As the protagonist in “The Odour of Chrysanthemums,” the reader follows Elizabeth through one night of her life. This is the night that changes everything for Elizabeth forever.
Elizabeth and her family wait for her husband Walter to come from work. He does not come home; Elizabeth believes that he is at the local pub. Eventually, she learns that Walter has been killed in a mine accident. The story concludes with Elizabeth and Walter’s mother preparing his body for burial. Elizabeth realizes that she has not been a good wife to Walter because she withheld herself from him.
Chrysanthemums and symbolism
Disillusionment and Dreams
‘…she, suddenly pitiful broke off a twig with three or four flowers and held them again her face.’
Elizabeth is a complex character. When her son finds some flowers and drop the leaves, Elizabeth tells him to stop because they look nasty. Yet, she places the flowers against her face. This gesture shows a soft side of Elizabeth. She then puts the flower branch in her apron rather than throw it away.
The chrysanthemums represent a dual meaning for Elizabeth. She loves the flowers, but they last briefly in the fall. The smell is refreshing sometimes.
The flowers are beautiful for a time. Elizabeth keeps them in vases in her house. Real beauty is fleeting in Elizabeth‘s life because it has not gone the way that she planned. She had dreams about her marriage and her life.
Now, disillusionment finds its way into her heart and mind. The town is filled with rats and dirt. Her husband goes to the pub rather than come home. She is pregnant with a third child. Nothing is as she thought it would be.
When her daughter asks to smell the flowers, Elizabeth is short with her. The daughter thinks that the flowers smell wonderful. To the mother, the chrysanthemums represent the good in her life and the bad times that have doused her dreams. Chrysanthemums were in her wedding bouquet, and Walter gave her chrysanthemums when her daughter was born. Those were the good times.
On the other hand, the first time that Walter was brought home drunk, he had a brown chrysanthemum in his button hole. Bitterly, she thinks to herself that this is what her life has come: Waiting on a drunken man.
Elizabeth associates death with chrysanthemums. When she prepares the room for Walter’s body, Elizabeth notices “two vases of pink chrysanthemums.” By having the chrysanthemums in her parlor, the reader knows that she obviously loves the flowers. Then she declares that the room has the smell of death coming from the flowers.
When the men bring in Walter’s body, one of the men knocks over the vase of chrysanthemums.The flowers symbolize not only the initiation of her marriage, but now the end of it: her marriage is broken and lost forever.
Elizabeth looks at Walter as she prepares his body for burial and realizes what she had missed in her marriage. She did not know him, nor did she give herself to him. She understands how delicate the balance of life is. Just like the broken vase of flowers that was intentionally broken, her life and marriage had been broken long death of her husband.
Elizabeth blames herself. Possibly that is why he did not come home each night. She was not there for him. In addition, Elizabeth had been waiting for something. Instead of living in the moment, she spent her time wishing for something different or something better.