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Analyze the emotional ups and downs of Elisa in Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums." 

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skyrace01 | eNoter

Posted June 14, 2012 at 7:13 AM via web

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Analyze the emotional ups and downs of Elisa in Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums." 

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted June 15, 2012 at 2:55 AM (Answer #1)

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In Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums," the reader sees a shift of Elisa's emotions several times in the story.

When the peddler stops, looking for work, Elisa is business-like as he tries to convince her that something in the house must need to be fixed, or scissors, sharpened. Elisa firmly explains there is nothing.

"Oh, no," she said, quickly. "Nothing like that." Her eyes hardened with resistance.

However, when the peddler shrewdly shows interest in Elisa's flowers, her entire attitude changes.

Look. I know a lady down the road a piece, has got the nicest garden you ever seen. Got nearly every kind of flower but no chrysanthemums. Last time I was mending a copper-bottom washtub for her (that's a hard job but I do it good), she said to me, 'If you ever run acrost some nice chrysanthemums I wish you'd try to get me a few seeds.' That's what she told me.

Elisa's flowers have taken the place of the children she has never had, and like a mother, the peddler's inquiries about the flowers break down her defenses. She is delighted to talk about the plants. Her reaction to the conversation is decidedly changed—she welcomes this discussion:

Elisa's eyes grew alert and eager. "She couldn't have known much about chrysanthemums. You can raise them from seed, but it's much easier to root the little sprouts you see here."

As Elisa continues to speak of the flowers, and describe them, her pleasure of speaking about the plants shows in her eyes:

"Oh, beautiful." Her eyes shone.

Elisa becomes more feminine. She has been dressed like a man while gardening, but...

She tore off the battered hat and shook out her dark pretty hair.

The narrator shows Elisa excitement in the "tearing off" of her hat. She shakes out not just hair, but "pretty" hair. When she goes to get a pot, she actually "ran excitedly" to get it.

Her reserve is down—the man "cares" about her plants—and she feels a bond with him. Elisa trustingly shares her wish of living on the road and sleeping under the stars, as the peddler does. 

However, the peddler's comment foreshadows the inevitable shift in Elisa's mood:

It ain't the right kind of life for a woman.

In essence, the reader understands the limitations being placed on Elisa by society. Society's expectation is that Elisa have children, but she has none. She is trapped in an existence tending the house and garden—and unable to move away from these things. Society has defined her role: and she has failed at it. It is a man's world, and she is unable to fight it. Driving into town with her husband later that evening, the image of the discarded plants on the side of the road draws her attention—"a dark speck." 

She puts on a brave front, telling her husband (who is unaware of the flowers) that it will be good to be in town. She asks about the fights—she only knows of them from reading. The brutality of the fight repels her. Symbolically, she does not have the strength to resist society's control. Her husband notes:

Now you're changed again.

So true! The strong woman who first stood up to the peddler, and the tender guardian of her "children," is gone. The peddler's manipulation is clear to her, as is her lack of control in the world in which she lives. Her final emotional change is found at the end:

She turned up her coat collar so [her husband] could not see that she was crying weakly—like an old woman.

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