34 pages 1 hour read

D. H. Lawrence

Odour of Chrysanthemums

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1911

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Odour of Chrysanthemums”

“Odour of Chrysanthemums” is a short story by English author, D. H. Lawrence, written in 1909 and revised before its first publication in The English Review literary magazine in 1911. Lawrence also included it in his 1914 collection, The Prussian Officer and Stories. “Odour of Chrysanthemums” was among the first of Lawrence’s works to be published, though he had been writing extensively for some time. Its key themes of The Inevitability of Death and Decay, The Reality of Labor, and Social Alienation remained lifelong focal points throughout his writing. He later adapted it into a play, The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, and Mark Partridge adapted it into a short film in 2002.

This guide references the digital version published by TSS Publishing.

The story draws heavily on Lawrence’s own experiences, set in the mining community in which he grew up. Its third-person narration fluctuates between omniscient and limited points of view, following protagonist Elizabeth Bates, a collier’s (miner’s) wife. The central relationship between her and her husband mirrors elements of Lawrence’s parents’ lives.

“Odour of Chrysanthemums” is written in two parts, opening in the late afternoon, outside Brinsley Colliery (a coal mine). A train rounds a corner, frightening a colt and trapping a woman between the wagons and a hedge until it passes. In the fading daylight, the natural world is gloomy. The miners are being winched up from the pit using a winding engine and are walking home after the day’s work. By the tracks is a cottage framed by disheveled vegetation. Elizabeth comes out of the chicken coop and calls in her young son, John, who tears handfuls of chrysanthemum petals from the bushes on the path. She chides him and holds a sprig against her cheek before tucking it into her apron.

The train halts by the cottage, and Elizabeth gets a cup of tea for the driver, who is her father. She is cold about his decision to remarry soon after her mother’s presumed death. He tells her that Walter, her husband, has been drinking heavily and spending most of his wages on this.

He leaves, and Elizabeth goes inside, continuing her domestic labor as it gets dark, aware that her husband has still not returned and presuming he is drinking in the pub. Her young daughter, Annie, comes home from school. Annie admires the fire as they get ready for tea despite Walter’s absence, which Elizabeth comments on bitterly. She does not eat much. When she drops coal onto the fire, John complains that it darkens the room. Elizabeth lights a lamp, and it is revealed that she is pregnant.

Annie admires the sight and smell of chrysanthemums in her apron, but Elizabeth removes them, listing other times they were present: at her wedding, Annie’s birth, and the first time Walter was so drunk that he had to be brought home. She predicts that tonight, he will be brought in drunk by others and laid on the floor, and she bitterly says that she won’t wash him and laments that she came to this “dirty hole” for this (8).

Elizabeth sews in her rocking chair while the children play, subdued. Her anger at Walter vacillates. After an hour or so, she tells the children to go to bed even though Walter is not home, reiterating that he’ll be brought in and will sleep on the floor. She cleans them with a flannel, and once they’re in bed, resumes her sewing. At the end of Part 1, she starts to feel fear creeping into her anger.

At the start of Part 2, the clock strikes eight o’clock, and Elizabeth goes out to a cluster of houses near Walter’s usual pub. She asks Mrs. Rigley if her husband is home, as he works with Walter, and she replies that he has been and gone back out. She goes to fetch him, and Elizabeth notes the mess in their house due to the challenge of their 12 children. Mr. Rigley arrives and tells her that Walter is not in the pub—when he last saw him, he was staying behind to finish some work in the mine. He offers to check in another pub. His manner is deferential, but Elizabeth is shaken. She sees Mrs. Rigley going to gossip to a neighbor.

Elizabeth waits uneasily at home for news, and at a quarter to 10, an old woman, her mother-in-law, enters, crying. She says that Mr. Rigley told her Walter was in an accident at the mine but did not give her further details. She warns that Elizabeth mustn’t be upset in case she loses the baby. Elizabeth worries about the practicalities of looking after the children if he is dead. The old woman muses about how Walter was good and spirited when he was younger, lamenting his descent into trouble. Elizabeth hears the winding engine, an indication that news may arrive soon.

A pit worker arrives at the door and tells them that Walter is dead, and they are bringing the body to the house now. Part of the mine shaft collapsed, trapping him until he suffocated. The old woman reacts with obvious distress, wailing and shuddering, while Elizabeth has a more practical focus, asking for information and hushing the old woman to prevent her from waking the children. She prepares the parlor for the body, lighting a candle and laying cloth down to save the carpet. She notes the “cold, deathly smell” of two vases of chrysanthemums on the table (16).

The body is brought in by several men, one of whom knocks over the vase and breaks it. The doctor and manager lament how terrible it is that the accident trapped Walter to asphyxiate in a small space, to the horror of the other colliers.

They hear Annie calling out from upstairs to ask what is happening, and Elizabeth goes to try to get her to sleep while the men try to quiet the old woman’s moaning.

When Elizabeth comes back down, the men have gone, and she tells the old woman to help her strip Walter’s body. Elizabeth touches his body to try to feel a connection to him, but she feels completely separate from him. Together, they wash the body, experiencing different emotional reactions; the old woman grieves her child, and Elizabeth feels fear and social alienation, even from her own unborn child.

While the old woman eulogizes her son with grief and affection, Elizabeth turns away from him, feeling internal anguish over the deterioration of their relationship and disconnect from each other while he was alive, as well as the horror of his death.

She fetches his shirt, and they dress him with difficulty before leaving the body lying in the parlor, covered with a sheet. She locks the door to prevent the children from getting in, and the story ends with her continuing her domestic labor in the kitchen, profoundly disturbed by the evening.