There are a few really cool things happening in this short story that make my writer brain do a little happy dance but mostly it’s just a really depressing story. Yes, we are back to those very common literary themes of isolation and death. And, for me anyway, the ending left something to be desired–which can make or break a story.
One of the main points of this story deals with the complexities of love, specifically the marriage of Elizabeth and Walter. Walter is introduced before he makes an appearance (of sorts) from Elizabeth complaining about his drinking:
And this is what I came here for, to this dirty hole, rats and all, for him to slink past his very door […]Elizabeth
There is a lot of anger towards Walter from Elizabeth as she blames him for the failure of their marriage. However, as the story progresses, she comes to realize that she is just as responsible as he is and that he probably felt as isolated as she did. Neither of them is willing to forgive the other which results in their mutual estrangement. Elizabeth is only able to see what disappoints her about Walter, until he goes missing and she starts to think about what her life would be like without him.
In fact, most of their relationship is depicted in darkness. When Elizabeth is out looking for her husband, it is so dark that she is only about to hear the potential dangers around her, whether they be rats or housewives gossiping. This permanent darkness makes it impossible for either of them to truly see the other.
Of course, we’re going to have to talk about the chrysanthemums, not just because they’re in the title but because they’re associated with death–at least for Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s dislike of them is first shown when her son is strewing them on the walkway to their house and Elizabeth scolds him because she finds the flowers “nasty”. However, it’s interesting that she takes one of the flowers and places it in her apron next to her unborn child.
Through the story, Elizabeth remembers the scent of
chrysanthemums along with the birth of her daughter so in a sense the flowers are both a symbol of death and life. She even keeps vases of
chrysanthemums in her house, though she claims to hate the scent, which suggest that while she is reluctant to embrace all the memorize associated with the flowers, her life is too closely linked to them for her to be rid of them entirely.
While there’s a lot about this story that I find interesting and there is certainly skill shown in how it is written, it isn’t something I think I’ll ever read again. It’s one of those stories you have to read a couple times and have an idea of what you’re looking for to really get anything out of it.