The Modernist Movement in the “Odor of Chrysanthemums”


The modernist movement (1900-1940I in literature was a move away from Romanticism and Realism to create new tools and methods of self-expression. Modernism implies an unceasing process of revisionism, and linguistic strain in the literary avant-garde while renouncing the imperialism that underwrites the “discovery”. The main characteristics of the new movement are ‘an alienated individual’ and emancipation themes, social and historical change, and urban settings.

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Those writers who align themselves with the avant-garde would inevitably adopt exile and its rhetoric as the gesture that, by individuating and universalizing artistic production, would also liberate the writer from his or her “compromised” literary traditions (Poplawski 223). D.H. Lawrence is one of the modernist writers who depict human alienation and self-identity as the main themes of his stories and poems. The short story “Odour of Chrysanthemums” was written in 1909.

The protagonist of the story is a young woman who suffers from oppression and abuse of her husband. One day, her husband is killed in an accident leaving the family without financial support. In this short story, D. H. Lawrence uses a lot of symbols and stylistic devices, descriptive and figurative imagery to unveil the theme of alienation and death typical for modernist writers (Poplawski 224).

Description of Lawrences story

Lawrence uses naturalistic means to project the overwhelmingly powerful nature of the darkness which settles over the narrative in Odour of Chrysanthemums. In figurative meaning, the chrysanthemums are the flowers of this darkness, celebrating death long before it actually arrives. There is something sensuous about them as about the darkness within which they find their meaning; to touch them is to realize how sensuous death can be.

Both flowers and darkness go well with the sensuous aspects of the miner’s household: the small kitchen “full of firelight,” the red coals “glowing up the chimney mouth,” the warm hearth, the teacups “glinting” in the shadowy living room, the “crisp sound of crunching” (Lawrence 2005). The family members have learned to keep themselves busy within this darkness so that when the new darkness arrives, they are not able to fully comprehend its meaning (Friedman 207).

Through repetition, it is shown as settling about that household, wiping away the little light that was present. There is something unavoidably final about it. It influences everything, every little activity from drinking tea to sewing; no activity is sufficient and absorbing enough to help the family escape from its tyranny. The tension is released all at once, with the news of the miner’s death in a pit accident; even the narrative tone turns casual. Elizabeth, who was so very anxious till now because her husband was only temporarily absent, behaves as if nothing has happened. It is as though when, what was foreboded comes to pass, the high-strung suspense disappears, leaving only a residual tension (Friedman 207). The “darkness” now enters teasingly into the cold, tiny room, along with the cold, death-smelling flowers:

One of the men had knocked off a vase of chrysanthemums. He stared awkwardly, then they set down the stretcher. Elizabeth did not look at her husband. As soon as she could get in the room, she went and picked up the broken vase and the flowers. (Lawrence 2005).

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The prose is devoid of all color, the conversations move matter-of-factly. The darkness, we realize, has already achieved its cruel end by throwing her out—after having kept her so much within itself for so long—into a world of mere activity and exposure.

The story so based on a contrast between light and dark. Elizabeth’s son asks: “Why, mother, it’s hardly a bit dark yet. The lamp’s not lighted, and my father’s not home” (Lawrence 2005). Figuratively, light symbolizes life and happiness while darkness symbolizes death and grief. Elizabeth now does everything herself: she consoles the old mother-in-law, answers the children’s difficult questions, wipes clean the dead man’s dark and smoky body.

She is lonely in spite of these activities; but while she continues to live, she must give death the attention which it deserves. One wonders whether her fulfillment of the common demands of the world with a new enthusiasm is not a gift of that darkness through which she has been living for so long. The story has its basis in the multiple descriptions of the odor of the flowers, the roar of the engine, the children’s talk, the silence from within which is brought the dead miner’s “still warm” body and the stunned silence it creates in the wife.

The long wait for the “worst” to come, is enacted in a style which, although it appears to look familiar by bringing in little everyday observations, still trembles with uncanny reverberations of anxiety and apprehension: “She went out. As she dropped piece after piece of coal on the red fire, the shadows fell on the walls, till the room was almost in total darkness” (Lawrence 2005). Such descriptive imagery forces the reader into the story’s world with some nervous expectation; their very density weighs upon his consciousness like an unknown fear.

The adult tension is balanced by the child’s voiced questions and complaints. It is the child who introduces the flower from which the story takes its title and meaning. The object is pulled at in two directions: in the direction of the child, for whom it is just an elegant-looking and beautifully smelling flower, and in the direction of the woman, for whom it is an “unbearable” reminder of events and coincidences. It is in this two-way tension that both the realistic and the symbolic modes of style find their respective meanings. In fact, throughout the story, the symbolic pull of the chrysanthemums is deliberately kept under check, reflected in a small way in the manner the child’s surprise is expressed.

The dusky half-light within which the whole drama takes place is significant in this context, as also are the “conversations” heard through the darkness that has something of the “pit” in it (one may consider here how the child’s inability to see through the darkness that fills the house, brings to the woman thoughts about the husband who, at this moment, is dying within the pit’s smothering dark). The half-light allows the blurring of distinctions between the literal and the symbolic, something that the clarity of the day would not have afforded, while the conversations make the agony of unspoken feelings and thoughts within Elizabeth more acute (Friedman 207).


In sum, the story is an example of the modernist movement in literature based on the themes of death and alienation unveiled through descriptive and figurative language means. The style’s emphasis is on the details and emotions, on the realism of the feelings and unique perception of events. Symbols have depth and intensity, but although the short sentences, the frequent lapses into silence and breathlessness direct one’s attention to the sheer emotional impact of objects and situations.

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Works Cited Page

Friedman, A.W. D. H. Lawrence: Pleasure and Death. Studies in the Novel, 32 (2000). 207.

Lawrence, D.H. Odour of Chrysanthemums. 2005. Web.

Poplawski, P. Encyclopedia of Literary Modernism. Greenwood Press, 2003.

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