The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The Great Depression
Steinbeck wrote ‘‘The Chrysanthemums’’ in 1934, as the United States was just beginning to recover from the Great Depression. The Depression began with the collapse of the New York Stock Market in October 1929, and eventually affected employment and productivity around the world. Banks collapsed and businesses folded. Millions of people lost their jobs, and with less money to spend they bought fewer goods, leading to factory closings and more unemployment. There was no federal ''safety net'' at that time, so poor and hungry people had to rely on individual states for assistance beyond what their families could provide. In many states, there was no help available. In 1932 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated a series of programs, called the New Deal, to get the country back on its feet. He reformed the banking and stock market systems to make them more stable, created the Public Works Administration to create jobs, and gave new protection to labor unions to help workers get fair wages and decent working conditions.

The Depression did not affect all Americans equally, and many people even grew wealthier during the 1930s. With prices lowered by the Depression, it was possible to live well on less money. Necessities like food and housing, and luxuries like restaurant meals and fashionable clothing, were actually cheaper, because so few people worldwide could buy them at all. Some areas not directly affected by coal-mining, cotton-growing, and other devastated industries—California among them— continued to thrive. Elisa and Henry Allen seem to be among those who were not much affected by the Depression. They have a tractor and a car, and do not seem to be in desperate need of the money Henry brings in by...

(The entire section is 2,697 words.)