‘The Chrysanthemum’ is a story by John Steinbeck. It is a story about Elisa Allen, a woman living through pain in the 1930s, isolated from the world both physically and emotionally by virtue of her sex (Renner 305). Stanley Renner, critiquing the story once wrote that “the story shows a strong woman held from social, personal and sexual fulfillment by the general conception/psychology of a woman’s place in a male-dominated world” (Renner 306).
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The description of the Salinas Valley; closed off “from the sky and the rest of the world” by “the grey-flannel winter fog,” which “sat on the mountains like a lid” such that it made the valley “a closed pot” (Steinbeck 1) prepares the reader for an encounter with Elisa Allen’s isolation. Because she lives far from town, Elisa hardly interacts with other peoples except for her husband; throughout the story, Elisa’s sexual frustration is reflected in the way that she slips in and out of feminine and masculine characteristics.
But through the chrysanthemum, the symbol for Elisa’s femininity, Elisa becomes aware of her sexuality. Her husband simply refers to them as flowers as a way to put Elisa in her ‘place,’ but when the tinker comes looking for work, and she won’t give it to him, he resorts to describing her chrysanthemum in feminine poetic terms (Renner 315). Through the tinker’s interest in the ‘flowers,’ Elisa becomes content with her sexuality, her femininity, which finally brings her great solace, it appears she loosens up, taking off her hat and shaking her hair.
After this, one hopes that Elisa will now rise to confront her feminity now that she is aware of the power of her own sexuality. Unfortunately, the story ends with Elisa resuming her old psychology, her conscious awareness of the perceived inferiority of her feminine, which is reflected when she can’t face the tinker on his way (with her husband) to town (Budnichuk).
At the start of the story, Elisa Allen is a woman living through both geographical and emotional isolation (sexual hunger, for instance). The physical nature of Salinas Valley,” locked within a fog-capped ring of mountains and placed far away from town,” has locked her from the rest of the world (Owens 225).
Besides her husband, Elisa hardly encounters other people, but within her is a hunger to assert herself in many ways, her sexuality, for instance, in the male-dominated world. Steinbeck’s vivid description of her character within the story setting indicates Elisa’s struggles in her marriage and her hunger to break through them (Budnichuk); thus, she is described to be like a plowed field “waiting to receive rain deeply” (Owens 226).
But Elisa later encounters another man, the tinker; unlike her husband, who sees the chrysanthemum as merely ‘flowers’ and symbols of feminine weakness, the tinker sees them as symbols of feminine beauty and importance. As such, while both men are aware of the softness of the feminine, her husband thinks it represents inferiority and resents it, while the tinker embraces it and encourages Elisa to flaunt it.
As we have seen above, the chrysanthemum symbolizes the feminine; from the perspectives of Elisa’s husband and the tinker’s, we see the two sides of femininity as seen in this society; the husband’s take being the predominant one. By the tinker appreciating the beauty of the chrysanthemum, Elisa falls in love with herself; she embraces her sexuality and also falls in love with the tinker.
At this stage, Elisa decides to shade off her masculinity and takes it as her new chance to win life. But in failing to look at the tinker and the chrysanthemum on her way to town (with her), she returns to her old inferiority with her sexuality. Ultimately, she loses the fight, and as Steinbeck writes, “the farmers were patiently hopeful of good rain soon; unfortunately, fog and rain don’t go together” (Steinbeck 222).
Budnichuk, Monica. “The Chrysanthemums:” Exposing Sexual Tension through Setting and Character.” Universal Journal. 2009. Web.
Owens, Louis. “John Steinbeck’s Re-Vision of American.” Short Story Criticism 11 (1992): 225-32. Print.
Steinbeck, John. “Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama.” Modern Fiction Studies, (1999): 219-27. Print.