Study Guide

The Chrysanthemums

by John Steinbeck

The Chrysanthemums Essay - Essays and Criticism

Essays and Criticism

Overview of ‘‘The Chrysanthemums"

The many critics who have debated for decades over the reason for Elisa Allen's frustrations in ‘‘The Chrysanthemums’’ have focused on two ideas: that Elisa is oppressed, either by a male-dominated society or by a practical-minded one, and that her flowers are for her some sort of compensation for what is missing in her life. The chrysanthemums have been interpreted as symbols of Elisa's sexuality, or childlessness, or artistic sensibility, and all of these connections make sense when looking at Elisa's connections to her husband or to society. It is also possible, I believe, and useful, to look at the flowers as literal flowers, as signs of Elisa's connection with the natural world.

Since the rekindling of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and the rise of the environmental movement in the same years, writers including Annie Dillard, Alice Walker and Starhawk have wondered in writing whether the same impulses that lead men to conquer new land and dominate the environment also lead them to dominate women. In 1974, the French writer Francoise d'Eaubonne applied the term ecofeminism to the philosophy that women have a spiritual connection with nature that is stronger than men's, that women and nature are dominated by men in similar ways, and that women's connections to nature can be a source of strength. Carol J. Adams explains in the introduction to her anthology Ecofeminism and the Sacred, ‘‘Ecofeminism identifies the twin domination of women and the rest of nature. To the issues of sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism that concern feminists, ecofeminists add naturism—the oppression of the rest of nature. Ecofeminism argues that connections between the oppression of women and the rest of nature must be recognized to understand adequately both oppressions.’’

''Oppression'' seems too strong a word for the ways in which Elisa is subdued by her life as Henry's wife, yet clearly she is limited in ways that frustrate her. She is proud of her garden, but must fence it off to protect it from the domesticated animals, the ‘‘cattle and dogs and chickens.’’ She feels she must ask Henry's permission to enjoy a glass of wine. Even the tinker, who seems to understand her at least a little bit, keeps telling her what she cannot do. ‘‘It ain't the right kind of life for a woman,’’ he says. ‘‘It would be a lonely life for a woman.’’

Elisa already leads a lonely life, in terms of her connections with other human beings. Her only passion is for her garden, and when she is alone in the garden she is her truest self. As Henry says, she has ‘‘a gift with things.’’ Her mother, too, had the gift. ‘‘She could stick anything in the ground and make it grow. She said it was having planters' hands that knew how to do it.’’ Her connection with the garden, with nature, is something she feels but cannot explain. She tells the tinker, ''I can only tell you what it feels like. It's when you're picking off the buds you don't want. Everything goes right down into your fingertips. You watch your fingers work. They do it themselves. You can feel how it is.They pick and pick the buds. They never make a mistake. They're with the plant. Do you see? Your fingers and the plant. You can feel that, right up your arm. They know.’’ It isn't just plant life that can call up this response. For Elisa, just being outside on a dark night sends her soaring: ''When the night is dark—why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there's quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It's like that. Hot and sharp and—lovely.’’

This gift, this oneness with the plant, is a source of strength. Several times throughout the story, Steinbeck comments on her strength. As she works in the garden, her face is ‘‘lean and strong,’’ she uses ‘‘strong fingers,’’ her work is...

(The entire section is 1588 words.)

A Kind of Play: Dramatic Elements in Steinbeck's 'The Chrysanthemums"

The long-standing critical assumption, routinely delivered and seldom questioned, that John Steinbeck represented an odd late flourishing of literary naturalism—rather than, as now seems increasingly clear, an innovative sort of romanticism—has had the predictable effect of retarding appreciation of his accomplishments. Among the latter are the ways in which Steinbeck's language emerges from his contexts: arises organically but not necessarily with "real-life" verisimilitude from situations which must therefore be seen as having demanded, and in a sense therefore also created, a discourse of a sometimes patent artificiality—of a rhetorical loftiness appropriate to the dramatic seriousness of the given subject matter, but unlikely as an instance of ''observed’’ intercourse in English, American variety. For only from such a vantage point can we hope to make sense of many of the exchanges which animate such diverse works as Cup of Gold, To a God Unknown, The Moons Is Down, and Burning Bright. Yet the sorts of usage I am referring to must necessarily give pause to the reader of even In Dubious Battle, The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden. Recently, however, Steinbeck criticism has increasingly begun to accept the writer on his own terms, a process no more complicated than the reading closely of what heretofore has been often subjected to a routinely and callously applied imposition of extraneous critical assumptions. I think that the ways in which situation creates language—and action—can be seen in such a famously "naturalistic" piece as that famous short story which leads off Steinbeck's single lifetime collection of short fiction, The Long Valley (1938): ‘‘The Chrysanthemums.''

''The Chrysanthemums'' occupies its keynote position in The Long Valley with good reason. Not only does it serve as a striking introduction to a number of Steinbeck's attainments and prepossessions, but it also achieves an astonishingly eloquent statement of Lawrentian values that is valuable in its own right. The story is usually perceived—quite rightly—as a study in psychological interconnection and revelation, and I have no wish to alter such assumptions. Rather, I would like to direct some further attention to the ways in which Steinbeck allows text to flow from context: that is, shows speech and gesture being spontaneously brought into being by means of the rigors, the labor, of interpersonal drama. It is in short, the dramatist Steinbeck who concerns me here, though it is no one of his works created for the stage that I will use as my example.

In dramatic terms, ‘‘The Chrysanthemums’’ involves but three main characters: a ranch couple, Elisa and Henry Allen; and an unnamed tinker. It is December in the Salinas Valley. The Valley is shut off from the rest of the world by fog, and the weather anticipates change: ''It was a time of quiet and of waiting.’’ The imminence of change is reflected in Nature herself, then: something is about to happen. Elisa Allen is already at work in her flower garden; she is a dramatic "giver," her present quantity clearly laid out by the narrator:

... She was thirty-five. Her face was lean and strong and her eyes were as clear as water. Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man's black hat pulled low down over her eyes, clod-hopper shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron with four big pockets to hold the snips, the trowel and scratcher, the seeds and the knife she worked with. She wore heavy leather gloves to protect her hands while she worked.

Steinbeck's list of dramatic personae is thus fleshed out by being given the additional accountrements of sexual misidentification: Elisa wears men's clothing, and carries tools meant to prod and poke. She is also at a stage that later would be taken for granted as constituting ''mid-life crisis.’’ Moreover, the constricted world that Elisa inhabits is further limited by being divided—as more notably, later on, the world of The Wayward Bus is divided—into male and female precincts, domains of activity into which the members of the opposite sex shall not intrude. Elisa's world, of course, is that of her garden; at work within it, her femininity takes on a fullness it does not possess, apparently, inside her ‘‘hard-swept looking little house, with [its] hard-polished windows.’’ She is mistress of her chrysanthemum milieu; indeed, ''The chrysanthemum stems seemed too small and easy for her energy,'' and the flowers' insect enemies are no match for her ‘‘terrier fingers.’’ As she looks towards where her husband is completing a deal to sell cattle to two other men—a deal he has not informed her of beforehand—‘‘her face was eager and mature and handsome’’ in the enjoyment of indulgence in the creativity of helping beautiful things grow.

When her husband finally reports on his business transaction, Elisa is described as having ''started'' at the sound of his voice as he leaned ''over the wire fence that protected her flower garden from cattle and dogs and chickens’’ and, presumably, husbands. When he praises her prowess with growing things, we are told that ''her eyes sharpened'' at the notion that she might move over into the affairs of the ranch proper by raising apples as comparably big; she has ‘‘a gift with things,’’ she confesses—something called ‘‘planter's hands.’’ Her husband then suggests that they celebrate his successful transaction by going into Salinas for dinner and a movie; or, he jokes, they might attend ‘‘the fights.’’ But she "breathlessly" admits that she ‘‘wouldn't like fights.’’ When her husband goes off to locate the cattle he has sold, she resumes her work with her flowers; the language here suggests a woman in total control of her surroundings: "square," "turned the soil over and over,'' ''smoothed it and patted it firm," "ten parallel trenches," "pulled out the little crisp shoots, trimmed off the leaves of each one with her scissors and laid it on a small orderly pile.’’

Again, one must not perhaps make too much of these patently theatrical stage directions, but we are in fact being prepared for the sudden appearance of that oldest of dramatic devices—the Arrival of the Stranger. He comes on in the form of a ‘‘big stubble-bearded man’’ driving a wagon which advertises his prowess at fixing just about anything—anything metallic, that is. When the man's dog is faced down by the ranch shepherds, flirtation begins immediately between Elisa and the stranger; it takes the form of an admission that the latter's dog's aggressiveness may be not all that responsive to need. Easy in his masculinity, the stranger jokes about the dog's dubious ferocity meanwhile, ‘‘The horse and the donkey [pulling the wagon] drooped like unwatered flowers.'' But here is a woman adept at making flowers thrive; and here is also a man with skills at fixing sharp tools. The banter falters, then continues: the man is off course; his animals, like his dog, are surprisingly vigorous ''when they get started.’’

I should make note here of the alterations the stranger's arrival makes in the language of Steinbeck's narrative. When the husband reports his sale of cattle to his wife, her response is a tepid ''Good.'' Indeed, she uses the same word four times in two lines, to react both to the cattle sale and to the prospect of dinner and the movies. ‘‘Good for you'': it is his fine fortune and has little to do with her. But the bland textures of Elisa's existence are disturbed by the arrival of the ‘‘curious vehicle curiously drawn,’’ and its driver. The driver's eyes are ''full of the brooding that gets in the eyes of teamsters and of sailors,’’ and if this perception is meant to be Elisa' s as well, it marks her recognition of the appeal of the man's way of life—his ability to live with the simple ‘‘aim to follow nice weather.’’ Her response is in the form of body language: she removes her gloves and hides them away with her scissors; and ‘‘She touched the under edge of her man's hat, searching for fugitive hairs.’’ In short, she acknowledges his attractiveness by means of classic dramatic gestures.

The man's authority is equal to Elisa's within his own kingdom. "Fixed," his wagon proclaims, at the end of a listing of metallic objects which—no nonsense about it—he claims to be able to repair. No matter that the lettering is ‘‘clumsy, crooked,’’ or the words misspelled; Steinbeck's story is a drama that relies on subtext—the unspoken— throughout. But when she is asked if she has anything needing repair or sharpening, ''Her eyes hardened with resistance''; she becomes a bit metallic herself in the process of making it clear that she is not so easily won as all that. In the process of telling the man—four times—that she has no work for him to do, she manages to make him play the role of dependent inferior. ''His face fell to an exaggerated sadness. His voice took on a whining undertone.’’ The man's demeanor becomes dog-like; like an actor he uses expression and delivery to emphasize the import of his words: he is without a bit of work; he is off his usual road; he may not eat that day. Elisa is unmoved—is irritated, even.

Yet ''irritation and resistance'' melt from her face as soon as the man, resourceful, notices her chrysanthemums and asks about them. Hers, she avers, are ''bigger than anybody around here'' can raise; and since she has been pouring her private emotional existence into the raising of chrysanthemums, her boasting has a nice kind of sexual irony about it. He responds to his cue with spontaneous poetry: the flowers look ‘‘like a quick puff of colored smoke.’’ A brief confrontation over the flowers' smell is quickly resolved; the aroma is a ''good bitter'' one, ''not nasty at all,'' and the man likes it. Fine, then; for hers, Elisa claims, have produced ‘‘ten-inch blooms this year.’’ Ah, then, returns the fellow (the dialogue by now quite strongly...

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The Cur in "The Chrysanthemums"

Anyone reading John Steinbeck's ‘‘The Chrysanthemums'' cannot help being struck by the repeated association of unpleasant canine characteristics with the otherwise attractive Elisa Allen. These associations identify her with the visiting tinker's mongrel dog, further suggesting a parallel between the Allen's two ranch shepherds and the tinker and Elisa's husband, Henry. The correspondences between people and dogs elucidate the social and sexual relationships of the three humans, as well as foreshadow and explain Elisa's failure at the end of the story to escape from her unproductive and sterile lifestyle.

The dog imagery related to Elisa is uncomplimentary. In her garden, she destroys unpleasant creatures such as...

(The entire section is 1258 words.)

"The Chrysanthemums": Study of A Woman's Sexuality

Virtually every critic who has considered John Steinbeck's short story ‘‘The Chrysanthemums’’ has agreed that its basic theme is a woman's frustration, but none has yet adequately explained the emotional reasons underlying that frustration. In fact, Kenneth Kempton would consider such an explanation impossible. He professes his inability to find any consistent motivation for Elisa's behavior, and declares the work ''annoyingly arty, muddy, and unreal.’’ But most critics who have examined ‘‘The Chrysanthemums’’ admire the story and find it meaningful. Warren French, after identifying the theme of the story as frustration, suggests that the central action concerns ‘‘the manipulation of people's dreams for...

(The entire section is 2733 words.)