Although no strict guidelines exist for the writing of short stories, there are conventions established by tradition. I believe that, though “Odour of Chrysanthemums” does demonstrate several of these conventions, there are some aspects of the story that are most definitely unconventional. Short stories are, by definition, short and it is generally the case that an author will keep to one plotline, avoiding the use of complex, divergent subplots. In “Odour of Chrysanthemums” there certainly is one central, dominant plot line, and the story does not ever obviously diverge from it.
However, Lawrence does hint at other plots, such as the involvement of the Rigley family. His short description of them sets up a completely plausible opportunity to describe the family in detail, but he chooses not to – instead he describes merely enough to imply the rest of the detail about the Rigleys – and thus a wealth of people similar to the Rigleys, with large families and living centred around the kitchen. Overall, though, this is a perfectly good example of a short story with a traditionally simple and linear plot. In terms of the timespan covered by a short story, there are traditionally at least two different types of short story.
Often a plot will deal with a fairly long timespan, but the author will economise on description in order to fit the narrative into the length of a short story. Maupassant’s “The Jewel’s” is a perfect example of this type of narrative – the author describes the illness and death of the main character’s wife in two short sentences. In contrast, another way of writing a short story is to deal with the events of only a short time, maybe of a mere hour or two. “Odour of Chrysanthemums” is most certainly an example of the latter writing style.
The opening passage’s poetic consideration of the arrival of the train as the “withered oak leaves dropped noiselessly” really succeeds in giving an impression of the real passage of time. Similarily, the closing couple of pages, the description of Elizabeth Bates’ inner turmoil and dismay, is an extreme example of writing in actual time, covering two and a half pages in the description of what is perhaps only a couple of minutes – at the expense of seeming incredibly turgid for a short story. Here, Elizabeth Bates is agonizing over the death of her husband, and feeling that perhaps she hadn’t treated him as well as she should.
And her soul died in her for fear: she knew she had never seen him, he had never seen her, not knowing whom they met nor whom they fought. In fact, in this in depth exploration of the character’s inner self, this particular story’s writing style (in terms of the description of the passage of time) is so similar to Lawrence’s typical novel writing that it seems closer to a novella than to a short story. In my experience an author will tend to use short, simple sentences in preference to long, complex ones when writing short stories, probably in order to keep the reader involved, and to keep a dynamic atmosphere going.
For instance, in the description of the Bates at supper, Lawrence uses clear and brief sentences. She looked at the children. Their eyes and their parted lips were wondering. The mother sat rocking in silence for a time. Then she looked at the clock. This trend is apparent throughout the story, even in the lengthy ending where the descriptive and poetic aspect of the narrative becomes increasingly novelistic. They had denied each other in life. Now he had withdrawn. An anguish came over her. It was finished then: it had become hopeless between them long before he died.
I would say that although Lawrence’s use of sentences in this story is not quite as extreme as that employed by the likes of Maupassant, it is pretty average. There is nothing that goes against tradition in this respect. One of my favourite aspects of the short story tradition is the way that many authors will deliberately toy with the readers expectations. Often events earlier in the story will set the stage for something big to happen at the climax of the story, but then, just at the crucial moment, the author will send the plot in an suprising, contrasting direction.
Irony is often used in conjunction with this to add either amusement or bitter humour to a story. Although they are not really short stories, this is a technique frequently employed to great effect by Terry Pratchett in his popular novels, which are written in a short story-like style. In Odour of Chrysanthemums it is almost used: the reader’s expectations are built up that Mr. Bates will roll home drunk and that there will be a big confrontation between him and Elizabeth, but it transpires that he has died down the mine.
Irony is introduced by Elizabeth Bates’ almost prophetic statement that, “They’ll bring him when he does come – like a log. ” In fact they do bring him like a log, but for the wrong reason. Unusually, Lawrence does not make the most of this opportunity to use “shock tactics” to surprise the reader – the change of expectations is not sudden, but slow, starting with the obvious concern shown by Mr. Rigley that Mr. Bates has not yet shown up at home, and ending with the arrival of the mother-in-law. In this way, this short story sits on the borderline.
I would say that this is an unusual way of using contrast – playing it down, and not emphasising it as the most important part of the story. An effect brought about by the brevity of the short story form is the lack of space for any serious development of characters who are outside the very centre of the plot. There are many ways for an author to get around this problem – one is to simply not try to get around it and to use it as a stylistic device (again, Maupassant’s writing style is a good example of this), and another to utilise the characters’ actions and other characters’ comments about them.
Commonly an author will make selective use of dialogue to flesh out a minor character (quite often with tongue-in-cheek regional accents). Odour of Chrysanthemums has a wonderful example of this in Mr. Rigley’s manner of speech. The sentence, “‘Asna ‘e come whoam yit? ” paints a picture pit all by itself, of a Newcastle coal miner covered in grime from the pit. Although it’s not really a major part of the tradition and by no means overwhelmingly common, this has to be one of my favourite parts of this story.
In general I would say that this story is a pretty traditional short story for the best part, but lapses into Lawrence’s typical, fairly heavy, novelistic writing style in the last couple of pages. I think that that particular section actually is somewhat detrimental to what I consider a pretty good short story. However, what is important about this story is that Lawrence has succeeded in writing a short story that has a plot that is restricted but doesn’t seem to be, and that has to be one of the most important things about the form. When you have a plot that works the rest will follow.