Who is the antagonist in Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums"?

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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A superb story, John Steinbeck's "Chrysanthemums" has been one about which critics are divided over whether the main character, Elisa Allen, is sympathetic or unsympathetic, powerful or powerless.  In conflict with her need for aesthetic expression and appreciation, Elisa struggles within herself and, thus, is her own antagonist: 

Her face was eager and mature and handsome; even her work with the scissos was over-eager, over-powerful.  The chrysanthemum stems seemed too small and easy for her energy.

However, this internal conflict of Elisa's for artistic expression does seem to overlap with an external conflict with her environment. Employing the images of dogs, Steinbeck clarify's Elisa's position in her environment is:  She is subservient.  Her "terrier fingers" destroy the pests, she kneels in the garden, looking across the yard at her husband; when he approaches her, she "starts at the sound of her husband's voice." While talking with the pot-mender, Elisa eyes shine when he praises her chrysanthemums as beautiful, excitedly digging up the soil with her fingers in order to plant some seeds for him.  Still kneeling on the ground, Elisa touches his pants leg, then her hand drops as she "crouches low like a fawning dog."  Finally, she stands and her face is ashamed as she realizes that the man has looked away self-consciously. 

And, although the man rejects her as an equal then even when she informs him that she is strong, too, and can sharpen scissors, she watches him drive off with straight shoulders, whispering to herself,

'That's a bright direction.  There's a glowing there.'

hoping for some resolution to her inner conflict. Yet, the "sound of her whisper startled her."

After she bathes, however, Elisa looks at herself before putting on her red dress, "the symbol of her prettiness."  Seeing Elisa, her husband tells her that she looks "different, strong and happy."  But, when he talks to her again, "his eyes...were his own again," meaning Henry still does not understand her aesthetic nature.  As they drive on the road that the pot-mender has taken, Elisa spots the dirt and seeds she has given him; she cries.

Perhaps, more than her inner desire for expression of her artistic passion, Elisa's environment, represented by Henry, her husband, and the pot-mender, is her antagonist as she struggles for equality and recognition in a world in which women are not recognized as equals. In 1974, critic Charles A. Sweet found in Elisa

Steinbeck's response to feminism...the representative of the feminist ideal of equality and its inevitable defeat.



scarletpimpernel's profile pic

scarletpimpernel | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Steinbeck's "Chrysanthemums" does not feature a literal person as its antagonist.  Elisa, the story's protagonist, struggles with monotony and longing which, therefore, serve as an internal antagonist.  At the story's outset when Elisa and Henry make plans to celebrate his successful sale, Steinbeck makes it clear that Elisa looks for anything to break the monotony of her rather isolated life.  Her flowers and careful tending of them represent this same desire to produce or do something that is unnecessary but fulfilling.

When "the man" comes by, Elisa struggles with not only caring too much about the break in monotony that his visit represents but also with the desire to be wanted or recognized as being special.  She is deeply affected by the man's description of her chosen flower (the chrysanthemums) and mistakenly views his words as a special connection between her and him.  He makes her feel like a desired, exotic flower.

However, in true Steinbeck fashion, when Elisa--who feels desirable and uncommon after the man's visit--travels into town with her husband later that night, her struggle begins anew when she sees the pots of flowers she had entrusted to the man thrown on the side of the road. For her, the broken pots represent her commonness and lack of special value.

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