It is clear from Steinbeck’s epic novel of American experience, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), that he is particularly sensitive to the effect of landscape on a person’s life. Because Elisa Allen’s sense of her own self-worth is so closely tied to the land, Steinbeck has chosen to connect her psychic state to the season, the climate, and the terrain she inhabits. The mood of the story is set by his description of a fogbound valley in winter, a description that is also applicable to Elisa’s mood. She is entering middle age, and when the valley is likened to a “closed pot” with “no sunshine . . . in December,” there is a close parallel to the condition of her life at that point, a sealed vessel with little light available. Steinbeck calls it “a time of quiet and waiting,” and the land, Elisa’s only field of action, is dormant, with “little work to be done.”
Elisa is earthbound, rooted securely in her garden but also held down by her connection to it. It is significant that her excitement in talking to the stranger is expressed by a vision of the stars and by her exclamation that “you rise up and up!” The stranger is not bound to a particular place, and although his freedom to roam is only a step removed from endless exile and rootlessness (as exemplified by Elisa’s uprooting her plants, only to have them thrown away and left to die on the road), it is appealing in contrast to her chainlike connections to the earth.
Elisa is also seen alternately as a part of a larger landscape and as a small figure in an enclosed area. The story unfolds from an inventive cinematic perspective, as Steinbeck first describes the entire valley in a panoramic view, then moves closer to focus on the ranch in the valley, and then moves in for a close-up of Elisa working in her garden. Throughout the story, the perspective shifts from Elisa’s narrow and cramped domain, walled or fenced in, to the entire ranch, and to the world beyond. Then, in a final shift, Elisa’s shock is reflected by an image of multiple confinement, as she is enclosed by a wagon, surrounded by her seat and hidden within a coat that covers her face. It is not an image designed to create confidence in Elisa’s prospects.