Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
It is clear from Steinbeck’s epic novel of American experience, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), that he is particularly sensitive to the effect of landscape on a person’s life. Because Elisa Allen’s sense of her own self-worth is so closely tied to the land, Steinbeck has chosen to connect her psychic state to the season, the climate, and the terrain she inhabits. The mood of the story is set by his description of a fogbound valley in winter, a description that is also applicable to Elisa’s mood. She is entering middle age, and when the valley is likened to a “closed pot” with “no sunshine . . . in December,” there is a close parallel to the condition of her life at that point, a sealed vessel with little light available. Steinbeck calls it “a time of quiet and waiting,” and the land, Elisa’s only field of action, is dormant, with “little work to be done.”
Elisa is earthbound, rooted securely in her garden but also held down by her connection to it. It is significant that her excitement in talking to the stranger is expressed by a vision of the stars and by her exclamation that “you rise up and up!” The stranger is not bound to a particular place, and although his freedom to roam is only a step removed from endless exile and rootlessness (as exemplified by Elisa’s uprooting her plants, only to have them thrown away and left to die on the road), it is appealing in contrast to her chainlike connections to the earth....
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The Great Depression
Steinbeck wrote ‘‘The Chrysanthemums’’ in 1934, as the United States was just beginning to recover from the Great Depression. The Depression began with the collapse of the New York Stock Market in October 1929, and eventually affected employment and productivity around the world. Banks collapsed and businesses folded. Millions of people lost their jobs, and with less money to spend they bought fewer goods, leading to factory closings and more unemployment. There was no federal ''safety net'' at that time, so poor and hungry people had to rely on individual states for assistance beyond what their families could provide. In many states, there was no help available. In 1932 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated a series of programs, called the New Deal, to get the country back on its feet. He reformed the banking and stock market systems to make them more stable, created the Public Works Administration to create jobs, and gave new protection to labor unions to help workers get fair wages and decent working conditions.
The Depression did not affect all Americans equally, and many people even grew wealthier during the 1930s. With prices lowered by the Depression, it was possible to live well on less money. Necessities like food and housing, and luxuries like restaurant meals and fashionable clothing, were actually cheaper, because so few people worldwide could buy them at all. Some areas not directly affected...
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As is typical of Steinbeck's fiction, ''The Chrysanthemums’’ uses clusters of images to subtly reinforce important themes and ideas. For example, imagery of seasons and weather reinforces the contrast between Elisa's life and the tinker's. Elisa's life is confined, closed in, as described in the story's opening line: ''The high gray-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world.'' The atmosphere in Elisa's world is grim; there is ''no sunshine in the valley now’’ and the air is ‘‘cold and tender.’’ The tinker, however, moves about freely, and he is free ‘‘to follow nice weather.’’ He is not confined to this closed off place, and when he drives away Elisa notices, ''That's a bright direction. There's a glowing there.’’ Later, as she again looks off in the direction he has taken, she notices that ''under the high gray fog'' the willows look like ''a thin band of sunshine.’’ For Elisa there is ‘‘no sunshine in the valley,’’ but for a man who can travel, the horizon holds promise.
The story contains other image clusters that function in much the same way. As Ernest W. Sullivan, II, observes in Studies in Short Fiction, ‘‘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 sterile and...
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Compare and Contrast
1930s: The Great Depression swept across the United States and abroad, creating massive unemployment and poverty. Soup kitchens and bread lines were familiar sights. In the early 1930s, however, California still prospered because of the motion picture, oil, and fruit industries.
1990s: The worldwide economy is relatively solid and stable, and the economy of the United States is strong, with low unemployment and high productivity. Some economists believe that rapid fluctuations in Asian economies could spell trouble for the United States.
1930s: Popular movies included King Kong (1933), Anna Karenina (1935), and the movies of Shirley Temple, Fred Astaire, and the Marx Brothers. They tended to be glamorous and optimistic, providing audiences a refuge from economic and political troubles. Movies were mostly black-and-white, and a ticket cost about twenty-five cents. Roughly a third of Americans went to the movies at least once a week.
1990s: Popular movies showcase special effects and science fiction, and are almost exclusively in color. Many present a grim view of human problems. A ticket costs six to eight dollars. Fewer Americans go to the movies, but many watch movies at home on videocassette.
1930s: Although newly built homes were wired for electricity, most older homes did not have it. Housework was done by hand, without electric appliances, and keeping a house clean...
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Topics for Further Study
Many critics have found it useful to compare ‘‘The Chrysanthemums’’ with another Steinbeck short story from the same collection, ''The White Quail.’’ Read both stories. Do you agree, as some have suggested, that Elisa Allen and Mary Teller are similar characters in different situations? Or do you agree with other critics, who believe the two women are opposites?
Steinbeck was interested in plants and knew quite a lot about propagating them. Learn what you can about pollination, and about producing new plants by transplanting cuttings, as Elisa Allen does. What might Elisa's choice of methods say about her, in the context of the rest of the story?
Find out what you can about steer. What exactly are they? How are they created? What are they used for? How does the fact that Henry raises steer connect with important issues in the story?
Is Elisa Allen a victim of her circumstances? How might her situation be improved or made worse if she lived in our modern technological world?
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''The Chrysanthemums'' was adapted as a twenty-three-minute film by Pyramid Film and Video in 1990. It is available from Pyramid as a 1/2-inch VHS videocassette.
The making of the film adaptation has itself been captured on film, in the ''Behind the Camera'' segment of Fiction to Film. The forty-minute program, which shows the mechanics of producing a film, was produced by Mac and Ava Motion Picture Productions and is distributed on videocassette by the Indiana Department of Education, Instructional Video Services.
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What Do I Read Next?
The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about migrant farm workers pursuing a happy life that is always just out of reach. During the Great Depression, the Joad family leaves dustbowl Oklahoma for California, where they hope to find a better life.
"The White Quail’’ (1935) by John Steinbeck, collected in The Long Valley (1938) alongside ‘‘The Chrysanthemums.’’ Mary Teller's dream of the perfect garden has such a firm hold on her that she gives all her devotion to it, ignoring even her lonely husband.
"The Snake’’ (1935), a strange story by Steinbeck, collected in The Long Valley (1938). A woman enters an animal laboratory, buys a male snake, and asks to see it eat a rat. Though critics have interpreted the character differently, Steinbeck claimed ''I wrote it just as it happened. I don't know what it means.''
Winesburg, Ohio (1919), a novel by Sherwood Anderson made up of thematically related stories. A young reporter encounters and learns the secrets of several of the inhabitants of his small town. Anderson's way of exploring people's secret lives influenced Steinbeck.
The Awakening (1899), by Kate Chopin. A woman feels bored and unfulfilled with marriage and attempts to find her true self by having an extramarital affair. A century ago, this novel caused a furor.
Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), by Steinbeck's...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Adams, Carol J., Introduction to Ecofeminism and the Sacred, New York: Continuum, 1993, p. 1.
Beach, Joseph Warren, American Fiction, 1920-1940, New York: Macmillan, 1941; reprinted New York: Russell & Russell, 1960, pp. 3, 311-14.
Benton, Robert M., ‘‘Steinbeck's The Long Valley,’’ In A Study Guide to Steinbeck: A Handbook to His Major Works, edited by Tetsumaro Hayashi, Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1974, p. 71.
Davis, Elmer, Review of The Long Valley: The Saturday Review of Literature, September 24, 1938, p. 11.
Gide, Andre, The Journals of Andre Gide, translated by Juston O'Brien, London: Secker and Warburg, 1951, Vol. 4, p. 79.
Hughes, R. S., John Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction, Boston: Twayne, 1989, p. 26.
Marcus, Mordecai, ''The Lost Dream of Sex and Childbirth in 'The Chrysanthemums,'’’ Modern Fiction Studies, 1965, Vol. 11, p. 55.
Osborne, William, ‘‘The Education of Elisa Allen: Another Reading of John Steinbeck's 'The Chrysanthemums',’’ Interpretations, 1976, Vol. 8, p. 11.
Renner, Stanley, ''The Real Woman Inside the Fence in 'The Chrysanthemums'.’’ Modern Fiction Studies, 1985, Vol. 31, pp. 306, 313.
Steinbeck, John, Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, edited by John Steinbeck and Elaine and Robert Wallsten, New York: Viking,...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Astro, Richard. John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist. Hemet, Calif.: Western Flyer, 2002.
Benson, Jackson D. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. New York: Viking Press, 1984.
French, Warren. John Steinbeck’s Fiction Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1994.
George, Stephen K., ed. John Steinbeck: A Centennial Tribute. New York: Praeger, 2002.
George, Stephen K., ed. The Moral Philosophy of John Steinbeck. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2005.
Hayashi, Tetsumaro, ed. A New Study Guide to Steinbeck’s Major Works, with Critical Explications. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1993.
Hughes, R. S. John Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1989.
Johnson, Claudia Durst, ed. Understanding “Of Mice and Men,” “The Red Pony,” and “The Pearl”: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.
McElrath, Joseph R., Jr., Jesse S. Crisler, and Susan Shillinglaw, eds. John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Parini, Jay. John Steinbeck: A Biography. New York:...
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