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.
Life vs. Death ThemeTracker
Life vs. Death Quotes in Odour of Chrysanthemums
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.