illustrated profile of a woman's head with cracks running through it set against a chrysanthemum background

The Chrysanthemums

by John Steinbeck

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Write a critical analysis on John Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums."

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When writing a critical analysis, you must first complete a critical reading of the work. While reading, you can make an outline of the characters, themes, literary devices, major events that drive the plot, and more. You may notice patterns, come to certain conclusions, discover underlying character motives and more, all of which will be valuable in forming a critical analysis of the work.

Remember that the general structure of an essay is an introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. In your introduction, you will want to introduce the work, author, and some background information that will help your audience understand the nature of your analysis. Here is also the place to include your thesis statement/main idea about the work. Next, you may include a summary paragraph to outline the story and describe its main elements; this should not be extensive, just what the reader needs to understand your argument. After this will come a couple of paragraphs of your analysis/interpretation, which you should organize by topic. The conclusion is the place to restate your idea, summarize the main points, and give a sense of completeness.

Some ideas for your analysis: Discuss how the author has organized the piece. In which style is it written? What is the tone? What are the themes? What types of literary devices does the author utilize, for example, does the author make use of metaphors, symbolism, allegory, imagery (see the sources below for a list with descriptions of literary devices)? Do you think the author is effective in conveying his message? What is the message? What implications does the message have?

Below are some elements found within the story that you may find useful:

Setting: The Salinas Valley is symbolic of Elisa’s life; it is encased by fog much like her life is stifled. Sunshine also does not directly penetrate the valley. Sunshine is associated with happiness; thus, we can surmise that Elisa is around others who are happy, but happiness does not touch her own life.

Point of View: The Chrysanthemums is in the third-person objective. Steinbeck uses this point of view, not offering character thoughts but rather offering an account of their actions to make the story more neutral/unbiased. He focuses exclusively on Elisa and for the most part, does not enter into omniscience.


The Chrysanthemums is a social commentary, that is a critique on society. The story first appeared in 1937, a time when the United States was recovering from the Great Depression and experiencing many social issues. One of these issues was inequality, which is one theme in The Chrysanthemums. The character Elisa is a talented young woman whose abilities are wasted because of her gender and the gender inequality that was characteristic of the time. She looks to Henry who is not as intelligent as her but gets to live an adventurous, fulfilling life that is not deemed acceptable for women. Steinbeck demonstrates how patriarchal societies ignore the potential of women.

Additionally, sexual fulfillment is a prevalent theme in this piece as demonstrated by Elisa’s nonsexual relationship with her husband, Henry, and the consequence of this. Elisa’s sexuality has remained repressed for a long time and when she becomes attracted to the tinker, her sexuality bubbles over and ultimately causes her to be ashamed.

Other themes could include isolation, oppression of women, renewal, technology versus nature, and inhibitions.

Literary devices:

Symbolism: the chrysanthemums represent Elisa’s role as a woman which includes her motherhood and sexuality. Also, the setting is a symbol—see above.

Similies and Metaphors: There are many more, but here is one example of a simile in The Chrysanthemums: "She crouched low like a fawning dog." This is used to demonstrate Elisa’s extremely physical position in front of the tinker, the innate animal sexual desire that she is experiencing, and her willingness to submit herself to the physical will of the tinker.

Other devices you may want to include that are used by Steinbeck in The Chrysanthemums are irony, imagery, foreshadowing, paradox, personification, and synecdoche (note, this is not an exhaustive list).

If you cannot think of a thesis, here are a couple of ideas to get the ball rolling: Choose a theme and show how it is demonstrated throughout; for example, how does Steinbeck integrate femininity into the story? How does the character of Elisa reveal certain truths about society? Which literary devices are essential to the development of the character or plot?

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