In his short story “The Chrysanthemums”, John Steinbeck tells us a story of a thirty-five-year-old Elisa Allen, who lives with her husband Henry on their farm in the Salinas Valley. The calm couple’s life in the valley was one day meddled with a stranger, and in the course of the day we find Elisa is not very happy with her life.
We find more about Mrs. Allen through her appearance, conversations with husband, with the tinker, and through her anxious feelings to the chrysanthemums. In fact, the chrysanthemums symbolize Elisa’s strong yet tender character. She tries to look strong but deep inside she is a real woman – passionate, beautiful, giving, eager and vulnerable sometimes.
She is working in her garden eagerly but in the course of the story the reader has a strong feeling Elisa is capable of much more and she is longing for it. Just like the chrysanthemums, Elisa is longing for caring and loving hands that would help her grow stronger and more beautiful, but her husband does not seem to be capable of it.
It is obvious that from the moment Elisa gets to know the tinker and finds out how he lives his life in travels from Seattle to San Diego sharpening scissors or mending pots, she feels frustrated and feels trapped and isolated in her present life. Her husband, cattle farmer Henry Allen, is a plain man who is busy with the cattle and the orchard. When he earns some money and offers Elisa to spend an evening in town, at the restaurant, we find out that such events are uncommon, and although Elisa is glad to go out, she and her husband do not share the interests much. The fights are for the men and the movies are for women, Henry believes, and his wife, although deep inside she rebels, seems to accept the division.
Steinbeck describes the Allen’s house as a “neat white farm house with red geraniums close-banked around it as high as the windows”. And Elisa is “over-eager” and “over-powerful”, while working in the garden. He emphasizes her inner energy, eagerness and strength through further description of the house: “a hard-swept looking little house, with hard-polished windows, and a clean mud-mat on the front steps”. The reader gets the feeling Elisa is cramped in the farm, and she manages to complete all the errands she could think of, just to temper the natural vividness of her character. She is eager to see and do more, but, being practically closed off from the rest of the world by the farm life in the Salinas valley; she bends every effort to her garden with big and beautiful chrysanthemums.
In the conversation with her husband, when he appreciates her work and the size of the last year’s flowers, we find her tone and her face become smug. She is proud of herself and her achievements. To her, the flowers meant personal success and self-realization. She claimed she “was having planters’ hands that knew how to do it”, and that gave her a great sense of achievement. Elisa is eager for all kinds of compliments and she is also confident about her abilities and the future of her flowers. “They’ll be strong this coming year”, Elisa claims, and we somehow feel she means not only the flowers but herself. Just like the flower garden, protected from cattle and dogs and chickens by the wire fence, Elisa is isolated from the world by the Salinas valley’s borders and the borders of the quiet family farm life. Moreover, she is isolated from her husband as well, when talking to her, “he leaned over the wire fence”, so Steinbeck clearly hints at the border between the couple.
Elisa’s appearance as we meet her working at the garden also tells us a lot about her character. Steinbeck describes Elisa in the following way: ”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”. Elisa’s looks is manlike in the gardening clothing, showing strength and ability to cope with the hardships, but underneath there is a dress, a symbol of womanhood and beauty and weakness. As the story continues, her character appears to be the same, strong from the outside but vulnerable deep inside.
Elisa exposes her true nature in the scene with the tinker. At first when he offers his services, she is hard on him,
“her eyes hardened with resistance”, be becomes irritated and talks sharply. But then, the man finds way to her heart through her pride – the chrysanthemums, and Elisa’s heart melted. Just like the flowers in the hands of a caring gardener, she blossoms in her further conversation with the tinker. She talks to him about the planting hands, something she is very proud of having. Elisa provides such a vivid romantic explanation to the gardening process, that the reader discovers a whole secret world of feelings and longing she hides under the “gardening outfit”: “she was kneeling on the ground looking up at him. Her breast swelled passionately.”
She compared her own feelings with the feelings in the dark night when the stars are sharp-pointed, and it s quiet, and “every pointed star gets driven into your body. It’s like that. Hot and sharp and–lovely.”
A bright and romantic nature hidden under the strong and hard looks, made Elisa suffer and feel frustrated after the man left. She felt isolated, lonely and longing for love and passion. To change the state of things, she spent the rest of the time uncovering her womanhood: taking a hot bath with scrubbing, “putting on her newest underclothing and her nicest stockings and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness”. But her efforts were not taken for granted and she felt even worse. Her husband, a simple farmer was not gifted with eloquence, and his compliment about her nice looks made her feel low. What Elisa’s husband meant by nice was: “different, strong and happy.”
And his explanation that she looked strong enough to break a calf over her knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon ruined her romantic mood.
This compliment did not come up with the tinker’s description of the chrysanthemums: “a long-stemmed flower that looks like a quick puff of colored smoke”. Elisa was eager to receive such a poetic description of herself from any man, either the tinker or her husband, but neither paid her such a compliment.
Elisa’s husband treats her like a weak woman, teasing her with the town entertainments like cruel fighting and bleeding men, the things a woman would not bear watching. She opposes such jokes weakly, fighting her inner desire to look strong in the eyes of her husband. She finally attempts to hint that she is interested in watching a fight but does not find strength to ask Henry. Some wine for the dinner would be entertaining enough, she concludes.
Elisa’s vulnerability surfaced when she realized the man used her love for the flowers to get work to do and earn money for living. He has thrown away the chrysanthemums almost as soon as he left the farm, but he kept the pot, she calmed herself. This “strength”, in combination with the tears running down her cheeks, “crying weakly- like an old woman”, embodies the essence of Elisa’s character. Strong, yet passionate and vulnerable deep inside, that’s how Steinbeck wanted to depict the protagonist. Elisa symbolizes the womanhood, natural and fertile, eager, strong and giving.
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