A Woman’s Frustration in the Gender-Divided World –An Analysis of Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” In his 1933 letter to a friend, John Steinbeck talks about his newly composed short story “The Chrysanthemums”: “It is entirely different and is designed to strike without the reader’s knowledge” (qtd. in Segal 214).
It has indeed achieved the effect: ever since its publication, critics and readers, who unanimously “feel that something profound has happened to him” (qtd. in Segal 214), try in each way to fgure out under and between the lines the theme of the story. While generally interpreting the ale as one about a woman’s frustration, critics put forward different reasons to explain the “what” and the “how. Some critics relate the protagonist Elisa Allen’s discontent and loneliness to the fact that she has no children and therefore is thwarted in her motherhood; and others, perceiving that Elisa and her husband Henrys relation lacks deep understanding and passion, suggest that sex-starvation is the cause of her sense of repression; still others treat the story as a tale of a bored middle-age housewife, believing that Elisa’s discontent is caused by her vague onging for illusive “romance” (Segal 214). Undoubtedly these analyses help, in various degrees, shed light on the understanding of the tale.
However, they haven’t exhausted the complexity of the theme yet. If we approach the story by a close reading, taking adequate notice of the images and symbols which Steinbeck has carefully woven into the story, we may find that “The Chrysanthemums” is also a “profound” tale of “gender”, a story of the doomed frustration of a female who, in her attempt at self-fulfillment, unwittingly and yet inevitably “trespasses upon” the world branded as belonging to male gender. As we know, “gender” as a social construction, is the way we are socially defined.
As Scott Carpenter points out: “[o]ur lives are steeped in distinctions based on gender, and these distinctions have a real, demonstrable impact on the way people live and interact” (89). As a woman, Elisa’s gender decides the role she should play, the work she is allowed to do, and the very style of life she has but to accept. In the binary oppositions of gender there exist two and only two possibilities: male and female, or “Ladies and Gents”. “Transgressions are not tolerated,” as Carpenter maintains, for inary oppositions “are rarely even-handed, one term of the pair almost always enjoying the privileged status over the other” (95).
Therefore, in order to maintain male dominance and privilege over female, this proposition is “rigorously maintained–or even policed”(Carpenter 90). As soon as Elisa tries to break through the confinement of her gender, she inevitably bruises herself. The opening imagery sets the tone for the whole story. It not only depicts the protagonist Elisa Allen’s repressive life, but also foreshadows her inevitable disillusionment. The Salinas Valley is described as “closed off’ by the “high grey- alley a closed pot” (Steinbeck 169). There is a prevailing sense of repression and confinement.
Yet the repressive sense is mixed somehow with glimmering hope. We are told that the land floor of the valley is plowed deeply to receive the expected rains. “It was a time of quiet and of waiting… the light wind blew up … so that the farmers were hopeful of a good rain” (169). The land is expecting the nourishing rains; the protagonist is in a vague yearning of a relief from the barren and confined life. But the promise of rain is an irony: “fog and rain do not go together” (169). Similarly, the hope of breaking through the “closed pot” for Elisa is an illusion.
When Elisa Allen first appears in the story, she is working in her flower garden with her chrysanthemums, while across the yard, her husband Henry is talking business with two businessmen by the tractor shed. Distinctly two worlds in binary oppositions of gender are presented to us: one is the female world of gardening and housekeeping, the other is the male world of business, machinery and farming. However, the problem of this distinction is immediately shown in the images of Elisa’s house and her way of gardening.
The little house is “hard-swept”, the windows are “hard-polished” and even the mud-mat on the front steps is “clean” (italics added). She is doing more than good. Obviously, housekeeping is far from being a sufficient challenge for such an energetic and strong woman. Consequently, she pours her energy onto the gardening. Wearing a heavy “gardening costume”, “a man’s black hat”, and “clodhopper shoes”, she works in a way a man treats his occupation; “even her work with the scissors was over-eager, over-powerful. The chrysanthemum stems seemed too small and easy for her energy’ (169).
Elisa’s bounded energy and otential finds its only outlet in growing chrysanthemums. But Henrys remarks on her flowers revealingly indicate the significance, or rather insignificance of her gardening: miouVe got a strong new crop coming” (170). It’s ironical praise, with the implication that the chrysanthemums are NOT crops and therefore are not of any value in a pragmatic sense. If we regard chrysanthemums as a symbol related to Elisa’s potential, then this potential is neither recognized nor valued. The tinker comes, bringing double illusions for “rains-expecting” Elisa.
First, he enchants Elisa with an aura of a free life which Elisa has never had a taste of except n her imagination. In term of physical appearance, the sloppy stubble-beard tinker is by no means attractive. In fact, stopping in front of Elisa’s house, this strange sloppy team of man, horse, burro, and mongrel dog strikingly contrast with Elisa’s neat and clean house and wire-fenced garden. However, the tinker’s nomadic and free way of life in the wagon “sounds like a nice kind of a way to live” to Elisa, awakening her lurking yearning for a different unbounded life (172).
After conversing with the tinker for a while, she expresses her wish explicitly: “It must be nice. I wish women could do such things. ” But, the tinker’s answer– “[i]t ain’t the right kind of a life for a woman” (175)–indicates equally explicitly that this way of living is only for man, not “right” for woman. Elisa is wishing for something beyond her gender. The tinker’s insincere praise of the chrysanthemums constitutes a deceiving that the tinker is interested in her flowers, “[t]he irritation and resistance melted from Elisa’s face” (173).
Too excited in finding a person who knows the worth and value of her work, Elisa fails to notice the discernible lies in the tinker’s oily words. She eagerly and excitedly transplants the buds for the tinker so that he can bring the flower to a lady who, as the reader knows, actually does not exist. The dramatic irony here echoes the irony in the opening imagery of false promise of the rain, building up continually until the last revelation for the protagonist. The encounter of the tinker and Elisa is also a confrontation between a man and a woman.
Elisa’s eagerness to show her chrysanthemums results only from her excitement in finding a kindred spirit, but also is partly due to her intention to compete with the tinker in terms of competency for work. As we have noticed, the inker’s sloppiness is in striking contrast to Elisa’s competent neatness. He is not efficient and competent except when he starts his work. When Elisa hands the saucepans for him to repair, “[h]is manner changed. He became professional” (174). But, Elisa launches her challenge. miou might be surprised to have a rival some time.
I can sharpen scissors, too. And I can beat the dents out of little pots. I could show you what a woman might do” (175). In terms of capability, Elisa is probably a far better worker. In offering the chrysanthemum buds she plants, Elisa shows her capacity and obtains a sense of triumphant pride. Enchanted by the free life of the tinker, and intoxicated by her sense of unfolding potential, Elisa imagines the night in the wagon: “Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It’s like that. Hot and sharp and??”lively’ (174).
If the statement is tinted with a sexual overtone, it’s more directed to the fascinating uninhibited life associated with the tinker rather than to the sloppy person himself. In this state of high-spirited fantasy, she murmurs good-bye to the tinker: “That’s bright direction. There’s a glowing there” (175). In the same state of mind, she returns to her house to have a bath before going to own with her husband. “In the bathroom she tore off her soiled clothes and flung them into the corner. And then she scrubbed herself with a little block of pumice… until her skin was scratched and red” (176).
She has to hold back the surging passion by dressing slowly. “She put on her newest underclothing and her nicest stockings and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness. She worked carefully on her hair, penciled her eyebrows and rouged her lips” (176). Here the image of Elisa forms a contrast to her image in the garden. If we believe the garden image indicates Elisa’s o-called “masculinity,” then this one obviously asserts her “femininity. ” Elisa seems to take on different gender features. Once again, gender features are called into question.
A single either lor designation of gender, which speaks of our tendency for binary oppositions, is problematic when used to describe Elisa, who cannot be comfortably put into this arbitrary label. On the other hand, this change also corresponds to Elisa’s development of her sense privilege from man’s world??”the privilege of having one’s own occupation. Convinced, after the encounter with the tinker, of her female potential, she is more confident ith her female self. Instead of hiding her female self under the guise of a man, she is now proudly manifesting it, unfolding herself like her chrysanthemums in full bloom.
This change is, however, quite puzzling for Elisa’s husband. The latter blunders bewilderedly and helplessly upon seeing his wife in the house: “you look different, strong and happy. ” When Elisa boasts, “l am strong,” Henry is almost stricken with fear. The familiar image of his wife seems to have undergone a mysterious change. However, “Henry looked down toward the tractor shed, when he brought his eyes ack to her, they were his own again” (176). He regains his composure. The world is still the old world under his–man’s–control.
The realization of the same fact does not come to Elisa until she is on the way to Salinas. “Far ahead on the road Elisa saw a dark speck. She knew’ (177). The tinker has deserted her chrysanthemum buds on the road. The chrysanthemum, whose value has not been recognized by the husband, is now more heartlessly deserted by the tinker. Ironically, that man has thrown away her treasure and kept the pot; the latter is obviously regarded as more useful. The unusual briefness of the statement “she knew’ is charged with tension between the overwhelming pang of disappointment and Elisa’s ultimate effort to hold it down.
The briefness of the sentence also implies the simplicity of the truth revealed to Elisa. This is the moment of epiphany for Elisa. She knows that all the while she has been manipulated by the tinker and cheated by the illusion he brings to her; she knows that her aspiration of unconfined fulfillment is totally impossible in this male dominated world; she knows that if she goes outside of the “fence” of her confined world and attempts something eyond what the society assigns for her gender, she inevitably bruises herself.
Seized by an impulse to fight back and disgusted by the cruelty of men in their subjugation of their fellow creatures, Elisa asks Henry: “at those prize fghts, do the men hurt each other very much? ” (177) But when Henry asks her whether she really wants to go to the prizefghts, she “relaxe[s] limply in the seat. ” “Oh, no. No. I don’t want to go. I’m sure I don’t” (177). She has no courage to venture any further into man’s world now. “It will be enough if we can have wine. It will be plenty’ (177).
From gardening” to “wine”, that’s the farthest way Elisa could go. Gardening, which is usually a female Job but also occasionally attempted by men, can be done by Elisa with a tint of so-called “masculinity’; wine, which is a drink usually for a man, but is also allowed for a woman, can be drunk by Elisa without the danger of raising brows from the society. Elisa has been venting her repressed energy and emotion through planting chrysanthemums, and now she can only resort to the wine to quench her frustrated aspiration and to solace her bruised self-esteem.
Elisa “was crying weakly ??”like an old woman” (177). She is a withered chrysanthemum now. forms a constrained point of view, corresponding with the fact that a female’s heart is generally not understood by the male world. In the story, neither husband nor tinker tries to comprehend Elisa’s inner feelings. Second, this narrative technique helps add ambiguity and complexity to the theme of the story, leaving enough space for the reader to speculate on the implied message.
Most importantly of all, by using this objective point of view, Steinbeck refrains from making “The Chrysanthemums” a personal story, but instead, opens up a symbolic dimension. Elisa’s frustration is epicted not as a personal misfortune, but rather an indication of a prevailing issue in the gender-divided world: the impossibility for a woman to unfold her potential when she is confined to a subjugated role and receives only a limited possibility in the male-dominated world.
It’s amazing that as a male writer writing in an age when most writers concentrated on characterizations of men and their problems, Steinbeck could have such a keen perception of a woman’s aspiration and frustration. It’s also amazing that by his adept use of symbols and carefully drawn images, Steinbeck renders so compellingly he vague and inarticulate yearnings and discontent of a woman, forcing the readers to make an attempt to understand and respect a woman’s heart and to rethink the validity of one of the basic foundations of the society??”the division of gender.
Works Cited Carpenter, Scott. Reading Lessons??”An Introduction to Theory. New Jersey: Prentice- Hall, Inc. , 2000. Segal, David, et al. ed. Short Story Criticism. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Research Inc. , 1992. Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums. ” British and American Fiction. Ed. Wang Shouren and Zhao Yu. Nanjing: Nanjing University Press, 1994.