How is "The Chrysanthemums" an example of Naturalism?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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"Naturalism in literature was a literary movement that suggested the involvement of environment, heredity and social conditions in shaping the human character."

In the short story "The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck, Elisa Allen is a woman who is strong and energetic. She is closely tied to the earth as a wonderful gardener who is able to work magic while creating beautiful flowers, and she is proud of her gift. (This shows a positive link to her environment.)

Eliza is married to a man who is successful and who provides for her and tries to do things he thinks will make her happy, but they are not connected emotionally. Here she is stifled by her environment.

While she works in the garden one day, a peddler comes by in his wagon to sell his services in repairing pots, tools, etc. Eliza is not interested until he begins to fuss over her chrysanthemums. He tells a story that someone he knows would love some of her plants, and so Eliza, engaged by this wanderer whose life she admires, offers young plants to take with him, and she has him do some work for her. At first it seems as if she is making a positive connection to society in this way.

Eliza takes pride in what she is able to create out of the dirt, and feels empowered for the way the plants respond to her. As the day wears on, she begins to develop a clearer sense of who she is—and her husband compliments her gift with growing things. Like a flower tended with care, she begins to blossom, and is further connected to her environment and the society of her husband's company.

As they travel into town, Eliza notices that the peddler has tossed the flowers onto the side of the road, though he keeps her pot, and she is devastated.

In Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums," there are several things that are working to shape the person of Eliza. The elements of naturalism that seem to apply to her character are her environment and social conditions.

She lives on her husband's farm and though they are seemingly suited for each other, they don't have a meaningful personal tie: they go through the motions of marriage. In this way, Eliza does not receive positive reinforcement as a valuable person in her own right, in the environment of the home. She finds she has pride in her work with growing things in the ground. They respond specifically to her attentions, and she is fulfilled by her abilities to garden with such success, a positive attachment to nature.

When the tinker comes, representing society, he wants her to pay him for work, and so he manipulates her by appealing to her love of her plants. She feels alive and gratified by his praise, and can look at herself in the mirror that evening with a sense of personal accomplishment. The tinker feeds her need to make a valuable attachment to society. However, this is suddenly ripped away from her when she sees that the peddler has thrown the young flowers away like garbage.

Eliza realizes that the wandering life of freedom open to a man is something she longs for, but will never have as a woman. In truth, her life is controlled by the society of men, and what appreciation do they have for her value as a person? At the end, she tries to hide her tears from her husband.

Naturalism is seen as Eliza tries to find attachments with the environment and the society of which she is a part. Nature seems to offer the only semblance of acceptance for her, and provides her with a sense of success not with people, but with plants.

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