Part I: Waiting
Somewhere in a mining village that oozes desperation and hopelessness along with the black dust that fills the lungs of its inhabitants, Elizabeth Bates calls for her son John to dine on an evening supper while providing a snack for her truck driving father and still finding time to chastise her daughter Annie for being late coming home from school. There’s yet more to Elizabeth’s intense emotional state: a growing anger at the distinct feeling that her husband is not yet home because he’s out at his favorite pub getting stinking drunk. In an attempt to defuse the growing tension, Annie compliments her mother’s appearance and suggests they start eating without waiting for her father. Not one to be content with such quick defusing of the emotional timebomb ticking away inside her, Annie’s mother continues to unleash vitriol directed against her absent husband and pointing out once again just how miserable her life has become as a result of the neglect and sense of abandonment she constantly feels.
Part II: The Search
By the time this section of the story begins, that tense mixture of anger and worry over her husband’s absenteeism has been displaced by a sense of mission. A new type of tension more akin to the slow building of suspense takes the place of the fretful strain displayed earlier as Mrs. Walter Bates makes inquiries into her husband’s current status. Most of the neighbors are well-acquainted enough with Walter Bates to assume his mysterious disappearance can be explained simply by entering the right pub. Walter’s business partner, Mr. Riley, joins Elizabeth in the search for her husband. The tense atmosphere is heightened by the suspicion that Mr. Bates may not only be drunk, but seriously injured, but no one seems particularly willing to explicitly express the possibilities inherent in that suspicion. Walter’s own mother, Mrs. Bates, shows up to offer comfort to her daughter-in-law. After both women exhibit distinctly opposition perspectives on the quality of character belonging to Walter Bates, the mystery becomes revealed.
Part III: Death
Some men from the village arrive carrying the body of Walter Bates. Elizabeth has no question that her husband has died, yet her behavior demonstrates more concern and worry about the state of her carpet and a vase that has broken into pieces than she shows about what exactly happened to Walter. She does manage to find the emotional depth necessary to provide comfort to her daughter, but makes sure that the corpse of her dead husband is carefully placed away from the carpet inside the parlor. She and Mrs. Bates then set to washing Walter’s body. As the dirt and grime falls away from her husband so does her former perspective toward him. With his death comes recognition that she and Walter never really understood each other at all and, what’s more, maybe she was just as much or more to blame for the failure that their marriage inarguably had become.