A Woman Bound by Society
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 a closed society. While her environment is portrayed as a tool for social repression, it is through her love of nature and 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, that is weak, not the masculine one she had tried so hard to achieve through its imitation. The short story begins with a look at the 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 "gray-flannel fog" which hid the valley "from the rest of the world" (221). The grey fog that covers the valley is like that of the man's world covering Elisa and pushing her down. The mountains, valleys, sky, and fog sum everything up inside as a "closed pot" (221). This reference to a closed pot can be related to Elisa's feelings of being secluded from the man's world. Inside this shut-off habitat the environment is trying to change. Just as the farmers are waiting for an unlikely rain, Elisa is waiting for a change in their enclosed lives. Gregory Palmerino sums up the overarching meaning implied by the setting, "the natural elements of the foothills ranch seem as unable to confront each other as each of the characters that inhabit it's environment" (1). Palmerino's quote shows how Elisa feels unable to confront her situation of repression. "There is a tension created and maintained from the opening scene that is unique in Steinbeck's work" (Wyatt 1).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, physical version of the environment in which she lives. This man's world is dominated by commerce. 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. It seems as if the men surround the women, just as the fences surround the animals and plants. With this repression, Elisa feels a sense of hopelessness and almost that of fear for the unknown in the man's world. As she looks out to these men, we get to see 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 huge shoes which covered her small woman's feet. A big apron covered the feminine dress making "her figure look blocked and heavy" (222). Unconsciously, as she looks through her fence at the men talking business, she is trying to cover up her feminine qualities. Elisa is covering up her feminine qualities, because she wants to be seen as a "businessman". She longs to be in their position and possess their characteristics and power due to her wishing to be appreciated and loved. Through all of Elisa's inner struggles and desires, she is seemingly unsure 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 femininity. This event plays in with the traditional role of a woman during the times of the Great Depression. Women were suppose to stand silently behind their husbands (Hinton 2)....
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