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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Why does Steinbeck detail Elisa's preparations for her evening out in "The Chrysanthemums"?

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Steinbeck's purpose in this section of text is to highlight the contrast between Elisa's lack of femininity early in the story and the feminine confidence the farm's visitor elicits.

Elisa's face is described as "strong" early in the text, much as her husband describes the life she coaxes out of the ground. It is noted that her figure looks "blocked and heavy." She wears a man's hat pulled down low, covering her face and further covering any hints of feminine softness. She wears heavy leather gloves over her hands which dig in the earth and whose "power" seems too much for the scissors she manipulates. This power likely originates in Elisa's frustrations in being nearly invisible in her society and even in her own home. She has no children. Her efforts to be her husband's partner in ranching are not appreciated. Her desires to see more of the world are touted as inappropriate desires.

Yet this strange tinker awakens a part of Elisa's spirit that has gone unnoticed and underappreciated for too long. She engages in flirtatious conversation with him, telling the tinker, "I could show you what a woman might do."

When he leaves, Elisa's sense of feminine beauty is reawakened. She carefully dresses for an evening out with her husband, taking care to highlight her uniquely feminine features. She chooses her prettiest dress. She makes sure her make-up highlights her best features, and she takes time to carefully make her hair beautiful. Elisa wants to be seen as a sexual being by her husband and not just the woman who takes care of his house.

After taking so much care to present herself as a beautiful wife for this evening, Elisa is disappointed when her husband describes her as looking "nice" and "strong," adjectives that do not connote a sense of the feminine grace her efforts sought to create.

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Elisa is feeling trapped by her life on the farm, even though at first she cannot admit it to herself. Her life is circumscribed by her husband's choices; her sense of joy at going out to dinner is conditional on her husband's skill at negotiating the sale of some cattle. Her work in the flower bed is ferocious, a kind of compensation for her lack of agency in other aspects of her life.

These feelings crystallize for her during her conversation with the tinker. She feels a certain commonality with the man and imagines life on the road, endlessly traveling up and down the coast, relying on her skill to make a living. Her pride about her chrysanthemums, about her "planting hands," the way her fingers know what to do, is an expression of her self confidence and her ability to fend for herself.

Steinbeck's description of her preparations to go out is meant to show this renewed sense of agency. The care with which she bathes and the dress she wears ("the symbol of her prettiness," the narrator calls it) suggest that she wants to look good out of a sense of self worth and pride. In scrubbing her body, she is figuratively scrubbing away the life she has led on the farm. That's why her husband's comment about how "strong" she looks is vexing. She is strong, but her husband's perception of this and compliment undermines her self confidence; it is as if in saying so, he has named a secret and claimed the source of her agency.

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Rich in symbolism, Steinbeck's story "The Chrysanthemums" begins with a description of the "grey-flannel fog of winter" closing off the Salinas Valley from "the rest of the world":

On every side it sat like a lid on the moutains and made of the great valley a closed pot.

On the ranch of Henry Allen, immersed in a man's world, his wife Elisa looks "blocked" and "heavy" as she wears her gardening "costume":

a man's black hat pulled low down over her eyes, clod-hopper shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron....She wore heavy leather gloves to protect her hands while she worked.

As she works, Elisa energetically breaks ground for new growth in the forthcoming Spring as the tinker and his "caravan" pull up to the fence.  In the exchange between the tinker and Elisa, something happens to her as, delighted by the tinker's interest in her chrysanthemums, Elisa's feminine passions are ignited and her "eyes grew alert and eager."  She shakes out her beautiful hair and her mouth opens slightly, her voice growing "husky."

As the tinker departs with some chrysanthemum sprouts, Elisa looks down the road romantically, whispering "Good-bye---good-bye."

Then she whispered, "That's a bright direction.  There's a glowing there."

In the house, preparing for an evening out with her husband, the glowing Elisa regards herself in the mirror as a woman.  With renewed hope and feminine passion, Elisa dresses carefully and seductively in her

newest underclothing and her nices stockings and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness.

She does this in interest of a renewed passion between herself and Henry as well as a burgeoning hope that she may be able to leave "the closed pot" of her life on the ranch and be allowed more expanse as a woman.  Henry notices the change in Elisa and remarks,

"I ought to take you in to dinner oftener.  It would be good for both of us.  We get so heavy out on the ranch."

This repetition of the word heavy from Steinbeck's description of Elisa before the tinker's arrival is truly significant.  For, again Elisa feels the heaviness of her life in a "closed pot" after she spots the cruelly discarded chrysanthemums on the roadside. All her careful preparations of the flowers, just like her careful preparations in dressing have ended again in dissatisfaction with her life.  For, her feminine experience has been but a "quick puff of colored smoke" like a chrysanthemum and the "grey-flannel fog" of repression falls again upon this woman.

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