“The Odour of Chrysanthemums” by D. H. Lawrence presents a protagonist who has to face the mistakes that she has made in her life. This happens at the worst time of her life: the death of her husband. Elizabeth Bates finds that she does not know who she is or who her husband was.
The author describes Elizabeth Bates as a tall, handsome woman with striking black eyebrows and hair. Her family includes her husband Walter, and her two children: Annie and John. Elizabeth is pregnant with another child.
Elizabeth finds herself in an unhappy situation. Her husband is a miner. They live in an industrialized coal mining town where everything seems to be dirty and muddy. They have a house that Elizabeth works to make nice and clean.
The first sight of Elizabeth shows her picking a branch of chrysanthemums and smelling them. She holds the branch next to her cheek and then sticks the branch into her pocket. Obviously, Elizabeth loves flowers and pretty things.
Something is wrong with Elizabeth. The author portrays her with these words: disillusioned; bitterly; determinedly; and irritably. Although she loves her children, Elizabeth answers them curtly and gives them no affection.
At every turn, the children seem to annoy her, and she answers them harshly. Early in the story, Elizabeth gives bread and tea to her father. Elizabeth knows how to nurture. She has had her fill of her dull, dreary routine.
Walter does not come home from the mines. Many times, he gets drunk, and then comes home. On this night Walter is so late that Elizabeth begins to worry.
This happens too often. Even the children are frustrated with their father. Elizabeth believes that he is at the local pub. He has kept the family from having their tea and missed supper as well. She feels angry and bitter toward her husband. After the children are in bed, Elizabeth asks a neighbor to check on him.
Finally, Walter’s mother comes to her door to tell her that Walter has been found dead in a mining accident. He was asphyxiated. The other miners bring him home for the women to clean and prepare the body.
As Elizabeth works on Walter’s body, she is forced to face the failure of her marriage. When she looks at Walter’s corpse, Elizabeth realizes that she never really knew Walter.
She had said he was something that he was not; she had felt familiar with him. Whereas he was apart all the while, living as she never lived, feeling as she never felt. In fear and shame, she looked at his naked body, that she had known falsely.
She never gave herself over to him other than sexually. Keeping herself distant both emotionally and intimately added to the shame she feels as she acknowledges to herself that this was probably the reason that her husband did not want to come home after work.
Elizabeth recognizes that Walter was never allowed to be himself. She suddenly feels unmitigated pity for him. He was a human being that had needs and desires, and she filled none of these for him. Finally, she concludes that she was responsible for her own unhappiness. Now, he is gone, and it is too late.
The final view of Elizabeth comes from her tidying up her kitchen for the company that will be coming. The only thing left for Elizabeth was to begin to pick up the pieces of her life. Elizabeth has faced death now, and it is her ultimate master. She must value life and not merely just exist.