How does D. H. Lawrence use imagery and symbolism in the short story "The Odour of Chrysanthemums"? How do imagery and symbolism contribute to the theme?

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D. H. Lawrence’s The Odour of Chrysanthemums is a short story written in 1909 and published in 1911. The main protagonist is Elizabeth Bates, who is pregnant, along with being the mother of two children. The story is set at late afternoon to night and centers on Mrs. Bates...

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D. H. Lawrence’s The Odour of Chrysanthemums is a short story written in 1909 and published in 1911. The main protagonist is Elizabeth Bates, who is pregnant, along with being the mother of two children. The story is set at late afternoon to night and centers on Mrs. Bates waiting for her husband, a coal miner, to come home. For most of the story, Mrs. Bates is frustrated because she assumes that her husband had gone straight to the pub after work. At the near end of the story, however, she learns that her husband had gotten into an accident in the mine and died.

The main theme of the story is the suddenness of death and how the tribulations of life pale in comparison. Throughout the story, D. H. Lawrence makes heavy use of imagery and symbolism to explore this—most notably with chrysanthemums. The meanings associated with chrysanthemums shift and progress alongside the events of the story.

Chrysanthemums typically symbolize happiness and joy—according to Mrs. Bates, it is the flower that marked their wedding and the birth of their daughter. Now, however, Mrs. Bates looks upon them bitterly and can only reluctantly acknowledge their beauty. We learn that, to her, chrysanthemums now represent the aspects of her life that have devolved into disillusionment and disappointment.

When she learns of her husband’s death, the chrysanthemums take on a morbid meaning. The “cold, deathly smell” of chrysanthemums that pervades the parlor serves to juxtapose the wilting flowers with the knowledge of her husband’s death. This symbolism comes to a climax when the chrysanthemums are accidentally knocked over as her husband’s corpse was being brought in. Originally, the chrysanthemums had represented her hopes and dreams. By the end of the story, it symbolized the absolute end of their life together—and how her previous concerns about their marriage now felt so small in the face of death.

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This is a great question, because the story "The Odour of Chrysanthemums"  is well-known for its stunning use of visual imagery (such as the chrysanthemums, and the interplay of darkness and light) to bring out its messages, or themes, which, in this story, are primarily concerned with life, marriage, and death.

In the early part of the 20th century, when this story was published, flowers were thought by many people to have symbolic properties. The meaning of the chrysanthemum was joy and happiness, and hopes for the future.  This knowledge makes the symbol of the chrysanthemum more poignant in this story, because for Elizabeth, they have taken on the meaning of disappointment and bitterness.

Elizabeth is unhappy with her husband and her life. Chrysanthemums, for her, represent all the disappointments she has experienced in life.  She says, "It was chrysanthemums when I married him, and chrysanthemums when [our child was] born, and chrysanthemums the first time they ever brought him home drunk, he'd got brown chrysanthemums in his buttonhole."

When her dead husband is brought in from the mine and laid out in the parlor, chrysanthemums are also used as a symbol. One of the men bringing in his body knocks over the vase of chrysanthemums by accident.  Elizabeth had put them out earlier  even though they reminded her of her bitter marraige and life.  The chrysanthemums symbolize her married life and all its disappointments.

Their marriage was "dead" even though her husband was still alive.  In the end, even the vase of flowers just leaves an odor behind. The chrysanthemums symbolize the hope and promise that the marriage never fulfilled for Elizabeth.

Another theme in the story is the theme of light and dark.  Most of the action happens in the afternoon and early evening, as the sun is going down.  This symbol generally suggests death and endings.  The ever-growing darkness makes a contrast with the flowers, a symbol of hope.  This can be interpreted as a symbol of Elizabeth's married life, with reality slowly obscuring (darkening) the promise that the wedding crysanthemums originally promised.

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