Essay, Research Paper: Chrysanthemums By Steinbeck Evaluation

Literature: Steinbeck

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The Chrysanthemums, by John Steinbeck, is set in the beautiful valley of
Salinas, California, during a time when California was the land of plenty. A
place where dust storms and drought were unheard of, where water was plentiful
and the air sprinkled with the sweet smell of fruit blossoms. A time when simple
people farm the land and struggle to find a place for themselves in the world.
Elisa Allen is at a point in her life where she has begun to realize that her
energy and creative drive far exceed what life has offered her. Her husband,
Henry Allen, is a well meaning and essentially good man and is quite pleased to
be able to make a decent living. Her marriage is reasonably happy and there is
an easy banter between the two of them. While they have settled into a fairly
familiar and ordinary routine, they are still responsive to each other’s sense
of accomplishment and agree to celebrate with a night on the town. Elisa is
earthbound, rooted securely in her garden but also held down by her connection
to it. Their house is described as “hard-swept” and “hard-polished,” and
is the only outlet for her talents. However, Elisa needs something more in her
life than a neat house and a good garden. Their marriage is childless and
conventional and she has begun to sense that an important part of her is dying
and that her future will be predictable and mundane. Elisa is a barren woman who
has transferred her maternal impulses to her garden, a garden full of unborn
seedlings. On the other hand, Elisa would never consider a lurid affair, when a
dark mysterious stranger appears at their quiet farm dwelling looking for work.
A complete contrast from her husband, an adventurer who lives spontaneously, a
man of the road not bound by standard measures of time or place. Since mending
pots is a way of life, he has found it necessary to be able to charm potential
customers into giving him work, and is very skillful at calculating a person’s
emotional needs. The stranger is described as big, bearded, and graying man, who
knows something about life and people. A man with a captivating presence whose
eyes are dark and “full of brooding.” Elisa is fascinated by his spontaneous
way of life. When she tries to get him to discuss his travels, he steers back to
the possibility of employment. When it is apparent that she has no work to give
him, he cleverly praises her flowers. Elisa is desperately eager to share in the
one thing she is actually proud of, and carefully gathers some shoots to share
with another customer down the road. As she disciplines the stranger on the
proper nurturing of the seedlings, her passionate involvement with the process
of planting becomes an expression of all the suppressed romance in her life. The
stranger senses this craving, and offers just enough encouragement to lead her
into a full-scale declaration of her profound love of what planting means to
her. Elisa would like this moment to continue, but the stranger reminds her that
hunger overcomes inspiration. Elisa, somewhat ashamed by her openness, finds
some useless old pots for him to mend. She believes that the man has given her
something of value and she feels obliged to give him something in return. As the
man leaves, Elisa looks away after him, whispering to herself, “That’s a
bright direction. There’s a glowing there.” The purpose of the conversation
between Elisa and the stranger is very dramatic. Elisa feels energized and
appreciated, delighted by her moment to share her special skill and excited by
the chance to share, at least in her imagination, a totally different kind of
life. As she prepares for the evening, the effort she usually puts into
scrubbing the house is redirected into her transformation to make herself as
attractive as she now feels. Her husband is both surprised and pleased by her
appearance, and their conversation is mixed with pleasantries and unexpected
delight as they both enjoy the animating effect of Elisa’s encounter. Their
mood remains distinctly elevated as they head for town, but then Elisa sees a
small speck on the road in the distance. Instantly, she realizes that this is
the treasure she so tenderly prepared. The stranger has discarded the flowers on
the road to save the pot that contained them, the only object of value to him.
She weeps privately as they drive pass the stranger in the tiny covered wagon.
Elisa is shattered by the heartless manner in which he has drawn something from
her secret self and then completely betrayed her gift by not even taking the
trouble to hide the flowers. She attempts to override her disappointment, by
maintaining a mood of gaiety, suggesting that they have wine at dinner. This is
not sufficient to help her restore her feelings of confidence, so she asks her
husband if they might go to a prizefight. This request so completely out of
character that again her husband is totally baffled. She searches further for
that special feeling she held briefly, and asks if men “hurt each other very
much.” This is part of an effort to focus her own violent and angry feelings,
but it is completely hollow as an attempt to sustain her sense of self-control.
In a few moments, she completely gives up and her whole body collapses into the
seat in a display of defeat. As the story concludes, Elisa is struggling to hide
her real feeling of pain from her husband. She is anticipating a dreadful future
in which she pictures herself “crying weakly like an old woman.” Clearly
Steinbeck’s is particularly sensitive to the effect of landscape on a
person’s life. Because Elisa Allen’s sense of her own self-worth is so
closely tied to the land, Steinbeck has chosen to connect her psychical
existence to the season, the climate, and the terrain she inhibits. The mood of
the story is set by his description of a winter fog bordered valley, a
description that is also pertinent to Elisa’s mood. She is entering middle
age, and when the valley is compared to a “closed pot” with “no sunshine
in December.” There is a close parallel to the condition of her life, a sealed
vessel with little light available. Steinbeck referred to it as “a time of
quiet and waiting,” and the land, Elisa’s only field of action, is dormant,
with “little work to be done.” Elisa Allen is beginning to sense that not
everybody can be satisfied by bread alone. Henry’s concentration on his role
as provider and decision-maker have blinded him from Elisa’s need for someone
to understand the essential nature of her yearning. The question Steinbeck poses
is whether one should settle for security and comfort, or risk one’s dreams in
an attempt to live more completely and intensely. The retreat from action at the
conclusion suggests that the risks are great, but there is a possibility that
Elisa might not be permanently beaten by her pain. In this story Steinbeck
focuses more closely on character than on surroundings, though that is not to
say that the naturalistic setting has a non-existing role in the story. The
story develops from a dramatic point of view, as Steinbeck first describes the
entire valley in a panoramic view, then moves closer to focus Elisa working in
her garden. Throughout the story, the perspective shifts from Elisa’s narrow
and cramped domain, to the entire ranch, and to the world beyond. In a final
transformation, Elisa’s shock is thrown back by an image of multiple
confinement, as she is enclosed by a wagon, surrounded by her seat and hidden
within a coat that covers her face. It is not an image designed to create
confidence in Elisa’s prospects. Elisa is also seen alternately as a part of a
larger landscape and as a small figure in an enclosed area. Her warm,
three-dimensional character serves to show the human beauty beneath her rough
and somewhat masculine exterior. Elisa has certain needs of the spirit, the
abstract nature of which keeps happiness forever elusive. She feels trapped
between society’s definition of the masculine and the feminine. Elisa
generally wears bland, baggy clothes that tend to de-gender her. Her husband
Henry is more practical, with greater involvement in physical concern; but is
confronted by a woman whose depression is partially due to a confusion of sexual
identity. Henry withdraws from the masculine role of leadership, leaving Elisa
to flounder between aggression and submission. Here Steinbeck offers no solution
for the psychological conflicts that plague human interactions. He does not want
the readers to see Elisa change; he wants to leave it open, to make us wonder
about her character. Steinbeck’s short story focuses on the details of the
simple lives and hardships of men and women in the Salinas River Valley,
bringing the reader into the characters’ most private lives and intimate
moments. In this story, something as simple and uneventful as a visit by a
traveling repairman reveals the tedious and monotonous lifestyle led by a
farmer’s wife. The reader is drawn into the tale and vicariously experiences
the suffering and longing of the lonely housewife. This story reflects the
unfulfilled longings of a country housewife, who compensates for her
disappointments in her life through her garden. Steinbeck's use of simple themes
and his concern for common human values, stir the reader's thoughts and
emotions, and leave them with an awareness of life. "This story has one
rare, creative thing: a directness of impression that makes it glow with
life."
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