John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” is the short story associated with American Realism. The story setting is the Salina Valley, which is a nonfictional area in California. Such characteristic features of American Realism as the focus on the middle class and upper class characters, the author’s intention to make a positive social or moral influence on his readers, the author’s concentration on the inner world of the characters, and the accentuation of the details and settings are realized in the story.
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The first characteristic of American Realism is the depiction of middle class or upper class characters. The main character of “The Chrysanthemums” is Elisa Allen, the wife of a beef cattle farmer, Henry Allen. The lifestyle of the couple is characteristic for the time and for the middle-class Americans.
They have a farm and a small farmhouse described as “… hard-swept looking little house with hard-polished windows” (Steinbeck 163). Their income is also typical for the middle-class family. For instance, Henry sold “…thirty head of three-year-old steers” (Steinbeck 163). Even though there were no indications as to whether they were lucky enough to get regular incomes, the fact that they chose to celebrate it by going out for a dinner showed that their budget was bigger than other families’ household budgets.
The second characteristic is the positive impact on the readers. While reading the story, the readers notice that the author uses the plot to emphasize Elisa’s passionate love for her work as the escape from the unhappy marriage. As the story develops, a stranger drops in to their farm searching for some job to earn for a living. The man repairs utensils and sharpens scissors and other household tools to make the ends meet.
As the story unfolds, the man engages Elisa in a conversation in an attempt to get some work, but she adamantly refuses his request. In persistence, the man uses Elisa’s passion for Chrysanthemums flowers to make her find some work for him.
According to Donna Campbell, “it is a technique, which also denotes a particular kind of subject matter, especially the representation of a middle-class life” (Campell). The author seeks to make the influence on the readers, representing the effects of the unhappy marriage on Elisa and her activity.
The third characteristic of American Realism is the focus on the characters’ inner world. The story depicts the woman who is not loved by her husband. She turns her affection to her flowers.
Thus, the author concentrates on depicting the variety of Elisa’s emotions when she formally speaks to her husband, angrily reacts to the stranger, and on how Elisa’s reactions change when she listens to the passenger’s emotionally vivid descriptions of the flowers “Kind of a long-stemmed flower? Looks like a quick puff of colored smoke?” (Steinbeck 164). The reades have the opportunity to understand Elisa’s changed emotions following her realistically depicted feelings.
The next characteristic of American Realism in “The Chrysanthemums” is that the story is mimetic. The author seeks to make the story true to life by using realistic details and settings. Steinbeck describes the farm and the surroundings in details to create a vivid picture of the scenery to the reader.
Moreover, the description of characters’ is also realistic. Elisa’s face is “lean and strong…Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man’s black hat pulled low…clod-hopper shoes…completely covered by a big corduroy apron” (Steinbeck 163). The setting of the story is a nonfictional place. The Salina’s Valley is a real place located in central California. This realistic setting is important because it helps bring out the whole realism of the story.
In conclusion, it must be pointed out that “The Chrysanthemums” is realistic fiction story in which John Steinbeck has successfully used the issues inherent in the American society to bring out a ‘true to life’ masterpiece with a positive social influence on its readers.
Campell, Donna. Realism in American Literature, 1960-1890. Washington: Washington State University, 2011. Print.
Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums”. An Introduction to Literature. Ed. Barnet Sylvan, William Burto, and William Cain. Upper Saddle River: Pearson College Division, 2008. 162-169. Print.