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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How does Elisa in "The Chrysanthemums" want to be viewed based on her reactions to the fix-it man and Henry? What's her ideal conception of femininity?

Quick answer:

Elisa wishes to be seen as soft and feminine by others in "The Chrysanthemums." Her conception of femininity is complex, and she believes that being feminine means to be both alluring and strong. Her husband is unable to see past Elisa's hard features, preventing him from acknowledging her femininity.

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When we first meet Elisa, she is working in her garden and tending to her chrysanthemums. It's important to note her physical appearance here. She has a "lean and strong" face which is mostly covered with a man's black hat. Her hands are covered in "heavy leather gloves" and her figure appears "blocked." She wears a printed dress, but it is almost completely covered with an apron that holds her tools. Elisa's feminine qualities are all but buried under her clothing.

Yet when the tinker appears, Elisa begins to uncover some of her more feminine qualities. She takes off those heavy gloves that cover her hands and touches her hair. She engages with him as an equal, transacting business and noting that she "could show [him] what a woman might do," a sexually suggestive phrase that connotes both her confidence and her spirit of adventure. Although she is dismissed, Elisa shares her dreams with this stranger, telling him that she would love to live a different life out under the stars. She wishes "women could do such things." And as she looks at him, her breast "swell[s] passionately."

To prepare for the evening with her husband, Elisa puts on her prettiest underclothes and "the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness." She carefully styles her hair and applies her make-up. When her husband sees her, he tells her that she looks "different, strong and happy." Elisa questions his usage of the word "strong," and he clarifies that she looks "strong enough to break a calf over [her] knee," which catches Elisa by surprise as his view of her conflicts with the softer image of femininity she has tried to craft for this evening. At dinner when she asks about going with him to see a fight, her husband tells her that she wouldn't like it.

In this setting, Elisa's feminine strength is nearly invisible. Her softer features are covered up in her farm work and underappreciated by her husband. This sense of invisibility extends to Elisa's own dreams, which men constantly remind her that she isn't entitled to. Elisa wants to be recognized as a complete personone who is both beautiful and strong; one who is both hard-working and full of dreams; one who is both a caretaker and a sexual being. That is her definition of femininity.

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