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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Student Question

What does Elisa's request for wine and her newfound interest in prizefights signify?

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Enotes has an excellent article on the question of Elisa's sexuality, the link to which I provide below. In short, this critic argues that the tinkerer stirs sexual feelings  in Eliza that her husband had deadened over the years.  Note the symbolic language when she interacts with the tinkerer: ''Kneeling there, her hand went out toward his legs in the greasy black trousers. Her hesitant fingers almost touched the cloth. Then her hand dropped to the ground. She crouched low like a fawning dog.’’ Raw, earthy, and primal, this passage suggests more than mere romance. At the end of the story when she realizes the tinkerer has indeed "tinkered" with her and that Henry will remain numb to her passion, she thinks 'It will be enough if we can have wine. It will be plenty," but when she turns up her coat collar "like an old woman" we know that she knows she gives up the fantasy of her sexuality the tinkerer awakened in her.

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Both of these questions relate to the theme of the limits placed on opportunities that are available for women at the time. When the tinker comes to the ranch, telling Elisa about his life of travel, she realizes she has had no chance for adventure in her life. Everything around her suggests she is shut off from the rest of the world. Her house is enclosed "with red geraniums close-banked around it as high as the windows." The fog and the mountains help to support her feelings of isolation.

After the tinker leaves, Elisa feels she's somehow stronger and less confined because she's shared some of her flowers with a stranger and feels she could go on the road like the tinker and "show you what a woman might do." When the man throws her flowers away, he takes away her feelings of romantic adventure and strength, feeling limited and confined again. She's desperate to get those feelings back, and that's when she asks to have wine with dinner and if women go to the fights. At this period of time, women didn't go to fights, so she's trying to feel strong again by doing something that's off-limits to women. Having wine with dinner is her attempt to get back that romantic feeling of going out on the road. Realizing she can never break out of the confines of her life, she cries "like an old woman".

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