Essays On The Chrysanthemums By John Steinbeck
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 Chrysanthemums” has variously been praised as a masterpiece, one of the finest stories in American literature and a story that “seems almost perfect in form and style.” In a realistic style rich with symbolism, John Steinbeck captures a sense of the 1930’s in the United States in his depiction of the relationship between Elisa Allen and her husband, Henry.
Steinbeck was an immensely popular writer, but critics and scholars were not similarly enthused. Some questioned the decision to award him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. The Swedish Academy, however, praised Steinbeck’s concern with the ordinary life of the common person, and it felt that the stories collected in The Long Valley (1938), including “The Chrysanthemums,” had paved the way for his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The academy did not mention his works of the 1940’s and 1950’s, however, which were not well received by the critics. Most newspapers and periodicals responded to his award negatively or indifferently.
In “The Chrysanthemums,” the image of weather figures importantly in the story’s symbolism. For example, Elisa represses her femininity and her sexual desires in her marriage in a day in which women’s submission was often the norm. Just as the fog, described as a “gray-flannel,” has settled over the valley as if it were a lid on a pot, Elisa seems to be enclosed inside the fence that keeps animals from her garden. She feels emotionally enclosed as well. While Henry may love Elisa, he has little understanding of her needs as a woman.
The color yellow serves an important function in the story, too. The chrysanthemums are yellow, as are the willows near the river road. She notes, while waiting on the porch for Henry, “that under the high grey fog” the willows “seemed a thin band of sunshine.” Her words suggest a ray of hope amid the gloom of gray.
Elisa also is a nurturing person, and because she is childless, she may be vicariously using this trait (of being nurturant) in producing the giant flowers and transplanting sprouts. Likewise, her brief encounter with the tinker arouses her feelings of sexuality, long stifled, and awakens in her the hope of fulfilling those impulses.
The point of view of the story is limited third person. As such, although Elisa knows what the tinker is saying when he inquires about the chrysanthemums, the reader is not told that he is insincere, that he is just using her. She knows also what Henry is saying when he says that she looks “nice,” but she has to ask him what he means by the word.
Major themes related to frustration, limitation, and aesthetics are played out throughout the story as well. Even when Henry pays Elisa a compliment, he is inept and inadequate. Declaring her “strong enough to break a calf over [her] knee” does not appeal to her feminine side. The tinker, in showing even pretended interest in her gardening and in his poetic way of describing the chrysanthemums as looking like “a quick puff of colored smoke,” flatters her. She removes her old hat and her bulky work clothes, which make her look masculine, and shakes “out her dark pretty hair,” allowing her femininity to show.
After Elisa’s sexual feelings are awakened by the tinker, she goes into the house to dress for her night out with Henry, but not before she tries to remove the guilt of her fantasized adultery with the tinker by scrubbing her body with pumice until she is red and scratched. She takes pains to look her best when she and Henry prepare to go into Salinas for dinner, hoping against hope that the romance she feels will spill over into their date.
While Elisa and Henry seem to respect, and probably love, one another, the nature of their relationship makes it impossible for Elisa to release her excessive energy other than through tending her plants and house. Henry does not possess the aesthetic sense that comes naturally to Elisa; he wishes that she would use her planters’ hands in a more practical way—to grow apples as large as her flowers. As she works with the chrysanthemums, she is “over-eager, over-powerful.” She is unable to release her pent-up feelings with Henry: she sits “prim and stiffly” on the porch, waiting for him to dress, and when he compliments her on her appearance, she “stiffens.”
Elisa’s momentary interest in the details of a boxing match suggests an identification with the male spectators at the fights; however, the image of the boxers fighting causes her to recoil, and she reasserts her femininity by again declining the offer to go to the fights, settling instead for the romantic touch, in her mind, of having wine with dinner. At the end, Elisa is a woman who has succumbed to the lot to which society, and marriage, has relegated her; hence, she sheds tears “like an old woman.”