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Explain, and/or contrast if applicable, Elisa's wearing masculine clothes at the...

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tsyhtema | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted October 15, 2011 at 12:24 AM via web

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Explain, and/or contrast if applicable, Elisa's wearing masculine clothes at the beginning of the story and donning feminine garments at the end of "The Chrysanthemums".

I would like to know how apparel captures Elisa's transformation.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted October 15, 2011 at 3:22 AM (Answer #1)

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Key to understanding the transformation of Elisa [by the way, the prefix e- means out of] is the opening paragraph of John Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums" in which the Salinas Valley is described,

On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot.

Like the valley in which she lives, Elisa is "a closed pot,"  a woman among men and cattle isolated and without opportunities in which she can exhibit her femininity.  The only outlet for her maternal instincts is the cultivating of her chrysanthemums, which she tenderly attends.  However, when the tinker arrives and expresses interest in her flowers, saying that he, too, has "a gift with things" inherited from his mother, Elisa feels that there is within this man an appreciation for the aesthetic.  Thus, her isolation and loneliness in a manly world symbolized by her masculine clothing is assuaged in her conversation with this man.  As she is allowed expression, Elisa vibrates with passion.  She removes her gloves and her eyes become alert and shining; "She tore off the battered hat and shook out her dark pretty hair."

As she continues to discuss the care of the chrysanthemums, Elisa emerges more and more as a woman:

Her breast welled passionately...Her hesitant fingers almost touched the cloth [of the tinker's pants].

As the tinker leaves with a pot of the flower, Elisa thinks to herself, "That's a bright direction.  There's a glowing there." This "glowing" continues within Elisa as she bathes and dresses for her dinner date with her husband Henry.  When Henry finishes dresses, he comes out and "stopped short" as he notices this "glowing":  "Why--why, Elisa.  You look so nice!"  But, in his awkwardness of expression, he tells her she looks "so strong."

In recognition of her femininty which has been repressed on the ranch, Elisa says,"I'm strong,....I never knew before how strong." Then, on the trip, she sees the broken pot and realizes the duplicity of the tinker.  Nevertheless, Elisa retains her femininity and strength both.  Having asked Henry is women ever go to the fights, Elisa indicates her awareness that she can be both strong and feminine.  When Henry says she can accompany him to the fights, she tells him it is not necessary:

"Oh, no. I don't want to go. I'm sure I don't....It will be enough if we can have wine.  It will be plenty."

Wine represents passion and love.  With these emotions between them, Elisa will be satisfied an can flourish as a woman.  For, with them, she can be a woman--an open pot--even on the ranch.

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