Odour of Chrysanthemums

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Isolation of Individual Lives Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Isolation of Individual Lives Theme Icon
Mother/Children Relationships Theme Icon
Wife/Husband Relationships Theme Icon
Life vs. Death Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Odour of Chrysanthemums, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Isolation of Individual Lives Theme Icon

When Elizabeth looks over Walter's dead body, she feels "the utter isolation of the human soul." She realizes that she and Walter have always been two separate entities who didn't understand one another, and even when they were physically intimate, there was a lack of understanding and emotional connection between them. She reacts flinchingly towards the baby growing inside her, as it's a reminder of the distance that couldn't be overcome between her and Walter, even by children. She understands that although the distance is emphasized now by death, they were removed from each other long before Walter passed away.

Even before Walter dies, Elizabeth is a picture of isolation. At the very beginning of the story, she watches the miners pass, but her husband doesn't come. She commands the household on her own, and the references to Walter show that she's emotionally removed from him even before he dies. In the description of her son, John, for example, she sees "the father in her child's indifference to all but himself." Finally, the way the story's told—from Elizabeth's perspective, in her head—also emphasizes her solitude by further removing the reader from the perspectives of the other characters in the story.

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Isolation of Individual Lives ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Isolation of Individual Lives appears in each section of Odour of Chrysanthemums. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Isolation of Individual Lives Quotes in Odour of Chrysanthemums

Below you will find the important quotes in Odour of Chrysanthemums related to the theme of Isolation of Individual Lives.
Part 2 Quotes

When they arose, saw him lying in the naïve dignity of death, the women stood arrested in fear and respect. For a few moments they remained still, looking down, the old mother whimpering. Elizabeth felt countermanded. She saw him, how utterly inviolable he lay in himself. She had nothing to do with him.

Related Characters: Elizabeth, Walter, Walter's mother
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

Elizabeth and Walter's mother are looking down at the body of their respective husband or son. Walter's mother seems to be experiencing a more straightforward, if still profound and painful, grief at the sight of her dead son. But Elizabeth's reaction is different. When she looks down at Walter, she doesn't see a husband with whom she shared some of the greatest intimacy of her life. Instead, she sees a stranger. To "countermand" can mean to revoke or repeal, but it can also suggest, and does here, that Elizabeth feels like she herself is rendered unnecessary and invalid. In death, Walter is revealed as his own person, entirely apart from and unknowable to her.

In some ways, Elizabeth sees Walter as she's always seen him before: she only now explicitly recognizes that she's always felt apart from him, that she's never had any sense of connection or closeness to her husband. But in another way, she does see Walter differently, as a whole, "inviolable" being with his own desires and realities, which she's denied to him before. He is no longer just a burden to her or a source of unhappiness and resentment, but revealed as his own person, complex in all his goodness, badness, and individuality.


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They never forgot it was death, and the touch of the man's dead body gave them strange emotions, different in each of the women; a great dread possessed them both, the mother felt the lie was given to her womb, she was denied; the wife felt the utter isolation of the human soul, the child within her was a weight apart from her.

Related Characters: Elizabeth, Walter, Walter's mother
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

As Elizabeth and Walter's mother clean Walter's body, the action affects them both in different ways, although both women struggle to manage their emotions. This passage draws one major connection between the women in focusing on their relationships to their children, through the womb that carried them. Walter's mother continues to think back on the years she spent raising her son: the promise of life that seemed to come from the time she was pregnant with Walter now seems to be denied to her with his death.

Although Elizabeth's thoughts are also centered around the womb, her feelings are quite different. Here we learn that she is carrying another of Walter's children. But just as she saw Walter and felt that he was entirely separate from her - and thus that she too was alone and isolated - now she feels that her unborn child, although growing inside her, has nothing to do with her either. The distinction Elizabeth has made in the past between her negative relationship to her husband and her more tender relationship to her children now begins to collapse, as the existential isolation she senses seems to spread out from Walter's body to her own.

There were the children—but the children belonged to life. This dead man had nothing to do with them. He and she were only channels through which life had flowed to issue in the children. She was a mother—but how awful she knew it now to have been a wife. And he, dead now, how awful he must have felt it to be a husband.

Related Characters: Elizabeth, Walter, John, Annie
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

Elizabeth begins to distinguish her complex relationship to Walter from the lives of the children that they have produced together. It is beginning to dawn on Elizabeth that she failed to fully know or even try to understand her husband. She has no illusions that her marriage could have been a good one, but for the first time she recognizes that Walter, too, must have suffered from being her husband just as she suffered from being his wife. While Walter remains indelibly distinct from her, then, Elizabeth does try to imaginatively inhabit his mind.

And yet, nonetheless, since Walter is now dead he is definitively apart from the life that she must carry on. Here Elizabeth shows a colder understanding of her relationship to her children (even while thinking less harshly about her relationship to her husband): life belongs to them, but this life has little to do with Walter or even with her - she is only a conduit through which life reached them, she says. Even in a family, then, the isolation of the individual is so strong as to render bonds of family or relationships ultimately insignificant.