The Chrysanthemums Questions and Answers
by John Steinbeck

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Why is Elisa considered a complex character?

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Elisa is perhaps considered a complex character because she seems sometimes passionate and lively and at other times melancholy and restless. She is passionate and lively when she is working with her hands, planting and caring for the chrysanthemums, but she seems melancholy and restless because she does not have the freedom she yearns for.

When she is working with her hands, planting chrysanthemums, Elisa's "breast swell(s) passionately," and she feels "hot and sharp and—lovely." However, when she meets the man on the wagon, Elisa seems envious of the man's freedom. He tells her that he travels at his own pace, and on his own terms, and Elisa says, wistfully, "That sounds like a nice kind of a way to live." Elisa also tells him that she "wish(es) women could do such things."

"The Chrysanthemums" was first published in 1937, and at this time women were still expected to be, first and foremost, wives and mothers. The freedoms afforded to men were not afforded, at least not in equal measure, to women. This inequality, along with the stereotypical expectations as to how women should behave, speak and dress, is at the root of Elisa's melancholy and restlessness. When Elisa, at the end of the story, cries "like an old woman," it is because she, as a woman, does not have the freedom to lead the life that she would like to lead.

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