By what means do you learn about the main character?     Please support with quotations. "The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Having written of his story,

It is entirely different and designed to strike without the reader's knowledge

it is only through minimal indirect characterization that the reader learns of Elisa in "The Chrysanthemums." With the use of a limited third person narrator, the description of Elisa Allen is merely objective:

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 lowdown over her eyes, clod-hopper shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron....She wore heavy leather gloves to protect her hands while she worked.

As she works, Elisa glances at the men talking with her husband, then she is startled at the sound of her husband's voice because he had neared her quietly.  The conversation between her and her husband is clipped and told without explanation since the narrator is third-person narrator.  It is as though the reader hears as Elisa and Henry hear each other and must guess at the meaning of the words along with them:

"...I mean you look different, strong and happy."

"...I'm strong," she boasted.  "I never knew before how strong."

Before this conversation between Elisa and Henry, the tinker arrives and engages Elisa in talk about her flowers; then, she surprisingly reveals her aesthetic soul as well as her suppressed passionate nature.  For instance, Elisa's voice grows "husky" as she describes looking at at the sky at night,

"...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."

Her actions, too, indicate the yearning of Elisa to express her womanly passion. For example, Elisa kneels on the ground looking up at the tinker with "[H]er breast swelled passionately" and "[H]er hesitant fingers almost touched the cloth" of his trousers as she "crouched low like a fawning dog."  As the tinker leaves, "[H]er shoulders were straight, her head thrown back, her eyes half-closed" and Elisa whispers, "That's a bright direction, There's a glowing there," but the narrator reserves comment.

With the use of limited third-person narrator and the indirect characterization methods of physical description, the character's words and actions as well as the speech and reactions of others, Steinbeck develops his main character, Elisa Allen. 

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The Chrysanthemums

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