How might one characterize the initial tone of John Steinbeck's story "The Chrysanthemums"?

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The initial tone of John Steinbeck’s story "The Chrysanthemums" might be described as somewhat oppressive or even depressing. Certainly it is anything but vibrant or full of vitality. The opening tone sets the stage for a story about a woman who seems isolated, lonely, and even somewhat frustrated.

Several aspects of the opening of the story help set this kind of initial tone, including the following:

  • The first sentence of the story immediately mentions “high gray-flannel fog.” Each word of this phrase is significant. The word “high” suggests that the fog is thick and will not soon or easily dissipate. The phrase “gray-flannel” suggests that the fog is difficult to penetrate, that it is associated with coldness, and that it seems almost literally colorless. Nothing about this phrase seems exciting or stimulating.
  • The word “winter” suggests a time of coldness, decay, and even death.
  • The comment that the fog “closed off” the valley implies isolation, alienation, and remoteness.  These connotations are reinforced by the ensuing reference to a “closed pot.”
  • The reference to “black earth shining” does briefly suggest some hint of vitality and potential, but that reference is soon followed by a reference to “yellow stubble fields,” suggesting the remnants of fall -- a time of harvest but also a time, once more, of death and decay.  These associations are reinforced by the comment that the fields

seemed to be bathed in pale cold sunshine, but there was no sunshine in the valley now in December. The thick willow scrub along the river flamed with sharp and positive yellow leaves.

The reference to “sunshine” here seems positive, since sunshine is often associated with life, but even the sunshine seems “pale” and “cold.” The only bright colors in the scene are, ironically, those associated with the transition from life to death (“sharp and positive yellow leaves”).

In the next paragraph, the narrator notes that the air seems “tender,” but he also reports that the air is “cold.” Once again, a word with positive connotations is juxtaposed with a word whose connotations are largely negative. The final sentence of the second paragraph briefly raises the possibility that nourishing rain may fall, but then the narrator notes, realistically and somewhat forlornly, that “fog and rain do not go together.”

All in all, then, the initial tone created by the first two paragraphs suggests isolation, remoteness, and a lack of vitality. The landscape seems static, as if nothing in it is about to change anytime soon. In all these ways, the initial tone is highly appropriate to the somewhat depressing story Steinbeck is about to tell.


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