How can I connect "The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck to "Cinderella" by Anne Sexton?

Expert Answers
teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck and Cinderella by Anne Sexton are connected by a major theme: the universal, feminine longing for relevance and autonomy.

The female characters in both literary works seek to achieve a level of self-determinism and self-actualization; yet, they only succeed in attaining the superficial aspects of their goals. In The Chrysanthemums, Eliza lives with her husband, Henry, on a ranch. He raises cattle for commercial purposes, while Eliza is the quintessential homemaker. At thirty-five years old, Eliza is described as a modestly benign and asexual woman. 

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.

Eliza's clothing and figure suggest that her passionate and strong femininity has been eclipsed by her nondescript clothing. Also, her conversation with Henry is sterile, friendly, and affectionate. It betrays none of the covert, sexual undertones present in her conversation with the tinker. Although her initial tone towards the tinker is one of irritation, Eliza soon becomes visibly excited when the tinker asks her for some chrysanthemum seeds to take to 'the lady down the road' whose garden has nearly 'every kind of flower but no chrysanthemums.'

In response to the tinker's request, Eliza's attitude changes. She enthusiastically offers to pack some chrysanthemum sprouts for the tinker to take down to the lady. Her tone changes to one of animated breathlessness; she proceeds to tear off the 'battered hat' to reveal her 'dark, pretty, hair' and she resorts to using emotionally charged and sensual language to describe her gift for raising the most magnificent of chrysanthemums.

"Well, I can only tell you what it feels like... 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. They never make a mistake. You can feel it. When you're like that you can't do anything wrong..."

This sultry monologue is coupled with Eliza's suggestive stance, causing the tinker to become visibly self-conscious:

She was kneeling on the ground looking up at him. Her breast swelled passionately. The man's eyes narrowed. He looked away self-consciously.

The story ends with Eliza once more suppressing her passionate nature as she discusses with Henry her interest in traditionally masculine exploits. Eliza hides her true nature from her husband because she is afraid of rejection. Her husband offers to take her to a fight but still questions her interest in 'prize fights,' broken noses, bloody gloves, and 'things like that.' Eliza has to hide her frustration, as she cries 'weakly-like an old woman' for the lost passion in her sterile marriage. She can neither explore her interests in traditionally masculine endeavors nor enjoy sexual satisfaction in her sterile marriage.

Like Eliza, the female protagonist in Cinderella fails to realize true happiness and lasting passion in her life. The general tone of Anne Sexton's poem is one of sarcasm and skepticism. Women in her poem resort to drastic measures to secure a dubious form of self-actualization that does not satiate the female thirst for relevance and autonomy. The nursemaid manages to capture some prince's heart and goes 'from diapers to Dior,' while the charwoman collects enough insurance money to go from 'mops to Bonwit Teller.' However, the poet is silent on whether these women actually achieve lasting happiness.

Even more telling, Cinderella's two step-sisters mutilate their respective feet in order to win the hand of the prince. Their actions mirror the modern trend of submitting to risky implant surgeries in order to achieve a measure of implied physical perfection. Although Cinderella herself does win her prince, her married existence is as sterile and passionless as that of Eliza Allen's.

Cinderella and the prince/ lived, they say, happily ever after,/ like two dolls in a museum case/ never bothered by diapers or dust,/ never arguing over the timing of an egg,/ never telling the same story twice,/ never getting a middle-aged spread,/ their darling smiles pasted on for eternity./ Regular Bobbsey Twins./ That story.

The last stanza betrays a certain lethargy and monotony that is debilitating to the senses. Additionally, the sterile, story-book lifestyle of the prince and princess who live happily ever after is devoid of consuming passion, meaning, and purpose. Is it any wonder that women like Elisa Allen despair of ever achieving a level of relevance and autonomy that is both enriching as well as validating?

Read the study guide:
The Chrysanthemums

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question