Odour of Chrysanthemums | Study Guide

D. H. Lawrence

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Odour of Chrysanthemums | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

A Train Arrives

A small locomotive engine approaches Brinsley Colliery through an autumn landscape, startling a colt from the underbrush. The train, carrying seven full wagons, clatters past a woman walking beside the tracks, trapping her between its freight and a hedge on the other side. In the distance, the edge of a pit bank looms with "flames like red sores licking its ashy sides." The winding engine, which hoists miners out of the pit, turns with a rapping noise. The engine pulls in beside the coal mine itself.

Miners are going home for the day. They pass a low cottage at the edge of the sidings. The reader later learns this is the home of Elizabeth and Walter Bates. It has a ragged garden sloping down to a brook. Pink chrysanthemums hang on bushes along the path.

A woman emerges from the garden's henhouse, brushing off her apron. She is tall and handsome, with an imperious manner and "smooth black hair ... parted exactly." She watches the miners returning home, then calls to her five-year-old son. She is ready to scold him for playing in the brook until she realizes he has not disobeyed her. He is sulky and resentful, following her slowly and dressed in clothes cut down from a man's garments to fit him.

He tears at the chrysanthemum petals until his mother tells him it "does look nasty." She places some of these flowers in the band of her apron.

The train approaches and stops opposite the house. The engine driver, the woman's father, asks for a cup of tea. While it is steeping, the woman admonishes her father for planning to remarry "soon enough"; the engine driver defends himself by saying it shouldn't matter to anyone what he does.

She fetches the tea, along with some bread and butter on a plate. He declines the food but relishes the tea. He tells her Walter was bragging in town how he was planning to spend his wages on a drinking bender. When the woman complains bitterly, he commiserates, finishing his tea.

As the train pulls away the narrator names the woman for the first time: Elizabeth Bates. She stands and watches the stream of miners heading home, but her husband is not among them.

The Family Waits

Darkness settles outside, but in the Bates' kitchen, the red coals burn on the "white, warm hearth." John Bates settles down to some whittling, and Elizabeth notes he is quiet, like her, and self-absorbed, like his father. She continues to prepare tea, ever watchful for her husband's return.

At a quarter of five, a little girl with a mass of curls "ripening from gold to brown" enters the house. This is Annie Bates. Elizabeth scolds her daughter for coming home late from school. At her mother's inquiry, Annie says she has not seen her father.

They sit down to have tea without him. John remarks the fire is "beautiful to look in"; his mother replies, "It'll want mending directly." Elizabeth continues to complain about her husband's "scandalous" absence. She puts more coal on the fire, which causes the room to grow dark. At John's insistence, she reaches up to light a lamp suspended from the ceiling, revealing a stomach rounded with pregnancy.

Annie notices the flowers at her mother's waistband and comes over to sniff them "rapturously." Her mother tells her not to be silly and laughs when Annie asks if she thinks they "smell beautiful." Elizabeth explains chrysanthemums have marked several important times in her married life, not all of them happy—she wore them when she got married, and they were blooming when Annie was born, but Walter also had some in his buttonhole the first time he came home drunk.

Elizabeth notices it is 20 minutes to six and figures Walter won't come home now until some men bring him because he is too drunk to walk home himself. She tells the "wondering" children she'll leave him in his pit dirt and refuse to wash him, also saying "what a fool" she has been for coming to this rat-infested town just so her husband could slink past the door to go drinking, rather than come home to be with his family.

Finally, she stops herself and clears the table. The children play quietly and apprehensively while Elizabeth sews and continues to ruminate on her fate, sometimes angry and other times worried. After an hour or so she tells the children to prepare for bed and goes upstairs to tuck them in. The children cling to her for comfort, fearful of what might happen. She goes downstairs and resumes sewing.

Mrs. Bates Seeks an Answer

At eight o'clock Elizabeth listens to make sure her children are asleep then goes outside, locking the door behind her. She walks along the dark railroad tracks, seeing the lighted windows of the pub, the "Prince of Wales." Her anxiety something may have happened to Walter disappears, replaced with irritation at the thought he is in there drinking. She is too proud to fetch him. Instead, she walks to the home of Mr. Rigley, another coal miner.

Mrs. Rigley explains to Elizabeth, with a tone "tinged with respect," her husband Jack just stepped out to the pub for a quick drink, and she will go see if he knows where Walter is. She asks Elizabeth to wait in the Rigley home, apologizing for the mess. Left alone, Elizabeth notes "with faint disapproval the general untidiness of the room"—until she counts the pairs of shoes scattered on the floor and realizes there are 12 Rigley children.

Jack Rigley arrives home with his wife and explains to Elizabeth he left Walter finishing up a job in one of the underground mine shafts at the end of the day, sure Walt would be hoisted up on the next round. He seems perplexed, and Elizabeth fears impending disaster. Nevertheless, she tells Mr. Rigley her husband is probably just drinking at another pub, the "Yew Tree." He offers to escort Elizabeth back home and find out where Walt is.

As soon as they depart Elizabeth notices Mrs. Rigley runs to a neighbor's house to spread some news, and "all the blood in her body seem[s] to switch away from her heart."

Home again, Elizabeth has just settled down when she hears the winding engine at the pit and "the sharp whirr of the brakes on the rope as it descended." She feels renewed anxiety, but she strives to calm herself down, and takes out her sewing.

The Women Learn the Truth

At a quarter to 10 Elizabeth's mother-in-law, Old Mrs. Bates, arrives in a state of agitation with news Walter has had an accident at the mine. She claims not to know whether her son is dead or alive. Elizabeth absorbs this information, wondering if she would be able to survive on his pension or if it would be possible to cure him of drinking during a long convalescence. Old Mrs. Bates interrupts her thoughts to say what a good lad Walter had been; she also acknowledges his drinking has made him "a handful of trouble" for Elizabeth.

Outside, the winding engine starts up again. The brakes shriek, and then there is silence. Old Mrs. Bates, who doesn't notice, tells Elizabeth women have "got to make allowances" for men.

At half past 10 a man in pit clothes arrives at the house to tell Elizabeth and her mother-in-law men from the colliery are bringing Walter in. According to the doctor, he says, Elizabeth's husband has been dead for hours. He suffocated when a pile of coal collapsed in the shaft, trapping him in an airless passage. Old Mrs. Bates wails aloud, which is a relief to Elizabeth, as it gives expression to her inner feelings.

She goes into the parlor and begins to prepare the room for his body to be laid out in. Two vases of the same pink chrysanthemums Elizabeth picked earlier capture her attention briefly; then she determines the exact spot where the men can place Walter and lays down some old cloths to save the carpet.

Two colliers, the doctor, and the pit manager, a man named Matthews, arrive. The colliers, one of them named Jim, carry Walter's body on a stretcher while Matthews directs them. The dead man is still stripped naked to the waist, since he died that way. One of the men accidentally knocks over a vase of chrysanthemums, and Elizabeth picks up the flowers and broken glass.

Matthews and the doctor discuss the circumstances of Walter's asphyxiation to the horror of everyone in the room.

Old Mrs. Bates's loud wailing awakens Annie. The girl calls down the stairs for her mother, and Elizabeth goes upstairs to calm her down, telling her Walt is asleep. Meanwhile, the men quietly make their exit.

They Lay out the Body

When Elizabeth comes downstairs, her mother-in-law is alone with Walter's body, which lies "in the naïve dignity of death." She removes his knotted boots and asks Old Mrs. Bates to help her strip the body of its remaining clothes. Elizabeth is struck with awe at "how utterly inviolable he [lies] in himself" and tries to regain possession of him by touching and embracing him. He is still warm from the heat of the mine, but he is unresponsive.

Cautiously, never forgetting the fact of his death, the two women clean and dry the body using soap, flannel, and a soft towel. They are lost in their separate thoughts of what his death means.

After they finish washing him, they look at his "handsome body ... his face [showing] no signs of drink" and his skin "white as milk." There is "not a mark on him" from the accident, according to his mother. Old Mrs. Bates also remarks he likely had time to make things right and "went peaceful." She takes pride in the well-built body she made.

Elizabeth gazes on the dead body of her husband, realizing how the fact of death makes each person separate from every other person. She reflects with shame on her attempts to control Walt and her refusal to see him for himself. She feels not even the children unite them; eternally, he will be closed to her, and a part of her life is forever lost.

She and Old Mrs. Bates struggle to dress the heavy, inert body in a cotton shirt. Elizabeth is struck with continuing dread at the wide gulf between her and Walt. She must submit to life, which is "her immediate master," even though she still winces "with fear and shame" at the thought of death, "her ultimate master."

Analysis

Written in 1909, "Odour of Chrysanthemums" is one of D.H. Lawrence's early works, drawing on experiences from his childhood years in the Midlands in England. It depicts society in the midst of social and economic transition; Brinsley Colliery and the steam locomotive represent the industrial world, which has torn a gaping, fiery whole in generations of pastoral life yet still cannot outpace the rhythms of the natural world.

Man's Destructive Force

The story opens with a locomotive engine "stumbling" into the rural fields of Midlands, England, and scaring a colt among the wild shrubs. The first image in the story, it also serves to summarize the main idea of "Odour of Chrysanthemums": human beings are no match for the forces of nature, which will ultimately "outdistance" them the way the colt canters easily ahead of the train. However, civilization leaves its mark. The coal-mine pit "loomed up beyond the pond, flames like red sores licking its ashy sides." The "tapering chimneys and the clumsy black head-stocks" of Brinsley Colliery dominate the landscape, which is "stagnant," "dreary and forsaken." The winding engine, which brings men and coal up from the pit, can be heard all over town and reminds everyone of the mine's daily activities. The town of New Brinsley has risen from the ashes of the mine, and its main feature is the "Prince of Wales," a public house behind whose "warm and bright" windows miners go to drink away their wages.

Throughout the story men are associated with the warmth, light, and flame. Elizabeth's father, the engine driver, wants to sit by his hearth not as a stranger, but with a new wife and family to keep him company. Even John Bates, Elizabeth's son, is attracted to both flame and light. He tells his mother the coal fire is "so red, and full of little caves—and it feels so nice, and you can fair smell it." He also begs her to light the lamp, at which Elizabeth observes the boy is "as bad as [his] father." That the fire's fuel is coal—coal the men of New Brinsley work each day to take from the ground—shows how they are constantly linked to a cycle of labor and consumption.

A Fallen World

In the Greek myth Prometheus steals fire from the Olympic gods and gives it to mortals as an act of defiance. Zeus's punishment for this act is the creation of a beautiful woman, Pandora, who is sent to live among mortals with a jar she is forbidden to open, containing all the sorrows and misfortunes of the world, along with the capacity for hope. When Pandora's curiosity leads her to open the jar, human beings enter a fallen state of experience; they now must suffer and hope for redemption.

In Lawrence's story men are creatures living in a fallen world; the mines bring misfortune in the way of poverty and accidents. Nature, represented by the chrysanthemums, also appears fallen, or at least in a state of feminine submission. The chrysanthemums are first described as "pink cloths hung on bushes." Only women have use for them—John shreds the flowers along the path when walking home with his mother, and one of the colliers knocks Elizabeth's vase of chrysanthemums over when he comes in with Walter's body—but the flowers' significance changes depending on who is seeing them. Annie Bates, who is still young, reacts to them "rapturously" and says the chrysanthemums smell "beautiful."

Elizabeth Bates, however, has mixed feelings. There is still hope they can have transformative value. She keeps vases of the flowers in her parlor and impulsively picks some of the wintry blossoms and puts them on her waistband. But once she sees her daughter take innocent pleasure in the chrysanthemums, Elizabeth grows bitter remembering not only were they a pledge of her marriage but also Walter's buttonhole ornament the first time he came home drunk.

Nature having no power to bring characters out of their fallen state connects with the final message in the story: death as the "ultimate master." In nature there is a continuous cycle of birth and rebirth. Every year there will be new chrysanthemums. At the same time the death of a human being, with their own consciousness and will, is final. Ultimately, Lawrence reveals nature is indifferent now that human beings have detached themselves from it.

The Domestic Sphere

The "doctrine of the separate spheres" was an ideological construct developed in the Victorian era. It held women are best suited for domestic work—educating the children, exerting a positive moral influence, and executing the upkeep of the home. Men, on the other hand, were best suited for work in the public or professional world. When the doctrine was first developed, it served mainly as a justification for keeping middle-class women from seeking higher education and professional careers. Working-class women continued to work outside the home, as they had done for centuries when their supplemental labor was required. By the late Victorian era, however, advances in machinery led to the specialization of the industrial workforce, and women were pushed out. The doctrine of the separate spheres provided a pseudoscientific rationale for why women should not continue to work outside the home in any capacity. Because the wages of industrial labor were not enough to support a working-class family, women faced increasingly poor living conditions up until the time of women's suffrage.

Lawrence shows how the doctrine of the separate spheres fails when used as a vehicle to uphold order in the industrial world. Elizabeth Bates, who aspires to middle-class Victorian ideas of propriety, seeks to uphold the doctrine. When the reader first sees her, she is coming out of the henhouse, brushing dirt off her clothes. Her home is neat and tidy, she insists on having dinner at a set time, with her family in attendance, and she will not deign to set foot in a public house, which the culture of her time felt was no place for a lady. Even the "exact" part in Elizabeth's hair represents her strong sense of social propriety and, as such, becomes a symbol of social correctness, much like the hearth is a symbol of family unity. Her smaller family allows Elizabeth the luxury of staying somewhat removed from the squalor of the mining town. Mrs. Rigley, with 12 children to feed and care for, does not have that luxury; her kitchen "[needs] apology" because it is so untidy.

Elizabeth's attempts to order her world backfire. The more she tries to impose middle-class notions of family life on her son, husband, and father, the more they rebel against her. Her father rejects both her appeal to social propriety—he will not wait to get married—and also her offer of food on a plate to go with the tea she brings him. Her son is already drawn to the "little caves" of Walter's at the mines. And Walter himself "slinks" past the family home a couple of nights each week to drink away from the comfortable kitchen hearth.

Odour of Chrysanthemums Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 The train arrives at Brinsley Colliery.

Rising Action

2 Elizabeth learns Walter plans to spend his pay at the pub.

3 Elizabeth sets out to find Walter when he doesn't come home.

4 Old Mrs. Bates arrives with news; there's been an accident.

Climax

5 Fellow coal miners bring in Walter's body on a stretcher.

Falling Action

6 Elizabeth and Old Mrs. Bates lay out the body.

Resolution

7 Elizabeth realizes people are innately separate.

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