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.