Odour of Chrysanthemums

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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.
Life vs. Death Theme Icon

The story is one of contrasts, the main one being the contrast between the living and the dead. This juxtaposition is shown through the story's symbols, such as the chrysanthemums, which at the beginning of the story, appear alive and growing outside the house, and towards the end of the story, are plucked dead—in one of Elizabeth's memories of Walter, they appear brown and wilting. Their odor, once Walter has passed away, also reminds Elizabeth of death ("there was a cold, deathly smell of chrysanthemums in the room").

When Walter's body is brought back to the house, both his mother and Elizabeth are in awe of it. In death, he has a dignity he may not have possessed in life, and Elizabeth realizes that she never knew who he was; death reveals this truth to her. She turns her thoughts to practical questions as well—such as how she might raise her children on a small pension alone—as she realizes that although death is the ultimate master, life is her current ruler, and she has to answer to its demands immediately. Walter's peaceful appearance in death stands in contrast to Elizabeth's striving attitude in life, and yet she knows that she too will one day die.

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Life vs. Death ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Odour of Chrysanthemums related to the theme of Life vs. Death.
Part 2 Quotes

If he was killed—would she be able to manage on the little pension and what she could earn?—she counted up rapidly. If he was hurt—they wouldn't take him to the hospital—how tiresome he would be to nurse!—but perhaps she'd be able to get him away from the drink and his hateful ways. She would—while he was ill. The tears offered to come to her eyes at the picture. But what sentimental luxury was this she was beginning?—She turned to consider the children. At any rate she was absolutely necessary for them. They were her business.

Related Characters: Elizabeth, Walter
Page Number: 86-87
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, as Elizabeth worries about what may have happened to Walter, she faces for the first time the possibility of his death or injury, and imagines a future that, in either case, might be radically different than their past together. First, when she thinks about her husband's death, her thoughts immediately turn to the practicalities of life: after all, Walter may be painfully troublesome, but he does serve the role of the family breadwinner, so without him Elizabeth will have to find a way to support herself and her children on her own. 

When her thoughts turn to nursing Walter back to health, Elizabeth seems to allow herself a bit of romantic reflection, which she's denied herself up until now. She permits herself to wonder if she might be able to change Walter after all - if the husband-wife relationship that has become a static reality between them might be open to shifting, even if this comes as a result of pain and injury. Still, Elizabeth soon dismisses these thoughts. She recognizes that her greatest responsibility is towards her children - and unlike Walter, she's never shirked that responsibility. Any thoughts of his death or injury, then, need to concern her only insofar as they would affect the children and their well-being.


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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.

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.

Elizabeth sank down again to the floor, and put her face against his neck, and trembled and shuddered. But she had to draw away again. He was dead, and her living flesh had no place against his.

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

Elizabeth continues to struggle to come to terms with Walter's death, distraught not quite because she loved him and is grieving, but because his death has prompted a great deal of contemplation on her part concerning what it means to live and die at all. After having felt that Walter's body underlines the isolation and separateness of human beings, Elizabeth momentarily tries to reduce this distance by embracing her husband's body. But she is only further convinced by doing so that his cold, dead body has nothing to do with her warm, living one. She now finds herself more alone than ever, required to turn towards the life that remains for her, even if it is a life that seems to hold little joy.

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.

Then, with peace sunk heavy on her heart, she went about making tidy the kitchen. She knew she submitted to life, which was her immediate master. But from death, her ultimate master, she winced with fear and shame.

Related Characters: Elizabeth
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

Elizabeth has finished washing Walter's body, and after the desperate, profound anxiety of the last few moments, she recognizes that despite all of that there are still chores that need to be done, children that need to be fed. Elizabeth knows that she can't shirk these duties, even while grieving, because soon enough she'll have to occupy life and all its requirements once again. This embrace of life, however, is not a joyful one - it's one that Elizabeth must "submit" to, because it is the only alternative to death. Elizabeth has, however, glimpsed death, and knows that it is lying in wait for her and for everyone else, even her children - although theirs is a greater time of life, presumably. Elizabeth has grasped that the dead are fully apart, no longer relevant to life: but she also must continue to live while fully recognizing death's inevitability and omniscience, and the way in which it forces her to consider things she'd perhaps rather not face.