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Symbolism in the Chrysanthemums

At first glance John Steinbecks \”The Chrysanthemums\” seems to be a story about a woman whose niche is in the garden. Upon deeper inspection the story has strong notes of feminism in the central character Elisa Allen. Elisas actions and feelings reflect her struggle as a woman trying and failing to emasculate herself in a male dominated society. Elisa is at her strongest and most proud in the garden and becomes weak when placed in feminine positions such as going out to dinner with her husband. Steinbeck smartly narrates this womans frequent shifts between femininity and masculinity over a short period of time.

In the opening of the story Elisa is emasculated by the description of her clothing. She wears \”a mans black hat pulled low down over her eyes, clodhopper shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron\” (paragraph 5). When Elisas husband Henry comes over and compliments her garden and ability to grow things Elisa is smug with him and very proud of her skill with the flowers. Her \”green thumb\” makes her an equal in her own eyes. When Elisas husband asks her if she would like to go to dinner her feminine side comes out.

She is excited to go eat at a restaurant and states that she would much rather go to the movies than go see the fights, she \”wouldnt like the fights\” at all (paragraph 21). Elisa is taken aback with her own submissiveness and quickly becomes preoccupied with her flowers as soon as her husband leaves. When the drifter comes and asks Elisa for work to do she is stern with him and refuses him a job. She acts as a man would to another strange man and becomes irritated. When he persists in asking her she replys \”I tell you I have nothing like that for you to do\” (paragraph 46).

The drifter mentions Elisas chrysanthemums and she immediately loosens up as \”the irritation and resistance melt(ed) from her face\” (paragraph 51). The drifter feigns great interest in Elisas chrysanthemums and asks her many questions about them. He tells her he knows a lady who said to him \”if you ever come across some nice chrysanthemums I wish youd try to get me a few seeds\” (paragraph 56). Elisa is overjoyed by any interest in her flowers and gives the man chrysanthemum sprouts to bring to his friend.

Her bubbly enthusiasm for her flowers is blatantly feminine in characteristic. When the drifter leaves Elisa seems like a transformed woman. She is feeling strong emotions for him. She is intrigued by the way he lives on the road and wishes \”women could do such things\” (paragraph 80). As she watches him leave her emotions are displayed: \”Elisa stood in front of the wire fence watching the slow progress of the caravan. Her shoulders were, straight, her head thrown back, her eyes half closed, so that the scene came vaguely into them.

Her lips moved silently, forming the words Good-bye—-good-bye. Then she whispered, Thats a bright direction. Theres a glowing there\” (paragraph 92). As Elisa retreats into her house to get ready for her night out with her husband she is truly feminized. She bathes and \”primps\” carefully, putting on \”her newest under-clothing and her nicest stockings and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness\” (paragraph 94). She is pleased with the way she looks. As Elisas husband Henry comes outside and comments on her beauty Elisa quickly stiffens.

What do you mean by nice? \” she asks him (paragraph 100). Elisa is taken aback by this feminine term to describe her. Henry replaces the word nice with \”strong and happy\” and she is satisfied with the exchange of words (paragraph 100). She boasts that she is stronger than she ever knew she was. As Elisa and Henry drive down the road her strength is quickly abolished. \”Far ahead on the road Elisa saw a dark speck. She knew\” (paragraph 108). Seeing the chrysanthemums lying on the side of the road is a hard slap in the face for Elisa.

She feels weak, betrayed and feminine. She has no desire to try and be strong. She turns her head away from Henry so that he can \”not see that she was crying weakly— like an old woman\” (paragraph 121). Elisas desperation to be a person that she can not be is touching. Steinbeck makes it very easy to relate to this womans struggle for strength and contentment in a life that does not meet her expectations. Elisa wants to be not only an equal to her male peers but to be dominant. She sadly realizes that she can never live up to the expectations she places on herself.

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Home » Symbolism in the Chrysanthemums

Symbolism in The Chrysanthemums

At first glance John Steinback’s The Chrysanthemums’ seems to be a story of a woman whose niche is in the garden. Upon deeper inspection, the story reveals strong symbolisms of children, vulnerability, and connection–being the most important, of the main character. Elisa Allen is the main character who is at her strongest and most proud in the garden and weakened when she becomes vulnerable and loses her connection to the outer world. Elisa shows a new aura of confidence when she makes this connection to a peddler, who also is the cause of er realization of reality and her crying.

The chrysanthemums symbolize Elisa’s children. She tends her garden and handles the chrysanthemums with love and care, just as she would handle her own children. Elisa is protective of her flowers and places a fence around them; she makes sure that no aphids, no sowbugs or snails or cutworms are t here. Her terrier fingers destroyed such pests before they could get started ( 221). These pests represent something that harms the flowers, and she removes them before they can harm her children. The chrysanthemums are ymbolic of her children, and she is very proud of them.

She is happy and pleased by her ability to nurture the chrysanthemums as she would her children. Elisa’s vulnerability is shown through her experience with the peddler shows an interest in the chrysanthemums when he describes them as a quick puff of colored smoke (223). By admiring the chrysanthemums, he figuratively admires Elisa Allen. The peddler gives Elisa a connection that she can’t do with anyone else. By giving him the pot to put the chrysanthemum seedlings in, she gives him the symbol of her inner-self.

She begins to feel hope as the peddler leaves. She dresses up nice and prepares for her night out with her husband. This preparation process symbolizes that she is preparing for a change in her life. Her washing and dressing is symbolic of her transition. Tearing off her soiled clothes and flinging them into the corner, she scrubbed herself with a little block of pumice, legs and thighs, loins and chest and arms, until her skin was scratched and red. This is symbolic of Elisa coming out of her old being, releasing a newness she had become to know.

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 of this is brought about because one man took interest in her private pleasure-the chrysanthemums. Her connection with the peddler has made her come out of the fence that she is so used to being inside of. She is free and she likes it.

Elisa has seemed to undergo a complete metamorphosis from being an nsocial housewife to a confident woman when she makes this connection. She boasts, I am strong. I never knew before how strong. Unfortunately, at the conclusion of Steinbeck’s short story, Steinbeck has her fall right back into the rut she so despised. When she realized that the peddler had dumped out the seeds and soil, and she comes back to reality and turned up her coat collar so her husband could not see that she was crying weakly-like an old woman. She is crushed and all that she had gained that day was taken away.

This story xpresses how easy it is for someone’s hopes and confidence can be crushed if it is given into the wrong person’s hands. The title The Chrysanthemums is used to point out that Elisa’s chrysanthemums are an image of her. The image reflects how she feels towards children through her flowers, what her vulnerabilities are, and how she uses them to make connections. Elisa accomplished what she always wanted, but in the end a careless peddler took that away. She returned to being her old self, the self that lived within her own garden and fence.

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