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The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck (story Analysis)

Question 1.

The short story selected for analysis is The Chrysanthemums written by John Steinbeck. The point that piqued my interest was the author’s focus on the way women were perceived in the old times. Using a female protagonist, the author focuses on the thoughts and opinions of a woman regarding the way men treat them. Women were thought to stay at home and wait on their husbands all day long while the husbands were allowed to live their life as they pleased and they could do anything that they were interested in.

Question 2.

The selected story centers on a woman by the name of Elisa Allen who is obsessed with gardening to the point that she gets excited when someone questions her about her flowers. As the story opens, the protagonist is working busily on the chrysanthemums she likes the most among other flowers. Elisa is shown to be curious about the activity going on around her house, where her husband Henry is busy with some workers at the ranch. A wagon that says “Mender of pots and pans” pulls up next to Elisa and a man, whom the author refers to as the Tinker, walks up to Elisa. He asks Elisa if she knows the way to Los Angeles Highway as a way to strike up a conversation with her. He then mentioned that he could fix all kinds of pots, pans, and other accessories that needed fixing. However, Elisa turns down his help as she knows how to sharpen tools and mend pots. Elisa’s refusal saddens the Tinker as he needs money. He then talks to Elisa about the flowers she is working to get on her good side. Knowing that someone wishes to know about her chrysanthemums, Elisa jumps around with excitement and tells the Tinker everything there is to know about plants. The Tinker lies to Elisa about knowing an old lady who had once asked him to get her some Chrysanthemum seeds and if Elisa could help. Elisa readily prepares a flower pot and guides the Tinker regarding the care plants need. Their conversation then shifts from flowers to the stars at night when, arousing all kinds of feelings in Elisa, and she feels ashamed for not helping Tinker. The protagonist brings some pans that need to be fixed to make the Tinker happy. She lets the Tinker know that she can work on the same things as he can. Once the Tinker is paid he leaves Elisa to return to her work. Elisa goes out to the movies and dinner with her husband in the evening. On the way to the restaurant, Elisa spots her flower pots and is upset about how the Tinker rejects her love and affection.

Question 3.

Coming to the elements of the short story, the protagonist, as mentioned in summary, is Elisa Allen, a thirty-five-year-old woman with a lot of energy and an almost masculine appearance because of how she dresses up while working on the plants in her garden. The story has no antagonists as there aren’t many characters besides Elisa, her husband Henry, and the Tinker. The story is told in the third person narrative. However, the narration is represented mostly through Elisa as the readers get a glimpse of her thoughts and opinions regarding the way people view women and men around her.

Question 4.

To list the different kinds of characters in the short story, I will start with the stalk character, who is the husband in this story, Henry Allen. Henry has been shown as a stereotypical husband who treats his wife like all the traditional men did during the old times. Men were of the view that their wives should stay at home and do all the chores that were expected of them. Women slaved away their youthful days at dwellings, making everything clean and spotless like they were supposed to while the men stayed out all day long and did anything they desired without anyone to comment on it. The protagonist can be considered both a round and dynamic character as she changes her attitude when she has an intimate moment with the Tinker. Until the end of the story, Elisa perceives herself in masculine terms in how she dresses up to work on the plants. However, after her conversation with the Tinker, Elisa’s feminine appeal emerges as she dresses up pretty and lets her hair down. She looks at herself for a good while, at her naked body, and judges herself. The Tinker is an example of a flat character as he remains the same throughout the story. He stays focused on getting his work done and can make Elisa feel guilty for turning down his help. No one influences the Tinker in the story and it remains unchanged as seen in the story.

Question 5.

Through Elisa, the author reveals to his readers the societal treatment of women. Henry is not interested in his wife’s work and only focuses on the ranch. He disregards his wife’s opinions as if she knows nothing about the ranch, making her realize that, as a woman, she needs not to worry about things outside her domain. The Tinker refutes Elisa’s argument that women can do the same things that men can do because he has been brainwashed into thinking that women are weak beings who only need to stay at home and take care of the family. When Elisa provokes him by saying that she too can fix things on her own and sharpen her scissors, the Tinker ignores her by saying that such a life does not suit a woman. Both men belittle Elisa by making her feel inferior to men and reminding her that being a woman her duty is to her husband and her family. Everything outside that falls into the domain of the menfolk. Elisa’s insight is connected to the themes of the short story as the significant issues focus on femininity and sexuality.

Question 6.

The story is set in Salinas Valley at Henry’s ranch, and it is the month of December. One of the significant symbols in the short story is the chrysanthemums. The chrysanthemums have been used to symbolize Elisa’s femininity and sexuality. They are dormant and haven’t bloomed yet like Elisa whose sexual feelings have been repressed because her husband treats her more like a child and less like a mature woman. The chrysanthemums have been kept in nice flower pots like Elisa, who has been confined to a limited area provided by her husband, and all she can do is keep the place clean. The chrysanthemums are beautiful, as Elisa has portrayed in the story. However, there isn’t much that she can do as she has been restricted in her duties, which are to stay at home and do all the house chores that a wife is expected to do. Henry pays no heed to her and stays busy with his work. He occasionally compliments or praises her on her work, but that is all there is between the two, just the way the chrysanthemums are applauded for being beautiful and then forgotten. Also, like the flowers that have been bloomed yet so is the case with Elisa as she has been unable to conceive any children.

Question 7.

The selected short story, Chrysanthemum, was released in the year 1934, which was the time during which America had just started recovering from the periods of the Great Depression that had entirely shaken the country to its roots. It happened after the New York Stock market crashed in 1929, leading to significant unemployment issues and affecting productivity. Businesses ended, and massive unemployment led to people being unable to feed their families. President Franklin Roosevelt had been reelected and had been working on making changes in the country to end the financial crisis. During that year, Frances Perkins was appointed as the Secretary of Labor. Perkins was among the women who had struggled for equality in a patriarchal society. Women had been fighting for their rights for a very long time, but their voice was always repressed by men of their time. Steinbeck’s selected story also portrays women’s struggles through the depiction of Elisa. Women had been kept away from acquiring personal and sexual fulfillment because of the limited perception of the men.

Question 8.

An important aspect to note about the protagonist is that at the beginning of the story, she is seen in masculine garb when working in the garden. She has a strong vibe about herself, which shows that Elisa is a woman of strong character and not feeble like most women. The following lines are symbolic as they show how the protagonist perceives herself,

Her figure looked blocked and heavy in 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 with four big pockets to hold the snips, the trowel and scratcher, the seeds and the knife she worked with. She wore heavy leather gloves to protect her hands while she worked.” (Steinbeck)

Elisa wants to prove to the Tinker that, being a woman she is capable of doing anything that a man could do even if it meant sleeping in a wagon and being on the road all the time. However, her statement is refuted because she is a woman. Another important aspect of Elisa is that she has mastered the art of gardening. Therefore, she knows every tiny detail about plants and flowers. The way her hands work around flowers shows that she can feel them and knows what the plants need.

Question 9.

The time during which the selected short story was written is significant as the Great Depression was on the verge of being completely wiped off because of President Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts. It was also the time during which women had been suffering more than ever regarding equal rights. Steinbeck sympathized with the women of his time and was aware of their struggles, which have been through the character of Elisa who is trapped at the ranch because she had been trained to stay home and do her husband’s bidding even if they were suffocating her. The story is set in Salinas Valley at Henry’s ranch in the foothills which shows that women were cut off from the rest of the society and the men worked on ranches, which shows that they were tough and hard workers with no time on their hands for their wives.

Question 10.

  • The author has incorporated metaphors and similes in the narrative to give the readers a glimpse of what the author wanted to say. An example of simile is seen at the beginning of the narrative which involves a reference to a closed pot about Salinas Valley. The author writes “On every side, it sat like a lid on the mountains and made the great valley a closed pot” (Steinbeck). The reference to the lid shows that the fog has enveloped the valley and blocked it off view. The fog is used to show Elisa’s oppression at the hands of the men in her society. Another example of a simile in the text is that of the moment when the protagonist “crouched like a fawning dog” in front of the Tinker. The bending position of the protagonist shows she is unable to control the feelings that have suddenly been aroused and she cannot stay away without touching the Tinker. Her physical position shows that she is ready to submit to the Tinker. Steinbeck also employed the use of metaphor in the short story, and one such example is, “She took off a glove and put her strong fingers down into the forest of new green chrysanthemum sprouts that were growing around the old roots.” (Steinbeck)

The reference to the chrysanthemum sprouts growing in abundance shows the readers that Elisa had produced a lot of chrysanthemums while emphasizing that the protagonist was talented when it came to gardening.

  • The choice of words that the author makes is unique on the one hand but unusual at the same time. As in the text, the author writes that “Elisa started at the sound of her husband’s voice. He had come near quietly, and he leaned over the wire fence that protected her flower garden from cattle and dogs and chicken.” (Steinbeck). The use of started here instead of startled is unusual. Also, the author wrote a wire fence instead of a picket fence around the garden, which is unusual. The wire fence stresses the theme of isolation in the story.

Question 11.

The author’s tone in the selected short story expresses oppression and confinement. Elisa has been cut off from her society because she is confined on the ranch at the Salinas Valley. She has no one to interact with except her husband, who keeps himself busy by constantly going out and about. At the same time, Elisa is kept inside and expected to stay there even if Henry doesn’t say it explicitly. Not only is she confined regarding territory, but her relationship with her husband is also odd as he treats Elisa more like a child than a spouse. When Elisa sees the Tinker up close, her repressed sexual desires come to the surface, and she is unable to help her, so she bends in front of the Tinker like a dog and expects to be treated affectionately. However, the Tinker discards Elisa’s attention and gets on with his business as soon as he has fixed the pots that he got from Elisa.

Question 12.

An example of irony in the story is that of the Tinker’s behavior when he tries to get intimate with the protagonist. The tinker makes up an imaginary woman who wants chrysanthemum seeds and in the process makes Elisa excited. The irony is that the Tinker’s words had made Elisa hopeful, but as soon as she saw the flowers dumped on the side of the road, she reverted to her old self and cried.

Question 13.

  • The selected story is mainly centered on the treatment of women by the male-dominated Women have been confined inside their houses and are expected to be satisfied with that kind of life. The men in the story do not care about what a woman is capable of as they think it isn’t very feminine for a woman if she claims to be able to do the same things as a man. Women have been trapped and isolated from the rest of the world.
  • The story primarily focuses on Elisa and her life on Henry’s ranch in Salinas Valley. However, the author also shows that because of the Great Depression, people were struggling with making money, like the Tinker who traveled from one place to another, looking for someone to provide him with any work so that he could get paid. Elisa had been self-taught in such things so she could fix her pots and pans, which saddened the Tinker as it was his business to mend things, not hers.
  • The title of the short story which is The Chrysanthemums corresponds with the theme in the way that it reflects the life of the protagonist who has been restricted to one place and cannot leave it because her society expects her to stay home and look good as the other women of her time. The whole story revolves around these flowers and the care that is given to them by Elisa. Like the flowers, Elisa is kept in one place where her talents as a good gardener are going to waste as there is no one to appreciate her work except her husband Henry who occasionally drops by to look at what she is doing.

Question 14.

The selected story is one of John Steinbeck’s works and is based on the struggles of women. In The Chrysanthemum, Steinbeck depicts the psyche of a woman who has been isolated in Salinas Valley. The narrative begins with the protagonist working in the garden. Elisa sees some men entering the ranch and wonders what they might be up to since her husband Henry never shares anything with her. And just then her husband comes up to her and compliments her on her gardening. When Elisa enquires about the men, Henry tells her the details while treating her like a child. He plans to take her out for movies later that day and just when he goes away a Tinker stops by. The Tinker and Elisa communicate for a while till she starts feeling something inside her that makes her bend in front of the Tinker. The Tinker persuades Elisa to find him some pots to fix, and when he leaves, Elise changes how she looks to make herself look more feminine. However, by the end of the story, Elisa returns to how she was because the Tinker throws away the flower pots she gave him.

Elisa has been portrayed as a strong and independent woman, who knows how to mend things on her own without needing any man’s help. She is shown to be taking care of chrysanthemums, dressed in an outfit that hides her femininity.

Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man’s black hat pulled low down over her eyes, clod-hopper shoes…a big corduroy apron with four big pockets to hold the snips, the trowel and scratcher, the seeds and the knife she worked with…” (1)

Anyone would have passed her for a man the way she has covered herself from head to toe. She wears heavy boots and a man’s hat on her head that covers her hair completely. Elisa is praised for the way her hands move around plants. However, she needs more than an appraisal from her husband. Elisa feels agitated because of her dull life in which no activity besides gardening exists. She takes care of her plants and treats them like her children as she has been unable to conceive. Therefore, the flowers are a substitute.

Furthermore, Henry treats her like a friend and less like a spouse which makes their situation worse. Elisa isn’t trapped physically only but mentally as well. She does not share the kind of intimacy with Henry that a couple usually does, which is why her feelings of repression surface when the Tinker appears. She is unable to stop herself from touching his legs and in this process bends in front of the Tinker showing her submission.

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.” (7)

Elisa wants the Tinker to see her affection. However, the Tinker is only worried about filling his tummy and discards the protagonist’s feelings, as if he were discarding the flower pots on the side of the road. The readers can see at this point that men did not consider women much at that time. The male-dominated society perceives women as caretakers told to stay home and do all the house chores.

Steinbeck portrays a society in which women are considered fragile and feeble. Being a part of a male-dominated society, one can expect much more than to be looked down upon if one shows talents that are on par with the men. An example of this can be seen in how the Tinker behaves when Elisa tells him she can sharpen her scissors and mend pots on her own.

I can sharpen scissors, too. And I can beat the dents out of little pots. I could show you what a woman might do…” (8)

Tinker refutes her claim by saying that such a life isn’t meant for a woman because he believes that men are only capable of living through difficult moments while women will not be able to spend a day outside their homes.

In conclusion, it can be said that Steinbeck was supportive of the women of his time. He understood their struggles for equality and wanted to be of help. Steinbeck’s selected story is significant as it gives the readers an insight into the life of a woman trapped inside an isolated place where there is no community to interact with. Elisa could only keep herself busy with the chrysanthemums that needed her undivided attention and constant care. Elisa is an accurate depiction of the women who have been suffering at the hands of the male-dominated society because the men around them do not think highly of women.

Works Cited

Steinbeck, John. The Chrysanthemums. Penguin UK, 2014.



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