Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Impressionistic and symbolic, dense with figurative language, D.H. Lawrence’s “The Odour of Chrysanthemums” relies heavily on imagery (such as the chrysanthemums, and the frequent altercation of darkness and light) for effect. It concerns one night in the life of Elizabeth Bates, mother of two children, pregnant with her third. Her life is hard because she has been disappointed in her marriage; her husband, Walter, although a handsome and strapping man, drinks away most of the wages he receives from his job in the coal mines, and she is too caught up in her own bitterness against him to be able to receive much joy from life.
On this fateful night, Elizabeth has absent-mindedly tucked a chrysanthemum into the waistband of her apron, and there are more, fresh-cut, decorating the parlor, but they do not symbolize happiness for her. As she notes, “It was chrysanthemums when I married him, and chrysanthemums when [my daughter was] born, and chrysanthemums the first time they ever brought him home drunk, he’d got brown chrysanthemums in his buttonhole.”
And it’s chrysanthemums again that evening when he is brought in from the mine, dead, and laid out in the parlor. One of the men bringing in her husband’s body accidentally knocks over the vase of chrysanthemums she had put there earlier in the evening—the ones that reminded her so bitterly of the lost dreams of her life. The chrysanthemums which opened her married life have now closed it.
The chrysanthemums, which bloom a little while in the fall and then die, are symbolic in this story of the fragility of our inner lives. Elizabeth Bates suddenly discovers that inside herself she is a person, with unique thoughts and passions and fears; her husband was just as much of an individual as she, but one whom she never really sought to know beneath the surface. Their marriage had been dead long before her husband lost his life that night in the mine. In the end, even the vase of flowers is clumsily knocked onto the floor, leaving nothing tangible behind, just an odor. The chrysanthemums symbolize a spot of beauty unrecognized by the myopic Elizabeth, just as she never appreciated what she could have had with Walter until it was too late.
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