“The Chrysanthemums” is a powerful piece of fiction by John Steinbeck, dealing a variety of themes in a very short format. The plot of the story is so simple that it seems primitive: a woman is about to join her husband in trip to a restaurant, then a wandering workman stops by, she gives him some work to do and chrysanthemum seeds, and in the end goes with her husband to dinner. Yet the story is full of deep meaning that seeps through the seemingly simple plot. The main heroine, Elisa, feels unhappy in her limited world where she has little room for self-expression except planting the flowers. Through the title the author allows readers to see that he compares the woman to the flower that needs water and sunshine to bloom. Yet Elisa in her enclosed life on the ranch misses energetic human activity and interaction with other human beings that to her are like the sunshine to the flower.
The setting is a powerful instrument in explaining Elisa’s character and the reasons for her unhappiness. The action takes place in December, at “a time of quiet and of waiting”. The landscape is as dreary as Elisa’s life itself: “there was no sunshine in the valley now in December”. The time on the ranch when most of the seasonal work is done gives the feeling that there is little opportunity for an individual to use one’s mind and hands in some meaningful activity. That is why the men are standing around talking, and only Elisa is busy working on the plants that are “too small and easy for her energy”.
Introducing Elisa into this languish landscape, the author sets the conflict between her energetic nature and farm life. At that point, the reader cannot appreciate this conflict in full, not knowing yet that Elisa is unhappy. All the audience gets to see is that Elisa seems to have a warm relationship with her husband. The fact that the flowers may be a metaphor alluding to the woman herself also escapes Elisa’s attention.
Her emotional response to the arrival of the stranger reveals the depth of her unhappiness. When he begins to talk about his wandering life, her dissatisfaction breaks out, when she says that she “could show [them] what a woman might do” if given a chance. The reader understands, just like Elisa herself, that she has little scope for such action because her life has already been mapped out. This female character contrasts with her set surroundings as she is in many ways superior to men surrounding her. Her husband recognises that she is “strong enough to break a calf over [her] knee”, but her strength, just like that of a flower, needs to be supported by the environment. On a farm, Elisa is deprived of an environment that would unfold her abilities and give the potential to develop. Elisa can make sure that a chrysanthemum receives water by telling her visitor to keep it the sand wet, but she is powerless to change her life so as to make her mind and abilities “bloom” like those of a flower.
In this little story, the human existence is likened to that of a flower. Trying hard to rise to full bloom, Elisa fails to reveal her potential. The circumstances of her life that put her on a stranded farm are partially to blame. The real problem, however, may be the rigid social structure of the community that prevents a woman’s self-expression.
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