Odour of Chrysanthemums

by: D. H. Lawrence

Motifs

Suffocation

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.

Darkness

“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.