I have studied Odour of Chrysanthemums which is a short story written by D H Lawrence. He lived from 1885 to 1930. His father was a coal miner which explains why the story is based in a mining village. The main character is Elizabeth Bates who is a miner’s wife and the story evolves around her waiting for her husband’s return from work. As usual he is late but on this occasion he died in a mining accident. The main elements of the story are Elizabeth’s changing thoughts and emotions throughout the whole experience.
In the exposition D H Lawrence uses pathetic fallacy to bring the story to life and to represent the mood of the young woman, “Trapped between the jolting black wagons” and “The fields were dreary and forsaken”. By using words like “trapped”, “black” as well as “dreary” and “forsaken” D H Lawrence depicts Elizabeth’s unhappy experiences so far and her current state of mind. I think that it is a useful device to make the reader empathise from the start with the character and it sets the mood of the story.
D H Lawrence’s life story maybe indifferent to that of the characters in this story, he was brought up in a working class mining village and maybe he didn’t get along with his family or another family didn’t get along and suffered similar problems to those in this story.
Elizabeth Bates speaks more Standard English than the other people in the community who speak colloquially in a strong regional accent. This is significant because the author has chosen an outsider as the main character who, as a deep-thinker, feels alienated from the simple-minded villagers. I think that the theme of alienation is important because, as the story unfolds, she realises that she didn’t know her husband and by the end she feels that she is totally separated from him.
Elizabeth has two children; her daughter is depicted as angelic and similar to Elizabeth. She is described as having “wistful blue eyes” and hair that was “a mass of curls, just ripening from gold to brown”. She is always polite and does as she is told, she cares for everything around her whereas her brother cares only for himself. He is often skulking in the shadows and is portrayed as evil with “an evil imagination”. “He tore at the ragged wisps of chrysanthemums” shows that he has a destructive nature. He doesn’t listen to his mother much and rarely does as he is told. The children’s contrasting characters could be interpreted as representing the two halves of their mother’s psyche, i.e. her innocence and gentleness on the one hand and her sombre emotions on the other.
The chrysanthemums are a vital element in the story as shown by the title. They are a recurring symbol of the turning points of Elizabeth’s life. As her son tears at the flowers you know that these are going to be important because Elizabeth tells him off and puts a sprig in her apron as if to salvage them, thus making the reader aware of the fact that they are special to her. At first it appears that she likes them until Annie smells them and exclaims how beautiful they smell, which is probably what Elizabeth thought as a child. Elizabeth then tells Annie that they don’t smell nice probably because she doesn’t want Annie to have a similar unhappy existence. “It was chrysanthemums when I married him, and chrysanthemums when you were born, and the first time they ever brought him home drunk, he’d got chrysanthemums in his button-hole.” She lists all the important and unhappiest moments of her life. Since she is carrying the very same flowers at the time, Lawrence has also brought in suspense. This incites the reader to think that something will happen and that it will be another important moment in her life.
Lawrence symbolises the turning point in Elizabeth’s life when the vase of chrysanthemums breaks. Now that the flowers are on the floor she can leave them behind and forget all the bad moments in her life. The vase could represent her marriage which was in pieces and was also unhappy, she can now start her life anew.
The author makes a running commentary of her emotions from the complication – i.e. when Walter doesn’t come home – onwards.
Lawrence uses suspense to make the reader want to continue reading. “Her anger was tinged with fear,” implies that although she is angry for his repetitive lateness she is also concerned for his safety. Mr Rigley begins to stammer when Elizabeth asks him when her husband is coming back home which lets the reader know that he is worried for Walter too.
Lawrence uses a build up of irony to give the reader a hint of what would happen and to give her comments a double meaning. When John can’t see anything Elizabeth tells him that he is as bad as his father when it was dark which is ironic because Walter is stuck in the bottom of the pit in blackness. Elizabeth says, “he’ll not come home till they bring him” and “I expect he’s stuck in there” which is ironic because he is stuck in the mine and he is brought home.
The physical sensations which accompany her emotional upheaval are vividly described e.g. “suddenly all the blood in her body seemed to switch away from her heart”; “Is he dead?…and at the words her heart swung violently”. The reader will be able to identify with her because Lawrence has graphically described what happens when someone suffers from shock. At the same time “she felt a slight flush of shame at the ultimate extravagance of the question”. This illustrates the ambivalence of her feelings. Could she be involuntarily wishing that he were dead? She is shocked at her own reaction.
Elizabeth is much more worried about waking the children than she is about her dead husband. “Be still, mother, don’t waken th’ children: I wouldn’t have them down for anything!”. She obviously finds her husband isn’t very important any more and she may as well get on with life. This is also apparent as she immediately begins to think of her pension and how she will support the children.
Elizabeth has an ongoing conflict with her mother-in-law who blames Elizabeth for the way Walter has turned out. Mrs Bates says “He was a jolly enough lad wi’ me…I don’t know how it is…” but she doesn’t finish, maybe implying that Elizabeth is the cause of his bad behaviour. Elizabeth tries to get on with her mother-in-law but she still finds her irritating. She demonstrates this by ignoring her mother-in-law’s comments but repeatedly reminding her to be quiet.
In the resolution Elizabeth prepares the room for Walter to be laid in dead and there is a “cold, deathly smell of chrysanthemums”. This confirms the chrysanthemums as a symbol of Elizabeth’s negative experiences.
Although she might not have loved her dead husband she still feels responsible for him and guilty that he has ended up the way he has, that is why she still bathes him when he is dead and doesn’t let his mother do it.
“She saw him, how utterly inviolable he lay in himself. She had nothing to do with him”. At this point Elizabeth realises that her husband means nothing to her but she can’t accept it and tries to feel some emotion towards him again. She “embraced the body of her husband with cheeks and lips. She seemed to be listening, inquiring, trying to get some connection. But she could not. She was driven away. He was impregnable.” Here Lawrence uses a succession of short sentences meaning the same thing to reinforce the idea of the finality of his death and of the void between them.
Lawrence uses an anticlimax to get the reader’s attention and to momentarily bring back the good things about him and then take it away again. “He was blond, full-fleshed, with fine limbs. But he was dead.” Elizabeth may feel regret.
I think that D H Lawrence depicts the turning points in Elizabeth Bates’ life very well. In my opinion, the symbolic use of chrysanthemums is very effective. He uses a lot of descriptive words to bring to life important people and objects. He makes clever use of suspense, irony and adjectives. The way he portrays Elizabeth as a philosophical, deep-thinking person who puts herself in a difficult marriage is very well done. I particularly like his style of writing when he depicts the hidden turmoil of Elizabeth’s emotions in parallel with the mother-in-law’s expressive mourning. To sum it up, I think that Lawrence has successfully brought Elizabeth’s experiences to life.