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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What is the Gothic influence in "The Chrysanthemums"?

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One of the key aspects of Gothic texts is that of isolation and setting. A lot of the action in Gothic texts takes place in settings that are removed from "normal" society, such as abandoned abbeys or isolated castles. As a result, the characters are separated from any normalising influence from other humans and are prey to the power of their own imagination and fears. Symbolically, locating the action of Gothic novels on the fringes of society through setting matches the way in which Gothic as a genre concerns itself with the margins, and the way that it positions itself on the boundaries of oppositions such as acceptable and unacceptable.

Setting and isolation is something that is definitely present within this short story, and Steinbeck indeed chooses to focus on this from the very beginning, as his description of Salinas Valley, where Eliza lives, demonstrates:

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

Eliza is therefore presented as living in something resembling a prison, as she is literally hemmed in by the weather and her natural surroundings. She lives away from the rest of civilisation on her farm in the Salinas Valley, and one of her driving motivators for trying to reach out and touch the tinker is her intense feelings of loneliness and sense of entrapment. Characters, when they are isolated in this fashion, act in bizarre ways, and this is a key element of the Gothic that can be detected in this short story.

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