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Growth Of A Chrysanthemum Essay, Research Paper

Growth of a Chrysanthemum

D. H. Lawrence s 1914 short story, “Odour of Chrysanthemums”, is still in print and considered worth reading in 1999. Perhaps it s printed and reprinted as a matter of habit. Perhaps editors like it because other editors have. But maybe it s a success because it s an exceptional work. Of these three possibilities, the last is certainly the most appealing. Luckily, it seems most likely to be true. Lawrence made a conscious effort to improve and focus the story, as differences between the 1910 draft and the 1914 final version reveal. Lawrence succeeded in this endeavor, carefully revising an already excellent work to create a classic.

The claim that “Odour of Chrysanthemums” is a well-crafted story is hardly brave or risky, for many would agree. For instance, the man who in a sense discovered Lawrence, English Review editor F. M. Ford, said this about “Odour of Chrysanthemums”:

The very title makes an impact on the mind. You get at once the knowledge that this is not, whatever else it may turn out, either a frivolous or even a gay springtime story. Chrysanthemums are not only flowers of the autumn: they are the autumn itself . . . This man knows what he wants. He sees the scene of his story exactly. He has an authoritative mind. (Ford 257)

As a fiction editor, he is quite receptive to Lawrence s descriptive gifts. He is impressed with Lawrence s sense of purpose. But readers needn t assess the short story by Ford s methods alone. Modern readers have a very different perspective than Lawrence s contemporaries, ensuring that many different analyses of “Odour of Chrysanthemums” are possible.

However, the plot itself is very simple. In the 1914 version, Elizabeth Bates spends most of the story waiting for her husband to return from the mine, fretting that he is once again dallying at a favorite pub. His coworkers drag him home, but he is not in a drunken stupor. He is dead, suffocated in an accident at the mine. Initially it seems that the moment when Elizabeth learns that her husband is dead is the story s climax. However, this is not the story s most riveting moment, for Lawrence s foreshadowing has already given this ending away. Elizabeth often unknowingly hints at the coming death, saying, “They ll bring him when he does come–like a log” (Lawrence 290). The real surprise comes after the reader discovers the death. Where the reader expects an anticlimax, they get a finale in Elizabeth s startling realization:

And her soul died in her for fear: she knew she had never seen him, he had never seen her, they had met in the dark and had fought in the dark, not knowing whom they met nor whom they fought. And now she saw, and turned silent in seeing. For she had been wrong. She had said he was something he was not; she had felt familiar with him. Whereas he was apart all the while, living as she never lived, feeling as she never felt. (Lawrence 300)

This is Elizabeth s epiphany. Her husband, a seemingly familiar fixture in her life, was ultimately a stranger to her. Her shock at realizing this suggests that some deep-seated belief of hers has turned out false. Perhaps Elizabeth incorrectly assumed that marriage implied a special connection between husband and wife. Whatever the belief, this realization coupled with her husband s sudden death leads to an acute sense of loneliness, which is the most unique aspect of the story. If we can attribute the unusual success of “Odour of Chrysanthemums” to those unique aspects, which distinguish it from other stories, then perhaps the unique, final moment is key evidence in the search for the reasons why “Odour of Chrysanthemums” is successful.

Furthermore, the epiphany must be considered carefully, for it is of vital importance to the story and its readers perceptions of it. The position of the epiphany in the story s structure clearly suggests its importance. If the moment when Elizabeth discovers that her husband is dead truly is the climax, then why does Lawrence spend pages describing the period following this supposed climax? In other successful Lawrence short stories, such as “Second Best”, the defining moment comes in the last pages. The fact that Elizabeth s epiphany, not the return of the dead collier, occupies this large final area in the short story s structure is further proof that the epiphany is the central moment of “Odour of Chrysanthemums.” Therefore, a good assessment of the story will largely revolve around this most important moment.

A comparison between the final version of the story and an earlier 1910 draft effectively highlights the story s quality, particularly in terms of the ending. For instance, Elizabeth s reaction to her bereavement is quite different in the 1910 version than in the 1914 version. One clear example of this is the depiction of Elizabeth and her mother-in-law washing the grime from the coal mine off her husband s body. In the 1910 version, Lawrence writes:

Sometimes they forgot it was death, and the touch of the man s body gave them strange thrills, different in each of the women; secret thrills that made them turn one from the other, and left them with a keen sadness. (Bolton 43)

These lines show that Lawrence, in his 1910 version, had not yet decided to use the emotional inertia generated by the collier s death in any unusual way. In the 1914 revision, however, he has developed the idea of Elizabeth s epiphany and has changed the short story a great deal:

They never forgot it was death, and the touch of the man s 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. (Lawrence 299)

While the 1910 version emphasizes a sort of wistful memory, the 1914 text clearly pursues a different goal. What in 1910 was “They sometimes forgot it was death” became “They never forgot it was death.” Lawrence is describing a much more ultimate loss in 1914. Even the mother feels “the lie,” and the wife feels “the utter isolation of the human soul.” By 1914, the story is less about a miner s pseudo-tragic death and more about the lack of meaning in institutional human relationships. Lawrence has chosen to do more than tell a simple tale. He is, for instance, considering the very meaning of marriage. For Lawrence, marriage is itself little more than a social pleasantry or a contract. Marriage therefore does not equal love. It is a symbol for love, but it is not necessarily a sign of it. Lawrence has concentrated his formidable efforts on revising “Odour of Chrysanthemums” with this in mind, mostly reworking the ending and developing Elizabeth s epiphany. While he has also edited and streamlined the entire story, the basic structure and plot remains the same. The most noticeable change between the 1910 and 1914 versions concern Elizabeth s final reaction.

Did this change improve the story? Lawrence must have thought so, or he wouldn t have made the changes at all. Assuming Lawrence to be correct, what qualities of the final version, particularly the ending, show improvement over the 1910 draft? While the draft s ending is something of an appeasement in its assurance that Elizabeth will lovingly remember her dead husband, the final version uses the death as a stepping stone for an idea more shockingly troublesome to the reader than most any plot element could be. The idea that people are ultimately alone generates so much shock in the reader because it applies to them and their personal relationships. Readers will generally fear for themselves much more readily than empathize with a fictional character. Lawrence, in changing the story to exploit this tendency, has created a more intimate interaction between story and reader. He has, in effect, made the story more powerful and memorable.

The nature of the revisions that Lawrence made to the 1910 story further illustrates the differences between the two stories. Where most of the revisions were actually reduction, the epiphany is an added element. Its unique treatment further suggests its importance. Lawrence attempts to make the epiphany more effective by cutting extraneous information and detail from the first part of the story. An example of this is the removal of a very colorful depiction of the children playing, where young John and Annie pretend to eat a hedgehog for dinner:

But he insisted, and it had to be baked in clay. In a few seconds it was done: a pair of the father s stockings, black specked with red, rolled in a duster for clay. Annie was forced to pretend to eat; though she dithered at the bare idea. (Bolton 24)

The scenes of children playing are some of the most compelling, realistic and enjoyable moments in the story. Despite this, Lawrence cut them drastically, giving them merely a passing mention in the 1914 version. Lawrence eliminated one of the cleverest parts of the story in the name of brevity and coherence. While the children s play scene is an interesting aside, it does little to advance the story towards the death and subsequent epiphany. In the 1914 revision, Lawrence worked to develop a powerful whole rather than successful descriptive bits as seen in the elimination of much of the children s role in the short story. Since Lawrence was quite actively concerned with creating an effective whole in the 1914 revision, his clearer focus on Elizabeth s realization must be part of that attempt. By 1914, Lawrence was doing more than writing down scenes and descriptions that came to mind. He was writing with a purpose. It is this new senses of purpose, rather then any added imagery that brings the story above the level of Lawrence s average try.

Despite this evidence, there are valid arguments against the hypothesis that “Odour of Chrysanthemums” is a well-made story and that the final version is an improvement over the 1910 draft. For instance, it could be argued that the story poorly represents Lawrence s feelings about matrimony. It makes little sense that Lawrence would emphasize universal loneliness at a time when he had just returned from his elopement with Frieda Weekley and married her. Presumably this is the time when he was most excited about marriage. From this perspective, either the story is flawed or the interpretation given in this essay is incorrect. However, this argument is based on the assumption that marriage and true love are the same. Lawrence clearly did not feel this way, as a July 1914 letter reveals:

One must learn to love, and go through a great deal of suffering to get to it, like any knight of the grail, and the journey is always towards the other soul, not away from it. Do you think love is an accomplished thing, the day it is recognized? It isn t. To love, you have to learn to understand the other, more than she understands herself, and to submit to her understanding of you. It is damnably difficult and painful, but it is the only thing, which endures. (7 July 1914)

Lawrence s advice about the nature of love demonstrates that he did not equate marriage and love. It is possible that Lawrence could view marriages of necessity, such as Elizabeth s, as meaningless by themselves while viewing marriages driven by emotion, such as his own, as real. If Lawrence agreed with the idea of marriage but felt that marriage wasn t magical in itself, then the story s message still makes sense, even considering the actual events Lawrence s life.

A more solid objection is that the ending is just too unbelievable to be effective. Elizabeth, some might say, is just not the kind of woman who could have these kinds of complex, intellectual ideas. After all, she is a poor coal-miner s wife who is too busy cooking, cleaning and worrying about her husband s sobriety to develop a sophisticated personal philosophy. Before her epiphany, Elizabeth is almost exactly the kind of woman Lawrence describes in his 1928 essay, Women are so Cocksure. She is the fretting wife who “as sure as a woman has the whip-hand over her destiny and the destinies of those near her, so sure will she make a mess of her own destiny, and a muddle of the others ” (Phoenix 168). But where any other “cocksure” woman would simply view the death as another parable describing the evil of “John Barleycorn,” Elizabeth instead suddenly becomes introspective. This sudden change is difficult for the reader to accept, adding to the argument that the ending is too unlikely to believe. This argument is well reasoned, but even if Elizabeth indeed isn t educated enough or complex enough to realistically have these ideas, it is not as damning for the story as a detractor might originally suppose. Lawrence is not the only writer who has been able to pull off a successful story despite an unrealistically thoughtful character. For instance, in Faulkner s As I Lay Dying, the main character Darl is far too complex and poetic a character for readers to accept that he could possibly be a “Yoknapatawphian” Bundren. But Faulkner ignores this problem, and in many ways this is what makes the book, for without Darl s advanced viewpoint, we would have little to contrast the musings of the other characters with. Similarly, Elizabeth s too insightful nature is necessary for the story to have a shocking message. Though Elizabeth s intellectualism is somewhat unfeasible, Lawrence has chosen, like Faulkner, to ignore this potential problem, and we perhaps are the better for it. If anything, the objection about believability shows that the story is imperfect, but it is this imperfection which allows the story to develop a meaningful theme. If not for Elizabeth s controversial epiphany, readers would be left with little more than a basic plot, which they would quickly forget.

Flaws included, “Odour of Chrysanthemums” is a very good short story. Like most any work by Lawrence, it creates a compelling scene through use of vivid imagery and descriptive prose. But the story goes beyond poetic language, illustrated in the story s evolution between 1910 and 1914. By 1914, Lawrence had refined the story into something worth adding to the mainstream social library, for when she wiped the grime off her husband s corpse, Elizabeth exposed the frightening idea that all people are in some sense alone. This idea reflects people s deepest fears, or perhaps evokes new ones. “Odour of Chrysanthemums” is not successful and shocking because of particularly beautiful writing, realistic characters or even a surprise ending. It is shocking because of a surprise thought.

Works Cited

Lawrence, David Herbert. “Odour of Chrysanthemums.” D. H. Lawrence: The Complete Short Stories (Vol. 2). New York: Penguin Books, 1976.

Bolton, James T. “Odour of Chrysanthemums: An Early Version.” Renaissance and Modern Studies 13 (1969), 12-44.

Ford, Madox Ford. “D. H. Lawrence.” Portraits from Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937.

Lawrence, David Herbert. “Women Are So Cocksure.” Phoenix. London: Heinemann, 1936. 167-69.

Lawrence, David Herbert. “To T. D. D.” 7 July 1914. Selected Letters. Ed. Richard Aldington. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

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