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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Gender and the role of women in "The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck


In "The Chrysanthemums," John Steinbeck explores gender and the role of women through the character of Elisa Allen. Elisa's confinement to domestic tasks and her yearning for recognition and equality illustrate the limited opportunities and societal expectations placed on women. The story highlights her internal struggle and the broader theme of gender inequality during the time period.

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Is the role of women a good theme for "The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck?

Yes, the role of women in society is definitely a strong theme in this story. Remember the historical context of the story and the role women had in society in the 1930s. If you're not sure, read the "historical-context" link below.

In the "themes" link below, the role of women is not specifically mentioned, but both of the topics elaborated on in that link directly stem from the overall topic of women in society.

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What does "The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck convey about gender relations?

The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck concerns romance and deception.  A woman who finds herself frustrated in her life may be susceptible to the deceitful talk of a man who wants something from her.  The flowers are at the heart of the story.

The narration of the story employs a third person limited omniscient narrator. The narrator portrays the story primarily through the protagonist Elisa Allen.  Her thoughts and feelings make clear that this is a woman who  needs something more in life. The story presents several intriguing gender based situations.

 Romance and sexual frustration

Elisa has a romantic disposition. Unfortunately, she lives in a male-dominated culture.  Her frustration runs the gamut: emotions, sex, money, and her lifestyle.  Her love of beauty is represented by her chrysanthemums; however, she also loves words and poetry.  When she reflects on the night and the stars, her description reveals her romantic nature:

 “I’ve never lived as you do, but I know what you mean.  When the night is dark---why, the stars are sharp pointed, and there’s quiet.  Every pointed star gets driven into your body.   Hot and sharp and –lovely.”

When the gypsy repairman responds to her flowers with a simile, she can hardly contain herself.

“Kind of a long-stemmed flower? Looks like a quick puff of colored smoke?” he asked.

His interest in her flowers and listening to her explanation about the mums draws her to the repairman.  Her sexual frustration becomes evident in her words and then her actions move toward passion when she reaches towards his trousers, almost touching the cloth.

Women in the world of men

In the world of men, Elisa has been stifled. Her chrysanthemums are pretty but worthless; now large apples are the money makers.   Her husband represents the typical male.  He is completely unaware of his wife’s frustrations. 


If the reader were able to talk Henry about his marriage and his wife, he would discuss what a good marriage that the couple has.  He is a good provider and protector.  Henry would never think to mention the sexual aspect of the couple.  He has no understanding of the hidden passion that Elisa keeps.

Elisa would present a different picture.  Their marriage lacks communication. The understanding of the other partner is represented in the first sentence of the story when Steinbeck mentions the fog that covers the area and sat like a lid over the Salinas Valley.  Their marriage seems lacking and drifting.

The Repairman and Elisa

The repairman represents a completely different kind of man.  He has the ability to adapt his banter to the situation.  To Elisa, the gypsy appears to appreciate her flowers.  He listens to her intently to her directions to for carrying for the flowers.  When the gypsy understands about her “planting hands,” her attraction to him turns passionate.

The gypsy sizes up her personality and sees the way into her heart; he immediately develops a story about another customer who wants some mum seed.  This deceit is clever; yet, in the end, it hurts Elisa and ends her romantic feelings.

The mums symbolize Elisa.  The flowers are large, blossoming and full of life.  As a result of seeing the flower dumped in the road, Elisa realizes that the gypsy was a fake.  Full of rage, Elisa directs her anger at the male world.  Her sudden interest in the fights at the end of the story reveals her bitterness. She might delight in seeing men brutalize other men. 

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What is the portrayal of the woman in "The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck?

The image of the Elisa Allen in John Steinbeck's The Chrysanthemums is that she is a flower. Much like the flowers she grows, she can only go as far as they typically go which is within the confines of the ranch. At the beginning of the story she is fine with her place on the ranch until a man comes that repairs items and does small tasks. When the Tinker man begins to chat with Elisa, hoping to get work, he awakens a dormant spirit with in her. She suddenly is alive from conversing with a new person and one that seems so interested in how well she is able to grow her plants. He recognizes in her what her husband has failed to see. After Elisa gives the Tinker man a Chrysanthemum, she is filled with hope for herself and a new connection to the world outside the ranch. Sadly, when she is driving to dinner with her husband, she sees the Chrysanthemum that she gave the Tinker man on the side of the road. The flower is tossed aside as if it were nothing of importance. Elisa sees this and feels the limits of her existence really do not go beyond that of the ranch and her husband.

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What is the portrayal of the woman in "The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck?

In this very sparse theatrical short story, Steinbeck portrays Elisa in a contradictory way. She is a childless but happily married woman who takes pride in her home and domestic skills, particulary gardening. She has built a comfortable life for her husband and herself but has become either bored or restless with the rather monotonous lifestyle she leads. For this reason she is delighted to share her passion for growing flowers with a stranger who appears at first to be sincerely interested in her hobby. When he leaves, Elisa gives him a chrysanthemum (with roots!)to be replanted and cared for - only to later discover that he has thrown it away along the way. She realizes that the Tinker's so-called interest had been only polite sham to gratify her need of recognition and acceptance.

If Steinbeck makes no outward feminist statement in "The Chrysanthemums," he nevertheless portrays Elisa in a typical "housewifey" role which does not lend full potential to her existence. Elisa is frustrated by her self-constructed boundaries, with her own "smallness" and limited scope as well as her lack of contact with the outside world. However, she never seems to have made the connection between her obsession with gardening and her need to have nurtured children (which she never had).  In her attempt to find some kind of surrogate activity or preoccupation to take the place of children, she has neglected another basic need - that of finding her role in society beyond the perimeter of the ranch and her domestic responsibilities at home.

The story ends with no cymbals but rather rotates around the quiet interrogation if Elisa will indeed, upon this realization, find fulfilment after all.

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What does "The Chrysanthemums" suggest about gender roles?

It is important to focus on the presentation of the central character in this story, Elisa, is presented. From the very beginning of this excellent tale Steinbeck is quick to focus on the limitations of her life and the way in which she is trapped--even by the weather. Note how the story begins by creating a very strong image of restriction and incarceration:

The high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from teh sky and from all the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of teh great valley a closed pot.

The way in which the story begins, coupled with the descriptive detail that "there was no sunshine in the valley no in December," does much to reveal the kind of life that Elisa lives. She is trapped and restricted, physically, emotionally and spiritually. We can see how she suffers from loneliness by the way that she desperately shares her passion with the only person who shows any interest whatsoever in what is important to her. Elisa has to physically restrain herself from reaching out and clinging onto his leg. Her need turns her into a "fawning dog." It is clear that her marriage and her position as a farmer's wife is not fulfilling her and is not creating the necessary conditions for her to thrive in her own self. Her attempts to reach out and communicate with her husband, who is not a bad man in himself, reduce her to "crying weakly--like an old woman," as she realises that the man she had talked to was not interested in her or what she said at all, as the discarded chrysanthemum shoots illustrate.

Thus throughout this story Steinbeck presents the way in which marriage and society has reduced Elisa to a state of unfulfilled, desperate loneliness, where she is not able to truly connect to anyone. Women are shown to live a bleak life in the world of this short story, where they are misunderstood by the menfolk that surround them.

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