Estrangement in Odour of Chrysanthemums

Bethany Herold

Professor Peter Cassidy

LIT 222 C00

9 May 2015

Estrangement in Odour of Chrysanthemums

Written by D.H. Lawrence in 1909, Odour of Chrysanthemums is a short story that was published in the English Review in 1911. Unlike many of his short stories, Lawrence focuses on a relatively small amount of time, honing in on the dramatic events that can pass in one’s life within a window of a few hours. Relationship lies key to the overall theme of the story, and the effects of isolation are not fully recognized until it is too late for the heroine to turn things around. Tracing the evolution of Elizabeth Bates’ emotions over the span of an evening, Odour of Chrysanthemums illustrates the drastic consequences of excessive apathy and estrangement when reality sets in prior to personal awakening. Through Elizabeth’s pain, Lawrence teaches the valuable lesson that often the truth and worth of relationships are not learned until the finite end, death.

Arguably uncommon for the given time, Elizabeth Gates, the wife, is all but center to the story. Hinted to have come from an upper-class family, Elizabeth feels entitled and slightly more empowered than her coal-mining husband, Walter. That being said, there is evidence of love once between them, although it has since lost much of its luster: “No,” she said, “not to me. 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 brown chrysanthemums in his button-hole.” (Damrosch et al. 2505). These memories still hold meaning for Elizabeth, and perhaps help to hold the marriage together. With lack of Walter’s presence, Elizabeth subconsciously takes her frustrations out on their son. She is nit-picky and stern with John, concentrating on all his selfish aspects, and sees much of Walter in him. This is an early sign of the marital problems, as she can only perceive the faults in both father and son. The blame is placed solely on Walter, due to his poor influence as a father figure. She is thoroughly appalled at Walter’s selfishness and neglect of the family’s emotional needs, and regrets giving up so much of her life and propriety for him.

Walter is never given a chance to defend himself, only appearing in the story as a lifeless body laid upon a stretcher. He is consistently referred to as being a careless man, in essence someone to bring home money to pay bills and provide sustenance. There are other views expressed outside of a biased opinion however, and early in the story, men of Walter’s profession are described as “single, trailing, and in groups, like shadows diverging home.” (Damrosch et al. 2502). This can suggest that Walter is not regarded in a radiant light by most of the population. It is quite the opposite, as if the menial purpose of the miners is the job they perform alone; it is all they have to contribute to society. It can also imply that Walter is a shadow of a human, meaning that he is void of emotional qualities that his wife so strongly desires. Ultimately, Walter’s means of employment as a miner, and specifically industrialization and its effects on society as a whole, has driven a large wedge between him and Elizabeth. As she angrily awaits his return, she is caught contemplating the validity of the marriage all together: “What a fool I’ve been, what a fool! And this is what I came here for, to this dirty hole, rats and all, for him to slink past his very door.” (Damrosch et al. 2505). The fact that she does not attempt to hide her disdain from the children shows that the relationship has reached a breaking point.

The harsh contrast of a world with and without her husband is something that haunts Elizabeth towards the end of the story. Upon bringing the body in, one of the men accidentally knocks a vase of chrysanthemums to the floor. This being a symbol of their relationship, Elizabeth appears to be ridden with guilt, averting her eyes from her husbands corpse. She continues a facade of calmness, attempting to hide the truth from her children while she gently washes the remains of a man she one loved. As she gazes upon his body, a body she knew well, she is hit with the harsh realization that she never knew Walter’s soul: “And her soul died in her for fear: she knew she had never seen him, he had never seen her, they had met in the dark and had fought in the dark, not knowing whom they met nor whom they fought.” (Damrosch et al. 2513). This is the crux of the story. Here, next to her husband’s lifeless body, Elizabeth realizes that she cared too late, and is afraid that she can do nothing with the new realizations she is now coming upon. Her husband was a fascinating and unique individual, like herself. She simply never took the time to truly get to know him. Walter’s physical death merely echoed the previous spiritual death of their marriage. The vase of chrysanthemums, perhaps a symbol of their marriage in its lack of recognition and longevity, lies there on the floor, leaving nothing but an odour.

Upon finally accepting the reality that she shared no true relation other than physical with the father of her children, Elizabeth feels that “the utter isolation of the human soul, the child within her was a weight apart from her…in her womb was ice of fear.” (Damrosch et al. 2513). Without a husband, she is distressed as to how she is to raise three children alone. But this death also brings about understanding and peace, and Elizabeth “was grateful to death, which restored the truth.” (Damrosch et al. 2513). Her loss reminds her that she still needs to fight for her family that is still living, and Elizabeth finds beauty in ashes. As if she finds some sort of closure in providing for her family, she ultimately discovers the capability to keep going, for both her living children and the memory of her late husband. Difficulties are imminent in anyone’s life, and Elizabeth finds redemption through hers.

Not only was the marriage lost through estrangement, it also becomes evident that Elizabeth lost herself somewhere along the way. The distance between Elizabeth and Walter started with their class separations, and continued to grow with the variety of their daily roles as husband and wife. By drawing away and reveling in isolation from others, Elizabeth became alienated from the woman she once knew. Instead of openly discussing the issues with Walter, both parties lived in a superficial world where they pretended as if a problem did not exist, opting to harbor bitter feelings instead. The appreciation that they were both victims did not make itself known to Elizabeth until something so final as death. However, Elizabeth is given another chance. With a new baby inside of her and two children in tow, she is able to pursue closure and begin life anew. She composes herself by symbolically locking the door, with intentions of hiding the body from the children and herself, and begins to tidy up her home. The hope of a new life pushes her on, and the fear of a premature death causes her to have a change of heart: “She knew she submitted to life, which was her immediate master. But from death, her ultimate master, she winced with fear and shame.” (Damrosch et al. 2514). Perhaps she can change the path initially set before her, and prevent her children from making the same mistakes. Difficulties come to all, but not all difficulties must be repeated.

Works Cited

Damrosch, David, Kevin J. H. Dettmar, Susan J. Wolfson, and Peter J. Manning. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 5th ed. Vol. 2C. Boston: Longman, 2012. Print.


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