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Analyze the character of Elizabeth Bates in "The Odour of Chrysanthemums" by D. H....

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manaljaber | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) Salutatorian

Posted April 1, 2011 at 10:32 AM via web

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Analyze the character of Elizabeth Bates in "The Odour of Chrysanthemums" by D. H. Lawrence. 

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted February 18, 2013 at 4:39 PM (Answer #1)

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Elizabeth Bates lives in a bleak setting: a small industrial coal-mining town. In front of her house, trucks “thumped heavily” past her house. The smoke from the train settled on the grass.  The leaves were withered fell to the ground.

As the story “The Odour of Chrysanthemums” by D. H. Lawrence begins, Elizabeth picks up a branch of the last of the chrysanthemums, holds it to her cheek, and places it in her apron. Turning and watching the men trudge home from work, she looks for him, but Walter does not come. 

Elizabeth’s house was small but neat.  The table was set with the tea set and a nice tablecloth.  The children and Elizabeth wait on their father, but he does not come. Looking at their son, Elizabeth sees her sullenness in her son and his father’s silence and bullheadedness.

Her daughter notices the flowers in her apron.  To Elizabeth, these flowers represent the life that she wishes that she had. Elizabeth tells her daughter:

“It was chrysanthemums when I married him, and chrysanthemums when you were born, and the first time they ever brought him home drunk, he’d got brown chrysanthemums in his button-hole.” 

Her disillusionment is evident in her description of her life related to the flowers.

Elizabeth is not a sympathetic character.  Her attitude and treatment of her children prevent the reader from feeling empathy for her plight.  She barks commands at them, talks about their father to them, and shows no affection toward them.  Bitterness pervades her speech and facial expressions. Described as a handsome woman with striking black hair, Elizabeth focuses her attention on her husband’s tendency to go to the pub after work and drink .

Marriage and a happy life have not come to Elizabeth.  She is a pragmatist who takes care of her home, keeps her children clean and dressed, and lives in poverty.  Her lack of respect for her husband has come through his neglect both personally and toward his family. 

After several hours of waiting, Elizabeth asks a neighbor to check on her husband. Eventually, she learns that Walter has been killed in a mining accident.  He has been asphyxiated. The miners bring in his body and place it in the parlor. It will be her job to clean his body and dress him for the wake and viewing of the body. Her first consideration is not emotional but rather how will she and her children survive. 

As Elizabeth works on her husband’s body, she makes several discoveries that change her appreciation of her husband. Her obvious awakening comes from her realization that she does not know her husband. He is a stranger to her.  The only thing that they did together was have sex.  Suddenly, Elizabeth realizes that she did not treat her husband well; furthermore, they had essentially a fake marriage.  

Sympathy is all she can feel for Walter. Elizabeth also questions her behavior as a mother and daughter.  She has withheld her love from them. In addition, even more disturbing to Elizabeth is her recognition that her husband was a stranger to her. Her attitude turns toward her pity and complete sympathy for not sharing herself with him.

Again the pragmatic Elizabeth takes over and shuts the door on this phase of her life.  Her heart is heavy.  Now, she has to evaluate her future.  She turns from her husband back to the reality of life.  Knowing that like everyone else, the true master is death, and she must live her life more fully. 

”The Odour of Chrysanthemums” by D.H. Lawrence tells the story of Elizabeth Bates, a coal miner’s wife.  The story is told from a third person point of view with the narration primarily seen through the eyes of Elizabeth. 

Described as a handsome woman, she finds herself feeling put upon and drained by her husband who spends his off time in the bar.  On this day, she seems to have little patience for her children. With pity, the reader realizes that Elizabeth is expecting another child. 

Elizabeth has a desire for beauty which seems out of place in a coal mining town. Her quest for beauty is further illustrated by the chrysanthemums in her apron, which she refers to as “such nonsense” when she removes them.  Her dreams and her desire for beauty are in a hostile environment.

The story feels familiar with the hardworking woman waiting on her erring husband to return from the bar smelling of alcohol and wanting his dinner. Trapped as a coal miner’s wife and wanting to be anywhere but this place, her bitterness has crawled inside of her and stayed. Her waiting goes on as long as she can stand it.

After asking a neighbor to look for him, her mother-in-law shows up and tells her that she has heard that her son is dead.  When the other miners bring her husband in, they lay the corpse in the parlor for the mother and wife to clean up.  Elizabeth learns that her husband has been smothered to death when the overhead rocks caved in on him.

The mother is grief stricken but wants to help with the washing of her son.  In her mind, Elizabeth does not know how she will make it. She will get a little pension, but how will she work with three little children.

As the women work on the washing of the man, Elizabeth realizes something about herself.  It was not just her husband that caused her unhappiness.  She had never given herself to her husband.  In the final analysis, they shared their bed and sex but never shared each other. 

When Elizabeth looks at the body of her dead husband she understands that she had a large role in the failure of their marriage.  She did not really ever see or look at him. Each time he had taken her, they had been two isolated beings, far apart as now. 

He was no more responsible than she.  The child was like ice in her womb.  For as she looked at the dead man, her mind, cold and detached, said clearly: ‘Who am I? What have I been doing? I have been fighting a husband who did not exist.’

The agony that she feels for her dead husband contrasts with the earlier harsh view of him. To Elizabeth, she sees Walter as a human being, rather than simply a difficult burden. Up until now,  Elizabeth has merely submitted to life; but now,  she recognizes that death is the ultimate master.  She feels fear and shame for her treatment of her husband.

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