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The Chrysanthemums Essay, Research Paper

“The Chrysanthemums”

John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” shows the true feelings of the main character, Elisa Allen, through the use of setting and her interactions with other characters in the story. By way of vivid descriptions, Elisa’s feelings of dissatisfaction over the lack of excitement in her life and her role as a mere housewife and then the subsequent change to feelings of a self-assured woman, are clearly seen. These inner feelings are most apparent with the portrayal of Elisa working in the garden with the chrysanthemums, the conversation she has with the man passing through, and finally, when she and her husband are going out to dinner.

Steinbeck’s strong and somewhat manly description of Elisa while working in the garden, gives the distinct impression that she is not as weak as a stereotypical housewife would be. He writes that “Her face was lean and strong and her eyes were as clear as water. Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man’s black hat pulled low down over her eyes, clodhopper shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron with four big pockets to hold the snips, the trowel and scratcher, the seeds and the knife she worked with.” As evidenced by this excerpt you can see that she has covered up her hair with a “man’s hat” and has thrown an apron over her dress in attempts to cover up her femininity. This apron also takes on a similar role as a man’s tool belt as he works the land. Other phrases used by Steinbeck further the above points. He mentions that her face was “handsome,” her work with the scissors was “over-powerful,” and her fingers “destroyed such pests.” She hints to the reader that she would like to take on more masculine responsibilities after her husband Henry says that he wishes she’d work out in the orchard and “raise some apples that big.” She reacts to this by saying “Maybe I could do it too. I’ve got a gift with things.” All of these descriptions show the reader that Elisa Allen strives to be more than just a woman in her own world. At the same time, she leads her husband to believe that she is content with being a mere housewife.

In the portion of the story where Elisa is talking to the “Pot Fixer” who happens to pull down the road to her farm, Steinbeck shows Elisa’s eagerness for attention and how she comes to the realization that there is a more exciting life outside the farm. In the Pot Fixer, Elisa finds somebody who sees her as more than a housewife, someone who can appreciate her from an unbiased viewpoint. She is eager to talk about her chrysanthemums. Elisa’s face becomes “tight with eagerness” as she talks about them as if they were her children. The vibes from her infatuation with these flowers are picked up by the old man and there is an unspoken commradery between these two perfect strangers as they have both chosen their own preoccupation in life, his being a passion of pots and hers a love of chrysanthemums. It is this camaraderie that ignites the realization that she longs to break free from the everyday routine she calls life. This feeling is so strong that “her hand went out toward his legs in the greasy black trousers” as if to grasp a piece of his adventurous life at least through her eyes. Her interest in this adventure of his is further exemplified as she exclaims, “It must be nice” to live that kind of life. She then states, “I wish women could do such things,” fooling even herself into thinking it is not a woman’s place to live such adventures. These truths make it obvious that Elisa is wishing for more than life is presently giving her but at the same time she can’t break free from the stereotype society has given her.

In the final segment of Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums,” Elisa shows a new aura of confidence is as she prepares for an outing with her husband. She “tightened her stomach and threw out her chest .She put on her newest under-clothing and her nicest stocking and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness. She worked carefully on her hair, penciled her eyebrows and rouged her lips.” All this because one man took interest in her private pleasure chrysanthemums. Because she lived such a secluded life as a housewife, Elisa apparently never made the effort before to look pretty, as seen when her husband “stops short,” looks at her and says, “Why-why, Elisa. You look so nice!” He goes on to say she looks “different, strong, and happy.” Indeed, Elisa has seemed to have undergone a complete metamorphosis from being an average housewife to a confident woman. She boasts, “I am strong. I never knew before how strong.” Furthermore, she makes requests that she probably has never asked for in the past such as wine at dinner. She also shows a sudden interest in the prize fights which she had been quick to reject in the past. This illustrates her emergence from the norm her husband knew so well. Unfortunately, at the conclusion of Steinbeck’s short story, Steinbeck has her fall right back into the rut she so despised. She comes back to reality and “turned up her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly-like an old woman.”

Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” offers an array of different details concerning the character of Elisa Allen. The main detail being that she is a strong woman on the inside although she seems to struggle in showing it throughout the story. Because of the “Pot Fixer,” she is able to act, albeit for a short time, like that strong woman. One must ask themselves after reading this short story, if Elisa will continue this discontented lifestyle or will she finally blossom once and for all like one of her chrysanthemums?

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