The Chrysanthemums Essays and Criticism
by John Steinbeck

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Overview of ‘‘The Chrysanthemums"

(Short Stories for Students)

The many critics who have debated for decades over the reason for Elisa Allen's frustrations in ‘‘The Chrysanthemums’’ have focused on two ideas: that Elisa is oppressed, either by a male-dominated society or by a practical-minded one, and that her flowers are for her some sort of compensation for what is missing in her life. The chrysanthemums have been interpreted as symbols of Elisa's sexuality, or childlessness, or artistic sensibility, and all of these connections make sense when looking at Elisa's connections to her husband or to society. It is also possible, I believe, and useful, to look at the flowers as literal flowers, as signs of Elisa's connection with the natural world.

Since the rekindling of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and the rise of the environmental movement in the same years, writers including Annie Dillard, Alice Walker and Starhawk have wondered in writing whether the same impulses that lead men to conquer new land and dominate the environment also lead them to dominate women. In 1974, the French writer Francoise d'Eaubonne applied the term ecofeminism to the philosophy that women have a spiritual connection with nature that is stronger than men's, that women and nature are dominated by men in similar ways, and that women's connections to nature can be a source of strength. Carol J. Adams explains in the introduction to her anthology Ecofeminism and the Sacred, ‘‘Ecofeminism identifies the twin domination of women and the rest of nature. To the issues of sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism that concern feminists, ecofeminists add naturism—the oppression of the rest of nature. Ecofeminism argues that connections between the oppression of women and the rest of nature must be recognized to understand adequately both oppressions.’’

''Oppression'' seems too strong a word for the ways in which Elisa is subdued by her life as Henry's wife, yet clearly she is limited in ways that frustrate her. She is proud of her garden, but must fence it off to protect it from the domesticated animals, the ‘‘cattle and dogs and chickens.’’ She feels she must ask Henry's permission to enjoy a glass of wine. Even the tinker, who seems to understand her at least a little bit, keeps telling her what she cannot do. ‘‘It ain't the right kind of life for a woman,’’ he says. ‘‘It would be a lonely life for a woman.’’

Elisa already leads a lonely life, in terms of her connections with other human beings. Her only passion is for her garden, and when she is alone in the garden she is her truest self. As Henry says, she has ‘‘a gift with things.’’ Her mother, too, had the gift. ‘‘She could stick anything in the ground and make it grow. She said it was having planters' hands that knew how to do it.’’ Her connection with the garden, with nature, is something she feels but cannot explain. She tells the tinker, ''I can only tell you what it feels like. It's when you're picking off the buds you don't want. Everything goes right down into your fingertips. You watch your fingers work. They do it themselves. You can feel how it is.They pick and pick the buds. They never make a mistake. They're with the plant. Do you see? Your fingers and the plant. You can feel that, right up your arm. They know.’’ It isn't just plant life that can call up this response. For Elisa, just being outside on a dark night sends her soaring: ''When the night is dark—why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there's quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It's like that. Hot and sharp and—lovely.’’

This gift, this oneness with the plant, is a source of strength. Several times throughout the story, Steinbeck comments on her strength. As she works in the garden, her face is ‘‘lean and strong,’’ she uses ‘‘strong fingers,’’ her work is ‘‘over-powerful. The chrysanthemum stems seemed "too small and easy for her energy.'' She feels at...

(The entire section is 9,720 words.)