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Chrysanthemums, John Steinbeck

Most women have a sense of freedom and independence from their male counterparts, but they will not reach out away from their sheltered lives with a male to a new challenge or a new life. Women whom breakout of the their molds made by their significant other take a chance with life and try to become the independent woman others dream about at night. On the Allen’s farm, chrysanthemums flourish, but does Elisa Allen flourish with them?

With tender care, the flowers grow heartily and healthily, though the one who tends them is not so satisfied with her rooting in life. In “Chrysanthemums,” John Steinbeck portrays Elisa Allen as a stereotypical female, yearning to bloom like the flowers she harvests. An extremely capable women, Elisa Allen, armed with her scissors, clodhopper shoes, corduroy apron, and a man’s hat, seems to be anything but a demure, timid women. However, her husband, Henry, views her in a stereotypical way, seeing her as a helpless woman who is disinterested in practical concepts.

Though he acknowledges she has “got a gift with things,” he limits her gifts to things that deal with a typical woman’s job: gardening. In addition, Henry jokes, “I wish you’d work in the orchard and raise some apples that big,” though he does not really except, or desire, her to leave the hobby of her flowers to perform “real” labor around the farm. Furthermore, after Henry decides to treat her to dinner, he playfully jokes with her about going to a boxing match, assuming that, being female, she has no interest in such things.

Unbeknownst to him, Elisa really does have an interest in the sport, primarily because boxing is outside the realm of her conservative, feminine world of gardening and housework. Indeed, Henry is caught off guard when he learns Elisa has an interest in the bloody, masculine sport and even more shocked to find she has been reading further about it. Similarly, a tinker who stops in at the farm also stereotypes Elisa. He tries to play upon her lady-like naivete and to pressure her in to employing him.

The tinker puts on a face of “exaggerated sadness” as he tries to cajole Elisa into letting him fix her broken pots. Later Elisa inquiries about the freedom of his lifestyle, for the idea of being able to “follow nice weather” because traveling intrigues her. He bluntly responds, “it ain’t the right kind of life for a women,” enraging the hot-blooded farmer’s wife. Again Elisa wishes to express her interest in something explorative and outside of the home, but she cannot gain such insight because a male will not acknowledge her interest.

Consequently, Elisa’s struggle lies within the fact she knows she has the ability to be independent and the notion she will never be more than the stereotypical housewife. Indeed, on several occasions she suppresses her desires because her actions and thoughts are not “appropriate” for a woman. One example, Elisa huddles “low like a fawning dog” at the tinker’s feet, subservient and sexually repressed. The scene is enriched by this sexual imagery as she reaches, kneeling, to touch the man’s pant leg.

However, at the last moment, her hand drops to the ground, ashamed of her desires because she is a woman. In contrast to this show of feminine longing, when the tinker comments on his life being unfit for a female, Elisa “shows her teeth” like the tinker’s mangy dog, and becomes angered by the man’s unconscious show of disrespect. Elisa is tired of being the normal, everyday housewife who works in the garden and does the housework. She wants to be someone and do something different.

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