A short story published in the English Review in 1911, shortly after D. H. Lawrence’s first novel, The White Peacock, and subsequently republished in revised form in Lawrence’s first, and perhaps most important, collection of short stories, The Prussian Officer and Other Stories, in 1914. While the collection is now seen as an important landmark in Lawrence’s development as a storyteller, “Odour of Chrysanthemums” attracted the attention of author and editor Ford Maddox Ford, who later stated that it convinced him that Lawrence was a major writer in the making. The story now exists in the two published versions mentioned above and in two unpublished proof versions.
The story is set in the vicinity of Eastwood, in a coalmining town in Nottinghamshire. The opening image of “small locomotive engine, Number 4,” which comes “clanking, stumbling” down the line, is among Lawrence’s best drawn. A woman, Elizabeth Bates, watches the train going by. She then returns home to get tea ready and, along with her two children, John and Annie, awaits the return of her husband, Walter Bates, from his day at the pit. Elizabeth, struggling to raise her family and careworn, but still feeling slightly superior to her husband and her dreary surroundings, provides the focus of the story. She becomes increasingly angry and restless as the wait gets longer and she suspects that Walter is at the pub getting drunk. Eventually her anger is tinged with anxiety and fear for his safety, and she sets out to look for him. Her husband’s workmate Jack Rigley informs her that he left Walter working in the mines and offers to make further inquiries. Elizabeth returns home, and soon afterward her mother-in-law, the elder Mrs. Bates, comes in to inform her that Walter has had an accident at the pit. News then arrives that he has been killed. His body is brought back home, where it is laid out and washed by his wife. The story ends with an exploration of Elizabeth’s inner feelings about and response to this event.
“Odour of Chrysanthemums” is among Lawrence’s most popular works today, but early reactions to this and other stories in the collection as a whole were mixed. Reviewers expressed admiration for the young writer’s technique but also felt that the author was dark and morbid in his style, inclined toward a “hideous form of naturalism” (Standard, 4 December 1914), and was “pitiless in his cruelty, relentless in his realism” (Saturday Review, 9 January 1915). The intense, dramatic quality of this story is in many ways characteristic of Lawrence’s early writing. With its focus on character rather than plot and its interest in the “inner life,” the story is a deliberate departure from the brand of realism characteristic of the writing of Lawrence’s Edwardian predecessors, though the symbolic function of the recurring chrysanthemum motif draws on some of the conventions of late 19th-century realism. The chrysanthemums that are referred to repeatedly in the story tie the plot together and are associated with the cycle of life, marriage, and death. The setting, along with the carefully etched details, indicates the author’s personal knowledge and experience of a landscape and way of life characteristic of a mining town in the early twentieth century. The poverty of the family, the degenerate lifestyle of the husband, the relationship between the husband and wife, and finally the accidental death of the young miner itself (themes Lawrence was to return to in his novel Sons and Lovers and again in his play The Widowing of Mrs. Holryd, which is in many ways a rewriting of “Odour of Chrysanthemums”) are clearly drawn from Lawrence’s own life. Lawrence realizes the most important theme of the story, the ultimate estrangement and alienation of human beings from one another and the fundamental solitariness of the human state, by locating the action in a specific sociocultural context and by drawing attention to the complexities of the relations and conditions characteristic of that particular context.
Lawrence, D. H. The Prussian Officer and Other Stories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Schulz, Volker. “D. H. Lawrence’s Early Masterpiece of Short Fiction: ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums,’ ” Studies in Short Fiction 28 (Summer 1991): 363–396.
Stovel, Nora Foster. “D. H. Lawrence and ‘The Dignity of Death’: Tragic Recognition in ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums,’ The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, and Sons and Lovers,” D. H. Lawrence Review 16 (1983): 59–82.
Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story
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