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The Chrysanthemums Essay, Research Paper
John Steinbeck, in his short story “The Chrysanthemums” depicts the trials of a woman attempting to gain power in a man’s world. Elisa Allen tries to define the boundaries of her role as a woman in such a closed society. 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. In the end, Elisa learns but does not readily accept, that she possesses a feminine power weak for the time, not the masculine one she had tried so hard to achieve through its imitation.
The work begins with a look at the story’s setting. “The Chrysanthemums” was written in 1938, and the story takes place roughly around the same time. It is winter in Salinas Valley, California. The most prominent feature is the “grey-flannel fog” which hid the valley “from the rest of the world” (396). The mountains and valleys and sky and fog encapsulate everything inside as a “closed pot” (396). Inside this shut-off habitat the environment is trying to change. Just as the farmers are waiting for an unlikely rain, Elisa and all woman are hopeful for a change in their enclosed lives. Steinbeck foreshadows, “It was a time of quiet and waiting” (396).
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. This man’s world is dominated by business. 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. Just as their environment surrounds all persons, fences surround animals and men surround women.
As she looks out to these men, we look at Elisa. Although she is doing the “feminine” work of gardening, she is dressed like a man. She wore a black hat low on her forehead to cover her hair, thick leather gloves covered her hands, and clodhopper shoes covering her small woman’s feet. A “big corduroy apron” covered the dress making “her figure look blocked and heavy” (396). 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” (396). Her use of the scissors is described as “over-eager” and “over-powerful” (397). 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.
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’a mother also “could stick anything in the ground and make it grow” (397). 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” (397). Her fingers are described as “terrier,” literally of the earth.
Yet Elisa is seemingly ambivalent about which side of herself to show to her husband and the world. 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 (397). When Henry even suggests she could use her talents in the apple orchard “her eyes sharpened” (397). Elisa shows off her power saying, “‘I’ve a gift with things, all right’” (397). The apple orchard is part of the man’s world, involving growing food for consumption. This is outside of her fenced in garden.
As her husband comes to talk with her, while she enjoys showing off her garden, she seems to feel sub-subservient to him. As he kids her about going to the prize fights later that day, she responds in a breathless tone that she would not like them, uncomprehending the joking nature of his comment. She goes back to her work, back to her orderly world of the earth and the chrysanthemums.
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 cracked, and every crack was a black line” (398). This man also worked with his hands in nature. Still attempting to show her feminine side, “she stood up and shoved the thick scissors in her apron pocket” (398). 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.
There is a slight undertone of sexual undercurrents as the man rubbed his finger on the wire. Elisa removed her gloves and then played with the man’s hat. But if this is the case it is only Elisa attempting to show off her feminine qualities. 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” (399). Even a third time she refuses him saying, “‘I tell you I have nothing like that for you to do’” (399). 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 times 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” (399). 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 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. 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 (399).
As he 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’” (400). 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” (400). 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” (400). 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 feelings 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” (400). 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” (400). 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?” (400).
Again she tries to find something in common with the man and trusts she knows how he must feel traveling alone across the land. For a second time, Elisa seems to turn this mistaken connection into something sexual. Remembering the night sky she says, “Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It’s like that. Hot and sharp and&emdash;lovely” (400). 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” (401). The peddler protested with a typical male response, “It ain’t the right kind of life for a woman” (401). Elisa tells the stranger, “You might be surprised to have a rival sometime I could show you what a woman might do” (245). 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 whispered, “‘That’s a bright direction. There’s a glowing there’” (401). She is imaging this peddler’s freedom, both lateral and vertical mobility in society.
Now Elisa turns to preparing herself for the evening out with her husband. She scrubbed 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” (402). She dressed with “her newest underclothing and her nicest stocking and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness” (401). She continues to emphasize her female body including reddening her lips, one of the ultimate signs of femininity. Elisa is working on her physical beauty, rather than her strength.
As she waited for her husband, Elisa noticed “that under the high grey fog [the willow trees] seemed a thin band of sunshine” (402). Elisa seems some hope in women’s futures at this point. When Henry sees Elisa her is surprised at her appearance. He says, “Why&emdash;why Elisa. You look so nice! I mean you look different, strong and happy” (402). She questions: “‘What do you mean ’strong’?'” He answer comes 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” (402). But this is not the answer Elisa was 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” (402). Then Elisa says, “‘Henry! Don’t talk like that. You don’t know what you said’” (402). But quickly she recovered boasting, “‘I’m strong’ ‘I never knew how strong’” (402). She then feels powerful enough as a woman to keep her husband intentionally waiting in the car for her.
But Elisa’s sense of power hits a bump in the road. As the drive into Salinas, Elisa sees the chrysanthemum sprouts thrown into the road. 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 passes the peddler’s wagon, she turned away so as not to see it. Henry noticed a change in her saying, “‘Now you’re changed again’” (403). 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?” (403). 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” (403). 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. 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.
Elisa’s encounter with the peddler made her realize that she was not fit for a man’s world, but this did not mean she couldn’t still be strong. The peddler’s business of selling his service of fixing pots closes women out of his world just as natural fog closes of the valley. Although we hope her tears can be compared to the pruning she does to her precious chrysanthemums, clipping them backed for future and stronger growth, Steinbeck leaves the reader questioning the future for women. Elisa’s tears will not rid the valley of the fog, for as Steinbeck tells us in the beginning, “fog and rain do not go together” (396). While Elisa will continue to dominate her immediate surrounding inside the fence using her power from nature, but she will not gain power outside of it, in a man’s world.
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