D. H. Lawrence presents a woman who is disillusioned with her life in his story “The Odour of Chrysanthemums.” Elizabeth Bates acts with hostility and anger toward her husband and children. Her hardness shows in her relationship with her children and even her mother-in-law. This is a story of self-discovery that comes too late.
Elizabeth is a coalminer’s wife in a small mining community. She and her husband have two children and expecting another. Described as a handsome woman with black hair, Elizabeth has an air of calm that she does not lose even when faced with death.
As she walks toward her house, she picks a branch of chrysanthemums, smells them, and holds them next to her face. Obviously, she has dreams of a different life than this one with the harsh world of the mines. She places the branch in her apron. Elizabeth lets no emotions show.
Trapped in her small world, Elizabeth exudes a hopelessness that consumes her. Unhappily, Elizabeth spends much of her time waiting on her husband Walter, who has a habit of going to the local pub after work. He was not a good husband or a father. However, Elizabeth shares too much of her frustration about her husband with her children, and they are angry with him as well.
On this day, Elizabeth watches the other miners pass by on their way to their homes. The family waits for Walter to have their tea time.
Her daughter notices the flower branch in her pocket and wants to smell the flowers. Elizabeth takes the flowers out and hands them to her daughter rather irritably. The daughter thinks the flowers smell wonderful. Elizabeth says that it is nonsense.
It was chrysanthemums when I married him, and chrysanthemums when you were born, and the first time they ever brought him home drunk, he had brown chrysanthemums in his button hole.
With her practical ways, she has raised her children, kept her house clean, and stayed in a bad marriage.
After waiting for a time and her husband still does not come, she and the children eat their supper. Then, she puts the children to bed.
As she waits alone, her anger becomes linked with fear. Elizabeth goes to her neighbor’s house and asks him to check on her husband for her.
Elizabeth opens the door. One of the miners tells her that her husband has been dead for hours. He was asphyxiated when one of the walls caved in on him.
Elizabeth realizes that the workers will bring her husband home so that she can prepare his body. She has to get the parlor ready for him. As she walks into the parlor, she smells the chrysanthemums. To Elizabeth, they have the smell of death. She prepares the floor so that they can walk around him when they wash him.
Her husband’s body is placed on the floor. She and his mother begin to clean and dress him for the burial. When she looks at her husband, Elizabeth comes to a realization. She does not know who this man is. He is a stranger to her. She was in their bed with him, but she never shared herself with him.
Elizabeth understands that she had been wrong about him. Feeling grief and pity for her husband, she knows that she can never make it up to him. It is too late.
Walter must have suffered in life just as he did in his death. Being practical though, this part of Elizabeth's life was closed. Their life had been a sham, but she cannot fix it. Shamed by her treatment of her husband, Elizabeth turns to the only thing that she knows to do. She cleans and makes the house ready.
Though Elizabeth initially emerges as a long-suffering wife who deserves sympathy, her response to Walter’s death reveals that she is not as blameless for her unhappiness as she first appears. At first, Walter seems to be the clear cause of Elizabeth’s difficult life. He regularly comes home drunk after working in the mine, making the local pub more of a home than his actual home. Elizabeth is accustomed to the dull, dreary routine of waiting for him, but she still feels anger and annoyance when dinner must be delayed. Every comment she makes is said "bitterly," and she herself is described as "bitter." At times she seems so harsh that we may wonder whether she is capable of any other form of emotion. However, early in the story, Lawrence shows Elizabeth giving tea and bread to her father, which suggests that she is capable of nurturing. On the day on which the story takes place, her anger and annoyance change to anxiety as the night wears on with no sign of Walter. He seems to be a recognizable brand of "bad husband," and Elizabeth, the put-upon wife and mother, seems to be a clear victim. Her frustration and harsh words about Walter seem fully justifiable. Elizabeth clearly sees herself as having wasted her life with Walter, missing out on a better life she could have had with someone else.
Elizabeth’s dismal view of her fate changes once Walter’s corpse is brought home. As Elizabeth and her mother-in-law undress and wash Walter’s body, Elizabeth confronts her role in the marriage’s failure. When she looks at the corpse, she realizes that for years, she has not really seen Walter. He was her husband but chronically distant from her, and she feels "ashamed" because she had not allowed him to be himself. Instead of feeling anger and resentment, she recognizes that her own expectations and refusals helped tear them apart. The pity she feels for Walter sharply contrasts with her earlier harsh view of him, serving as an epiphany—she suddenly recognizes Walter as a human being, rather than simply a difficult burden. Elizabeth realizes she has been culpable in her own unhappiness. At the end of the story, she submits to both life and death as her "masters," humbled by her own mistakes and, we may assume, about to carry on with a new perspective.