During the late 1930’s John Steinbeck wrote the short story “The Chrysanthemums”. During that time America was facing many issues such as the Great Depression, unions were developing, and child labor in manufacturing was terminated (Jones 805-6). The country appeared to be a male – dominated society that didn’t allow females of any type any recognitions or leadership. Even if women tried they could not be leaders,participate nor contribute their ideas. Trying to gain liberation was a fight ending in defeat.
Steinbeck’s character Elisa Allen shows her to be a strong, capable women kept from personal, social, and sexual fulfillment by the prevailing conception of a women’s role in a world dominated by men (Renner 306). Many masculine roles are demonstrated in Elisa’s character, her actions and the frustration women felt in the masculine world in the 1930’s. Charles A. Sweet, Jr. observes “Steinbeck’s world,” “is a man’s world, a world that frustrates even minor league women’s librations” (214).
Evidence of frustration is introduced about Elisa when Steinbeck describes her figure like that of a man “blocked and heavy,” wearing a man’s black hat, with heavy shoes, and a big apron covering her printed dress (Steinbeck 1276). Her home has many masculine qualities described as a “neat white farm house, hard swept, with hard – polished windows, and a clean mud mat” (Steinbeck 1276). Elisa is unhappy with the traditional female role and has attempted to extend her abilities into masculine areas. She seems to have to find interest in masculine qualities because of all the non – feminist areas that are not in existence around her.
Elisa is bored with her husband along with her own life. There is a distinct lack of rapport between these two, despite all that mutual respect (McMahan 455). Elisa’s reactions to her situations are like that of a man’s, but is reminded that she is a women. When her husband, Henry, admires her crop Eliza is flattered that such a manly man can appreciate her accomplishments. Her husband then reminds her of her feminism by offering her a night out on the town. Elisa is further convinced that her accomplishments are deeply fulfilling, but it makes her slowly to the realization that she does not posses much of what she wants (Marcus 55).
In the next section, the tinker appears. He is what, the meat buyers were to Henry (Sweet 211). Her reactions are like that of a man, for she resists giving him work (Marcus 55). Elisa starts to show her feminine qualities as she continues to chat with the tinker. As he leaves he notices her prized possession, and continues chatting and pretends to show interest and love for flowers. “The irritation and resistance melted from Elisa’s face” (1279 Steinbeck). With joy and enthusiasm she starts to open up to the tinker allowing him to pull his way back into a bargain. He compares her flower to a “quick puff of colored smoke” (Steinbeck 1279).
Elisa’s feminine sides shows again as she becomes attracted to the tinker because he represents a world of adventure and freedom that only men enjoy. (Renner 306). She disregards the masculine side, freeing her central famine sexuality (Sweet 212). As she starts to realize her famine emotions, it is too late. “Elisa’s desires for equality are now bathed in failure (Sweet 212). She has allowed herself to become emotional, the trait women possess, whereas men conduct business unemotionally (Sweet 213). Elisa realizes her hopes for equality are nothing but a dream because she has been betrayed by her basic nature and men (Sweet 213).
She later kindly gives the tinker the seeds of his own. As he leaves she again assures him well. After the tinker leaves, Elisa feeling disgusted bathes. She scrubs her self “until her skin was scratched and red” (Steinbeck 1281). Her feminist actions show by her cleansing her self “of the masculine situation by turning to the feminine world in which she best functions” (Sweet 212). When she gets dressed she fixes her self beautifully by applying make – up and wearing “her newest underclothing and nicest stockings and dress which was the symbol for prettiness” (Steinbeck 1281).
By doing those feminine things, she hopes to accentuate her role as a woman (Marcus 56). Henry immediately notices the conversion and compliments her with the feminine “nice” instead of “strong” which is masculine (Sweet 213). Now the two are ready for a nice night out to the town. Along the way, Elisa spots the chrysanthemums she had given to the tinker. She tries “not to look as they pass” (Steinbeck 1282). This is her final retreat back to femininity that her feminine equality must endure the social role (Sweet 213). Her only goal is to become “an old women” (Steinbeck 1253).
Once again back to her feminine role “she remains a pitiable victim of male domination and female disadvantage” (Renner 306) Throughout the story, Steinbeck portrays Elisa to have many feminist roles along with her more dominate masculine roles as well. She sees the equality of each. Her frustration with the male dominated world causes her to passively let ho of her self and not conquer her dreams. Steinbeck visions women as they are because of the period of time he lived in. Elisa is a women of the true 1930’s and has become the representative of the feminine ideal of equality and its inevitable defeat (Sweet 213).