Tuesday, February 7, 2012

odour of chrysanthemums - dhlawrence

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Odour of Chrysanthemums by DH Lawrence

As we read Odour of Chrysanthemums by DH Lawrence, we become exposed to the relationship Elizabeth Bates shares with her husband Walter Bates. Although the two are man and wife with two children and another on the way, they are very estranged in life, and even more so in death.

In life, Elizabeth Bates feels immense anger towards Walter for his irresponsibility and negligence towards his family, causing her and the children so much distress.

Strangely enough, Elizabeth seems to feel resentment towards all men in her life. Her father, recently widowed incurs her wrath because she feels that he remarrying too soon. She is angry at her husband because of the pain he has caused the family. Yet, it is her son who evokes mixed feelings in her. She loves him because he is her son, yet she sees her husband in him- “indifferent to all except himself”. She is a principled woman with fixed ideas about how one should act with responsibility and selflessness. And this is how she carries herself towards her children “they are her business”, and she takes care of them. The cause of the rifts between her and the men is her attempt to impose her principles upon them. Because they do not live up to her principles, she is scornful of them and they are distasteful of her and the rift deepens, causing she and the opposite parties to grow more and more estranged.

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Another principle that Elizabeth holds close to her heart is that of love. She seems to have been sentimental, though the practicality and the bitterness of her life seem to have eroded this romantic edge. In hearing of Walter’s accident her first thoughts are neither sorrow, nor panic but of the children, who she has to look after. She considers the different possibilities, surprisingly calm and calculative in her manner, considering if Walter dies, or is only merely injured. She considers his death the better option because then, he will not be a liability for her to take care of, though she does note with some romantic note that in nursing him there will be some “sentimental luxury”. Here, we see that below all she does long for some form of romanticism in her life. Yet, like her eroded romantic side, the chrysanthemums that once represented the Bates’ love too are now objects of bitterness. They remind her of her failed marriage, heightening her disillusionment.

And indeed, chrysanthemums have followed her all her life- pink and lively when Walter gave them to her when they were married, vibrant when Annie was born, and then brown and withered in Walter’s buttonhole the first time he was brought home drunk. That was the start of the descent of their marriage. The chrysanthemums, once objects of happiness are now “ragged” and “dishevelled”, almost pitiful, as is her life. And as if in a bid to remember what her life once was, she holds them against her face- bringing them close to her, hoping to bring happiness close to her. AS Walter dies, the vase of chrysanthemums fall and shatter- symbolic of the last fragments of their marriage falling apart. The deathly odour of the chrysanthemums fills the room, pungent and swift, reminding her of a marriage that she would like so much to forget.

Yet, she cannot forget the marriage, because the odour lingers, as Walter’s body does as well. It does not go and serves to remind her of everything that was not a marriage that she thought was, a Walter that she thought was and a life that she thought was. Yet, she looks at Walter’s body and scarce recognises it, he is a “complete stranger” to her in his dead nakedness, a man that she thought she understood, that she tried to fit in her mould be could not and she has been “fighting a husband who did not exist”. From life till death, he has been “asphyxiated”, strangled in what he was supposed to be, but never was and Elizabeth recognises this, that although they were together, the two were in fact in a state of “utter, intact separateness, obscured by the heat of living”.

It becomes easy to see then, why Walter acted thus. Suffocated in his own home, he, like his son in whom Elizabeth sees his father “canna see” in the darkness. He wants warmth, instead of the dark house he arrives home to. The bright neon of the bars provides him with these warm lighting and hot beer. It is here that he draws his comfort, comfort that he cannot get at home. The material providing of tea and dinner that Elizabeth dutifully dishes out does not make up for this lack.

Unlike Old Mrs Bates who mourns Walter’s death, wailing and mourning, Elizabeth can hardly find the tears to cry. While Walter has wronged them both, like Elizabeth to John’s sullenness, Old Mrs Bates forgives Walter’s transgressions. In his death, she remembers him as a child, and she his mother his “hearty laugh” and better days, and weeps for these memories lost. Yet, for Elizabeth Bates, she does not and never did understand the man who lies before her and hence she cannot weep.

As Elizabeth Bates experiences the “utter isolation of the human soul”, she realises for the first time that she has never known her husband and it is too late to make amends. In this, we give her our sympathy because of the snare that she has been trapped in all her life an unhappy marriage that she thought could not be saved and because it is too late for her to reconcile with the late Walter in this relationship gone awry.


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