How would you characterize the attitudes of D.H. Lawrence and John Steinbeck toward the marriage institution, as exemplified by the marital relationships of the Pervins in Lawrence's "The Blind Man" (1922) and the Allens in Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums"? Do Lawrence and Steinbeck depict marriage as vitally important or too dysfunctional--strained by irreconcilable tensions?
Marriage in both of these short stories is presented as an institution that ultimately creates expectations of fulfilment that cannot be realistically met. Both short stories feature marriages where at least one of the people involved find marriage to be more of a restrictive impediment than something that empowers and fulfils them. This is shown through the character of Elisa in "The Chrysanthemums," who is shown to be so desperate to make contact with any other person that she even wishes to reach out and seize the foot of the peddler because of the interest he takes in her chrysanthemums. She is shown to be in a marriage to a husband who certainly does love her, as his willingness to take her to see a fight shows, even though he suspects that she may not enjoy it. However, it is clear from his lack of understanding about her chrysanthemums, which forms a powerful symbol of her creative identity, that he does not understand his wife or appreciate her for who she really is. The images of entrapment created by the description of the Salinas Valley at the beginning of the story reinforce this. Note how the last image that the reader is left with in this story is that of Elisa misunderstood and trapped in a marriage that does not fulfil her:
She turned up her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly--like an old woman.
The simile at the end of the story compares her directly to a woman who has aged dramatically, suggesting that Elisa has grown old before her time because of the restriction she feels in her marriage and her desperate desire to make contact with anybody else.
In the same way, although Isabel and Maurice in "The Blind Man" enjoy superficially a good relationship, the limits of the love Isabel has for her blinded, war-wounded husband are painfully apparent when he falls into one of his fits of depression that try her so greatly. Note her feelings when her husband goes through one of these episodes and how she responds:
The dread went down to the roots of her soul as these black days recurred. In a kind of panic she tried to wrap herself up still further in her husband. She forced the old spontaneous cheerfulness and joy to continue. But the effort it cost her was almost too much. She knew she could not keep it up. She felt she would scream with the strain, and would give anything, anything, to escape.
Isabel initially tries to cover up her void that she feels with more superficial expressions of love, but this only creates a sense of inevitable doom and the desire for escape. Note the repetition of the word "anything" which highlights the lengths to which any other reality rather than her present one is preferable. Like Elisa, Isabel finds herself desiring "escape" in any form because her marriage does not satisfy her or fulfil her in the way that she feels it should.
Both short stories are similar therefore in the way that they present marriage as an institution that seems to promise far more than it can actually deliver. Both Elisa and Isabel, and even Maurice himself, find themselves craving intimacy and physical contact with others to make up for the lack of intimacy that they enjoy in their marriage.