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What is the use and importance of irony in "The Chrysanthemums"?John Steinbeck's "The...

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chasityrotton | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted July 12, 2011 at 2:54 AM via web

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What is the use and importance of irony in "The Chrysanthemums"?

John Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums"

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted July 12, 2011 at 12:20 PM (Answer #1)

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Irony, a contrast between what is expected and what actually occurs, serves to increase the impact of the story as well as its tone, the air of mystery that exists in "The Chrysanthemums."  In fact, John Steinbeck wrote of his story to a friend,

''I shall be interested to know what you think of the story, 'The Chrysanthemums.' It is entirely different and is designed to strike without the reader's knowledge. I mean he reads it casually and after it is finished feels that something profound has happened to him although he does not know what or how. It has had that effect on several people here.''

Because of the use of the limited third person narrator, the reader must infer along with the characters of the narrative what has been said between Elisa and the tinker, and Elisa and Henry.  By accompanying this ambiguity in narration and mystery of tone, the irony has a great impact at the end of the narration.  For, throughout the narrative, Elisa seeks to free her spirit from the male-dominated world, "the closed pot," in which she lives.  When the tinker comes, he manipulates Elisa, drawing out her passion and desire for self-expression.  By pretending interest in her chrysanthemums, the tinker causes Elisa to release some of her womanly passions and to think that she can be part of a larger world than the Salinas Valley.  For, as the tinker drives away with a red pot of chrysanthemums, she whispers, "That's a bright direction.  There's a glowing there."

But, when she excitedly rides with her husband to town for dinner, Elisa sees far ahead on the road "a dark speck.  She knew."  Hurt by the tinker's deception, she realizes the terrible irony of his taking her flowers.  Rather than giving her art expression elsewhere, he has destroyed it by merely casting it off the wagon as he drives down the road.  Elisa says to herself,

"He might have thrown them off the road.  That wouldn't have been much trouble, not very much.  But he kept the pot."

Elisa feels especially hurt that he has not even troubled to conceal his deceit because he wishes to keep the pot. The moments of passion, beauty, and artistry have all been shattered for Elisa.  The irony is that what had previously made her so happy and hopeful has now caused her to weep for her loss of feminine fulfillment: "she was crying weakly--like an old woman."

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