The short story “The Chrysanthemums” Essay Sample
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The short story “The Chrysanthemums” Essay Sample
When one considers a man from the 1900s, the word “feminist” hardly comes to mind. John Steinbeck, however, might be an exception. His short story “The Chrysanthemums” was published in 1938, during a time where a woman’s place in society was radically different than that of a man’s. The Depression cut down the newfound ‘feminism’ of the 1920s, and the flashy stereotype of the flapper girl began to disappear as more women had to go to work in terrible conditions where they were paid less. (Baughman) The 1930s were a time where oppression thrived, and women craving intellectual challenges and sexual freedom were smothered by domestic duties and societal expectations. This is clear in Steinbeck’s protagonist, Elisa Allen, a woman of depth and deep-rooted suffering. Elisa’s suffering stems from the limitations of her gender and how men perceive her versus how she defines her own femininity. In “The Chrysanthemums”, Steinbeck explores the frustration that comes from repression of female strength, intelligence, and sexuality.
Elisa Allen is a woman whose true potential is confined inside her unfulfilling life. From the beginning of the story, Steinbeck paints a stifling, gloomy world for Elisa through the description of her setting. The fog “closed off” the Salinas Valley from the sky, and “sat like a lid on the mountains”.
claustrophobic atmosphere for Elisa to live in. Much like the sky and the mountains, beautiful pieces of the natural world, Elisa herself is closed and trapped under the “lid” of her womanhood and the domestic lifestyle that comes with it. Steinbeck takes this domestic lifestyle and displays Elisa breaking some of the gender boundaries within it for herself. Elisa looks for work to do around the ranch, and finds there is not much left to do, indicating to the reader that she often tackles typical farmhand tasks such as moving bales of hay and plowing the field.
These activities require a level of strength that is most typically associated with men. Even Elisa’s physical description is filled with masculine features: a “lean and strong” face and a “blocked and heavy” figure. (Steinbeck, 1) The word “blocked” further evokes a sense of external confinement, mirroring the internal confinement Elisa’s gender costs her. Elisa’s clothing choices blurs the gender line even further. She wears “a man\’s black hat pulled low down over her eyes” and a dress “almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron”. (Steinbeck, 1) Masculine clothes, a symbol of the masculine view Elisa has of herself, block and cover Elisa’s femininity. The hat covers her eyes like a mask, symbolizing her use of her inherent masculinity as a cover for her underlying feminine strength. The apron, described as corduroy, a thick and tough material further symbolizing masculinity smothers her dress, a symbol of her feminine identity.
Steinbeck mirrors Elisa’s internal and external confinement through her working life as well. Elisa watches from behind a literal––and figurative–– fence as her husband and a couple of businessmen discuss ranch matters across the yard. Separated from these men and shut out from a conversation that pertains to her just as much as her husband, she is left to work on her garden.
the important business matters, while women like Elisa are left to their simple domestic hobbies. “Even her work with the scissors was over-eager, over-powerful. The chrysanthemum stems seemed too small and easy for her energy.” (Steinbeck, 2) While Elisa loves gardening and is passionate and knowledgable about her flowers, the task does not offer her a physical or intellectual challenge. With this quote, Steinbeck is further acknowledging that she has the potential for more than simple typically “female” tasks like gardening. Elisa remains “blocked” and heavy with her untapped intellectual and physical potential. Her work on the ranch and her uninteresting husband leave this potential untouched.
In contrast, Elisa’s encounter with the travelling tinker awakens her emotional and sexual potential. Steinbeck portrays the tinker through Elisa’s eyes as the peak of manliness. He is large, dirty, and has dark and brooding eyes, the same, to Elisa, as “teamsters and of sailors”, highly masculine positions. Nothing in Steinbeck’s description of the tinker’s physical appearance is necessarily handsome or appealing, but Elisa is nevertheless drawn to him in some visceral way. Elisa engages the tinker on a level that is intellectually equal to his, making jokes about his dogs “getting started” and even challenging his quality of work versus her own.
“You might be surprised to have a rival sometime. I can sharpen scissors too. And I can beat the dents out of little pots. I could show you what a woman might do.” (Steinbeck, 9) Elisa displays this confidence in her work and a competitive attitude, actions normally showcased by men, as another act of subtle rebellion. By challenging the tinker, Elisa is showcasing her strength and potential in ways she never does around her husband. This freeing action denied to women, being able to simply brag about herself, seems to loosen Elisa up more and more.
The tinker takes it further by mentioning the chrysanthemums, and Elisa lights up. The excitement of the tinker taking an interest in her work and passion relaxes her physically. “She tore off the battered hat and shook out her dark pretty hair.” (Steinbeck, 6) Elisa has removed her hat, a symbol of her mask of masculinity, and the release of her hair represents the release of her femininity as well, a contrast to the confinement of the beginning of the story. Elisa makes note that she would enjoy the tinker’s adventurous life; But the tinker shuts her down, claiming it isn’t the right type of life for a woman. As Elisa grows to admire and desire the tinker’s dangerous, rugged lifestyle more and more, her conversation with the tinker grows more passionate and sexual. This effect is mirrored by the way Elisa digs the stems from the soil, carefully yet with indulgence, using her bare hands. This interaction with the earthy soil, a symbol of nature, represents Elisa getting in touch with her natural womanhood and sensuality. As she does so, she finds she can take control more with the conversation.
The liberation of her instinctual feminine power creates feelings of sexual desire in Elisa, but these feelings are eventually repressed. She speaks romantically of her instinctual and natural talent with the chrysanthemum buds, and as she does so her posture changes to reflect her newfound feminine confidence. Her breast “swells passionately” in a way that makes the tinker self-conscious, and she enjoys this power over him, even feeling powerful enough to interrupt his next sentence with her voice described as “husky”. (Steinbeck, 8) Elisa goes so far as to attempt touching his pants, before receding back into an erotically submissive pose. Eventually, the tinker brings up that he hasn’t had dinner in order to manipulate Elisa into letting him do a job for her. Snapped out of her episode of power and sexual liberation,
Elisa returns to the stiff, confined body language she displays in the beginning of the story. Because of the way powerful female sexuality was looked down upon during the 1900s, Elisa feels “ashamed” about her small indulgence in the encounter with the tinker. She was not ‘supposed’ to be so bold and forward as she had been with him, and this social standard causes her the embarrassment she experiences and cuts her liberation short. Despite this, she is changed by the sexual and emotional interaction, and this is demonstrated by the bathing routine that happens in the story soon after the tinker leaves.
Elisa’s bathing and changing of herself demonstrates her eagerness to take charge of her own feminine power and sexuality. After the encounter with the tinker, she goes inside and runs a bath, scrubbing herself with a block of pumice on her “thighs, loins and chest and arms, until her skin was scratched and red.” (Steinbeck, 10) Although she had gotten dirt on her hands and face as well, Steinbeck only mentions the erotic places Elisa scrubs herself, including the fact that she is taking the time and care to scrub herself raw. This act is meant to symbolize frustration due to Elisa’s sexual repression. (Mitchell, 100)
Elisa also demonstrates a newfound interest and confidence in her physical appearance, posing in her mirror and looking at herself from different angles of strength, with her chest out and her stomach tightened. She then takes care to dress slowly and in her finest clothes, specifically “a dress which was the symbol of her prettiness.” This description is utilized by Steinbeck to represent Elisa’s knowledge that the dress makes her more “pretty”, more feminine, and more sexually appealing, which further displays the change she has undergone after the encounter with the tinker. She even takes consideration into her hair and makeup, hoping to possibly evoke a sexual response in her husband by taking control of her femininity as she did with the tinker.
She sits “primly and stiffly” while waiting for Henry, indicating the physical shift into a more ladylike figure. When Henry sees his wife, he is caught off guard by the care she has taken with her looks and also the manner with which she now carries herself. She replies with a challenging question when Henry says she looks “nice”, and replies with further confidence when his answer includes commenting on her looking “strong”. Henry, no doubt unused to seeing this confidence from his wife, cannot offer her a reply intellectually playful enough to please her. (Skredsvig)
Elisa’s story ends with a disappointment many women can identify with today. On the way into town, Elisa sees that her chrysanthemums have been discarded by the tinker, an act of disrespect and indifference.
Her beloved plants, a symbol of not only her hopes for her future but of her pride in her talent, are crushed. All of her newfound confidence, pride, and strength are thrown away, and she ends the story in resignation. “‘Oh, no. No. I don’t want to go. I’m sure I don’t.’ Her face was turned away from him. ‘It will be enough if we can have wine. It will be plenty.’” (Steinbeck, 13) Instead of challenging him or standing up for herself and her strength, she agrees with her husband’s characterization that women wouldn’t enjoy fights. The promise of alcohol is as adventurous as her night, and life, will be, and she convinces herself it will be enough. This indicates her final acceptance of her place in society. She has come to terms with the fact that she might be trapped as the rancher’s wife, stifled both physically and emotionally, forever.
The root of Elisa’s frustration stems from her inability to fit comfortably within the limitations that society has created for her. Steinbeck, clearly empathizing with the frustration powerful women face in overcoming the prejudices and stereotypes made about the female gender, treats the ending of the story with respect as the tragedy it is. Even more tragic is the story’s reflection of life today. Despite strides in the right direction, women are still being held back. Female doctors and surgeons, for example, earn 71 percent of what their male colleagues make. (Lipman) If placed in an atmosphere where she could grow, Elisa would thrive in more ways than as a gardener, and this is true of hundreds of thousands of women in the world. “The Chrysanthemums” illustrates why societal gender roles are harmful to the growth of human beings, highlighting how it creates an almost insurmountable barrier to things like a healthy sense of sexuality, self-confidence, and even skill level. The world must be made into a place of empowerment for women, not oppression.