What is the function of the setting in "The Chrysanthemums"?

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accessteacher's profile pic

accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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This is an excellent short story that features the life of one woman, Eliza, who feels trapped and enclosed by life. It is important to note how the setting adds to this feeling of oppression and entrapment through its physical details. Note how the story opens and the description of the weather that we are given:

The high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid of the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot.

Note how the Salinas Valley, the setting for this story, is "closed off" by the winter fog and effectively isolates it from all other forms of life. The valley is described as a "closed pot" with the fog acting as a "lid." From the very beginning, then, the oppressive and almost claustraphobic nature of Eliza's life is made clear, which helps us to understand the way she responds to any interest whatsoever in her life, even if it comes from the tinker. Her intense, almost uncontrollable desire to reach out and touch his foot comes as a result of being trapped in her life with no form of understanding, empathy or outlet for who she is. Setting in this story is thus vitally important in how it builds up our understanding of character.

mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The setting of John Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums" has much to do with the character of Elisa Allen.  Much like the Salinas Valley of California where she lives that is compared to "a closed pot," Elisa is enclosed in the ranch where she lives and a secluded life. Her working in the flower garden suggests her fertility that only finds an outlet in limited nature, for she does not often leave the ranch.

Because she lives on a remote ranch, Elisa is vulnerable when the tinker gives her attention.  Her passions, so long dormant like the valley that waits for "the rains to come" in the exposition, become aroused.  But, the tinker merely toys with her and departs with her gift of a chrysanthemum. Morever, he tosses it out onto the road as he travels.  When Elisa and her husband traverse this same road later on, Elisa "saw a dark speck.  She knew."  The tinker has made a mockery of her gift, and he has recalled to her her dissatisfaction with her restricted life that is bound by the fences of the ranch setting.

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