The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck

Last Updated: 20 Jun 2022
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The plight of women had often been a popular topic of literature. Throughout history, the men dominated, overshadowing women in the process. The male sex had always been recognized as superior while the female sex was perceived as inferior; thus, they are not given the same opportunities. The social distinction between males and females had been documented in numerous pieces of literature. Literature often illustrated the injustice and equality women were subjected to while living in a patriarchal society.

One of the pieces of literature that show the difficulty of being a woman in a man’s world is the short story entitled “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck. In this literary piece, Steinbeck shows the struggle of a woman to find herself as she attempts to assume a relevant role in society. This is the reason why one critic said this about the story: “[It is a] delicate, indirect handling of a woman’s emotion, [especially] the difficulty of a woman in finding a creative, significant role in a male-dominated society. ”

“The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck features Elisa Allen, a 35-year-old married woman living in a ranch with her husband Henry (Steinbeck). Initially, the story appears simple enough; it tells the story of a woman who is passionate about flowers and takes pride in caring for them. However, a closer look would reveal that the woman in question is in the midst of an identity crisis. She is a female who longs to be relevant in a society where only the men are considered relevant. She hopes to become relevant through her skills in planting chrysanthemums, but in the end her efforts were futile.

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Elisa’s attempts to be of significance are shown early in the story. Elisa is aware that it is the men who are significant in society. She also knows that the only way she could be significant was to assume a male persona, or at least try to fit herself in masculine mould. In the story, she attempts to be significant through her skill in planting chrysanthemums. This is the reason why the first description of Elisa is masculine; her appearance hints her desire to somehow fit in a male-dominated realm. In the beginning of the story, she is wearing a “figured print dress,” but that feminine garment is overshadowed by masculine elements.

These elements include “a man’s black hat,” “a big corduroy apron with four big pockets” and “heavy leather gloves” (Steinbeck). Her manner of dressing illustrates her efforts to be masculine, to have a place in a man’s world. Elisa’s masculine manner of dressing is supported by her masculine actions. When she was attending to the chrysanthemums, she was exerting great effort. She was described as “over-eager, over-powerful” (Steinbeck). It was said that the plant stems were “too small and easy for her energy” (Steinbeck).

In a way, her movements reflected the need to prove herself; she wanted to prove that she is just as capable as men are. When she was eagerly gardening, she looked at the direction where her husband and his clients were. The fact that she looked in their direction meant that she wanted them to see her and what she could do. Through the eagerness in her work with the chrysanthemums, Elisa sought to have the men realize that she could be significant just like them. The response of Elisa’s husband to her plants mirrors the response of society to women and their efforts.

After his meeting with his clients, Henry comes up to Elisa and comments about her new batch of chrysanthemums. Upon Henry’s words, she “straightened her back” and there was “smugness” in her reply (Steinbeck). The gesture of straightening her back seems to be an assertion that she was responsible for the success of her plants. The tone of her reply affirms that she is proud of her achievement in planting. For Elisa, her accomplishment with her chrysanthemums is her means to make a significant contribution in society. However, Henry soon undermines her efforts.

He said: “I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big” (Steinbeck). For Henry, flowers are irrelevant. He believes raising apples would be better and more important. His comment seems to imply that Elisa’s efforts are not good enough to society. Instead of being discouraged at Henry’s response, she answers him with the conviction that she can raise apples. Elisa says, “Maybe I could do it, too” (Steinbeck). In this instance, Elisa asserts equality between men and women. Henry suggested that she should raise apples rather than chrysanthemums, and she took it as a challenge.

She believes that she can do it as well. When the repairman tells Elisa that his life is not fit for a woman, Elisa asked: “How do you know? How can you tell? ” (Steinbeck). For Elisa, women are just as capable as men. As if to prove that men and women can be equals, she tells the repairman: “I can sharpen scissors, too. And I can beat the dents out of little pots. I could show you what a woman might do” (Steinbeck). Later on in the story, the identity of Elisa shifts. The story begins with an Elisa who is rather masculine and who asserts herself to be capable of activities usually attributed to men.

She seeks to contribute to society with her ability to grow chrysanthemums. By the latter part of the story, the readers can see a different Elisa; she no longer resembles the Elisa earlier in the story. This time, Elisa embraces her feminine side. She dressed up with her best underwear and stockings, as well as a dress that was a “symbol of her prettiness” (Steinbeck). She styled her hair and she put on makeup. Elisa then assumes a completely female role, a new identity different to masculine identity she portrayed in the beginning.

In this instance, the reader sees the two different identities of Elisa. The dichotomy between the two identities illustrate Elisa’s search for her self in a society where being a woman is extremely difficult. The search for the self is posed with the dilemma of either staying true to one’s feminine nature or to take a more masculine stance to be recognized in society. In the end, Elisa is faced with the reality of male dominance in society. When she and her husband were driving to dinner, she sees the chrysanthemums she gave to the repairman discarded on the road.

It was through her skill and talent in growing the chrysanthemums that Elisa wished to make her significant contribution to society. In fact, the flowers themselves symbolized a woman’s effort to make herself relevant in a society eclipsed by men. However, the disregard for the chrysanthemums shows that a woman’s effort to assert her importance in society is futile. Because of her frustration over the neglect of her flowers, Eliza “cried weakly—like an old woman” (Steinbeck). In the end, she gave in to her emotions, just like what is expected of women in general.

Her battle to make herself relevant in a man’s world ended in defeat. “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck reveals how women are affected by the patriarchal society in which they live, and how their struggle to make themselves relevant in society leads to the search to their own identity. Steinbeck indirectly reveals the plight of women during his time through the story’s protagonist Elisa Allen. Elisa struggles to find herself as she is caught between showing her feminine self and assuming a more masculine stance to establish her worth in society.

Throughout the story, she repeatedly asserts the fact that she can also do what men can do. However, she seeks to be more relevant to society through her skill in gardening, especially in growing chrysanthemums. In the end, her efforts were worthless. Just like the plants she gave to the repairman, her efforts did not amount to anything. In the end, she failed to make herself relevant, and proved how difficult it is for a woman to be significant in a male-dominated society. Work Cited Steinbeck, John. The Chrysanthemums. 1938. 20 Oct. 2008 < http://www. nbu. bg/webs/amb/american/4/steinbeck/chrysanthemums. htm>.

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The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck. (2016, Sep 02). Retrieved from

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