The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck is a short story that reflects the difficulties of a woman in the society especially where her role have been taken to mean conformity to man’s command. The story is dominated by the symbolism of Chrysanthemums flowers that Elisa finds her solace in from the emptiness of her world. Her husband Henry seems to play a limited role in filling the emptiness in her life, a situation that leaves her with no choice other than preoccupying herself in the garden and attempts to find her own way out. Below is a critical analysis of Chrysanthemums by Steinbeck with the help of two articles.
The first article is “Say It with Flowers” by Julia Frey, which gives the essence and the meaning of different types of flowers. This article is useful in deducing the meaning of Chrysanthemums flowers and using it to interpreted Elisa’s circumstances. The second article is “Steinbeck The Chrysanthemums” by Gregory Palmerino, which provides a brief analysis of the short story by Steinbeck. This article will be useful in critiquing the author and in helping to develop own argument pertaining to the Steinbeck’s story.
In the short story, Steinbeck opens with a very detailed but explicit introduction which cuts directly to Elisa’s life. Steinbeck says that, “On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot” (S). This explicit explanation is symbolic in a way because it prepared the reader for understanding what the kind of world Elisa lives in as a wife to Henry. The symbolism in this quote is that she is trapped in what seems to be a dark life. She is symbolically surrounded by a mountain made of huge valleys that resemble a pot and which is closed with a lid to prohibit her from escaping. Similarly, Steinbeck presents a paradoxical statement which prepares the reader to understand about the contrasting couple, Elisa, and Henry, who live together regardless of the mismatch. Steinbeck says, “…the yellow stubble fields seemed to be bathed in pale cold sunshine, but there was no sunshine in the valley now in December” (Steinbeck). As presented in this quote, Steinbeck talks of “pale cold sunshine.” This is paradoxical in that the sunshine is presented as cold and yet, sunshine can never be cold. This is symbolic of the life of Elisa and Henry. They are a mismatched couple in terms of their likes and the view of life, although the two seem to love each other. However, Steinbeck says that “but there was no sunshine in the valley” symbolic of absence of love between the two although there seems to be some.
At this point, I concur with Gregory when he says that, “Steinbeck describes the foggy setting as a time of quiet and waiting for the rain” (Palmerino, 166). As Gregory states, this statement is paradoxical in that the rain and the fog cannot occur at the same time. Also, Gregory asserts that the plowed fields and the cut flowers are waiting for rain, which does not come. In this case, the fog is blurry and the rain becomes absent. The fog represents the female gender and the rain represents the male gender. Elisa in unclear of what her problem is in her life just like the fog. She expects her husband to be forthcoming in her life just like the fields are expecting rain but instead, he becomes emotionally absent.
Similarly, as Gregory asserts in his article, it is evident that the couple does not know how to fight. Henry is slightly denied his place as the husband when Elisa works as a gardener. He becomes vulnerable but instead of picking a quarrel to assert his place, he suggests that Elisa grows some cash crop in place of chrysanthemums. He says, “Some of those yellow chrysanthemums you had this year were ten inches across. I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big” (Steinbeck). When Elisa admits that she can grow some apples too, Henry agrees with her instead of articulating his discomfort in his wife’s flower growing. Elisa too does not articulate her point that she loves growing flowers because they give her solace. Instead, she avoids a quarrel and asks Henry of the men who were with him in the fields. This instance is symbolic of how different the couple is, but they work hard towards inhibiting their differences from changing their marriage.
However, Gregory’s point may be refuted on several basis. First, the couple have been presented in a way that they do not have children. There seems to be a problem with Henry, Elisa or either that one or both are impotent. This assertion is evident from how Elisa is presented in several instances. First, she is described as a female who looks like a man when working. The author says:
“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).
On another instance, the other says, “Her face was eager and mature and handsome; even her work with the scissors was over-eager, over-powerful (Steinbeck). This portrays her man like look and character. On a third instance, the author says, “Her terrier fingers destroyed such pests before they could get started” (Steinbeck). This is a continued portrayal of Elisa in a man-like character. These instances are enough evidence to suspect that Elisa was impotent and that is why she assumed the roles of a man may be because she thought herself to equal a man. Because of her man-like character, her husband may have been reluctant to confront her on her roles may be because he was sympathetic to her as opposed to the assertion that he does not know how to pick a quarrel. On the same assertion, Henry may be impotent and because of inadequacy or inferiority as a man, he may be fearing to pick a fight in asserting his wife’s role in marriage for fear of reprimand on the grounds of his impotency.
In the article “Say It with Flowers” by Julia Frey, she says that chrysanthemum flowers symbolize the remembrance of the deceased. Julia says, “… the chrysanthemum symbolizes remembering the deceased…” (Frey, 42). As such, the use of chrysanthemum flowers by John Steinbeck may be symbolic of remembering a dead somebody. Although the author does not out rightly mention it, Henry and Elisa may have had tried to conceive with no success. Thus, Elisa may be attempting to plant chrysanthemum flowers to symbolize some dead hopes of bearing their own children. The way Elisa works herself is symbolic that she has lost hope of getting a child at thirty-five years of age. The couple seems to have tried their best with no positive results thus leading to despair on the part of Elisa that she growing chrysanthemum flowers to remind her of the dead dreams.
This sense of despair is evident when a man passes by and asks her the way to Los Angeles. After explaining the shortest way to him, the man says that he also sharpens farm tools on his way to his destination. Elisa’s despair is evident when she lies to the man that she has no farm tools to be sharpened and insists until the man feels sad. Afterward, she gives him some tools to sharpen after the man insisted on sharpening her farm tools. This resistance symbolized despair in that she was playing tough on that man to divert him from asking her about her children. Also, she felt sorry that the tools would be sharpened and yet has no children to provide for with the tools. Her despair is also evident his husband asks her out. She asks her husband whether women are allowed into fight. After her husband says that only some who are allowed, she sheds some tears symbolic of her inadequacy as a woman for failure of conceiving.
In conclusion, “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck is a short story of a couple who live a compromised life in solitary. The essay above is a critical analysis of the short story with the use of two articles which touch on the topic of the story and a critique on the argument of the author of the article. The two articles are “Say It with Flowers” by Julia Frey and “Steinbeck The Chrysanthemums” by Gregory Palmerino.
Frey, Julia. “Say It With Flowers.” France Today (2008): 42. Print.
Palmerino, Gregory J. “Steinbeck’s The Chrysanthemums”. The Explicator 62.3 (2004): 164-167. Web.
Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums.” Logan, Iowa: Perfection Learning Corp., 1979. Print.