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Although "The Chrysanthemums" was first published in 1937, the story was written in 1934, while the United States was still struggling with the widespread effects of the Great Depression. The impact of this period was felt in different ways and to different degrees by people in various locations and situations, but no one went unaffected.
Henry and Elisa Allen are, in a material sense, doing comparatively well. Henry has completed a sale of livestock as the story begins, receiving almost as much as he was asking for the cattle.
"Henry, who were those men you were talking to?" "Why, sure, that's what I came to tell you. They were from the Western Meat Company. I sold those thirty head of three-year old steers. Got nearly my own price, too."
The fact that he was able to make the sale and that he was paid acceptably is a basis for celebration.
Elisa possibly sees a harder side of life. The ranch is isolated and she doesn't get away from it often. There is little opportunity to talk or think about anything but the work to be done, and minimal chance to enjoy anything of beauty or respite from the ranch that feels cut off from the world.
The tinker represents the men who attempted to survive in that time by traveling wherever they could, doing whatever odd jobs they could find in one location and moving on when there was no more work that might pay enough to buy a meal.
"The Chrysanthemums" was published in 1937, which was the same year that Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men was published and the same year that it was produced as a successful play in New York. This was still in the Great Depression years. Conditions did not really begin to improve noticeably until World War II started in Europe in late 1939. Then the United States began producing war material for national defense and to aid Great Britain and later to aid the Soviet Union.
The Allens were reasonably comfortable because they owned their own farm, so they had the basic necessities of food and shelter. It is significant that they could only afford to go to dinner and a movie in Salinas because Mr. Allen had sold some steers. It is also significant that Mrs. Allen initially put up such resistance to giving the tinker any knives or scissors to sharpen or pots to repair. Money was hard to come by. Their night on the town in Salinas would cost about twenty-five cents apiece for the movie and a dollar apiece for the dinner, a total of less than three dollars.
Elisa Allen is somewhat like Curley's wife in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Both are women cut off from the company of other women and unable to share their feminine interests with the hard-working, insensitive men whose world they have to live in. It is heartless of the traveling tinker to pretend he is interested in the one little island of beauty that Elisa maintains in her flower garden, and especially heartless to make her think he will enable her to make contact with another woman who shares her nurturing instinct and her love of totally impractical and unmarketable beauty.
Both Elisa Allen and Curley's wife represent the millions of farm women who lead lives of drudgery and virtual imprisonment, who have needs that are never met and talents they never get to cultivate. Steinbeck sympathized with these women. Curley's wife is young and rebellious, but Elisa is hopelessly trapped and resigned. Part of Elisa's conversation with the tinker shows that she had often wished she could escape:
"It must be nice," she said. "It must be very nice. I wish women could do such things."
"It ain't the right kind of a life for a woman."
Her upper lip raised a little, showing her teeth. "How do you know? How can you tell?" she said.
Even the tinker expresses the patriarchal view that dominates society and keeps women confined to dependency. He wouldn't like to see women out in the world doing the things that were only done by men. He is having a hard enough time surviving as it is. It is a good thing he didn't express his chauvinistic opinion until after he had finished fixing the aluminum pots; he might have lost a customer. When she brings him a fifty-cent piece from the house, she tells him:
"You might be surprised to have a rival some time. I can sharpen scissors, too. And I can beat the dents out of little pots. I could show you what a woman might do."
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was not far off. Millions of women went to work in factories, while others became soldiers and sailors in the WACS and WAVES. Before the war ended, women were doing virtually every kind of work that had previously been done exclusively by men. Things haven't been the same since.
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