Describe Elizabeth’s character in "Odour of Chrysanthemums." What do we learn about her from her encounters with her children, father, neighbors, and mother-in-law?

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sullymonster eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Elizabeth is a proud, opinionated woman.  She shows elements of strength in her interactions with othes, but also elements of weakness, highlighted by her self-criticism. 

Elizabeth strength shows through in her desire to provide a good home.  She is angry that her husband is not home because she believes that the family should be a unit, and should sit down together to eat.  She nags her children about their behavior and appearance because she wants a good life for them, better than she feels she herself has.  Her sense of duty is shown through the snack she provides to her father and through her determination that, if Walter is wounded, she will be able to nurse him back to health.

However, Elizabeth's pride leads her to remain emotionally distant from others.  She does not interact with her neighbors, only speaks at them and receives information from them.  Her discussion with her mother-in-law reveals that Elizabeth has not connected emotionally with Walter, but has only set him up as the father of the family, not as a partner.  Elizabeth herself comes to understand this upon Walter's death:

"Elizabeth embraced the body of her husband, with cheek and lips. She seemed to be listening, inquiring, trying to get some connection. But she could not. She was driven away. He was impregnable."

His death brings self-realization to Elizabeth and causes her to question her life and her behavior.

crvntscndy | Student

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.

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Odour of Chrysanthemums

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