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‘The Chrysanthemums’ by John Steinbeck

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  • Pages: 5
  • Word count: 1075
  • Category: Steinbeck

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John Steinbeck’s short story The Chrysanthemums is one of the most critically acclaimed short stories ever. Elisa Allen is a middle-aged, strong but handsome woman working at her husband’s ranch. And surprisingly, not once does she complain, or show any kind of regrets with her lifestyle. But from Steinbeck’s writing, it is obvious that her life is stifling. “John Ditsky called the story “one of the finest American stories ever written.” John H. Timmerman regarded the story as “one of Steinbeck’s masterpieces,” adding that “stylistically and thematically, ‘The Chrysanthemums’ is a superb piece of compelling craftsmanship.” According to Mordecai Marcus “the story seems almost perfect in form and style [2].”

Steinbeck’s masterpiece is about Elisa, her creative genius, her female sexuality and      oppression. In fact, many believe the story is a proponent of feminism. Elisa Allen watches men come and go while she works hard at her farm. She has a natural gift, of having a “planter’s hands,” which know how to yield flowers and plants perfectly. Here at her little farm, she works diligently, growing the best and the tallest chrysanthemums and geraniums. One day, while working, a caravan arrives at her farm. The man in the caravan mends pots and pans, and asks her for directions. In the few minutes that they spend together, Steinbeck reveals a lot about Elisa and her distraught life. She talks to the tinker, disinterested, but the moment he mentions chrysanthemums, her mood changes to that of exuberance. The tinker leaves Elisa is left in an awkward and embarrassed situation. Later, she and her husband go out for dinner, and on their way, Elisa sees the chrysanthemums she had given to the tinker thrown at the side of the road. Elisa cries lightly, unbeknownst to her husband, and the story comes to an end. The chrysanthemums have been interpreted as symbols of Elisa’s sexuality, or childlessness, or artistic sensibility[4].

Steinbeck uses many different literary devices to drive his plot, and to keep the reader captivated. One of the first and fore-most devices is the plot. Even though there is no obvious drama or tragedy, Steinbeck’s story is hauntingly close to life. Another device that Steinbeck uses is his simple, elegant style. The story is written in a deceptively easy language. Another factor is the pace at which the story moves. It moves fast, so as not to exhaust the reader. In fact, the time is so well-managed that it leaves the reader with a strong underlying impact at the right time. Steinbeck also uses the tool of detailed description, not just to describe Elisa and her surroundings; he uses descriptions to symbolize her life. From the very beginning, we discover that the place is cold and quiet. In the very first line, Steinbeck describes Elisa’s isolation – “The high gray-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world [1].”

In the same paragraph, he describes the valley like it was “a closed pot, with no sunshine [1]” Steinbeck also describes Elisa working at her flowerbed with great passion and enthusiasm, reflective of Elisa’s own passion for her work. But here is where Steinbeck’s creative genius lies. Throughout the story, Elisa does not complain about her life, even once. But Steinbeck puts the point across obviously enough. He uses every tool available to portray her frustration and silent anger. Many believe Steinbeck was showing Elisa’s creativity being wasted in a small farm. Others believe that a woman as strong and confident as her did not have to be as confined. But here is again, where Steinbeck’s creativity lies. One of the most poignant scenes in the story is when Elisa sees her beautiful chrysanthemums thrown on the roadside. This again may be symbolism devised by Steinbeck. In this small valley, there were not many who appreciated Elisa’s talent. Steinbeck also shows how Elisa is ferociously protective, and proud of her “planter’s hands.” Not everyone has them.

Another way of analyzing her aggravation is to picture her through the eyes of other characters in the story. Elisa seems to be an ordinary, but strong and confident woman. Her husband respects her, and appreciates her natural talent of farming, and is good to her. But throughout the story, he never suspects that his wife is dissatisfied, or unhappy. The encounter with the tinker is a different one. Elisa unintentionally reveals a lot about herself to him. In a moment of understanding she exposes her true self – confined, restricted, and insanely passionate about her flowers. “Perhaps one reason she had been so overtaken by the encounter and felt so good about herself was the experience of having an emotional conversation — of being able to share her personal joy with a man, who she thought had been interested [3].”

 But the impression that the reader gets about Elisa is the complete one. Elisa, when on her own, is a different woman altogether. She works hard, and is tough, but a little deeper, she is fragile woman. Her only true passion is for growing chrysanthemums, and broadly speaking, farming. The tinker leaves her in an awkward position. She goes to take a bath, scrubs herself hard, and studies her body. She wears her prettiest dress for the dinner. Many believe that Elisa had been living a monotonous life at the farm, and the tinker aroused her feminine side, reminding her that she was after all a woman, and not necessarily as strong as she thought. Later, Elisa wears the dress “which was the symbol of her prettiness [1]” She works on her face, and on the hair to look beautiful. Even though Elisa’s husband understands her talent, he does not have much interest in it. It is also believed that the marriage was loveless, and one of the two was infertile. The story symbolizes Elisa’s frustration, both sexual and emotional. The story ends with a sad note – Elisa wants to drink wine, so as to forget about her sorrow, and one can assume that her life continues as it was. But had the day made her a weaker woman, or a stronger one?

Works Cited:

  1. Steinbeck, John, The Chrysanthemums, retrieved from http://nbu.bg/webs/amb/american/4/steinbeck/chrysanthemums.htm
  2. Enotes, Steinback, John, The Chrysanthemums, Introduction, retrieved from http://www.enotes.com/short-story-criticism/chrysanthemums-john-steinbeck
  3. Wikipedia, The Chrysanthemums, retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chrysanthemums#Another_view
  4. Bookrags, The Chrysanthemums Study Guide (by John Steinbeck) retrieved from http://www.bookrags.com/studyguide-chrysanthemums/essay1.html
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