Odour of Chrysanthemums
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Isolation of the Human Soul
As Elizabeth tends to Walter’s body, Lawrence writes that she feels “the utter isolation of the human soul,” and this sense of isolation permeates the entire story. Early on, Elizabeth is isolated in her home as she waits helplessly for Walter, and she is further isolated when she seeks help in finding him and thus becomes the subject of gossip among the other wives. Pregnant and left alone with her other two children, Elizabeth loses herself in anger and resentment. When Walter’s mother arrives and the two women learn of Walter’s death, both women are isolated in their own way. Walter’s mother is lost in grief for a man she knew best as a child, whereas Elizabeth must face the fact that her husband was little more than a stranger to her.
With Walter’s corpse unclothed and stretched out on the parlor floor, Elizabeth finally understands, when it is too late, the grave injustice they have done each other in respectively giving up on their marriage. For years, Elizabeth has perceived herself as a victim of her husband’s habits, failing to see her own possible role in their strained relationship. She has willingly given up on their partnership, separating herself from Walter while also lamenting her solitude and isolation. Although we know nothing of Walter beyond what Elizabeth and her mother-in-law reveal, we can assume that Walter felt isolated in his marriage as well, unknown and unseen by Elizabeth. In death, he has achieved the ultimate isolation, and widowed, Elizabeth is now even further isolated than she was before.
The Nature of Love
The nature of love between mother and child and between husband and wife stand in sharp contrast to each other in “Odour of Chrysanthemums.” Although she is often short with them, Elizabeth clearly loves her children, John and Annie. She protects them from Walter’s indiscretions whenever she can and shields them from seeing his dead body. When she struggles to figure out how to carry on when she fears that Walter is dead, she understands that, first and foremost, she must worry about her children. Similarly, Walter’s mother indulges Walter’s weaknesses because he is her son, and her deep love for him overshadows his adult flaws. More complicated is Elizabeth’s relationship with her unborn child. It was conceived not out of love but out of a cold coupling between isolated individuals, and the child is described as “a weight apart from her” and “ice.” At this point, Elizabeth seems to connect the unborn child to her relationship with Walter rather than to her life as a mother. The baby seems less a part of her than a part of her distant relationship with Walter.
The nature of love between Elizabeth and Walter is much darker than the love between Elizabeth and her two existing children. Little is left of their love, having been replaced by resentment, disgust, and anger, and not even physical intimacy can overcome the fact that they are “two isolated beings, far apart.” Neither spouse was willing to try to forgive or understand the other, and this inflexibility resulted in permanent estrangement. Until she ministers to Walter at the end of the story, Elizabeth seems unable to see Walter beyond her own disappointments. As she waits and waits for him, she berates herself for being a “fool” and says, “And this is what I came here for, to this dirty hole, rats and all, for him to slink past his very door”—neglecting entirely any love that may have once existed between them and that drew her into the marriage.
Suffocation brings about Walter’s death, when he is trapped in the coal pits after a cave-in, but the idea of suffocation also appears throughout the story in Elizabeth’s domestic unhappiness. In a way, the coal pits have smothered Elizabeth, because she came to this remote community only because she married Walter. Rather than advancing her interests or opening up new possibilities, the role of wife has been a diminishment, a slow, agonizing humiliation and gradual suffocation. Elizabeth is trapped in the confined and parochial world of the cottage and community and sees no way out. Before she knows that Walter is dead, she speculates on what may happen if he is simply injured, and she feels a fleeting moment of hope as she envisions this as her chance to rid Walter of his drinking habits. But this moment quickly gives way to the news that Walter is dead, and Elizabeth, shocked, is almost suffocated by the erratic rushing of her heart once it “surged on again.” Elizabeth must now carry on in an even weightier, more burdensome situation than before.
“Odour of Chrysanthemums” takes place almost entirely under the cover of darkness, and natural light appears only at the beginning, when Elizabeth’s father rolls through town. Once he leaves, Elizabeth retreats to her home, lit only by candles and a waning fire. She scolds Annie for coming home after dark, although Annie claims it’s “hardly a bit dark.” John complains of the lack of light in the cottage as the children eat their dinner, and Elizabeth can barely see their faces. Darkness obscures various dangers: when Elizabeth ventures out into the darkness to find Walter, rats scuffle around her; she senses eavesdropping housewives who are prone to gossip; and as Mr. Rigley escorts Elizabeth home, he warns her of the ruts in the earth that she cannot see in the blackness of the night.
Darkness has a life-giving element as well as a dangerous or threatening one. When Elizabeth prepares to receive Walter’s dead body in the parlor, the one paltry candle she brings does little to dispel the gloom. She can barely see Walter in a literal sense, but now, for the first time, she gets a glimpse of who he is as a person. In life, she knew almost nothing about Walter, and even their closest physical encounters took place in the dark. Now, with darkness surrounding her and with Walter in the permanent darkness of death, startling truths come to light for Elizabeth. In this sense, darkness serves as a kind of renewal. Morning will come for Elizabeth, but her life will be very different.
Throughout the story, chrysanthemums primarily suggest unpleasantness and death, and Elizabeth cannot look at or smell them without being plagued by unhappy associations. We first see chrysanthemums as Elizabeth’s son, John, strews them over the path toward the house, and Elizabeth chastises him because the petals look “nasty.” At home, waiting for Walter to return, Elizabeth remembers bitterly the first time Walter came home drunk, sporting brown chrysanthemums in his buttonhole. When Elizabeth is told that Walter is dead, she notices two vases of chrysanthemums and their “cold, deathly smell” in the parlor, where she plans to lay out Walter’s body. When the men eventually carry him in, one knocks over a vase of chrysanthemums, and Elizabeth tidies up the mess before she turns to face the body.
Chrysanthemums, although primarily a symbol of death, occasionally have life-affirming associations as well. Annie, Elizabeth’s daughter, is enamored with the chrysanthemums that Elizabeth has placed in her apron and thinks they smell beautiful. When Elizabeth tells her daughter about the time Walter came home drunk, she prefaces the memory with other celebratory moments when chrysanthemums have punctuated her life: her marriage and the birth of Annie. The fact that Elizabeth keeps vases of chrysanthemums in her home suggests that Elizabeth continues to have mixed feelings about the flowers, both resenting and embracing the memories they evoke.