Throughout the story, Lawrence’s dark, ominous imagery forms a threatening backdrop to the characters’ struggles. For example, when describing the Bates’s house, Lawrence writes, “A large bony vine clutched at the house, as if to claw down the tiled roof.” We first see young John near raspberry plants that are “like whips.” Lawrence twice compares humans to shadows: miners who walk past the house are “like shadows,” and Elizabeth returns to the house “like a shadow” after she puts a dustpan outside. We get the sense that these people are somehow disappearing, even as they go about their daily lives. Fire, in particular, appears repeatedly in the story, almost always as a threatening force. At the beginning of the story, Lawrence describes the flames rising from the coal pit as “red sores licking its ashy sides,” as though the flames themselves are alive. Inside the house, when Annie cries out in pleasure at seeing the flowers in Elizabeth’s apron, Elizabeth is startled, fearing that “the house was afire.” Mrs. Rigley, whom Elizabeth approaches for help in finding Walter, asks Elizabeth to make sure the children don’t “set theirselves afire.” Fire brings warmth and light into the Bates’s home, but the characters are always conscious of the threat that accompanies it.
The animal and natural imagery that Lawrence uses suggests that the characters are part of a larger, more unpredictable natural cycle of life and death. John is “like a frog” when he crawls out from underneath the sofa, and Elizabeth says angrily that when Walter comes home drunk he’ll be “like a log.” One of the miners who brings Walter home compares the cave-in to a “mouse-trap,” which suggests that Walter himself was a mouse as he worked in the dark, narrow mines. Walter’s mother’s tears are like “drops from wet leaves,” so impersonal that Lawrence says she was “not weeping.” The unborn child feels “like ice” in Elizabeth’s womb, an inhuman image that emphasizes how separate Elizabeth feels from both the child and its father. Finally, life and death themselves take on human qualities at the end of the story, when Elizabeth says they are her “immediate master” and her “ultimate master,” respectively. These are forces beyond her—or anyone else’s—control, and she realizes that she will always be subservient to this natural cycle.