Consider yourself warned: D. H. Lawrence's short story goes straight from zero to super depressing at lightning speed. Originally published in 1911 and then revised and republished in 1914, "The Odour of Chrysanthemums" follows the story of the Bates family on what initially appears to be a typical and relatively boring evening in their lives…but quickly turns into so much more.
Although Elizabeth Bates initially thinks her husband is just late for dinner because he's out partying at the pub, she eventually discovers (spoiler alert) that he had an accident at the mine and has died. This is obviously pretty devastating news, especially given the fact that she has two small kids and another on the way. It's also a confusing and conflicted moment for her, as she suddenly feels like she barely knew her husband. In being forced to confront death, with all of its finality and feelings of separation, Elizabeth seems to feel completely alienated from the life she had been living; all her feelings seem to go all topsy turvy, and she ends the story pretty uncertain about her future and what it holds.
So, yeah, there's plenty of gloom and doom here. However, to look at the (kind of?) bright side, the story demonstrates how traumas can pull the veils off of our everyday life and really make us look at the "odour" of what's underneath. That sounds like a good (or at least healthy) thing, right? Hey, we're just trying to look on the bright side here.
Not to be a downer or anything, but chances are that someday you will be in a situation kind of like Elizabeth's. Life doesn't always advertise when big, earth-shattering things are about to happen—in fact, more often than not, they'll sneak up on you when you think you're right in the middle of a normal day. You're having a cup of coffee, getting a haircut, doing your chem homework, going to get your oil changed... and then you get a call that changes everything.
Hey, hopefully the phone call that interrupts your scalp massage/rinse is earth shattering in a good way—you know, something along the line of a job offer, wedding, or baby—but sometimes it won't be.
That's the story at the heart of "The Odour of Chrysanthemums." Before getting news that is sure to change her life forever, Elizabeth believes she's in the middle of a typical day. Actually, the fact that it's typical is making her crazy, because "typical" means that her husband is out boozing at the pub instead of coming home for dinner. However, the longer her husband stays out, the more she hopes his absence is just part of the same old routine. Unfortunately, it's not.
It's certainly not cheery, but "The Odour of Chrysanthemums" taps into how the everyday can turn into the exceptional in an instant. It's almost like the story is reminding us to pay attention even to the small moments, because they could soon be big ones... or, you know, gone entirely.
A Story So Nice You Can Read it Thrice?
Scholars at the University of Nottingham have made three different versions of the story available on the university's website.
Want the Highlights?
Okay, if you don't feel like reading all three versions, you can skip to the University of Nottingham's discussion of specific differences between the three texts.
"Odour of Chrysanthemums" as Action Film
Okay, not really, but there is a short film version.
Criticism of Lawrence's "Odour"
Check out the University of Nottingham site for some commentary on the story and other materials.
From Short Story to Short Film
Check out Mark Partridge's 2002 short film version of the story.
The University of Nottingham put up some images of miners and mining life to give us some context for Lawrence's story.
Does the "H" in D. H. Lawrence Stand for Hipster?
Lawrence rocked a beard long before they were doing it in Brooklyn.