In a dark cave, festooned with phallic stalactites and stalagmites, cluster together several classically draped women. They are being menaced in their prison by shadowy dragons, from whose sight three of the women are hiding their eyes. There appears to be no escape. This could be seen as a metaphor of sexual menace, but could also be viewed as an allegory of hope and purity. Another two women are unafraid (one is standing seeming to beat off the evil dragons and moving upwards towards the light and the other is almost ready to stand).
The woman on the left-hand side seems to have accepted the advance of a dragon as inevitable, as it creeps under her guiding arm. The message is of the physical, moral, and spiritual danger of the world. We must not allow the evil of the world to overwhelm us, but must struggle and fight.
Mrs Stirling wrote of the painting, “This picture by Evelyn De Morgan is inferior in technique and was painted when her powers were failing. The drawing is consequently inferior in execution, but the colouring is still lovely—like a stained-glass window. I do not know what she intended to call it, so I have named it The Captives for it depicts people who are captive to evils which have no tangible existence, age-old conventions, and phantasmagoria of their own creation. It was painted after a visit to the Caves at Cheddar with their aged stalactites." In a further reference to the painting Mrs Stirling mentioned that it was painted after a bad injury to Evelyn’s arm.