The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck

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What is the central idea in Steinbeck's story "The Chrysanthemums"?

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Blaze Bergstrom eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In this story, John Steinbeck conveys the idea that suppressing one’s authentic self does not change one’s identity. The protagonist, Elisa, lives a contented, generally satisfied life on a small cattle ranch with her devoted, if dull, husband. Contemplating middle age, she has a nice house to take care of but no children. Although Steinbeck does not mention any deep creative strands she has abandoned, such as painting or music, he makes it clear that Elisa is a creative person. She fulfills that aspect of herself with gardening.

Elisa’s interactions with the itinerant tinker throw a new light onto what she has assumed is her contented existence. The intensity with which she speaks to the wanderer, and the romantic ideas she harbors about his unattached life, create some sparks. When she tries to fan those into flames, however, she realizes she is deceiving herself. As the tinker’s careless disposal of her flowers shocks her, she turns her energies into behaving in a way that she thinks will please her husband—not just having a lovely dinner, but also attending a fight. Instead, he finds her behavior so inauthentic that her animation has an undesired effect on both of them.

The complexity of Elisa’s character is that a large part of her true nature has become the contented farm-wife—even if this persona did not always occupy so much of her. Any further pursuit of the unfulfilled romantic side would come at the expense of losing everything else that she values, and so it must remain an unrealized fantasy.

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sagetrieb eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The central idea in Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” concerns a woman’s loneliness and unfulfilling life in her marriage, which she sublimates by gardening and tries to satisfy through her fantasies with the tinker man, only to be brought back to the reality of her loneliness when she discovers that the tinker man had no real feelings for her at all and lacks the sensitivity she seeks in a man and in life.  Steinbeck validates a woman's sexuality in this story while also depicting a woman as facing enormous difficulties in satisfying sexual and other needs through men who lack own depth and sensitivity.

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