John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” is a short story about a women’s frustration aimed towards her identity as a female and her existence within a man’s world. Steinbeck’s chrysanthemums leave a potent, absinthial scent edifying the reader in his beliefs on feminism and understanding of a female’s mind. The story is written in third person, which leaves the depth of the story up to the reader. The outward appearance of a chrysanthemum is simple; however, the inside is layered and marveled at because of its complexity. Steinbeck creates the tiers and theme of “The Chrysanthemums” using imagery, characterization, and subtle dialog. All three of these elements are easy to ignore as audiences wait for action and dramatic dialog – diversions Steinbeck purposefully left out to advertise that his story had a message concealed within the facile plot. Steinbeck uses basic literary devices to encode his conception of women’s rights and female inadequacy.
The story is set in Salinas Valley in which it is closed off from the world by a “high grey-flannel fog” (Steinbeck 756). Elisa is a representation of the environment around her where she is too, shut away from the world. The imagery used within the first paragraph fixes nature’s tone as well as Elisa’s allowing the two entities to become one. Not only is she quarantined but Elisa is enslaved by 1930s gender roles. The typical woman of Elisa’s time would present herself in a very feminine light, sometimes working while taking care of her family and the appearance of the household. Contrary to her role, Elisa has no family and bestows her masculinity upon the appearance of the house – Steinbeck refers to the house as “hard swept” (757). Charles Sweet believes “Elisa’s lack of satisfaction with the female role is indicated also by her complacency in her ability and desire to extend these abilities into heretofore masculine areas” (211). Sweet also reminds the reader of Elisa’s gender-specific boundaries by acknowledging the fact that “Elisa’s garden functions as a microcosm of Henry’s ranch” (211). Elisa is constantly battling with inequality which ultimately leads to her gender dysphoria.
Having established Elisa as one with the earth, the “time of quiet and waiting” of the ploughed orchards to “deeply receive rain” suggest a strong desire for fertilization (Steinbeck 756). Steinbeck’s physical description of scenery puts the reader in a carnal state of mind. The audience can peel away the coating Steinbeck has created through imagery to understand Elisa’s character or ignore the connection between the two to examine a hallow tale. Being that Elisa is thirty-five years of age and has yet to bear child implies that she is infertile; consequently, Elisa is stripped of her womanhood and forced to take on a male psyche. She covers her feminine figure, dainty hands, and bright eyes with “a man’s black hat pulled down low to cover her eyes… a big corduroy apron… and heavy leather gloves” (Steinbeck 756) Despite her efforts to mask her femininity, she spends her life in her chrysanthemum garden tending to her children by proxy. Nature has given Elisa the children it has taken away in another embodiment. Elisa assumes both a father and mother figure to the chrysanthemums as she exerts masculine power and feminine care upon the delicate sprouts.
While Elisa conforms to her role as a lady and a wife, Henry fulfills his part as a man and nothing more. He provides material comfort as well as excursions to the city, but Henry fails to afford Elisa emotional and spiritual exhilaration. To no surprise, Elisa is discontent confined to the role of a woman by society’s standards while having to embrace the duties of both genders to atone for Henry’s shortcomings. Victoria Price says “the nature of Henry and Elisa’s relationship makes it impossible for Elisa to release her excessive energy other than through tending her plants and house” (5). The relationship’s disposition Price is referring to is exemplified in scarce dialog between the husband and wife. Elisa and Henry’s conversations are limited to practical and obvious idle chatter which leaves Elisa unfulfilled and searching for an epical relationship.
Interrupted from tending to her garden, Elisa finds herself attempting to make a business deal – conducting as Henry did at the beginning of the story – with an unusual man wearing a suit “wrinkled and spotted with grease” (Steinbeck 759). Although the man seems very unprofessional sporting his worn-down donkeys and disheveled caravan, Elisa oversees the transaction in an orderly fashion assured by her self-taught masculinity. She stands firm in her answer to the man for his service is no need to her; after all, Elisa’s mannish strength gives her the capability of fixing her own pots and pans. Steinbeck shifts from Elisa exemplifying masculinity to her unconsciously falling into her natural feminine self at the mentioning of her children. The man finding her weakness takes advantage of her fickle identity by giving Elisa a morsel of something she’s never had: freedom. The man doesn’t even have to utter a complete thought before Elisa’s idyllic repression finishes the image for the both of them. Steinbeck makes Elisa out to be an oversexed, submissive commodity comparing her to a “fawning dog” (761). Embarrassed by her own thoughts and actions, Elisa goes and work for the man who mentally and emotionally violated her to get exactly what wanted: her money. Elisa foresakes her money, her children, and her pride to receive humiliation.
Although the story is written in third person, Steinbeck does an excellent job providing the reader with insight though Elisa’s actions; for example, in the bathroom scene, Elisa scrubs herself until she is “scratched and red” (763). Marcus Mordecai suggests Elisa vigorously cleanses herself to remove mother earth and to pleasure herself through punishment (56). After freeing herself from the amiss dirt, Elisa examines her body in a mirror awaking her conscience of her womanly body and resulting in her eagerness to adorn herself with ladylike clothing. Mordecai observes “She has tried to move from one kind of femininity to another, but neither is quite right. Both tend to be substitutions for biological femininity” (56). No matter how hard Elisa tries to sort through her dysphoria, she never can find her identity.
Many aspects of Elisa’s character are revealed through her encounter with the stranger giving the audience several intendments. Not only does Steinbeck seems to imply that women cannot manage business deals because they make decisions based upon spontaneous feelings rather than logic he also hints at Elisa’s dissatisfaction with Henry as the stranger was able to hold Elisa’s attention in an almost hypnotic way Henry never could. Referring to both her conditional relationship with Henry and her utmost, brief mental affair with the stranger, Leon Lewis states “The question Steinbeck poses is whether one should settle for security and a lack of pain, or risk one’s dreams in an attempt to live more completely and intensely” (4). Elisa is caught between reality and her dreams promoted by Steinbeck’s illustration of the fog at the beginning of the story.

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