Odour of Chrysanthemums Essays and Criticism
by D. H. Lawrence

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Imagery in the "Odour of Chrysanthemums"

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Early criticism of Lawrence’s work focused on what was considered to be his sex-obsession. His novels, stories, poems, and paintings were all subjected to various degrees of censorship. While his novels have attracted the lion’s share of critical interest, Lawrence was one of the twentieth century’s most accomplished poets and short story writers. Most critical material on ‘‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’’ concerns either its relationship to other writings by Lawrence, such as Sons and Lovers, or the revisions of the story, made between 1909 and 1914. Mired in ‘‘this dirty hole, rats and all,’’ of a rough mining village, Elizabeth Bates has perhaps begun to regard her husband as just another of the area’s rodents. Even the doctor refers to the method of Walter Bates’s accidental death, a rock fall in the mine tunnel which cuts off his air supply, as being like the action of a mousetrap. However, by the end of the story, when the grime and dirt from the mine are washed off Walter Bates’s handsome body, his natural beauty emerges and he is again the innocent ‘‘lamb’’ his mother remembers from his boyhood. The story concerns his transformation from an irresponsible, hurtful, and selfish man into a symbol of masculine beauty and life itself. More importantly, it concerns the metamorphosis of Elizabeth Bates. By the end of the story, she has recognized the true, abstract worth of her husband, and the ‘‘otherness’’ of another world, which he represents. She is humbled by this revelation and will be a chastened and more reverential woman in future. The story accomplishes the transformation of the two characters through the manipulation of a variety of symbols, and through the representation of Elizabeth Bates as an intrusive reader and interpreter of grand symbolic occurrences in her own life.

The story uses a variety of symbols and achieves its effects through suggestion and nuance. First, the story employs a traditional catalogue of symbolic contrasts, such as the natural world’s separation from the dark, satanic mine. Second, the story employs biblical symbolism, particularly associated with Walter’s dead body. Third, the closure of the story implies a parallel with the Egyptian myth of Osiris and Isis, and fourth, the story draws on the symbolism in Lawrence’s personal mytho-poetic philosophy, associated with the relationship of the sexes.

The story makes reference to a range of traditional symbols. Like much of Lawrence’s work, it draws extensively on nature imagery. In this way, Lawrence belongs to a line of prose writers in the pastoral narrative tradition of Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy, who celebrated rural life, discovering in nature something of profound spiritual significance. Their sympathy with nature also indicates a nostalgia for a mythic English past, which probably never existed in the idealized form they presented. Certainly, however, the rural environment was being transformed from the mid-eighteenth century up to the time of Lawrence by industrialization, which blights the environment of the Bates’s family home at the beginning of ‘‘Odour of Chrysanthemums.’’ The story opens with the image of an awkward, stumbling train startling a young colt, which can still outrun it, and frightening away birds. The engine’s smoke clings to the grass just as the effects of the mine’s pollution have caused the oak tree to wither. Unlike many Victorian novels, such as George Eliot’s Felix Holt , in which the train represents progress, here it merely destroys. In this environment, a vine clutches at a cottage as if it wants to pull the structure down, and even the chrysanthemums are ‘‘dishevelled.’’ The war between the organic world and the hard, machine world of the mine reflects the conflict between the characters in the story. Walter is associated until the end with the murderous, mechanical domain of the mine, and Elizabeth with the...

(The entire section is 8,152 words.)