The role of women in most cultures is and has been strongly affected by the role of man for many centuries. In the short story “The Chrysanthemums,” John Steinbeck talks about a proud, strong woman named Elisa Allen, who feels frustrated with her present life. Her frustration stems from not having a child and from her husband’s failure to admire her romantically as a woman. The only outlet for her frustration is her flower garden, where she cultivates beautiful chrysanthemums. Steinbeck uses chrysanthemums as symbols of the inner-self of Elisa.
Eliza tends her garden and handles the chrysanthemums with love and care, just as she would handle her own children. Elisa is very protective of her flowers and places a wire fence around them; she makes sure “no aphids were there, no sowbugs or snails or cutworms. Her terrier fingers destroyed such pests before they could get started” (1082). These pests represent natural harm to the flowers, and just as any good mother, she removes the pests before they can harm her children. The chrysanthemums are a symbol of her children, and she is very proud of them.
Elisa is happy and pleased by her ability to nurture these flowers. Elisa’s pride in her gift to grow such beautiful flowers reinforces the fact that the flowers are a replacement for her children. I addition, the chrysanthemums come to symbolize Elisa’s femininity and sexuality. Elisa feels that Henry does not recognize or appreciate her femininity, and this feeling causes her to be distant towards him. Henry fails to see his shortcomings, but Elisa fails to point them out to him. On observing her prize flowers, all Henry can say is, “I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big” (1083).
Henry’s inability to understand Elisa’s needs leaves her vulnerable in her encounter with the tinker. The meeting with the tinker renews Elisa’s feelings of femininity and sexuality as a woman. Her resistance to his mundane matters disappears after the tinker romantically describes the chrysanthemums as a “quick puff of colored smoke” (1085). By admiring the chrysanthemums, he admires her. With a few well-placed words from the tinker, her masculine image has been replaced with a feminine one. As the tinker leaves, she begins to feel hope for herself and her marriage. She sees a “bright direction” (1087) and a new beginning for her marriage.
After the tinker leaves, Elisa bathes, scrubbing herself “with a little block of pumice, legs and thighs, loins and chest and arms, until her skin was scratched and red” (1088). She prepares for her night out with her husband. She dresses, stands in front of the mirror, and admires herself, her body, her femininity. She hopes Henry will recognize her needs as a woman and provide her with the romance and excitement for which she waits. However, this hope is quickly dashed. Henry’s best compliment on her appearance after she has changed is “You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon” (1088).
This unflattering remark on her appearance does not do much for Elisa’s ego as a woman. Her hope is finally crushed when she sees the flowers on the road. She feels devastated by the tinker’s insensitive rejection of her very soul. She realizes that her life is not going to change. Her femininity and sexuality are never going to be fully appreciated nor understood by Henry. Her devastation at this realization is completed and leaves her “crying weakly—like an old woman” (1089). Thus, the chrysanthemums symbolize Elisa’s role as a woman. First, they symbolize her children; later, they represent her femininity and sexuality.
Elisa feels frustrated with her life because children and romance are missing in her marriage with Henry. Further, her husband fails to appreciate her womanly qualities and her emotional needs. The encounter with the tinker reawakens her sexuality and brings hope to Elisa for a more exciting and romantic marriage, but her realization that her life is not going to change is crystallized when she sees the flowers thrown on the road. It devastates her completely to have to settle for such an unfulfilling life, making her realized that her life will remain the same.