John Steinbeck's short story "The Chrysanthemums" is about a proud, strong woman named Elisa Allen who feels frustrated with her present life. Her frustration stems from not having a child and from her husband's failure to admire her romantically as a woman. The only outlet for her frustration is her flower garden where she cultivates beautiful chrysanthemums. Steinbeck uses chrysanthemums as symbols of the inner-self of Elisa and of every woman.
First, the chrysanthemums symbolize Elisa's children. She tends her garden and handles the chrysanthemums with love and care, just as she would handle her own children. Elisa is very protective of her flowers and places a wire fence around them; she makes sure "[n]o aphids, no sowbugs or snails or cutworms" are there. "Her terrier fingers [destroy] such pests before they [can] get started" (240). These pests represent natural harm to the flowers, and, just as any good mother, she removes them before they can harm her children. The chrysanthemums are symbolic of her children, and she is very proud of them. When Elisa's husband compliments her on her flowers, she is proud, and "on her face there [is] a little smugness"(240). She is happy and pleased by her ability to nurture these beautiful flowers. Elisa's pride in her ability to grow such beautiful flowers reinforces the fact that the flowers are a replacement for her children.
In the second part of the story, the chrysanthemums come to symbolize Elisa's femininity and sexuality. The portrait of Elisa caring for the flowers as though they are her children is clearly a feminine image, but her masculine image is also observed in her "hard-swept and hard-polished" home (240). This image is carried over into her relationship with her husband. Elisa feels that Henry doesn't recognize or appreciate her femininity, and this feeling causes her to be antagonistic towards him. There is an undercurrent of resentment towards her husband. Henry fails to see his short-comings, but Elisa fails to point them out to him. There is a distinct lack of harmony between them, which causes Elisa to become discontented with Henry. On observing her prize flowers, all Henry can say is, "I wish you'd work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big" (240). Henry's inability to understand Elisa's needs leaves her vulnerable in her encounter with the tinker. The meeting with the tinker renews Elisa's feelings of femininity and sexuality as a woman. Her resistance to his mundane matters disappears after the tinker romantically describes the chrysanthemums as a "quick puff of colored smoke"(243). By admiring the chrysanthemums, he figuratively admires her. The chrysanthemums symbolize her sexuality, and she "[tears] off the battered hat and [shakes] out her dark pretty hair"(243). With a few well-placed words from the tinker, her masculine image has been replaced with a feminine one. The tinker is a catalyst in Elisa's life. By giving him the red flower pot with the chrysanthemums, she gives him the symbol of her inner-self. She begins to feel hope for herself and her marriage as the tinker leaves. She sees a "bright direction" and a new beginning for her marriage. The encounter with the tinker gives Elisa hope and causes her to prepare for a more fulfilling life.
After the tinker leaves, Elisa bathes, scrubbing herself "with a little block of pumice, legs and thighs, loins and chest and arms, until her skin was scratched and red"(245). Elisa sheds her old self by scrubbing and brings new life and change. She prepares for her night out with her husband. She dresses, lingering in front of the mirror and admires her body, her femininity. She puts on sheer stockings and a beautiful dress and leisurely applies her make-up. She is looking forward to her evening with her husband. She hopes Henry will recognize her needs as a woman and provide her with the romance and excitement for which she longs. However, this hope is quickly dashed. Henry's best compliment on her appearance after she has changed is: "You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon" (246). This unflattering remark on her appearance doesn't do much for Elisa's ego as a woman. Her hope is finally crushed when she sees the flowers on the road. She feels devastated by the tinker's thoughtless rejection of her very soul. He, like her husband, has failed to appreciate the very qualities that make her unique as a woman. This one symbolic act has left her with no hope. She realizes that her life is not going to change. Her femininity and sexuality are never going to be fully appreciated nor understood by Henry. She must learn to be content with an unexciting husband and her less-than-romantic marriage. Her devastation at this realization is complete and leaves her "crying weakly-like an old woman"(247).
Thus, the chrysanthemums symbolize Elisa's role as a woman. First they symbolize her children; later they represent her femininity and sexuality. Elisa feels frustrated with her life because children and romance are missing in her marriage with Henry. Further, her husband fails to appreciate her womanly qualities and her emotional needs. The encounter with the tinker reawakens her sexuality and brings hope to Elisa for a more exciting and romantic marriage, but her realization that her life is not going to change is crystallized when she sees the flowers thrown on the road. It devastates her completely to have to settle for such an unfulfilling life.
Steinbeck, John. "The Chrysanthemums." Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, andDrama. Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 6th ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1995. 239-47.
The Inequality of Gender
“The Chrysanthemums” is an understated but pointed critique of a society that has no place for intelligent women. Elisa is smart, energetic, attractive, and ambitious, but all these attributes go to waste. Although the two key men in the story are less interesting and talented than she, their lives are far more fulfilling and busy. Henry is not as intelligent as Elisa, but it is he who runs the ranch, supports himself and his wife, and makes business deals. All Elisa can do is watch him from afar as he performs his job. Whatever information she gets about the management of the ranch comes indirectly from Henry, who speaks only in vague, condescending terms instead of treating his wife as an equal partner. The tinker seems cleverer than Henry but doesn’t have Elisa’s spirit, passion, or thirst for adventure. According to Elisa, he may not even match her skill as a tinker. Nevertheless, it is he who gets to ride about the country, living an adventurous life that he believes is unfit for women. Steinbeck uses Henry and the tinker as stand-ins for the paternalism of patriarchal societies in general: just as they ignore women’s potential, so too does society.
The Importance of Sexual Fulfillment
Steinbeck argues that the need for sexual fulfillment is incredibly powerful and that the pursuit of it can cause people to act in irrational ways. Elisa and Henry have a functional but passionless marriage and seem to treat each other more as siblings or friends than spouses. Elisa is a robust woman associated with fertility and sexuality but has no children, hinting at the nonsexual nature of her relationship with Henry. Despite the fact that her marriage doesn’t meet her needs, Elisa remains a sexual person, a quality that Steinbeck portrays as normal and desirable. As a result of her frustrated desires, Elisa’s attraction to the tinker is frighteningly powerful and uncontrollable. When she speaks to him about looking at the stars at night, for example, her language is forward, nearly pornographic. She kneels before him in a posture of sexual submission, reaching out toward him and looking, as the narrator puts it, “like a fawning dog.” In essence, she puts herself at the mercy of a complete stranger. The aftermath of Elisa’s powerful attraction is perhaps even more damaging than the attraction itself. Her sexuality, forced to lie dormant for so long, overwhelms her and crushes her spirit after springing to life so suddenly.
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