John Steinbeck?S ?The Chrysanthemums? Essay, Research Paper
Elisa Allen, Confused?
Like many short stories, John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” deceives most readers by appearing to be a simple short story. “The Chrysanthemums,” which only occupies about eight pages in textbooks, captures the emotional pain of a woman trying to live in the 1930’s. As critic Stanley Renner wrote, “’The Chrysanthemums’” shows “a strong capable woman kept from personal, social, and sexual fulfillment by the prevailing conception of a woman’s role in a world dominated by men” (Renner 306). Elisa Allen, the only female in “The Chrysanthemums” displays her sexual frustrations throughout the short story by slipping in and out of masculine and feminine characteristics.
“The Chrysanthemums” begins by describing Elisa’s surroundings. The fog covers the valley like “a closed pot” (Steinbeck 220), which symbolizes Elisa’s isolation from the world. Because the Allen’s live away from town, Elisa rarely encounters other people besides her husband, Henry Allen. The work “on Henry Allen’s foothill ranch,” (220) as it is described, is scarce, leaving Elisa to work in her garden. Wearing “a man’s black hat, . . . clod-hopper shoes,” and “heavy leather gloves,” Elisa’s appearance begins as very masculine (220). This masculine vision of Elisa is the first sign she is sexually frustrated. Elisa continuously glances at her husband, who is speaking with two men, almost adoringly. When first reading this image, the reader may pass it off as useless information, but after studying Elisa’s character, it is evident Elisa is envious of the “male” meeting. She asks her husband, curiously who the men were, and he answers her as short as possible. Henry avoids speaking about masculine “business” with Elisa for too
long. For instance, when Henry comments about Elisa’s chrysanthemums, he first uses the word “strong” which implies masculinity. Elisa then speaks about how she would be good at working in the orchards. Henry apparently feels Elisa has spoken too much about masculine subjects because he resorts back to calling the chrysanthemums simply “flowers” (221). This first scene between husband and wife sets the tone of the entire story. Elisa’s gestures and actions change as different words and topics are mentioned to her. She feel’s unimportant and inferior as a woman and strong enough to be a man.
Soon after Henry leaves to finish he work, the tinker is introduced into the story. Here is where Elisa’s sexuality is tested. Elisa’s first reaction to the tinker is similar to that of a man’s, “for she resists giving him work” (Marcus 56). She show strong qualities as she tells the tinker she as no work for him. The tinker begins to weaken Elisa, though, and eventually breaks her strong stance by using her pride and joy – her chrysanthemums. The tinker captures the beauty of the chrysanthemums in a poetic, feminine nature. He describes them as a “quick puff of colored smoke,” which appeals to Elisa’s feminine side. Suddenly, Elisa begins to unveil her womanliness. She tears off her hat and shakes out her “dark pretty hair” (Steinbeck 224). By being interested in Elisa’s feminine flowers, the tinker makes Elisa comfortable with her sexuality. Allowing her feminine nature to appear, Elisa becomes emotional vulnerable during the “business” transaction involving her chrysanthemums. This is feminine nature because men tend to be unemotional during business related activities (Sweet 213).
After the tinker leaves, Elisa finally appears content with her sexuality. As she gets ready for her outing with Henry, Elisa shows complete femininity. She scrubs her
body until her skin turns red, as if she is rinsing away the masculine way about her. Elisa then dries herself off, and studies her body in the mirror. She has become comfortable with being a woman just by receiving attention from a male who is interested in her “life.” After studying herself, Elisa applies her makeup and puts on her newest under-clothing. Henry then comes home and they leave to go to town.
As the Allen’s are on their way to town, Elisa spots a dark speck in the road. She knows this speck is her prize chrysanthemums. As they pass the chrysanthemums lying in the road, Elisa cannot bear to look. The tinker appears in the road next. For this situation, Elisa has to turn her entire body so she does not have to face the tinker. This is the lowest point for Elisa’s sexuality. She retreats back to her weak, unconfident, feminine nature for the final time. She is not strong enough to face the truth, so instead she avoids the scenario. Elisa attempts to capture her strength again after they pass the tinker, but her attempt fails. She, without warning, brings up the fights to Henry. As she speaks vividly about the fights, Henry crushes her attempt to regain her strength. “I don’t think you’d like it,” Henry says to Elisa (227). After this final unsuccessful attempt to become content with her sexuality, Elisa relaxes “limply in the seat” and cries “weakly” at the truth that she will always be reminded that she is a “weak” woman.
Throughout “The Chrysanthemums,” Elisa Allen changes her actions from masculine to feminine and from feminine to masculine. Elisa Allen depicts the life of a woman trying to gain meaning in her boring life during the 1930’s. Her continuous transformation of masculine and feminine characteristics shows how difficult life was for woman in the 1930’s.
Renner, Stanley. “The Real Woman Inside The Fence In ‘The Chrysanthemums.’”
Modern Fiction Studies 31 (1985): 305-17.
Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry,
and Drama (1999): 219-27.
Sweet, Charles A., Jr. “Ms. Elisa Allen and Steinbeck’s ‘The Chrysanthemums.’”
Modern Fiction Studies 20 (1974): 210-14.