How does D.H. Lawrence portray the physicality of the relationship in 'Odour of Chrysanthemums'?
The physicality of the relationship between Elizabeth and her husband is stressed in two main ways. After her husband is killed at the mine where he works, there is constant focus on his dead body when it is brought home to his wife and mother. The sense of touch is emphasised here; Elizabeth lays a hand on him, rather hesitantly at first, although as his wife she has an obvious ‘claim’ on him. At first she feels a kind of awe as, even in death, he still appears as a physically imposing man:
He was a man of handsome body, and his face showed no traces of drink. He was blond, full fleshed, with fine limbs. But he was dead.
The two women have the task of washing and laying out the corpse, and the narrative closely describes this intimate ritual. The mother is full of anguish but is also pride as she exalts in her son’s physical attributes, even after death, but after the initial sense of awe, the wife is repulsed:
He was dead, and her living flesh had no place against his.
However, it is not just the fact that her husband is dead that upsets Elizabeth. It is the realization that she had no connection with him while he was alive, other than the purely sexual:
There had been nothing between them, and yet they had come together, exchanging their nakedness repeatedly. Each time he had taken her, they had been two isolated beings, far apart as now.
This is the crux of the story – the complete lack of emotional and spiritual connection between the husband and the wife. Although she is upset at the death, and feels fear, the narrative makes clear that the vital emotion of love is wholly missing. They have been together only in the physical sense; otherwise they have shared no bond at all, not even through their children.
Elizabeth again tries to get close to her husband physically after he is dead, but the sense of the actual gulf between them puts her off. Even during the act of sex, she remembers, they remained ‘two isolated beings’; they have always, essentially, remained apart. Death does not separate them as they were already separate. This realization is more chilling to Elizabeth than anything else.
The story, then, stresses the physicality of this particular husband-wife relationship both in its focus on the husband’s dead body and his wife’s reaction to it, and also by making it clear that they have had no other mutual attachment other than the purely physical one.