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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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 754

Steinbeck knew as soon as he finished writing ''The Chrysanthemums’’ that he had created something special. In a letter to his friend George Albee he wrote, ''I shall be interested to know what you think of the story, 'The Chrysanthemums.' It is entirely different and is designed to strike without the reader's knowledge. I mean he reads it casually and after it is finished feels that something profound has happened to him although he does not know what or how. It has had that effect on several people here.'' Over the next six decades, enough critics have attempted to pin down that ‘‘something profound’’ to create what has been called a ‘‘small critical industry’’ devoted to this one story.

Immediate response to the story, and to The Long Valley, the collection in which it appeared, was positive. Elmer Davis, in The Saturday Review of Literature, called the collection ''certainly some of the best writing of the past decade.’’ The great French author André Gide, like Steinbeck a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, commented that the stories were as fine as those of the nineteenth-century Russian writer Anton Chekhov. In 1941, Joseph Warren Beach included Steinbeck among the eight American writers ''most worth our thoughtful consideration’’ in American Fiction, 1920-1940, and singled out ''The Chrysanthemums'' for praise because ‘‘the author does not waste words and insult his reader with ... explanation.’’ In the same study Beach penned what has become a frequently repeated line, calling Elisa Allen ''one of the most delicious characters ever transferred from life to the pages of a book.’’ For Beach and others of his generation, the marriage between Elisa and Henry appeared to be ‘‘one of confidence and mutual respect,’’ and Elisa's grief at the tinker's betrayal was ‘‘no tragic grief,’’ but simply a reluctance we all feel if we ''let someone get the best of us.’’

With the rekindling of the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s, more critical attention was given to the roles of women in literature. New works by and about women appeared, and older works were examined for clues as to the relative status of women in society. Mordecai Marcus, in 1965, began a debate carried out in Modern Fiction Studies over the meaning of Elisa's dissatisfaction. Marcus, who considered ''The Chrysanthemums'' to be ‘‘one of the world's great short stories,’’ believed that Elisa's greatest desire is to become a mother, and ‘‘her devotion to her chrysanthemum bed is at least partly an attempt to make flowers take the place of a child ... Denied a child, a wider world of experience, and that projection of oneself into the world of fresh and broad experiences which possessing a child fosters, she finds a substitute in her flowers.’’ Elizabeth E. McMahan, writing four years later, disagreed: ‘‘Elisa's need is definitely sexual, but it does not necessarily have anything to do with a longing for children.'' In 1974 Charles A. Sweet found in Elisa ''an embryonic feminist,'' and read the story as ‘‘Steinbeck's response to feminism.’’ Elisa, he claimed, was ‘‘the representative of the feminist ideal of equality and its inevitable defeat.’’ All three writers express sympathy for Elisa, and see the source of her frustration as related to sex and gender, and to the limitations marriage imposes on a woman.

Robert Benton, in a chapter of A Study Guide to Steinbeck, also sympathizes with Elisa, but does not find sex to be the cause of her frustration. Rather, ''Henry does not fulfill her need for aesthetic companionship.’’ William Osborne also rejects sex as the focus in an article in Interpretations, and recalls a common Steinbeck theme, ‘‘the effect of a utilitarian society on the sensitive and romantic individual. At the root of Elisa's frustration is her uncertainty of who she is and what her relationship to her society should be.’’ John H. Timmerman agrees, explicating a ‘‘story about artistic sensibility’’ in John Steinbeck's Fiction. He believes the story deals symbolically with ‘‘the dream of the artist, the artist's freedom of expression, and the constraints of society upon that freedom.’’

Stanley Renner is unusual in finding Elisa unsympathetic, and in rejecting the feminist interpretations of the story that abounded in the 1970s and 1980s. He believes that Elisa is ‘‘less a woman imprisoned by men than one who secures herself within a fortress of sexual reticence and self-withholding defensiveness,’’ as he explains in Modern Fiction Studies. Thus Elisa is not frustrated by her husband, but continually frustrates him by rejecting reality for a romantic fantasy.

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