Odour of Chrysanthemums

Odour of Chrysanthemums Part 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When the clock strikes eight, Elizabeth abandons her sewing and goes out the door. The night is dark, concealing the scuttling of rats. She walks until she reaches the road, where she can see the "Prince of Wales" ahead and loses her fear. She regains her conviction that her husband is drinking, but she refuses to go fetch him in the pub. Instead, she enters a passage between dwellings and speaks to Mrs. Rigley, another miner's wife. Mrs. Rigley says that her own husband has already come in for dinner and went out again for half an hour before bed. However, he hadn't said anything about Elizabeth's husband, Walter.
Elizabeth hurries in the dark, which seems to press in around her, emphasizing her solitude. And further, the scuttling rats hidden in the night seem to mirror Elizabeth's "scuttling" fears. Even the light from the pub "Prince of Wales" only serves to highlight the darkness outside, and the fact that she stands separate from the lively carousing of the pub. That she refuses to enter the bar again shows her pride—she refuses to be embarrassed by having to go inside to pull him out.
Themes
Isolation of Individual Lives Theme Icon
As Elizabeth turns to go, Mrs. Rigley stops her and says she'll go ask her husband, Jack, whether he knows anything. Mrs. Rigley asks Elizabeth to stop inside and apologizes for the state of the kitchen. Elizabeth reassures Mrs. Rigley that their kitchen is just as bad, but she silently disapproves of the untidiness of the room. She counts the shoes and realizes that they have twelve children, explaining the mess in the house.
Elizabeth's interaction with Mrs. Rigley is important, because her thoughts about Mrs. Rigley's kitchen show that Elizabeth is not just critical of her husband. She's critical of everyone. She's judged her father, Walter, and now the Rigleys. The constant criticism of others causes her to stand apart from community, and also makes Walter's criticism of the "coldness" in their house more understandable, and starts to suggest that Walter is not the only person at fault in the failure of their marriage.
Themes
Isolation of Individual Lives Theme Icon
The Rigleys return, and Jack Rigley reports that Elizabeth's husband isn't at "Prince of Wales." He admits that when he left work Walter stayed behind to finish up, and Elizabeth now feels certain of disaster. She reassures Rigley, however, and says that he probably went up to ‘Yew Tree.' Rigley offers to look for Walter at Dick's, and he walks Elizabeth back to her house before he goes to search.
The presence of death—in Elizabeth's sense of disaster—enters the story at this point and doesn't leave. The story continues on with a sense of dread. Elizabeth continues to put up a brave face, but Rigley's offer suggests that he too is worried about Walter.
Themes
Life vs. Death Theme Icon
Back in her house, Elizabeth waits in the quiet. She's startled when she hears the sound of the winding-engine at the pit, but she calms herself again and waits longer. She takes up her sewing as more time passes, and then at a quarter to ten, she hears a pair of footsteps at the door. The door opens to reveal an elderly woman dressed in black—Walter's mother.
The appearance of Walter's mother gives the reader a chance to directly compare and contrast the feelings of Elizabeth (wife) and Walter's mother towards Walter.
Themes
Mother/Children Relationships Theme Icon
Wife/Husband Relationships Theme Icon
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Walter's mother is upset and keeps telling Elizabeth that she doesn't know what they'll do. Alarmed, Elizabeth asks whether Walter is dead, and his mother responds that they must hope it's not as bad as that. Jack Rigley only told her that Walter had had an accident. Walter's mother tells Elizabeth not to get too upset, or it might affect her pregnancy.
Walter's mother is hysterical and irrational at the news that her son's been injured, whereas Elizabeth asks the practical questions, seeking more information. The mother's love seems more powerful, more overwhelming, than the wife's.
Themes
Mother/Children Relationships Theme Icon
Wife/Husband Relationships Theme Icon
Elizabeth thinks of how she might support her children if Walter is hurt or killed, while Walter's mother continues to ramble about her son. Walter's mother says that it's different for Elizabeth because Walter wasn't her son. Meanwhile, footsteps sound outside the house, and Elizabeth goes to the door. A man in pit-clothes informs Elizabeth that they're bringing Walter now.
When considering the possible consequences of Walter's accident, Elizabeth thinks of the practicalities of the loss—financial ramifications of the death—and how she can protect her own children more than she thinks of Walter. Similarly, Walter's mother focuses on her own child—Walter—and she explicitly tells Elizabeth that their feelings differ because Walter wasn't Elizabeth's son.
Themes
Mother/Children Relationships Theme Icon
Wife/Husband Relationships Theme Icon
Elizabeth asks whether it's bad, and the man responds that the doctor says that Walter's been dead for hours. Walter's mother collapses in a chair upon hearing the news and starts wailing, but Elizabeth shushes her, worried she'll wake the children. She asks the man what happened, and he responds that Walter was shut in and smothered. Walter's mother continues to wail, and Elizabeth once again shushes her.
Walter's death is finally confirmed, and the confirmation sets Walter's mother to wailing again, while Elizabeth remains stern and practical. Note that the description of the way Walter was killed by asphyxiation—that he was "shut in and smothered"—bears a resemblance to what he seems to have felt his life was like with the critical Elizabeth.
Themes
Mother/Children Relationships Theme Icon
Wife/Husband Relationships Theme Icon
Life vs. Death Theme Icon
Elizabeth prepares the parlor for Walter's body, lighting a candle and taking note of the "cold, deathly smell of chrysanthemums in the room." She shivers and lays down tablecloths to save her carpet. Walter's mother continues moaning and rocking in the chair, and Elizabeth informs her that she'll have to move because they're bringing the body. Walter's mother moves without taking much notice.
Although Elizabeth lights a candle, it does little to warm the room as she still shivers. The chrysanthemums, meanwhile, which for Elizabeth had come to symbolize the death of their marriage, now are connected to death itself. In the face of Walter's death Elizabeth is able to function rationally while Walter's mother is not.
Themes
Isolation of Individual Lives Theme Icon
Life vs. Death Theme Icon
The men begin to move Walter's body into the room, and as they do so, the coat used to cover his body slips off, revealing his torso and causing his mother to wail again. One of the men knocks down the vase of chrysanthemums, and Elizabeth replaces them and mops up the water without looking at her husband. As the men comment on the accident, Annie calls for her mother from upstairs.
The arrival of her husband's dead body results in knocking over the chrysanthemums, which while a sad connection to their marriage was also the only remaining vestige of it.
Themes
Mother/Children Relationships Theme Icon
Life vs. Death Theme Icon
Elizabeth goes immediately to hush the girl, telling her to go back to bed and that nothing is amiss. Annie asks whether they've brought her father, and Elizabeth replies that they have. Elizabeth says that he's sleeping downstairs. Annie, hearing Walter's mother wailing, becomes frightened and asks about the sound, but Elizabeth tells her it's nothing, while one of the men attempts to shush the old woman. The children finally go back to sleep, and the men tiptoe out of the house.
Elizabeth controls her feelings in order to protect her children, while Walter's mother is unable to control her feelings at all in the face of her own child's death.
Themes
Mother/Children Relationships Theme Icon
Wife/Husband Relationships Theme Icon
When Elizabeth returns to the parlor, only Walter's mother remains with Walter's body. The two women begin to strip and wash his body. Seeing Walter's body, Elizabeth feels very removed from him, and both women are in awe of his composure and dignity in death. Elizabeth senses "the utter isolation of the human soul" and feels that the weight of her unborn child is apart from her.
To the women, the dignity of Walter's dead body is so far removed from them as living beings that they are in awe of him. Elizabeth senses that all humans are essentially isolated from one another as she and Walter were as husband and wife—a revelation that doesn't seem to be shared by Walter's mother, who still regards Walter as her youthful son.
Themes
Isolation of Individual Lives Theme Icon
Mother/Children Relationships Theme Icon
Wife/Husband Relationships Theme Icon
Life vs. Death Theme Icon
After the women finish washing Walter's body, Walter's mother begins to reminisce about Walter as a child, while Elizabeth considers how removed she and Walter were from each other, even when he was alive. Even when they were physically intimate with each other, Elizabeth realized that there was no true connection there, and she feels that her unborn child is like ice in her womb.
Elizabeth carries her feeling of isolation on to her unborn child—it's not yet a being she has to take care of, but a symbol and reminder of how far removed she was from Walter. For Walter's mother, however, Walter's death is an opportunity to remember her attachment to Walter as her child.
Themes
Isolation of Individual Lives Theme Icon
Mother/Children Relationships Theme Icon
Wife/Husband Relationships Theme Icon
Life vs. Death Theme Icon
Elizabeth begins to acknowledge her role in the dissolution of their marriage, realizing that she never recognized her husband for who he was in life. She pities him as a human now that he's dead. Walter's mother and Elizabeth dress him in a new shirt, and Elizabeth feels a terrible weight at the distance between her and Walter, feeling almost ashamed to touch him.
Elizabeth feels that it's hopeless to try to understand another person in life—only when they're dead is it possible to see them objectively, as another (pitiable) human. At the same time, with this new objectivity she can now see that her judgmental nature played a role in their failed marriage. The German poet Rilke, a contemporary of D.H. Lawrence, discussed lovers as having the responsibility of protecting each other's solitude. Elizabeth and Walter did no such thing.
Themes
Isolation of Individual Lives Theme Icon
Life vs. Death Theme Icon
After the women finish dressing Walter, they cover him with a sheet, and Elizabeth fastens the parlor door so that the children will not stumble upon their father in the morning. Elizabeth goes about tidying the kitchen, aware that her current master is life. However, she fears her ultimate master, which is death.
Even after Elizabeth's revelation about the nature of life, death, and understanding human souls, she remembers to take care of her children. For her, they represent the life she's responsible for at the moment, even as she's aware that, ultimately, death will be as inescapable for her as it was for Walter.
Themes
Mother/Children Relationships Theme Icon
Life vs. Death Theme Icon