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 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.
More main ideas from Odour of Chrysanthemums
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