Essay, Research Paper: Chysanthemums By John Steinbecks

Literature: Steinbeck

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At first glance John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” seems to be a story
about a woman whose niche is in the garden. Upon deeper inspection the story has
strong notes of feminism in the central character Elisa Allen. Elisa’s actions
and feelings reflect her struggle as a woman trying and failing to emasculate
herself in a male dominated society. Elisa is at her strongest and most proud in
the garden and becomes weak when placed in feminine positions such as going out
to dinner with her husband. Steinbeck smartly narrates this woman’s frequent
shifts between femininity and masculinity over a short period of time. In the
opening of the story Elisa is emasculated by the description of her clothing.
She wears “a man’s black hat pulled low down over her eyes, clodhopper
shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy
apron…” (paragraph 5). When Elisa’s husband Henry comes over and
compliments her garden and ability to grow things Elisa is smug with him and
very proud of her skill with the flowers. Her “green thumb” makes her an
equal in her own eyes. When Elisa’s husband asks her if she would like to go
to dinner her feminine side comes out. She is excited to go eat at a restaurant
and states that she would much rather go to the movies than go see the fights,
she “wouldn’t like the fight’s” at all (paragraph 21). Elisa is taken
aback with her own submissiveness and quickly becomes preoccupied with her
flowers as soon as her husband leaves. When the drifter comes and asks Elisa for
work to do she is stern with him and refuses him a job. She acts as a man would
to another strange man and becomes irritated. When he persists in asking her she
reply’s “I tell you I have nothing like that for you to do” (paragraph
46). The drifter mentions Elisa’s chrysanthemums and she immediately loosens
up as “the irritation and resistance melt(ed) from her face” (paragraph 51).
The drifter feigns great interest in Elisa’s chrysanthemums and asks her many
questions about them. He tells her he knows a lady who said to him “if you
ever come across some nice chrysanthemums I wish you’d try to get me a few
seeds” (paragraph 56). Elisa is overjoyed by any interest in her flowers and
gives the man chrysanthemum sprouts to bring to his friend. Her bubbly
enthusiasm for her flowers is blatantly feminine in characteristic. When the
drifter leaves Elisa seems like a transformed woman. She is feeling strong
emotions for him. She is intrigued by the way he lives on the road and wishes
“women could do such things” (paragraph 80). As she watches him leave her
emotions are displayed: “Elisa stood in front of the wire fence watching the
slow progress of the caravan. Her shoulders were, straight, her head thrown
back, her eyes half closed, so that the scene came vaguely into them. Her lips
moved silently, forming the words ‘Good-bye----good-bye.’ Then she
whispered, ‘That’s a bright direction. There’s a glowing there’”
(paragraph 92). As Elisa retreats into her house to get ready for her night out
with her husband she is truly feminized. She bathes and “primps” carefully,
putting on “her newest under-clothing and her nicest stockings and the dress
which was the symbol of her prettiness” (paragraph 94). She is pleased with
the way she looks. As Elisa’s husband Henry comes outside and comments on her
beauty Elisa quickly stiffens. “What do you mean by ‘nice?’” she asks
him (paragraph 100). Elisa is taken aback by this feminine term to describe her.
Henry replaces the word nice with “strong and happy” and she is satisfied
with the exchange of words (paragraph 100). She boasts that she is stronger than
she ever knew she was. As Elisa and Henry drive down the road her strength is
quickly abolished. “Far ahead on the road Elisa saw a dark speck. She knew”
(paragraph 108). Seeing the chrysanthemums lying on the side of the road is a
hard slap in the face for Elisa. She feels weak, betrayed and feminine. She has
no desire to try and be strong. She turns her head away from Henry so that he
can “not see that she was crying weakly--- like an old woman” (paragraph
121). Elisa’s desperation to be a person that she can not be is touching.
Steinbeck makes it very easy to relate to this woman’s struggle for strength
and contentment in a life that does not meet her expectations. Elisa wants to be
not only an equal to her male peers but to be dominant. She sadly realizes that
she can never live up to the expectations she places on herself.
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