Critical Thinking

“The are even in this relationship, we clearly

“The Chrysanthemums”, a 1938 short story by John Steinbeck explores the ideas of masculine dominated societies, inferiority, and self confidence, tying them all together on a farm located in California. Set in the late 20th century, we meet Elisa Allen, a young woman whomst often finds herself in her garden wearing a “costume” as one might say in order to be taken more seriously. She lacks confidence in herself and her abilities and she feels as though her true talents are not recognized. Her husband, Henry, runs the ranch and is in charge of what happens in the house. Elisa briefly experiences a glimmer of hope and personal satisfaction she never felt before after she meets the Tinker that is later  destroyed. Through his use of characterization, setting, and symbolism, Steinbeck effectively gives deeper meaning to this very short piece. Character development is vital to the telling of a story, for without character development we aren’t able to pick up the necessary background and clues that aid the telling of the story. Our main character is Elisa Allen. From the start of the story she is described as someone that is seemingly masculine for a female; her face being described ‘lean and strong’ and her work being ‘overly eager and energetic’. Steinbeck mentions her age of 35 years because her youth will be conflicted later at the end when she “becomes” an old woman. Elisa is dressed in a gardening “costume” composed of a man’s hat, clod hopper shoes, and a print dress that was almost completely covered by her corduroy apron making her figure look blocked and heavy. Her hands, her most notable feminine characteristic at this point were hidden away; she so desperately wishes to be taken seriously she hides almost every element of her true self- the only time we see “Elisa” is when we look at her beloved garden.She did everything to perfection- we see this in her impressive ten-inch bloom chrysanthemums and the way she kept the house clean and tidy. No harm was ever allowed to reach her flowers for she treated them as her own children- yet she still feels confined to one area and as though her potential isn’t yet met. Her husband, Henry, by contrast is okay with getting “almost” exactly what he wanted as we see with the deal he made. Henry is in charge of the house, making the decisions of how they would spend their earning and where they would go. Even though we would hope the two partners are even in this relationship, we clearly see they are not.  Although Henry does love his wife he does not know how to embellish on his wife’s talents. He cannot make her feel comfortable in being a woman and lacks the charm to make her feel important. Finally we meet the Tinker who, though by profession is supposed to be a fixer of things, has an almost broken caravan and a mismatched team with misspelled words on the side. This implies that the man does not make much money and that his career might not be as successful as one might hope for. He wears greasy clothing and his hair and face seem worn from stress. Despite this he has an undeniable charm with people and eventually makes an emotional connection that Elisa doesn’t even have with her own husband, guilting her into giving him a job. The way he does this is be finding her weakness; he looks at her flowers, her most prized possessions and compliments them- in doing so Elisa of course feels flattered for even Henry doesn’t fully see her work for what it is. Eventually the Tinker moves past the barriers Elisa has set up and gains dominant position over Elisa. After meeting him Elisa finally gets a sense of confidence as we see when she admires herself in the mirror and orders Henry to take a shower, but this confidence is soon destroyed when she sees the Tinker rid the chrysanthemums and she realizes it was all an act. The setting is described as the geographical location in which a story takes place along with the timeframe the story plays out in- both which have influences on the experience of telling a story.   This story takes place in 1938, or when males were the dominant figure in society- an idea that is reinforced by the reference to the ranch as “Henry Allen’s’ ranch” though in reality we know both Elisa and Henry live there. Elisa has her own chrysanthemum garden with a wired fence around it which is the only thing she truly owns. This fence serves as a barrier between Henry and her, keeping Elisa and her flowers in and pests and Henry out.Steinbeck describes the community  as a closed pot while the fog is the lid- this, of course, creates tension reflected in both the main characters and the readers from the very start of the story.In addition, the idea of a closed pot reinstates the fact that this society is distant from the ideas of the modern world, or that it might not be willing to change despite the tensions inside of it. This remote society and the fact that Elisa and Henry have to travel so far to get to town once again is a reflection of its secludedness and the seclusion Elisa might feel in her own home. The lack of sunlight after the December harvest  makes for a gloomy, seemingly uneventful atmosphere. The passage “A light wind blew up from the southwest us that the farmers were melody hopeful of a good rain before long; but fog and rain did not go together” seems to be a reflection on Elisa’s hopefulness found later on in the story that seems to pave the way to her independence as a woman but cannot happen in her male dominated society. The setting sets the stage for symbolism within a piece, adding to the overall strength of it. Symbolism is a key element in the telling of this tale, in fact from the very starting we see that community that is described as a pot is a breeding ground for tension. The pressure within the “pot” is like Elisa yearning to be free- she feels confined in her home and would rather a life under the stars like the one the Tinker leads. “The pale sunlight that appeared to be bathing the mountains, though there was no sunshine now in December” can be seen as Henry thinking Elisa is content with herself though she is not. Elisa’s chrysanthemums fill the role of her children as we see in the way she takes time raising them to the best of her ability and how much care she takes with each plant- though she does not have children of her own we know the passion she puts into her work can only be described as motherly. Elisa is so protective of her garden that she has a metaphorical and physical fence put around it; no one, not even pests and aphids can get to them. Steinbeck describes her working outfit as a “costume” or wearing something that doesn’t represent her true identity, which Elisa unfortunately is not confident in until she meets the Tinker. Briefly she accepts herself and becomes proud of who she is- we see this when she challenges the Tinker saying “I could show you just what a woman might do,” and later when she takes care in admiring herself. Elisa becomes confident in herself, then she becomes crushed. Her crying at the end, when Steinbeck describes her as an “old woman” shows that she hasn’t aged physically, but rather mentally by the trauma of seeing her children destroyed. She realizes she wasn’t even worth enough to the Tinker for him to throw her seeds on the roadside. This tale would not have been anywhere as impactful had John Steinbeck not developed the characters, setting, and plot so effectively while keeping this story so concise. He adds depth to the piece by making almost every element detailed , by leading us to pity Elisa and the fate of her beloved Chrysanthemums.  The setting led to effective cues to Elisa’s inner mood and to the tension in the atmosphere, while much of the characters were symbolized within the scenery. The beauty of the flowers is the beauty if Elisa’s inner talents and herself while the Tinker is a simple mongrel. Though his illusion of hope he had the power to crush not only her flowers but also her spirit, causing the readers to wonder if Elisa will ever return to being the confident woman we just briefly caught a glimpse of again.  

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