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Odour of Chrysanthemums | Themes

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A constant theme in "Odour of Chrysanthemums" is the theme of duality. D.H. Lawrence sets light against darkness, coupledom against solitariness, men against women, parents against children, and industrialization against the natural world. Most themes in the story examine dualities, which often cannot be reconciled or merged. Lawrence calls for people to become aware of differences and understand the paradox of being an individual yet expected to merge and become part of something else. And he forces the reader to find resolutions to the paradoxes without reconciling them, either through acceptance or defiance.

Gender Binary

"Gender binary" is the official term for a way of looking at men and women, which characterizes them as essentially different. "Girls like dolls, and boys like sports" is an obvious example of binary thinking. The reader can observe the gender binary at work in "Odour of Chrysanthemums," where women and men play essentially different roles and conform to gender stereotypes. Men are associated with progress and industrialization. Even little John Bates, wearing clothing cut down from that of a grown man, already acts like his father not only in his attraction to fuel and light but also in his rejection of his mother's directives.

Women, on the other hand, are responsible for tending to household duties. Like the unnamed female figure with a shopping basket in the first paragraph, who is "insignificantly trapped" between the "jolting black waggons" of the train and the hedge on the other side, women in "Odour of Chrysanthemums" inhabit an uneasy, shadowy space between industrialization, which men embrace, and nature, to which they are bound by pregnancy and child-rearing. Elizabeth herself lives in the shadows. She avoids the lit parts of New Brinsley and scoffs at the idea they need light to eat by. At the same time, like her daughter Annie and Old Mrs. Bates, she has a sentimental side. She impulsively adorns herself with the chrysanthemums she finds on the path; her son's only impulse is to shred the blossoms.

Elizabeth Bates, a "tall" and "handsome" woman with an "imperious mien," does not accept the essential difference between men and women even though she attaches great importance to more superficial cultural differences between the two genders. She continuously tries to get her son John, her husband Walter, and even her father to conform to Victorian gender stereotypes of what a good man is, and when she learns Walter might be injured, she thinks about how she might be able to use his convalescence to "get him away from the drink and his hateful ways." Her mother-in-law, on the other hand, accepts the essential difference, telling Elizabeth she "learned to understand [Walter] and to make allowances."

At the end of the story the gender binary appears to matter less than the ultimate barrier between the living and the dead. Elizabeth's character reveals this difference when she notes she has to first submit to life, "her immediate master," before succumbing to death, "her ultimate master." Her immediate job is to go "about making tidy the kitchen," fulfilling her cultural role as a woman. But this role has little meaning in the greater scheme of things, and looking on her husband's naked body, she feels ashamed.

Linear and Cyclical Time

Human beings measure time in a variety of ways, including linear and cyclical. Both are present in Lawrence's story. Linear time, which dominates the industrial era, divides the day into a series of tasks that occur on schedule. People start school, have a test, come home, eat dinner, and go to bed at set times. If readers look carefully over "Odour of Chrysanthemums," they can see Elizabeth looks at time in a strictly linear way. She is familiar with the time the train comes—just as miners are emerging from the pit—and throughout the evening, she makes references to linear time. She notes it is "quarter to five!" when her daughter comes home, and it is "[t]wenty minutes to six!" when Walter is not yet home. When the clock "struck eight," she exits the house to look for him, and it is a "quarter to ten" when her mother-in-law arrives.

Another way of looking at time is to view it as cyclical. Rather than dividing the day up according to a task-specific schedule, cyclical time is measured by recurring seasons over which human beings have no control. The British Romantic poets, writing at the onset of the Industrial Revolution, often focused on the tragic juxtaposition of linear and cyclical time. In "Ode to a Nightingale," John Keats's famous poem, birds will be singing year after year in much the same way, while individual human beings live and die. It's possible to read "Odour of Chrysanthemums" as evoking a similar theme. The flowers are always present in key stages of Elizabeth's life because flowers belong to cyclical time. Even though nature is portrayed in the story as beaten down, "stagnant" and "noiseless," it triumphs. Walter is killed when the ground caves in on him, and living people have "nothing to do" with the "inviolate" state of death. Elizabeth's attempt to order her life according to a predictable schedule doesn't work because human beings have no ability to stop the progression of cyclical time.

Existentialism or Determinism

Existentialism is a philosophical theory rooted in the idea people can shape the outcome of events through the force of their own will. Determinism is a philosophical theory that says external forces shape the outcome of events, in spite of people's attempts to shape their own destinies.

These approaches are pretty much the opposite of each other; one focuses on the internal, and the other, the external. However, existential philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre argue a way to reconcile existentialism with determinism. He says even if human beings, according to determinism, have no control over the outcome of their actions, they still need to act in good faith, having made a clear and responsible choice about how to live based on an understanding of their values and the consequences of acting a certain way. Part of Elizabeth's shame at the end of the story comes from her recognition she and Walter had lived together in bad faith, and "had denied each other in life."

Because she has been focused on changing Walter rather than living her life for herself, she realizes she has been "fighting a husband who did not exist" and the two of them "had met in the dark and had fought in the dark, not knowing whom they met nor whom they fought." "In the next world," she concludes, "He would be a stranger to her." Through Elizabeth's realizations, Lawrence shows how, even if institutional structures and cultural ideologies (external forces) are foundational and immovable, individuals can reach inner states and, with individualized insight (inner forces), can bypass social or emotional boundaries.

To look at Elizabeth's reaction from a deterministic point of view, the end of the story is tragic. Walter is crushed by the coal pilings because it is his fate to die. It is Elizabeth's fate to raise three young children on her own with what small pension she will receive from the colliery. Seen from an existential point of view, on the other hand, Elizabeth has learned it was morally wrong for her to impose her will on Walter because they are two separate individuals, and people only have the capacity to make decisions for themselves. The end of the story, however bleak, offers hope—Elizabeth now has what Sartre called "a project," or something concrete to live for. She will clean the kitchen and focus on raising her children. It is all a person can do, but such awareness-driven action is heroic.

Air and Suffocation

The air in the countryside mining town is foul and suffocating to the adult members of the Bates family, as indicated by the title of the story. An English superstition dictates it is deadly to leave flowers overnight in a room where one is sleeping, particularly in a sick room, because the flowers will steal the sleeper's breath. Similarly, the air in the coal mines where Walt works is foul and suffocating, so much so workers used to send bright, lively canaries before them to determine whether the air was safe. A singing canary meant the mine was clear of carbon monoxide; a silent one heralded death.

For the adult Bateses, the air around them has become stifling. In Elizabeth, her slow death and decay is symbolized by the odour of chrysanthemums, which she now finds foul after years of disappointment in a marriage that did not fulfill her childish hopes. Walter's death is literal but no less symbolic. He is denied air by the collapse of the mine around him and smothers. The doctor says he is "'sphyxiated," and that is almost "as if it was done o' purpose." Indeed, his body is left still warm and intact, and he is laid out for his funeral "blonde, full-fleshed, with fine limbs." Both of them have been refused the chance to live by the ties that bind them—the social bond of marriage, the economic requirement to make a living, and the natural imperative to survive.

However, the story does not suggest the air in this little mining town is, by its nature, foul or people are, by their nature, bound by the ties to which Elizabeth and Walter have submitted. The Bates' daughter Annie finds the smell of the little sprig in her mother's apron beautiful, and the little boy describes how delightful the fire in the hearth is. In their innocence the children bring together their mother's and father's worlds: the warmth of the hearth, provided by the coal their father mines; the rosy color of the flowers Walt presented Lizzie when they were first dating; and the sensations of physical comfort and well-being as represented by the breath of life.

Ultimately, Walt succumbs to the struggle and is smothered. As Lizzie ponders her husband's fate, not yet knowing whether he is neglectful or at risk, her "heart halted a moment. Then it surged on again, almost suffocating her." She pauses between two possibilities, unsure whether she will live, breathe, and thrive, or whether she will allow the weight of the world to press upon her as it has her husband. She remains between the two, recognizing in the parlor where she lays out her husband's body the "cold, deathly smell of chrysanthemums in the room," but also putting his shirt out to air before putting it on him, providing him with the breath he was denied in the mine.

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