D.H. Lawrence was born in 1885 and grew up in the coal-mining town of Eastwood, Nottinghamshire. He was an author of short stories, novels, poems and essays, and many consider him one of Britain’s greatest writers.
‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ was first published in 1911 as part of his The Prussian Officer and Other Stories collection.
The story follows Elizabeth Bates, a mother of two and pregnant again. She waits for her alcoholic miner husband to return home after work. Although she angrily assumes he is drinking somewhere, she becomes increasingly fearful about his absence. A neighbour looks for him, and it is reported that her husband has died in a mining accident that suffocated him.
Her husband’s dead body is brought home. She washes the body with her mother-in-law, who grieves openly and talks about how good he was as a child. Elizabeth, however, doesn’t feel the same sense of loss. She reflects on how they never really knew each other. Also, she thinks they lived completely separate lives despite the pretence of unity in marriage.
Elizabeth is a long-suffering miner’s wife who feels bitter towards her husband. When she learns that Walter has been in an accident, her only fear about his death is whether she can “manage on the little pension and what she could earn.”
She is surprised, and even embarrassed, by her lack of grief for his death. She realises that, due to their resentment and emotional detachment, she had never viewed Walter as a fully rounded person. As a result, Elizabeth decides to embrace life as her “immediate master” and change her outlook.
Elizabeth’s husband is depicted as drunken and mean-spirited. He spends most of his earnings in the pub and gives little money to his own family. In death, he is described as “a man of handsome body, and his face showed no traces of drink.” Only through death does he lose Elizabeth’s unpleasant image of him, and she can see his humanity for the first time.
Walter’s mother reacts to her son’s accident in a highly distressed way. She repeats that he was a “good lad” when he was young and that she can’t understand why he became “a handful of trouble” as an adult.
She describes him as a “lamb”, seeing an innocence in him that doesn’t fit with the tales of his drunken selfishness. This suggests that, like Elizabeth, Walter’s mother didn’t know the adult Walter well. It is much easier for her to remember him as a child when she did have a stronger connection with him.
Children and their parents are shown to have a more profound love than exists between husband and wife. We see Elizabeth’s caring relationship with her father, as she gives him tea and he worries about her life with Walter. Although she snaps at them with irritation, we also see a tenderness from Elizabeth towards her children. For example, she laughs affectionately when John complains about the darkness. She also acts protectively in hiding the news of Walter’s death from Annie. Finally, we see Walter’s mother, who is overcome with genuine grief about her son’s death. She can see past his flaws because of her unconditional love for him.
In contrast, Elizabeth’s marriage to Walter is depicted more physically. She reflects that there was “nothing between them” except for “exchanging their nakedness repeatedly.” Little love has ever existed between them. Instead, there has been resentment and bitterness, which causes a sense of detachment. Elizabeth only fully grasps the lack of love in their marriage after her husband’s death.
Men in this society are the workers, mainly employed as miners. They also spend a lot of their evenings drinking in pubs.
Women’s responsibilities lie in the domestic sphere, looking after children and their houses. Elizabeth notes disapproval of the general untidiness of the Rigley’s house. She is quietly judgemental about Mrs Rigley as a result.
The story’s opening establishes how women live on the edges of this industrial community. We see an unnamed woman with a basket moving to avoid a train. She finds herself “insignificantly trapped” between the train and the hedge she is pressed against. This alerts the reader about the uneasy existence of women as they go about their domestic duties in the town.
Elizabeth is shown to deviate from the expected gender roles in her lack of emotional reaction to Walter’s death. Instead, she more philosophically questions the nature of life and death, and gains a new perspective on the world.
Chrysanthemums are used to symbolise the close nature of life and death. Elizabeth notes how they remind her of more unhappy times. This includes when Walter was first brought home drunk and had “brown chrysanthemums in his button-hole.” A vase of chrysanthemums is also knocked over when they carry Walter’s dead body into the house.
On the other hand, Elizabeth also associates the flowers with her marriage and the birth of her daughter. Therefore, chrysanthemums represent the duality of life and death. Lawrence could be suggesting that we can perceive the world through a happy, loving perspective or a more bitter one.