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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

D.H. Lawrence could be remembered for this story alone

D.H. Lawrence's short story Odour of Chrysanthemums (whew, spelled it right first try) is in a sense an encapsulation of the great themes of his writing. I can't say that had he written only this he'd still be remembered, but it makes a perfect introduction to his major (early) works - maybe even better than his more famous novels, which can become insufferable with their earnest tone and lack of wit. This story is of life and death in a small midlands mining town  - we see at the outset, in a long paragraph rich with detail and topical language, the British countryside scarred and ruined by industrialization, and, in a cinematic manner, the frame narrows and we focus on a young mother in the mining town (we later learn that she's pregnant), calling for her son, Jonathan, who appears from among a scrubby row of bushes - she'd been concerned that he was playing near the creek (fouled with coal spillings), introducing the main theme of the story, the proximity of death. After a brief encounter w/ her father at a railroad siding - we learn, almost incidentally, that he is recently widowed and now has a new girlfriend or wife, to daughter's annoyance, woman goes into the small house and begins preparing dinner and the story now settles into its simple narrative line: she's waiting for husband to come home from the mines and fully expects he will stop first at a pub and most likely come home or be carried home dead drunk. As the night goes on, she walks through the village in search of him or of info about him - ashamed to go asking in the pubs - and, at long last, he is brought home, not drunk but dead from a mining accident. Some of the men lay him out on the floor of her "parlor," and her mother-in-law comes over to help prepare the body for the funeral. Mother-in-law is tearful, but the wife is cold and stoic; they strip the body and bathe it - and she realizes how she never knew him, how their lives were entirely separate. This scene is a stark presentation of the issues DHL grappled with: sexuality, alienation between men and women who don't or cannot connect sexually, the brutal physical presence of men and the beauty of the male body. And of course in a parallel theme this is a great feminist story - what chance does the woman have of a decent and fulfilling life? And how can she manage to survive as a widow with 3 children? And it's also a great documentary account of life in the mining village - so essential to English prosperity in the 19th and 20th centuries, but rarely if ever, until DHL, subject of serious examination in fiction: no other short story that I know of gives as precise and harrowing account of the daily life of the family of a miner, the quashed hopes and ambitions, the brutal conditions, the limited scope, the narrow prospects - but also the tightness of the village and the sense in the mining community of watching out for one another, at least to a degree (will people really be there for in days and weeks to come? or is she truly on her own?).

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