The Chrysanthemums

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John Steinbeck, in his short story "The Chrysanthemums" depicts the trials of a woman attempting to gain power in a man's world. Elisa Allen tries to define the boundaries of her role as a woman in such a closed society. While her environment is portrayed as a tool for social repression, it is through nature in her garden where Elisa gains and shows off her power. As the story progresses, Elisa has trouble extending this power outside of the fence that surrounds her garden. In the end, Elisa learns but does not readily accept, that she possesses a feminine power weak for the time, not the masculine one she had tried so hard to achieve through its imitation.

The work begins with a look at the story's setting. "The Chrysanthemums" was written in 1938, and the story takes place roughly around the same time. It is winter in Salinas Valley, California. The most prominent feature is the "grey-flannel fog" which hid the valley "from the rest of the world" (396). The mountains and valleys and sky and fog encapsulate everything inside as a "closed pot" (396). Inside this shut-off habitat the environment is trying to change. Just as the farmers are waiting for an unlikely rain, Elisa and all woman are hopeful for a change in their enclosed lives. Steinbeck foreshadows, "It was a time of quiet and waiting" (396).

The action of the story opens with Elisa Allen working in her garden. She is surrounded by a wire fence, which physically is there to protect her flowers from the farm animals. This barrier symbolizes her life; she is fenced in from the real world, from a man's world. It is a smaller, on-earth version of the environment in which they live. This man's world is dominated by business. As Elisa works on her garden, she looks through the fence out to where her husband, Henry, is talking with two men in business suits. They look at a tractor and smoke, manly things, as they conclude their man's work. Just as their environment surrounds all persons, fences surround animals and men surround women.

As she looks out to these men, we look at Elisa. Although she is doing the "feminine" work of gardening, she is dressed like a man. She wore a black hat low on her forehead to cover her hair, thick leather gloves covered her hands, and clodhopper shoes covering her small woman's feet. A "big corduroy apron" covered the dress making "her figure look blocked and heavy" (396). Unconsciously, as she looks through her fence at the men talking business, she is trying to cover up her feminine qualities. She longs to be in their position and possess their characteristics.

As she does her gardening, something she enjoys and excels in, "Her face was lean and strong… eager and mature and handsome" (396). Her use of the scissors is described as "over-eager" and "over-powerful" (397). All of these characteristics are usually masculine adjectives. But in this case they describe a woman attempting or at least imagining living as a part of such a man's world.

Yet Elisa's power is not used for "masculine" activities; in fact, her power is derived from a feminine source, nature. Mother Nature, a female, controls the environment. This female power is part of matriarchal lineage since Elisa'a mother also "could stick anything in the ground and make it grow" (397). She enjoys coming into contact with the earth as she digs and pushes the dirt around her chrysanthemums. She destroyed pests with her fingers and also put these fingers "into the forest of new green chrysanthemum sprouts that were growing around the old roots" (397). Her fingers are described as "terrier," literally of the earth.

Yet Elisa is seemingly ambivalent about which side of herself to show to her husband and the world. While she wants to seem strong, it seems to violate her role of being the pretty wife. When her husband suddenly comes up behind her, she immediately pulls on her gloves again. This could be to cover her dirty hands, but it also covers them, hiding her...
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