Dark Beginnings and Light Endings in Two Short Stories
The death of a man and the birth of a love affair are the subjects of two short stories by D. H. Lawrence and though their plots vary greatly, similar patterns of dark and light imagery, renewal and rebirth reinforce Lawrence’s theme of regeneration. In his short stories entitled “The Odour of Chrysanthemums” and “The Horse-dealer’s Daughter,” Lawrence makes use of dark and light image patterns to represent the stages of transformation undergone by Elizabeth and Mabel, the female protagonists of these two stories. Dark imagery illustrates the starting place of each woman – stale, stagnant, physically alive but nearly dead inside. Light imagery represents the finalization of their transformations – regeneration, rebirth. The tone of these stories correlates with the journey of their characters. Indeed, even more than correlation, the tone appears to represent directly the situation of Elizabeth in her story and Mabel in hers.
Elizabeth’s story begins with shadows. “Miners, single, trailing and in groups, passed like shadows diverging home” (2483). She tells her little son to come inside because “it’s getting dark” and when she looks over across the tracks, she describes the darkness “settling over the spaces of the railway and the trucks: the miners, in grey somber groups” and her husband is not in one of those groups, he does not come (2484-2485). Even something beautiful, like a bouquet of flowers, is portrayed negatively. When her daughter murmurs that they “smell beautiful,” her mother laughs and says, “No, not to me. It was chrysanthemums when I married him, and chrysanthemums when you were born, and the first time they ever brought him home drunk, he’d got brown chrysanthemums in his buttonhole” (2487). Her beginning is so dark that even a bunch of flowers is not able to brighten it.
Mabel’s story has a similarly dark beginning. The breakfast table is “desolate,” the dining room is “dreary” and “waiting to be done away with,” and Mabel is alone – she does not “share the same life as her brothers” (2496). Her brothers are irritable towards her, she does not answer them, she averts her eyes and one of them calls her “the sulkiest bitch that ever trod” and it is apparent that her mood is very dark. Her house is no brighter. It is described as “servantless” and desolate,” a home that she has kept together “in penury for her ineffectual brothers” for all the months since her father died (2499-2500). Her mood is bitter and her surroundings are bitter, so it is no surprise that her story begins so blackly.
Before she has reached regeneration but long after her desolate beginning, Elizabeth in “The Odour of Chrysanthemums” gains a little light in her life. When she hears of the death of her husband, she “lighted a candle and went into the tiny room” and the candlelight glitters while her mother in law moves to sit next to the lighted fire (2492). The room is dim, but not dark, as she and her mother in law begin to wash his dead body and Elizabeth embraces “the body of her husband, with cheek and lips” and when their work is finished, he appears to be “a man of handsome body, and his face showed no traces of drink. He was blond, full-fleshed, with fine limbs” (2494). The process is not a cheery one, but there are glimmers of light and hope as she takes care of her husband’s body and comes to terms with his death. The realization that her life will never again be darkened by worries about his drinking and his continual absence in the lives of her and her children is enough to begin the process of bringing her back to life.
The middle of Mabel’s story is brightened as well. When she goes to visit her mother’s grave, she arranges flowers around it and cleans the marble headstone in a “state bordering on pure happiness.” By cleaning and taking care of her mother’s grave, she feels intimately connected to her – more connected to her than to any of the live human beings in her life. When she leaves her mother’s grave and walks into the water in an effort to end her own life, she is saved by the doctor and, once again, we see the word ‘dim.’ He pulls her out of the water and looks across onto the “dim” world and when he gets her back to her house, there is a fire burning in the grate (2503). Though her surroundings are still dim, there are no longer completely dark; she has gained some bit of light. Because the doctor has saved her, it is understood that he feels some attraction to her, some connection to her; there is a possibility that she will experience the connection that she feels with her dead mother with a person who is actually alive. This possibility fills her story with hope.
The brightest imagery concludes Elizabeth’s story and is symbolic of her final rebirth. As she cleans and wraps the dead body of her husband, he is “clear and clean and white, beautiful as ever a child was made” (2495). She looks at his body with all of the smokey life gone from it and she understands that “they had met in the dark and had fought in the dark,” but this episode of her life is over (2495-2496). It is not the death of her husband that brightens her life; rather, it is the change in her mind, the realization that even though he was flawed, she had a husband with whom she would always be connected through their children. She no longer sees a man who is flawed, a man who was worn down by the daily grind of his life and work and who had turned to alcohol to find relief; she sees a changed man, a man who she had not understood while he was alive because she was too busy denying him and being angry with him. But now she sees a different man. She sees a man who will no longer disappoint her, but whom she will remember as the father of children and as a fellow human being struggling through a hard life. She had not loved him in life because she had never tried to know him, but this is all over now. All she has to focus on is life – her life and the life of her children and so, she covers him with a sheet and she peacefully sets about to “tidy the kitchen” (2496).
Similarly to the conclusion of Elizabeth’s story, D.H. Lawrence employs light imagery in the final moments of Mabel’s story when she is reborn. Light from the street lights shines through the windows and the doctor lights the gas with matches and she has on her best dress and her hair is tidy. They have kissed passionately many times because Mabel has come to realize that the doctor loves her. She knows that he loves her because he has saved her. He had been stagnant, isolated and had witnessed real, raw emotion only through his patients and their interactions with the people in their lives. He had lived vicariously through them. And Mabel’s only connection was with her dead mother. But they connect with each other. The doctor is finally directly involved with the emotion that he has always witnessed from the outside. And she has finally found the connection she had with the grave of her dead mother in a living, breathing human being. She is no longer alone, and neither is the doctor. These are two seemingly isolated individuals who have finally found one another. When they come up out of the water together, it is a kind of rebirth for the both of them and the romantic connection that follows only accentuates the awakening of these two individuals. As the two of them sit together in her house, the doctor stokes the fire and lights the gas to keep the room bright. As the room gets brighter, their intimacy seems to grow stronger. They hold each other and cry together. The doctor says that he has to go, but Mabel begs him to stay and he does. “I want you, I want you,” he tells her blindly (2507). The rescue and its aftermath has resulted in a human connection that neither Mabel nor the doctor has ever experienced before.
Throughout the course of both of these stories, the total transformation of two characters is witnessed. Elizabeth’s story is gloomy, broken and dark when we first meet her. But through the death of her husband, she learns to accept what she never had when he was still alive and thus she gives herself the chance to be reborn. The connection that she will always have to him through her children concludes her story with exceedingly bright light. Mabel’s story begins just as gloomily. She has no family, no friends and no life outside of tending to the grave of her dead mother. She has no light in her life. But when the doctor saves her and the two of them come up out of the water, they are finally able to leave their lives of isolation and to find comfort and company in one another. This connection awakens love in Mabel and the experience of this raw emotion transfigures her life. Though these two women have dark beginnings, their endings are indeed very bright.
Lawrence, D.H. “The Horse-dealer’s Daughter.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 2496-2507. Print.
Lawrence, D.H. “The Odour of Chrysanthemums.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 2483-2496. Print.
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