In John Steinbeck's short story “The Chrysanthemums” a struggle for equality is portrayed through the character Elisa Allen. Elisa tries to define the boundaries of her role as a woman in such a closed society. Elisa's figure is described as “blocked and heavy” and her home is described as “hard-swept” and “hard-polished” (Steinbeck 193-194). Elisa is seen as being unhappy with her female role, so in turn, she tries to reach out into some masculine areas or activities. First Palmerino suggests, “Many of the questions surrounding John Steinbeck's The Chrysanthemums over the years have centered on issues playing themselves out behind the numerous guises of gender and sexual warfare” (164). While her environment is portrayed as a tool for social repression, it is through nature in her garden where Elisa gains and shows off her power. As the story progresses, Elisa has trouble extending this power outside of the fence that surrounds her garden. Elisa learns but does not readily accept that she possesses a weak feminine power, not the masculine one she tries so hard to achieve through its imitation. John Steinbeck uses this imagery and symbolism in “The Chrysanthemums” to depict the repressed feminine qualities of Elisa Allen, a vibrant person who is not taken seriously because she is a woman.
Elisa attempts to react to situations as a man would, but due to a woman's emotional side she is unable to do so. Take, for instance, when her husband comments about her “strong” chrysanthemum crop (Steinbeck 194). She is very pleased by the masculinity that the word strong implies. Her husband quickly asks her out for a nigh on the town, therefore she is reminded of her womanhood. Palmerino suggests, “Both Elisa and Henry equally suffer from conflict avoidance and appear to habitually withdraw from each other spiritually, intellectually, and, presumably, physically: she to her immaculate garden and hard-swept house and he to his shaggy-coated steers and tractor shed” (164).
The action of the story opens with Elisa Allen working in her garden. She is surrounded by a wire fence, which physically is there to protect her flowers from the farm animals. This barrier symbolizes her life. She is fenced in from the real world, from a man's world. It is a smaller, on-earth version of the environment in which they live. As Elisa works on her garden, she looks through the fence out to where her husband, Henry, is talking with two men in business suits. They look at a tractor and smoke, manly things, as they conclude their man's work. As she looks out to these men, the reader looks at Elisa. Although she is doing the feminine work of gardening, she is dressed like a man. She wears a black hat low on her forehead to cover her hair, thick leather gloves cover her hands, and clodhopper shoes cover her small woman's feet. Unconsciously, as she looks through her fence at the men talking business, she is trying to cover up her feminine qualities. She longs to be in their position and possess their characteristics.
As she does her gardening, something she enjoys and excels in, “Her face was lean and strong… eager and mature and handsome” (Steinbeck 193). Her use of the scissors is described as “over-eager” and “over-powerful” (Steinbeck 193). All of these characteristics are usually masculine adjectives. But in this case they describe a woman attempting or at least imagining living as a part of such a man's world: “In each case the woman chooses a traditional feminine activity, gardening, as a creative outlet, yet the dedication with which each undertakes her project is of the sort traditionally considered masculine” (Mitchell and Bloom 91). Yet Elisa's power is not used for masculine activities; in fact, her power is derived from a feminine source, nature. Mother Nature, a female, controls the environment. This female power is part of matriarchal lineage since Elisa's mother also “could stick anything in the ground and make it grow” (Steinbeck 193). She enjoys coming into contact with the earth as she digs and pushes the dirt around her chrysanthemums. She destroyed pests with her fingers and also put these fingers “into the forest of new green chrysanthemum sprouts that were growing around the old roots” (Steinbeck 193). While she wants to seem strong, it seems to violate her role of being the pretty wife. When her husband suddenly comes up behind her, she immediately pulls on her gloves again. This could be to cover her dirty hands, but it also covers them, hiding her femininity. Nevertheless, she is proud of her gardening for “in her tone and on her face there was a little smugness” with her husband's compliment (Steinbeck 193).
Next appears the eventual antagonist, the man who will change, and then change back Elisa's feelings on female power relationships with men. The stranger pulls up in his spring-wagon to sell his services, which is fixing household, metallic items. As he converses with her, the man tells of his assiduous travels up and down the West Coast and asks for directions back to the main road. Elisa notices the “calloused hands he rested on the wire fence were, and every crack was a black line” (Steinbeck 194). This man also works with his hands in nature. Still attempting to show her feminine side, “she stood up and shoved the thick scissors in her apron pocket” (Steinbeck 194). Yet, also with this action Elisa also may have recognized she was about to enter into a normal male business conversation involving bargaining and denying services. Since she knew this man would probably ask for something to fix, she hid her scissors. Elisa removes her gloves and then plays with the man's hat. But if this is the case it is only Elisa attempting to show off her feminine qualities: “Elisa is subconsciously contrasting him with her husband as a potential sexual partner” (Mitchell and Bloom 96). The traveler gets right down to business. Elisa seems to understand and then take on the role of a hardened businessman. With the man's first inquiry, she refuses and “her eyes hardened with resistance” (Steinbeck 195). Even a third time she refuses him, saying, “I tell you I have nothing like that for you to do” (Steinbeck 195). In this role as businessman, Elisa has succeeded, but only for the moment.
Elisa's source of power is also her point of weakness. After failing for a fourth time to interest Elisa, in fact, only succeeding in irritating her, he asks about her flowers. This piques Elisa's interest to the highest peak; suddenly her face undergoes a noticeable change: “the irritation and resistance melted from Elisa's face” (Steinbeck 195). She is able to talk to a man about something, inform him of something she knows more about than he does. Elisa's innocence in the business world does not allow her to understand the underhanded tricks men play to get what they want. To the reader it seems fairly obvious that the stranger has only asked about these flowers to get on Elisa's good side, but she is oblivious to the fact. As it becomes apparent, the peddler has taken the tactic of trying to connect with Elisa on a personal level so she will have emotions for him, ultimately buying his service. Mitchell and Bloom suggest, “In the tinker, though, Elisa finds a man whose strength seems to match hers, although she later discovers his emotional poverty. Their brief encounter reveals an aspect of Elisa which is not seen in her dealings with Henry—her erotic potential” (95). An example comes when he quickly recants his statement that the chrysanthemums smell "nasty" at first, to agreeing that they have a "good bitter smell" as Elisa replied (Steinbeck 195).
As the tinker plants a story about needing some chrysanthemums for another customer, she once again begins to warm to him. Elisa now welcomes this man into her world, she invites him: “Come into the yard” (Steinbeck 196). Now inside the gate, she forgets about acting like a lady to the outside world: “The gloves were forgotten now. She kneeled on the ground by the starting bed and dug up the sandy soil with her fingers and scooped it into the bright new flower pot…With her strong fingers she pressed them into the sand and tamped around them with her knuckles” (Steinbeck 196). This not a feminine action because it shows her physical strength; it shows her natural power. She is not simply an excellent gardener but she actually communes with nature.
She tells the man about the way that she becomes alive when working with her chrysanthemums, the way her hands become “planting hands” (Steinbeck 196). Mitchell and Bloom suggest, “She says of her flowers, as if they were children, that “it's the budding that takes the most of the time” (94). It is this term which best describes the feminine power Elisa receives from nature and feels as she works in her garden. She attempts to explain this feeling to the man saying, “Everything goes down into your fingertips…They're with the plant…When you're like that you can't do anything wrong” (Steinbeck 196). For Elisa, this is the ultimate expression of herself. The narrator tells us, “She was kneeling on the ground looking up at him. Her breast swelled passionately” (Steinbeck 196). She bares her soul and in effect shows all of her power to this man. While she physically is beneath him, she believes them on an equal level in their natural power. She questions him: “Do you see that? Can you understand that?” (Steinbeck 196).
Again she tries to find something in common with the man and trusts she knows how he must feel traveling alone across the land. Remembering the night sky she says, “Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It's like that. Hot and sharp and lovely” (Steinbeck 196). From her position still on the ground where she is closest to her power source, she reaches out towards the man's pants. With the narrator's description of her like a fawning dog, she seems to have something akin to puppy love. But this show of feminine power is incomprehensible to the man who turns the conversation back to business. Elisa realizes her mistake and gives into the man, finding him a few old pots to fix. Now both head into the man's world through the gate where Elisa watches the man work with his anvil and hammer, men's tools. As she watches the man work on the saucepans she ponders aloud doing the same type of work and travel he does saying, “I wish women could do such things” (Steinbeck 197). The peddler protests with a typical male response, “It ain't the right kind of life for a woman” (Steinbeck 197). Elisa tells the stranger, “You might be surprised to have a rival sometime…I could show you what a woman might do” (Steinbeck 197). This reveals how Elisa feels about her life and the lives of woman of the time period. Although they want to break free of the fences around them, it would be socially unacceptable to do so. As the man left she whispers, “That's a bright direction. There's a glowing there” (Steinbeck 197). She is imaging this peddler's freedom, both lateral and vertical mobility in society. Mitchell and Bloom suggest, “Steinbeck's imagery builds to Elisa's orgasmic speech to the tinker, then recedes in the afterglow of her bathing” (96).
Now Elisa turns to preparing herself for the evening out with her husband. She scrubs every part of her body wiping the dirt or this sign of her strength from nature off of her body. She now wants to work her feminine attractive charms for her husband, but even more for herself to see if she still has such powers at the age of thirty-five. In the mirror “she tightened her stomach and threw out her chest” (Steinbeck 197). She dressed with “her newest underclothing and her nicest stocking and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness” (Steinbeck 198). She continues to emphasize her female body including reddening her lips, one of the ultimate signs of femininity:
“Despite whatever guilt Elisa feels as a result of the afternoon's experience, she also feels renewed confidence in her spiritual strength and in her physical attractiveness. Following the bath, she lingers awhile before the mirror appraising her body from different angles. Then she dresses slowly, luxuriously in her finest, newest clothing and expends a considerable amount of effort on her makeup” (Mitchell and Bloom 96).
Elisa is working on her physical beauty, rather than her strength.
As she waits for her husband, Elisa notices “that under the high grey fog and the willow trees seemed a thin band of sunshine” (Steinbeck 198). Elisa sees some hope in women's futures at this point. When Henry sees Elisa he is surprised at her appearance. He says, “Why,- why Elisa. You look so nice!…I mean you look different, strong and happy” (Steinbeck 198). She questions: “What do you mean 'strong'?” (Steinbeck 198). His answer came in a confused tone, since his wife probably never talked to him like this before: "You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon” (Steinbeck 198). But this is not the answer Elisa is looking for any longer. Although this may have satisfied the Elisa whose power search focused on her being like a man, she now wants to have a kind of feminine charm as a second power. The narrator says, “For a second she lost her rigidity.” Then Elisa says, “Henry! Don't talk like that. You don't know what you said.” But quickly she recovered boasting, “I'm strong…I never knew how strong” (Steinbeck 198). She then feels powerful enough as a woman to keep her husband intentionally waiting in the car for her.
Elisa's sense of power hits a bump in the road as they drive into Salinas. Elisa sees the chrysanthemum sprouts thrown into the road by the tinker. Apparently, she expected this after her final encounter with the man, and notices he kept the pot she had given him, since it had some monetary worth. As they pass the peddler's wagon, she turns away so as not to see it. Henry notices a change in her saying, “Now you're changed again” (Steinbeck 199). Her strength weakens. She questions her husband if the men in the prizefights ever hurt one another. Henry responds in the affirmative. Finally she asks, “Do women ever go to the fights?” (Steinbeck 199). Elisa is wondering if as a woman she could enter a man's world of business and other masculine responsibilities. Her husband now asks if she wants to go and she responds, “Oh, no. No. I don't want to go. I'm sure I don't” (Steinbeck 199). Elisa now fully understands that she does not want to gain power from a man's sphere in the world. The wine she wants at dinner is a way to show her acceptance of this fact, of the typical married life of a woman. Palmerino suggests, “Wine with dinner will be plenty. Alcohol will ease the pain, perhaps” (165). She condemns herself to attempting to gain power through normal female attempts in a static society. Elisa cries at the end, making her look “like an old woman” with the realization of this fact, that indeed, she will continue to age into the role of an old woman still enclosed by society (Steinbeck 199). Palmerino adds, “Although neither Henry nor Alisa has the wherewithal to fight, the more vulnerable sex is left “crying weakly—like an old woman. In the end, both husband and wife bear responsibility and suffer for their seemingly childless and sexless marriage; the punishment, however, appears to be melted out unfairly” (165).
Mitchell, Marilyn L., and Harold Bloom. "Steinbeck's Strong Women: Feminine Identity in the Short Stories." Bloom's Modern Critical Views: John Steinbeck (1987): 91-101. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web. 20 Jan. 2010.
Palmerino, Gregory J. Steinbeck's The Chrysanthemums. Explicator 62.3 (2004): 164-167. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web. 20 Jan. 2010.
Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry,
Drama, and Writing. Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 6th Compact ed. New York: Longman, 2010. 192-199. Print.