Elisa Allen’s life can be interpreted in different ways, but there seems to be one common theme, oppression. Controlled by her husband’s and society’s expectations, she is confined to her pitiful life as a farmer’s wife. Through detailed descriptions and symbolism, John Steinbeck, author of short story, “The Chrysanthemums,” a picture is painted of unattainable desires and hopelessness.
Cynthia Bily of Short Stories for Students compares Elisa Allen’s life to ecofeminism, the idea that “women and nature are dominated by men in similar ways, and that women’s connections to nature can be a source of strength,” (Bily) Men dominate women as they have always dominated the earth. If you have ever heard of the term, “rape the land” it bares similarity to ecofeminism and how Henry limits Elisa. He rapes her in such a way that prevents her from having a different life, holding her down and restraining her from the many opportunities that the world has to offer. But Elisa’s connection with her chrysanthemums isn’t necessarily representative of who she wants to be according to Bily, but rather her source of energy. Women have an innate, natural attachment to the nature, women are nurturers and Elisa has more of a connection with her garden than she does with the outside world. She lacks relationships it seems, the only person she comes in contact with her husband and even that relationship is unfulfilling. Henry treats Elisa as he treats his land, something to be controlled. He views their life as farmers as a way to earn money. He fails to see the beauty in nature; instead he is focused on the many ways he can make the land work for him. As Henry watched Elisa working in the garden he comments, “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.” (McMahan 326) Perhaps if she could raise apples, they could sell them for a profit. He wants to make Elisa work for him, as he does with the land. Henry fails to see Elisa as a human, as a woman and treats her as a tool.
Another interesting take of The Chrysanthemums, is Ernest Sullivan’s critique of Steinbeck’s work. He imagines that the story is of three canines. He associates Elisa with a dog and not an oppressed woman. All three characters, Elisa, Henry and the tinker are dogs and each of their roles in the story represent their individual struggle in a dog eat dog world. Henry and the tinker represent to the two shepherd dogs that were owned by the Allen’s and Elisa is the mongrel dog that accompanies the tinker. She is the newcomer dog and wants to be out beyond the fence of the Allen’s property, wanting to roam freely. The idea of approaching new territory is exciting in the beginning, until the two shepherd dogs, Henry and the tinker stop her in her tracks. There are moments when Elisa’s voice gets “husky”, one in which she describes to the tinker of how it must feel to be out in the dark with the starlit sky. “ When the night is dark-why, the stars are sharp pointed….Why you rise up and up!” “It’s like that’s. Hot and sharp and lovely.” (McMahan 330) She then reaches out to touch the tinker on the leg, but then suddenly, she pulls away, with shame like a crouching dog (Sullivan). Elisa desperately wants to be free to roam like a long lost dog away from home, but Henry and the tinker intimidate her, showing their canine mugs in a way that makes her retreat back to familiarity. The connections Sullivan made with the characters and canines were right on point. There are many different symbolic meanings throughout the story and this was yet another great example.
A third critique of The Chrysanthemums is similar to the average opinion about the chrysanthemums being symbolic of Elisa wanting to break away from being oppressed. David Higdon’s opinion is that Elisa suffers from oppression of a sexual nature. Elisha...