story alive, he plays an essential role in shaping the Bates family’s life and bringing about Elizabeth’s revelation. From the comments made by Elizabeth, her father, and Walter’s mother, we get the sense that Walter is little more than an insensitive drunkard who opts to spend his evenings at a bar rather than with his wife and children. Even his mother says, “I don’t know why he got to be such a trouble.” His long absences mean that his children must wait for dinner and that Elizabeth must struggle with both anger and anxiety, facing gossip from the neighbors. The only kind words spoken about Walter come from his mother when she fondly remembers him as a child, calling him “a good lad.” When Walter’s body is brought home, however, a different side of Walter reveals itself. Dead, he is naked and vulnerable, and Elizabeth is stunned by this stark humanity of him. Because she can no longer blame him for her unhappiness, she turns inward and acknowledges her role in their marriage’s demise. First absent and then inanimate, Walter nevertheless proves to be a catalyst for change in Elizabeth and her vision for the future.
Although Walter’s mother mourns Walter’s death loudly and dramatically when she arrives in Elizabeth’s home, the Walter she is mourning is not the Walter who lies dead on the parlor floor. Described variously as an “old woman,” “grandmother,” “elder woman,” and “old lady,” Walter’s mother reveals herself to be connected to the past much more than the present. She lectures Elizabeth on what a wonderful child Walter had been, only reluctantly acknowledging how much trouble Walter had brought to his family as an adult. Even her criticisms are veiled with indulgence, however, and she explains that because he was her son, she has always been able to excuse his bad behavior. Elizabeth’s stunned, stoic reactions stand out against Walter’s mother’s loud sobbing, but rather than make Elizabeth seem cold, the contrast serves to make the dead Walter more distant from both women. Walter’s mother knew Walter deeply as a child, but we can assume that she knew all but nothing about him as a grown man. Elizabeth thought she knew her husband simply as an uncaring, difficult burden, but she realizes as she looks at the corpse that she might have overlooked some essential pieces of who he was. Dead, Walter can reveal nothing about himself to either woman, but Walter’s mother’s presence illuminates at least one dimension of Walter that Elizabeth will forever be unable to know.