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Odour of Chrysanthemums | Study Guide

D. H. Lawrence

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Odour of Chrysanthemums | Context


The Industrial Revolution

First coined by British economic historian Arnold Toynbee (1852–83), the term Industrial Revolution refers to a broad cultural and technological transformation that spread from England, where it first began, to Western Europe and the United States, starting in the late 1700s and continuing well into the 20th century. During this era, machines gradually replaced human and animal labor as the primary means of both production and transportation, and people transitioned from an agrarian to an urban way of life. The opening of "Odour of Chrysanthemums," which shows a train approaching a coal mine, indicates the Industrial Revolution plays an important role in the story. Steel and iron were the most important building materials in this period, used in the construction of buildings and railways that were powered by coal. Factories using machines and assembly-line production made it possible to mass-produce goods. The invention of the steam locomotive linked distant regions, allowed merchants to ship goods and commodities long distances, and facilitated the rise of the modern city.

According to Karl Marx (1818–83), the socialist philosopher, this transformation of the labor force was dehumanizing because it separated people from their modes of production, reducing them to little more than cogs in a machine. Working in mines and factories was certainly hard on the traditional family structure. There were few laws governing child labor or safety regulations, and long work hours, low wages, and poor health and living conditions were the norm among the working class during this period.

Coal Mining

Plentiful throughout much of Britain, the coal Walter Bates and his neighbors mine was an indispensable resource that fueled the Industrial Revolution. Although people had used charcoal to heat their homes in England for centuries, the rise of industrialization led to a need for more coal than could be extracted out of the shallow drift mines and bell pits, from which people harvested this fuel for local use. British industrial mines stretched hundreds of feet below the ground's surface.

Coal miners—or colliers, as they were also called—were paid not by the hour but by how much coal they harvested, a practice that sometimes led men to employ their entire families in order to increase their earnings. In early mines colliers were lowered singly or by pairs into the pit by means of a hand-operated windlass. But by the time "Odour of Chrysanthemums" is set, steam engine–powered hoists were used to carry workers to the surface and ventilate the mines while workers extracted the coal. Working conditions in the mines were harsh and dangerous. Methane gas could ignite from the spark cast by a pickax and cause an explosion; colliers also died from inhaling the poisonous gas. Moreover, the underground shafts, propped either by wooden stakes or pilings of coal, were prone to collapse, killing miners either by crushing them or by trapping them in an airless underground space.

The Temperance Movement

Alcoholism was a serious public health problem in the 19th century, with both the consumption of alcohol and alcohol mortality rates spiking around 1870, at the height of Queen Victoria's reign. However, the Victorians saw it primarily as a moral and a class problem. Because the working class drank publicly, their drunken behavior became synonymous with disrepute. Protagonist Elizabeth Bates's reluctance to search for her husband in the pub is strong evidence of a class divide between Elizabeth and Walter.

Although it never led to a Prohibition-style ban of alcohol in England, the way it did in the United States, the temperance movement was an important cultural feature of British 19th-century society. Leaders called for people either to moderate their drinking or to stop it completely—become "teetotalers." It was largely a movement imposed on the working class by middle-class reformers who believed workers would be able to control their urge to drink if they were given alternatives to the pub and took public pledges to reform their bad habits.

Women's Suffrage Movement

Around the time when D.H. Lawrence wrote "Odour of Chrysanthemums," suffragettes—the common term for women who actively sought the right to vote—from the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) had begun to take an increasingly militant turn, smashing windows, chaining themselves to railings, and holding hunger strikes. Their insistence women get the right to vote was the culmination of years of stalled legislative action and poor conditions for women, who had few legal rights outside of marriage and were largely dependent on their husbands for economic survival.

Working-class women like Elizabeth Bates were especially unfortunate: due to the low wages of industrial labor, they had to supplement their husband's wages by taking in sewing or washing to make ends meet. Moreover, although 30–40 percent of working-class women in the mid-Victorian era (1850s–70s) held jobs outside the home and made significant contributions to the family income, that figure had declined considerably by the Edwardian period (1901–10), as advances in machinery led to a more specialized workforce—one that edged women out. Women's rights advocates like Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the WSPU, argued if women had the right to vote, they would be able to better their condition and rise above the "servant class."

The Transition to Naturalism

D.H. Lawrence wrote when literature in the United States and Western Europe was transitioning from realism to naturalism. His early fiction, like "Odour of Chrysanthemums," contains strong elements of the naturalism, while at the same time being influenced by the earlier movement. Realists sought to present middle-class life objectively using omniscient narration and focusing on the psychology of well-rounded characters who face challenges in both family life and the professional sphere. The focus of realism is individual free will; circumstances influence characters' outcomes less than the choices they make and their developing moral character. The purpose of the realist work is to reestablish social order by resolving the challenges that threaten characters.

Literary naturalism, on the other hand, is influenced heavily by social Darwinism, a view of the world that justifies social and economic inequities by claiming the prosperous are somehow innately more "fit" for survival than less fortunate individuals. In naturalistic fiction, characters are acted upon by environmental forces, which they are unable to control. Naturalism uses working-class characters to show how powerless individuals are ground down by the dual forces of industrialism and poverty. Naturalists often depict escapes to working-class drudgery—like alcoholism—in an unfavorable but fatalistic light. As a literary movement, naturalism is not so much interested in the individual as in showing how society affects the individual.

In "Odour of Chrysanthemums," Elizabeth is unable to impose order on the world outside her, no matter how strong her sense of middle-class propriety is, and death is the great equalizer. That is a naturalistic element of the story. On the other hand, Elizabeth sees it as her moral duty to go on with her life as a mother and the keeper of the home. Readers might view her perseverance at the end as the resolution of a middle-class crisis, and in this sense, the story contains elements of realism as well.

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