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.
Mother/Children Relationships Theme Icon

At the beginning of the story, Elizabeth is seen interacting solely with her children, and although she grows impatient with them at times, she still worries about their safety and acts affectionately towards them. Her differing attitudes towards her children and her husband can be seen when John grumbles that the room is too dark—although his complaints remind Elizabeth of her husband's irritating habits, she laughs affectionately at the appearance of these habits in John. In general, Elizabeth is quickly conciliatory when dealing with John, even though he's surly and resentful.

The contrast between mother/son and wife/husband becomes even more obvious when Walter's mother and Elizabeth react to Walter's death. As Walter's mother says, "But he wasn't your son, Lizzie, an' it makes a difference…" When faced with Walter's body, Walter's mother is able to remember all the endearing aspects of Walter from when he was a little boy she was raising, whereas Elizabeth feels suddenly that she was always married to someone she didn't know.

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Mother/Children Relationships ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Odour of Chrysanthemums related to the theme of Mother/Children Relationships.
Part 1 Quotes

As the mother watched her son's sullen little struggle with the wood, she saw herself in his silence and pertinacity; she saw the father in her child's indifference to all but himself. She seemed to be occupied by her husband. He had probably gone past his home, slunk past his own door, to drink before he came in, while his dinner spoiled and wasted in waiting.

Related Characters: Elizabeth, Walter, John
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

Elizabeth is watching her son John play, and his attitude is reminding her of both herself and her husband Walter. This makes her think of where Walter might possibly be, since he hasn't yet come home. Elizabeth is resentful and angry towards Walter. So many times before he has "slunk" past his house, with a warm dinner lying in wait for him, to spend time at the pub before coming home drunk. Elizabeth's dutiful fulfillment of family duties stands, in her mind, in stark contrast with Walter's dissolute behavior.

And yet at the same time, even as John's gestures remind Elizabeth of her husband, and make her resentment towards Walter rise up again, this resentment doesn't extend to her feelings about her son. John may be "indifferent" to everyone but himself, but this self-centeredness is more natural and forgivable in a child. Elizabeth doesn't seem to fear that John will grow up to be like his father: instead, she concentrates on the fact that Walter doesn't seem to have moved beyond a childhood immaturity and self-absorption.


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"I canna see."
"Good gracious!" cried the mother irritably, "you're as bad as your father if it's a bit dusk!"
Nevertheless she took a paper spill from a sheaf on the mantelpiece and proceeded to light the lamp that hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room.

Related Characters: Elizabeth (speaker), John (speaker), Walter
Related Symbols: Light and Dark
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

Once again, Elizabeth draws a connection - explicitly and out loud, this time - between her son John and her husband Walter. She responds irritably to his complaint about not being able to see, but it's not obvious that she really is upset by John. Instead, it seems that her son has tugged her out of her reverie and forced her back into the real world. He's also reminded her again of her husband, whom she fails to think of with any warmth or sympathy. For John, though, Elizabeth does all she can to make him comfortable. She understands his fear of the dark as the fear of a child, and she is quick to assuage that fear as well as she can.

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.

"But he wasn't your son, Lizzie, an' it makes a difference. Whatever he was, I remember him when he was little, an' I learned to understand him and to make allowances. You've got to make allowances for them—"

Related Characters: Walter's mother (speaker), Elizabeth, Walter
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

Elizabeth and her mother-in-law, Walter's mother, are waiting for news of Walter, and the grandmother is reflecting on the son that she knew - a man that is to be distinguished from Elizabeth's own experience of him. In this passage, Walter's mother seems to be almost defensive. She recognizes that Elizabeth has had a difficult time dealing with Walter's drinking, but she also wants Elizabeth to understand the "real" Walter behind these problems, and to forgive or try to understand - to "make allowances" for - his actions.

Walter's mother does seem to think that there is a real, good Walter behind and beyond the problems he's caused their family. Having raised him, she treasures him as a child, in much the same way that Elizabeth treasures her own children. Elizabeth, however, cannot bring herself to see Walter in such a way: Walter's mother's entreaties only reveal the gap between the way the two women perceive and understand the man.

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.