The Life of a Chrysanthemum

"The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck addresses the topic of women's oppression. He used Elisa Allen as a perfect example by making the men overlook her love of the chrysanthemums, which was her life. In "The Chrysanthemums", Steinbeck used symbols, minor characters, and the main character, Elisa Allen, to demonstrate women's oppression and their limited options in the world, due to the fact that women were often not appreciated.

Throughout the story, Steinbeck used many symbols to reinforce the fact that Elisa was living in a limited world. In the beginning, the valley she lives in is described as having fog "on every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot." (411). It set the mood of loneliness and almost smothering-like manipulated Elisa to feel as if she was alone. Another symbol was after Elisa met the tinker. She had inappropriate thoughts about him and went to take a shower. In the shower she scrubbed her entire body with a piece of pumice stone to cleanse herself, for she felt as if she was soiled. This is where she changes and makes an effort to look good and please her husband. But the change in confidence does not last long. When the tinker was at Elisa's house, she gave him a pot of chrysanthemum sprouts. These chrysanthemums symbolized her. The tinker accepted a tiny part of her character that her husband never had and took it with him. However, when she saw the flowers dumped on the side of the road, she felt as if he had dumped her. She thought that no man would ever be pleased with her, so Elisa automatically fell back to her tomboy self.

Steinbeck also used the minor characters' effect on Elisa to demonstrate that women had few options. Henry Allen, Elisa's husband, was always saying the wrong thing. Right after he said her flowers were big, he said "I wish you'd work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big." (412). By saying this, Elisa realizes he thinks she is wasting time growing flowers, which are her life, when it could be spent growing something that he could sell, like apples. Then the tinker comes along and actually asks about and takes interest in the flowers. Even though it is only to recapture her attention, she felt thrilled. Her husband never showed any interest in her flowers and here is a stranger sounding interested and sensitive by wanting to know what it looked like, asking "Looks like a quick puff of colored smoke?" (414). She gives him some flowers thinking he will give them to the lady that will appreciate them, but he, just like her husband, thinks they are worthless and ends up throwing them out.

The minor characters and setting may have somewhat limited Elisa, but some of her limitations were self-inflicted. She starts out wearing bulky, tomboy clothing that covers her body and hides her figure. She also wears "...a man's black hat pulled low down over her eyes..." (411). Elisa continually hides in her own garden, fenced in her own little world, with her chrysanthemums. Even her husband does not come in. By staying in her area by herself, she cuts herself off from the rest of the world. When the tinker comes, she is attracted to him because he asked about her flowers. Elisa "tore off the battered hat and shook out her dark pretty hair." (414), takes off her gloves, and lets him in the gate. By doing this, she is letting her guard down, letting him in, and stepping out of her safety zone. After he leaves, she had a new confidence in herself. By dressing up for the night out, she is starting over and portraying her new self. Then she sees the dumped chrysanthemums on the side of the road and realizes that the thinker was not interested in her at all. Instead of using this disappointment to become stronger, she resorts back to her tomboy personality.

By surrendering back to her old self, Elisa becomes a perfect example of women's oppression. She tried changing her limiting world, but her confident new self was destroyed. Steinbeck made this clear by using symbols, minor characters, and the main character. His story influences readers to think about the little options women had, and if men would have appreciated women a bit more maybe the chrysanthemums would have lived.

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