Style and Technique

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 621

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Smell of Death and Flowers Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Gordimer relies heavily on imagery to illuminate certain aspects of Joyce McCoy’s character. When Gordimer first introduces Joyce, she compares her to a pink, cold porcelain vase, compares Joyce’s face to the type of face found in a Marie Laurencin painting, and describes Joyce’s prettiness as “two-dimensional.” When Joyce conducts her banal, almost incoherent conversation with her black dancing partner, the author describes her voice as “small” and “flat.” The reader’s impression of Joyce’s superficiality is further reinforced by her initial remarks concerning Jessica Malherbe: an observation of how “nice” the antiapartheid activist looks, and of how good that woman’s perfume is. The author again mentions how Jessica looks, using Joyce’s original words, when Joyce first puts the question to Jessica about joining the demonstration; the author thereby implies that the original sensory impression is still uppermost in Joyce’s mind. When Joyce first puts the question to Jessica, Joyce’s face is described as “blank” and “exquisite,” and her manner of making the request is compared to that of someone requesting an invitation to a dinner party. With such techniques, the author gives a vivid picture of a young woman who is all pretty surface and has no intellectual depth.

In charting Joyce’s road to political commitment, Gordimer plays again and again on olfactory imagery. Twice in the story, Joyce becomes aware of the smell of death and flowers, identified with the odor of incense. The first time that this aroma comes into Joyce’s consciousness is when she is at the multiracial party. In a flashback, Joyce suddenly remembers having noticed this particular smell years earlier, when she had been shopping at an Indian shop in Johannesburg and had been followed by a mysterious stranger who tried to molest her. In the same flashback, Joyce suddenly remembers the same smell of death and flowers as having pervaded the funeral of her English grandfather. The second time that Joyce becomes aware of the smell is during her difficult struggle, while at Jessica’s apartment on the day of the march, to suppress her own anxieties about taking part in the planned antigovernment demonstration.

The author uses this aromatic imagery to symbolize the influence exerted on Joyce’s decision-making processes by psychic elements of which the protagonist is hardly aware. The imagery of smell looms in Joyce’s consciousness whenever she faces something new or shocking or when she is contemplating a leap into the unknown, a decision from which there is no turning back. The smell is to some extent associated with Joyce’s deeply buried anxieties about miscegenation. Thus, she first becomes aware of the smell when she learns, at the party, that Jessica has an Indian husband; her mind then flashes back to when that mysterious man of vaguely Indian appearance had tried to molest her. The smell returns to Joyce’s consciousness on the day of the march, in Jessica’s apartment, at precisely the moment when Joyce meets Jessica’s husband.

The smell of incense, of death and flowers, is also associated with the code of good manners inherited from Joyce’s family background and, by extension, from the English mother country. At the funeral for her grandfather, Joyce had first noticed this smell. The smell returns to her consciousness during the crucial inner struggle in Jessica’s apartment, when Joyce decides that good manners require her to take part in the demonstration as she had promised. The smell of death and flowers thus represents not only the lifeless code of formal politeness inherited from England but also the possibility of new life (flowers) arising from this inherited tradition: a symbol of resurrection as well as of death.