Throughout history, women have often been portrayed as the subordinates of men or the “weaker sex”. As a result of these unfair social assumptions, women have been working hard to dissociate themselves form this stereotype and become more independent with their lives. Many famous writers have addressed this issue in their novels or short stories. John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” is one of those famous stories which describes Elisa Allen’s frustration with her marriage, her sense of isolation from the world and her hidden desires to express herself as a woman, to explore her sexuality and to live a fuller more passionate life.
The Chrysanthemums themselves and other symbols tell the reader a great deal about Elisa’s struggle to find her own identity. She seems completely not in touch with her sexuality and is unable to articulate the source of her dissatisfaction. Her initial appearance in the story is very manly yet still allows a feminine side to be noticed: Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume.” She wore a mans black hat, clod-hopper shoes and heavy leather gloves”. She was also wearing A figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron.” This image represents her repression of her own sexuality. Despite her hiding behind these symbolic clothes she was still doing the seemingly female” job of tending a flower garden. Her chrysanthemums meant a great deal to her. They were almost like her children and she took care of them like a mother. We see this when she talks about them so passionately with the tinker. However the chrysanthemum stems seemed too small and easy for her energy”. This symbolic scene makes it clear to the reader that she wants more from life than just being a gardener.
The setting also plays a major role in the story. It reinforces Elisa’s feelings of isolation form the world. The story is set in the beautiful valley of Salinas, California. But with all its beauty, this location takes on the role of some sort of prison in which one would feel trapped: “The high grey flannel fog of winter closed off the Salina’s valley from the sky and from the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot”. We can see how this atmosphere can have a negative effect on a person. Another part of the setting which plays an equally important role is the fence that surrounds Elisa’s garden. It is a reoccurring symbol that represents the barriers that separate Elisa’s garden from her husband and the rest of the world: “he [Henry] leaned over the wire fence that protected her flower garden from cattle and dogs and chickens.” These animals represent Henry’s world while the garden represents hers. Henry always approaches the fence calmly and carefully never wanting to disrupt her wife’s universe. On the other hand, when the tinker comes over, he is much more confident: “He leaned confidently over the fence.” He is the first person who wants to enter her world. Later on, she decides to let him in her garden and, with that act, breaks the barrier that has isolated her from outside influences.
The tinker is a very important figure in this story and represents the kind of life Elisa Allen would like to live. He is described as a big, bearded, and graying man with a captivating presence whose eyes are dark and full of brooding. He lives his life on the road, travelling the country and making whatever little money he can from his loyal customers by fixing their pots or knives. He promptly and repeatedly asks her if she has anything he can fix but she refuses the offer every time. He then decides to try and charm this potential customer by casually talking about her flowers. As soon as he mentions that he knows someone who might be interested growing chrysanthemums, “Elisa’s eyes grew alert and eager.” She talks about them with enthusiasm and starts to feel that she is not as isolated from the world as she thought she was. The fact that others might be interested in her passion for gardening gives her the idea that she may have a distinct role in society and can make a difference even if it is a small one. The tinker profits from her emotionally vulnerable state and gets her to give him some work and pay him 50 cents. Elisa feels very attracted to this man and his liberating lifestyle and wishes “women could do such things.” However the tinker quickly opposes the idea by saying: “It ain’t the right kind of life for a woman.” This statement somewhat upsets her but she winds up giving him some chrysanthemum sprouts in pots to take with him.
After the departure of the man in the truck, Elisa feels rejuvenated and experiences some kind of sexual awakening. She feels like a renewed woman. She rushes to take a bath and scrubs herself very hard as though she is getting rid of her old shy self. She then looks at her new self in the mirror and revels at the sight of it. When Henry sees her, all he can say is “you look nice”. She gets frustrated at her husbands inability to see what she sees. She later says: “I’m strong. I never knew before how strong.”
“In a moment it was over.” The moment when she sees her flowers dumped on the road, she feels rejected and emotionally deflated. She realizes that all the tinker wanted was the pots and that the whole experience was a big lie. The reader might have realized this earlier when the tinker was about to leave and Elisa told him to “keep the sand damp.” He replied: “Sand, ma’am?… Sand? Oh sure. You mean around the chrysanthemums. Sure I will.” implying that he didn’t care much for the flowers. In a final attempt to break her shackles, she asks Henry if any women go to prizefights. He replies: “I don’t think you’d like it.” The story ends on this sour note with Elisa “crying weakly – like an old woman.” It has become evident that she will always be trapped in her garden.
At first glance, this is a simple story with an ordinary plotline. But the deeper we look, we start to discover a great story that represents the lives of countless women around the world.