This isn't the cheeriest of tales, and the tone of the writing definitely reflects the darkness of the subject matter. From the moment Elizabeth steps outside and starts looking around for family members who should be arriving home, her unhappiness is palpable:
For a few moments she stood steadily watching the miners as they passed along the railway: then she turned towards the brook course. Her face was calm and set, her mouth was closed with disillusionment. (1.4)
Before Elizabeth has even spoken—in fact, before we even know her name—we get a sense that she is far from a happy camper.
Even when Elizabeth is doing something as simple and (seemingly) benign as sewing, the narration plays up the unhappiness of her situation by suggesting that her tearing of flannel pieces created a "dull wounded sound" (1.80). Through descriptions like this, Lawrence creates the sense that unhappiness has seeped into everything around Elizabeth.
The story starts out focusing on the tensions between Elizabeth and Walt (which ostensibly stem from his fondness for drinking and generally unseemly behavior), and you think those two are headed for a huge blowout when he finally gets home, Jerry Springer-style. Elizabeth even loses her cool in front of the kids and rails against his nasty behavior:
It is a scandalous thing as a man can't even come home to his dinner! If it's crozzled up to a cinder I don't see why I should care. Past his very door he goes to get to a public-house, and here I sit with his dinner waiting for him—. (1.59)
Of course, the story soon takes a total left turn, becoming less about when Walter will come home drunk and more about whether he'll come home at all. As you already know, of course, he turns up dead, and the story follows the family's reaction to his death.
For a short story, it packs in a lot of family drama, so we think it's a textbook example of this genre.
If you've cruised by the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section, you know that chrysanthemums are 1) a symbol of death and 2) a flower with some mixed associations for Elizabeth.
When Annie is in raptures over how great the flowers smell, for example, Elizabeth claims to disagree:
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. (1.76)
Hmm, it's not very nice to tell your daughter that you hate a smell that reminds you of her existence, is it?
It's also weird that she would say she doesn't like those flowers, given that she keeps them around the house and grabbed a bunch to stick in her apron earlier in the story. You can see "Symbolism" for more on that, but the bottom line is that Elizabeth seems ambivalent about chrysanthemums: sometimes she likes them, and other times they seem to bring up squirmy feelings and memories for her.
Late in the story, however, the smell becomes clearly associated with sadness and death. The narrator highlights the chrysanthemum's significance as a symbol of death in a description of the parlor where Walter's body was to be laid out:
There was a cold, deathly smell of chrysanthemums in the room. (2.77)
So, yeah, they're definitely not a happy symbol by that point.
Since Lawrence was careful to reference the "odour" of chrysanthemums specifically (and not just the flower itself), it might be worth nothing that smell is the sense most powerfully associated with memory.
Perhaps the title and all these references to the flower's smell have something to do with working through the past in order to move forward. Clearly, Elizabeth spent a good part of the story stewing and making assumptions about her husband's lateness based on his past behavior, but she turned out to be entirely wrong—and now she has to adjust to an entirely new reality very quickly in order to take care of herself and her kids. Whether it represents death, a painful past, or both, it's clear that confronting the "odour of chrysanthemums" requires no small share of bravery for our poor Elizabeth . . .
The story doesn't end on the happiest of notes (shocking, we know—it's not like the story as a whole was a laugh-fest to begin with). After the women finish preparing the body, Elizabeth seems to continue to grapple with the fear that washed over her from the moment she learned of Walter's death:
Then, with peace sunk heavy on her heart, she went about making tidy the kitchen. She knew she submitted to life, which was her immediate master. But from death, her ultimate master, she winced with fear and shame. (2.134)
In other words, she seems committed to going about her daily business, but the confrontation with mortality has inspired fear—reasonably enough—and, for some reason, shame.
It's unclear exactly why she would feel shame, but it might have something to do with how topsy turvy her feelings about her relationships have been since she learned of her husband's death. She seems to believe that everyone and everything is more separate than she originally thought, feeling completely alienated from her late husband and even the baby inside of her. Maybe she feels ashamed at buying into this sham of closeness or intimacy, now that it's been revealed as a lie . . . or maybe it something else entirely? Thoughts? Bueller?
Based on the reference to a train coming from Selston, which is in Nottinghamshire, we have to gather that the action takes place within or somewhat near to that county. Given that there is a nearby mine and we see a bunch of miners running around on their way home from work when the story opens, we can also deduce that it's a mining town (we know, we're quite the detectives).
It doesn't seem like the most picturesque of places. When Elizabeth goes out to look for her hubby, for example, we find that her neighborhood appears to be rat-infested and dominated by the infrastructure of the mine:
Something scuffled in the yard, and she started, though she knew it was only the rats with which the place was overrun. The night was very dark. In the great bay of railway lines, bulked with trucks, there was no trace of light, only away back she could see a few yellow lamps at the pit-top, and the red smear of the burning pit-bank on the night. (2.2)
Between the vermin, the railway tracks running everywhere, and the sweet view of the "pit-top," it doesn't seem like the surroundings are all that pleasant—no wonder Elizabeth seems so down in the dumps. Of course, there's the whole missing husband thing, too . . .
The language in "The Odour of Chrysanthemums" is not very twisty or tangly, so we'd consider it pretty accessible on that front. However, the tale has the somewhat disorienting habit of introducing characters without immediately (or, you know, ever) giving us their names. Also, it's heavy on symbolism and making you read between the lines of what's happening and being said to get at everything that's happening underneath the skin of this ordinary (but not so ordinary) evening. For that reason, we'd say the climb isn't overly arduous . . . but it's not a total breeze, either. The payoff is that you get to tap into a rich and complex set of emotions and relationship dynamics that kind of explode as a result of Walter's death . . . It's heavy stuff, but the glimpse into Elizabeth's thoughts as she works through her grief is something that you won't want to miss.
In what might strike readers as a kind of paradox or contradiction, the narration plays up the emotions of its characters (see "Tone") while also, at the same time, seeming kind of impersonal and "above it all." Basically, the story blows kind of hot and cold, just like Katy Perry.
Lawrence's writing style is crucial to achieving these moments of chilliness, maintaining a noticeable distance from the story's characters. One big example of this tendency? Lawrence often refuses to name characters, referring to them instead as "the woman" or "the mother." Of course, those choices also emphasize the "family drama" aspect of the story (see "Genre"), but they also distance us from who these characters are as individuals. It's unsettling—particularly when it means we don't get the name of the protagonist until several paragraphs after we first meet her.
Surprise, surprise—come on, they're in the title and all over the story, so you knew chrysanthemums were going to turn up here in the "Symbolism" section. We first see them when Elizabeth heads outside to look for her son, and the narrator notes:
Beside the path hung dishevelled pink chrysanthemums, like pink cloths hung on bushes. (1.3)
Hmm, disheveled? Not exactly the most flattering description . . .
Just a little bit later, John is picking at the chrysanthemums as they walk outside, and Elizabeth stops him because the raggedy bits of flower he's creating "look nasty" in her opinion (1.15). However, a moment later the narrator notes that:
She, suddenly pitiful, broke off a twig with three or four wan flowers and held them against her face. When mother and son reached the yard her hand hesitated, and instead of laying the flower aside, she pushed it in her apron-band. (1.15)
Hmm, interesting—maybe she's a bit fonder of the flowers than she lets on at first.
Later on, we get a little more insight about why Elizabeth blows hot and cold about the 'mums. Annie gets excited when she sees chrysanthemums tucked in her mother's apron and gushes about how great they smell, but Elizabeth isn't having it:
"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." (1.76)
Ah, we get it—if we associated the smell of something with a drunk spouse, we might not like it so much, either.
But wait, let's back up—in explaining why chrysanthemums give her bad vibes, Elizabeth lumps together getting married/having kids with her husband coming home fall-down (or can't-get-up) drunk. If she was trying to quash her daughter's enthusiasm for mums, that probably did the trick.
But let's back up even further and try to understand what's happening here. Sure, you might find it odd that Elizabeth associates the chrysanthemums with supposedly happy things like marriage and children, but think about it: she doesn't appear to be happy in her marriage now, and she probably associates chrysanthemums with all the hope and promise of her younger life that hasn't really panned out. Which also might explain why, even if she supposedly doesn't like the flower anymore, she's still compelled to grab a bunch here and there—she still remembers the nice memories, too.
In fact, as we learn when Elizabeth is arranging the parlor to accommodate Walter's corpse, she keeps a vase of chrysanthemums in the house. If she really hated the flower, why would she do that? Sounds like she's got way mixed feelings about that particular flower—and everything it represents to her, too.
Of course, we should also mention that chrysanthemums are often viewed as a symbol of death, so . . . yeah, that could definitely explain why they pop up super frequently in a story that, you know, revolves around a death.
Given that the story is set in a coal-mining town and the protagonist's husband is a miner, it might not surprise you to find numerous references to fire and heat. More often than not, heat seems to get associated with life. For example, in describing the environment in the house as the family waited for Walt to come home, the narrator notes that:
The kitchen was small and full of firelight; red coals piled glowing up the chimney mouth. All the life of the room seemed in the white, warm hearth and the steel fender reflecting the red fire. (1.36)
The association of life and heat comes back again in full force later, when Elizabeth is reflecting on her life with Walter once the "heat of living" has gone out of it (2.128). She mentions that the parlor in which she lays out her husband is quite chilly. As her husband's interim resting place and a veritable icebox, then, it provides a stark point of contrast with the warmth and life of the house as presented early in the novel.
It's worth mentioning that Walter's body remains covered in coal dust when he finally arrives home, one reminder of "hotter" things and times. However, given that coal dust is basically just ash, it seems like even this reference is more about coldness and death than the heat of life that has passed out of the Bates house at the end of this tale.
The footsteps have their, er, footprints all over the story. Elizabeth is always listening for them, since they usually announce the arrival of a family member. For example, early in the story, they signal the arrival of their daughter, Annie:
Indoors the fire was sinking and the room was dark red. The woman put her saucepan on the hob, and set a batter pudding near the mouth of the oven. Then she stood unmoving. Directly, gratefully, came quick young steps to the door. Someone hung on the latch a moment, then a little girl entered and began pulling off her outdoor things, dragging a mass of curls, just ripening from gold to brown, over her eyes with her hat. (1.38)
The girl's "grateful" homecoming is a surprisingly cozy, warm moment in what is otherwise becoming a suspenseful and tense situation.
As Elizabeth becomes increasingly anxious about Walter's whereabouts, she seems to look to the footsteps as a potential sign that he's coming home. However, their appearance becomes increasingly ominous as we get further in, symbolic more of Walter's absence than his presence. At first, while Elizabeth is sitting there waiting, she seems torn between fear that he's not coming home, and fear that he is:
Sometimes even her anger quailed and shrank, and the mother suspended her sewing, tracing the footsteps that thudded along the sleepers outside; she would lift her head sharply to bid the children
"hush," but she recovered herself in time, and the footsteps went past the gate, and the children were not flung out of their playing world. (1.80)
As you can see, she's definitely jumpy, and it's unclear whether she's more nervous about his absence or the fact that he might come in completely hammered.
Later on, she's still on footstep alert, and still getting her hopes dashed:
At a quarter to ten there were footsteps. One person! She watched for the door to open. It was an elderly woman, in a black bonnet and a black woollen shawl—his mother. (2.41)
Since Elizabeth was expecting Walter to be accompanied/carried home by other men that night, she seems to be surprised to hear only one set of footsteps. Of course, this set of footsteps is kind of the beginning of the end, as it signals the arrival of her mother-in-law, who bears news of Walter's accident.
The last set of footsteps we get occur when a man (presumably the pit manager, although this is never specified) comes to tell Elizabeth that Walter is dead and other men are bringing his body home:
It was half-past ten, and the old woman was saying: "But it's trouble from beginning to end; you're never too old for trouble, never too old for that—" when the gate banged back, and there were heavy feet on the steps. (2.58)
In the end, the footsteps that had started out as such benevolent, happy sounds (e.g., when Annie came home) ultimately become the symbol of Walter's absence and a harbinger of death.
The narration pretty much hitches its wagons to Elizabeth and her point-of-view. We see what she sees and we are privy to what she's feeling throughout the story, though this is all given to us from an invisible and all-knowing narrator, not from the first-person perspective. For example, when she hears that Walt has died in an incident at the mine, we see her mind go into a tailspin of reactions and emotions:
Life with its smoky burning gone from him, had left him apart and utterly alien to her. And she knew what a stranger he was to her. In her womb was ice of fear, because of this separate stranger with whom she had been living as one flesh. Was this what it all meant—utter, intact separateness, obscured by heat of living? In dread she turned her face away. The fact was too deadly. (2.128)
In this moment, we see the utter devastation and fear that Walter's death has provoked in her and how alone she now feels. By contrast, everything we know about the other characters and their emotions pretty much comes from the "outside"—that is, dialogue or their behavior, rather than from plunging into their emotional state.
Elizabeth Bates, our heroine, has a simple enough goal: She just wants her family to come home for dinner in a timely way. Is that too much to ask? Apparently so . . . Even though the workday at the nearby mine has just ended, her collier husband, Walter, is nowhere to be found . . .
Despite being peeved about her husband's absence, Elizabeth carries on with dinner. She attempts to convince herself (and the kids) that everything is okay, comforting them with the assurance that he's just out getting so blotto that he'll have to be carried home. Um, great?
Elizabeth's brave face fails after the kids go to bed, however, and she goes to ask the neighbors if they have seen Walter. They haven't. One of the neighbors, Mr. Rigley, offers to go look elsewhere for him. Elizabeth returns home to wait.
Elizabeth's mother-in-law shows up saying that Walter had been injured. Rigley had shown up at her house to deliver that news and asked that she go sit with Elizabeth. As far as the MIL knows, Walter is still alive. Needless to say, she and Elizabeth are wigging out.
Unfortunately, it turns out that Walter is dead—apparently, the ceiling came down on him in the mine, sealing him in there so long that he asphyxiated. The doctor, the pit manager, and another miner bring the body back to the Bateses' house. Annie, the daughter, wakes up for part of the commotion, and Elizabeth has to get her back to sleep. Then Elizabeth and her mother-in-law bathe the body while Elizabeth (who, by the way is pregnant) contemplates the future—and the end of her relationship with Walter.
We meet Elizabeth, Annie, and John Bates (oh, and Elizabeth's father, though we don't get his name). It's the end of a regular old workday, and Elizabeth is waiting for her husband, Walter, to turn up. Her father (who drives an engine for the mine) drops by, and she chats with him for a bit outside and serves him tea. They talk about his apparent plans to remarry, which Elizabeth doesn't seem too keen on... Then, she continues prepping dinner and waits some more.
They end up having dinner without Walter. Elizabeth is super annoyed, thinking that her husband is out boozing it up (this kind of behavior is pretty regular for him). The kids play a bit before bed. After Elizabeth puts them down, she goes out looking for him... even though she's pretty sure he's just at the pub. She can't find him, but a neighbor, Mr. Rigley, agrees to go look for him elsewhere while she waits at home.
Elizabeth's mother-in-law shows up saying that Mr. Rigley had sent her; apparently, Walter had had an accident. They sit and talk about Walter. As of that moment, the MIL (that's right—she doesn't get a name, either) believes that Walter is still alive. Then another man comes by and, sadly, announces that Walter is dead; apparently the roof caved in while he was still down in the mine and he asphyxiated. Some men were going to bring his body to the house soon.
Elizabeth prepares the parlor for Walter to lie there in state on the floor. Then three men (the doctor, the pit manager, and another collier) bring Walter's body in and lay him out. In the process, they accidentally knock over a vase of chrysanthemums in the parlor. The pit manager explains what happened and laments that Walter was left down there alone. While this is going on, Annie hears voices and shouts down to her mom to find out what was happening. Elizabeth goes in to get her back to sleep, reassuring her that her father had come home and wasn't drunk... both of which are true, we guess. While she's up there, the men leave.
When Elizabeth comes back down from the kids, she and her mother-in-law strip Walter's body and wash it. They then clothe him again. Along the way, Elizabeth ponders her married life, which is now dunzo, and her future. Given that she's got two small kids and is pregnant with a third, and the sole breadwinner has just passed, it's no wonder she seems pretty overcome with fear.
We follow the Bates family on what initially appears to be a fairly typical evening. Basically, Elizabeth Bates and her two children, Annie and John, are waiting for Walter (the family patriarch) to get home. He is late—which isn't unusual.
Elizabeth and the kids go ahead with dinner in Walter's absence. Elizabeth is annoyed that he's not there; she assumes he's out at the pub boozing, and she says as much to the kids. Annie is pretty anxious about her father's absence. Elizabeth claims not to be, but after she puts the kids to bed, she goes out looking for him—but she has no luck. However, a neighbor offers to go look around some more. Elizabeth goes home to wait.
A little while after Elizabeth returns home, her mother-in-law turns up. It seems that Mr. Rigley, the neighbor who had offered to go looking for Walter, had come by the MIL's house to let her know Walter had had an accident. He had asked her to go sit with Elizabeth. Then, another man arrives and announces that Walter died in an accident at the mine.
Three men (the doctor, the pit manager, and another collier) bring Walter's body to the Bateses' house to lay him out there. Elizabeth and her mother-in-law then strip, wash, and re-clothe the body. All the while, Elizabeth is contemplating her life with Walter and the ramifications this event will have for her future.