Re-reading John Steinbeck’s ‘The Chrysanthemums’ as a canonical text
Sangeeta Sharma

- Sangeeta Sharma


Eco-feminism emerged in the 1970s and became recognized worldwide in the1990s. As a combination of feminist and ecological movements, it is based on the association between the patriarchal society's oppression of women and its domination of the natural world, both of which are the victims of the patriarchal society. This research paper argues that John Steinbeck is a writer with strong ecological consciousness. There are many vivid depictions of environment and land in his novel. Meanwhile, female characters in his novels and short stories function as important roles and are worthy to be examined. Therefore, this paper analyzes the classic story ‘The Chrysanthemums’ from eco-feminist point-of-view. The primary theme of the story ‘The Chrysanthemums’ is one that appears throughout Steinbeck’s canon, the issue of creative frustration. Re-reading classic literary works from the eco-feminist perspective helps to find a similarity between the biased attitude of society towards women and Nature and also a new approach to exploring environmental issues. Women and Nature are living organisms which contribute immensely to the sustenance of the family and environment respectively. However, society, in general, and men, in particular, turn a blind eye to their contribution and are either not sensitive to their needs or exploit them to their own benefit.

(Keywords: eco-feminism, environment, desire/s, feminism/ist)

The current paper does a close reading of the text and explores Steinbeck’s treatment of women which is manifest in Henry’s behavior towards his wife, Elisa, and how her repressed desires and creative frustration reflect in her proclivity for gardening.
It briefly introduces the eco-feminist theory and then presents a review of the story by highlighting the significant details which underline Henry’s patriarchal attitude, his neglectful behavior towards his wife and the ecological symbols through which Steinbeck indicates the repressed sexuality of Elisa.
John Steinbeck, in his short story “The Chrysanthemums” depicts the story of a strong and brave woman, who is facing male chauvinism in society and is inflicted with the torment of constant mental agony. The writer encompasses the vision of a woman trapped in a man’s world. He sets the background on the panoramic Salinas Valley, in a cold and foggy winter morning, and portrays the myriad emotions of the protagonist Elisa Allen. She looks apparently happy with her husband Henry, a rancher. At the same time she feels deprived, intimidated and lonely, much because of the fact that she has no children. This fact points subtly towards cold strains of emotional stagnation in the life of the couple.
Elisa is thirty-five, lean and strong, with a charismatic character. She is a fighter who doesn’t give up easily and lives for being the person she is. Henry tries to compensate Elisa’s grief of being childless with formal gestures of cordiality and compassion but much in vain. Elisa finds peace and recluse in her chrysanthemums’ garden and considers it as her surrogate children. She takes pride in her skills as a gardener, and craves for being recognized for her work and potential. As the story proceeds, Elisa feels that her power and potential are confiscated within the barbed fence of her garden. She recognizes her powers of man, as she could plough, reap and toil like the masculine gender. Imbibed with the strength of a man, she tries to justify her impulses by camouflaging her beauty and sensuality in manly attire and a hat.
The story begins with Elisa working in her garden. She is surrounded by a barbed fence that is meant to protect her flowers from insects and pollution. Even though she is inclined to male facets, her motherly love for her flowers and her attachment to nature reflect her feminine qualities. It is a woman breathing in her senses, “as she digs into the forest of new green chrysanthemum sprouts that were growing around the old roots”. When her husband approaches to persuade her to take care of the apple orchard, despite her being aware of her talent, Elisa says that apple orchard belongs to the man’s world.
Then comes the stranger, the antagonist. The tinker makes Elisa realise her real self. He is a worker and appreciates her qualities as an excellent gardener. He even wants to carry some flowers for one of his customers. Elisa, for few moments, forgets her masculine charm and opens up trying to give the best of her flowers to be carried by the man. This fills her mind with optimism and vigour of feminine acceptance. Elisa notices “that under the high grey fog [the willow trees] seemed a thin band of sunshine”. As the stranger leaves, she waits for her husband. Henry is surprised at her fresh countenance and says, “Why,- why Elisa. You look so nice!…I mean you look different, strong and happy”(P.10).
The appreciation of her husband for her beauty and her chastity makes her realise that he, in fact, likes her feminine countenance. However, Elisa confronts major shock when she sees that the stranger has thrown the chrysanthemum sprouts onto the road and only the pot was taken. She has a setback which makes her realise that she was in vain looking for the recluse of manpower, as she could also be happy and contented in the life of a woman and a family. Finally Elisa cries weakly at the end, making her look “like an old woman” and accept the fact that she has to live as a woman and has to be contented in the male dominated world.
The story has rich eco-feminist symbolism.
The chrysanthemum stalks seem to be phallic symbols, and Elisa's "over-eager" snipping of them suggests castration. Then in the "rooting" bed, Eliza herself becomes masculine, inserting the "little crisp shoots" into open, receptive furrows". The shoots can be understood as Eliza's children considering the way in which she communicates with the tinker on how to care for them. This makes perfect sense, but Eliza seems more concerned with the loss of her own life. For too long, the chrysanthemums have served in place of children. She is looking into reclaiming her own life, not finding another electric connection to live her life through.
Eliza’s character is an androgynous one. An inner struggle is visible in the way she dresses herself:
“Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man's black hat pulled low down over her eyes, clod-hopper shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron with four big pockets to hold the snips, the trowel and scratcher, the seeds and the knife she worked with. She wore heavy leather gloves to protect her hands while she worked.”1
 She desires to do what men do.
She admires the tinker’s adventurous streak when he says, “I aim to follow nice weather.”2 (P.5)

When the tinker says that he sleeps in the wagon during the night, she wishes she could do the same. “It must be nice,” she said, “It must be very nice. I wish women could do such things.”3 (P.8)
 On one hand, she fulfills her primary role of a home-maker very efficiently. On the other, she is into plowing, sowing and toiling in the garden –considered to be a masculine job. She is pleased when her husband, Henry, comments about her "strong" chrysanthemum crop for the masculinity of the term but her husband reminds her of her femininity by offering her an evening in the town. After this conversation with her husband, she goes back to her masculine role of transplanting the flowers.
This explains the reason for Eliza's over eager tendencies toward work in the cultivating of her plants and the care she puts into the house -- it is referred to by Steinbeck as " hard-swept" with "hard-polished" windows:
“Behind her stood the neat white farmhouse with red geraniums close-banked around it as high as the windows. It was a hard-swept looking little house, with hard-polished windows, and a clean mud-mat on the front steps. ”4 (P.2)
For example, L.L.Zhang, observes about Steinbeck:
In The Long Valley, there is a short story "The Chrysanthemums," which is evaluated as a "masterpiece of Steinbeck's short fiction…One's life experience and world outlook greatly influence his/her creation of works; Steinbeck is of no exception. His eco-awareness and complex attitude to women can be found echoes in "The Chrysanthemums."5
When John Steinbeck's short story "The Chrysanthemums" first appeared in the October 1937 edition of Harper's Magazine (Osborne 479), Franklin D. Roosevelt had just been reelected president. The country was recovering from the Great Depression, unions were developing, and child labor in manufacturing was terminated (Jones 805-6). The first female cabinet member in American history, Frances Perkins, was appointed the Secretary of Labor (Jones 802). She was one of the few women in her time to gain equality in a male-dominated society. For most women, liberation was a bitter fight usually ending in defeat. In "The Chrysanthemums," this struggle for equality is portrayed through Steinbeck's character Elisa Allen. According to Stanley Renner, "The Chrysanthemums" shows "a strong, capable woman kept from personal, social, and sexual fulfillment by the prevailing conception of a woman's role in a world dominated by men" (306). Elisa's appearance, actions, and speech depict the frustration women felt in Steinbeck's masculine world of the 1930's. "Steinbeck's world," observes Charles A. Sweet, Jr., "is a man's world, a world that frustrates even minor league women's liberationists" (214).6
“The Chrysanthemums” takes place in Salinas Valley, California, a site of isolation that builds an atmosphere of hopelessness. The winter fog sits “like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot,” (Steinbeck 359 ) which effectively foreshadows what a dead end Elisa’s life will reveal itself to be.
—" Elisa's voice grew husky. She broke in on him. "I've never lived as you do, but I know what you mean. When the night is dark—why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there's quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It's like that. Hot and sharp and—lovely." Kneeling there, her hand went out toward his legs in the greasy black trousers. Her hesitant fingers almost touched the cloth. Then her hand dropped to the ground. She crouched low like a fawning dog.
 Her feminine vulnerability is exposed when the man touches her Achilles’ heel, the chrysanthemums. He takes her for a ride with a fake interest with the flowers to get to her. The masculine self is symbolically peeled off when she removes the gloves and the hat and leaves her vulnerable to the exploitation by the tinker. (Sweet, 212)7

Having proven she is able to raise potentially award-winning chrysanthemum patches, she demonstrates her competence in creation and nurturing—two skills she can only apply to her flower patch because Henry, for whatever reasons, will not allow the introduction of children to the family. In the meantime, Elisa has no choice but to deal with her lack of children and apply her motherly parenting skills to her flower bed. There is a fence around the flower garden to protect it from animals, but interestingly enough it even seems to keep Henry Allen himself out. By maintaining a garden, which requires some degree of physical labor, Elisa is trying to pretend that she is engaged in the activities of men, seeing as to how a metaphorical fence keeps Elisa out of men's affairs.

Elisa carefully prunes the stalks of chrysanthemums, and ensures that in her flower patch “no aphids were there, no sowbugs or snails or cutworms. Her terrier fingers destroyed such pests before they could get started” (Steinbeck 360). The insects pose as natural threats to Elisa’s “children” and so she eradicates them before they cause any harm, much like any good mother would do. As a result of her methodical tending to the flowers, as Henry points out, “some of those yellow chrysanthemums…were ten inches across” (Steinbeck 360)8.
Elisa scrubs her skin raw with a block of pumice in an effort to remove the dirt collected through labor typically done by men and then dons her finest outfit. Through this, Elisa, once again, shows her yearning for acceptance as a female. When Henry tells Elisa she looks “nice”, she wants to know what his definition of “nice” is. He then says she looks “different, strong, and happy,” to which Elisa demands his definition of “strong”. Henry then tells her “you look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like watermelon”, but Elisa seems to be not pleased by this definition of Henry. She wants to be reassured that she is strong of spirit, not muscle. Henry obviously is not used to seeing Elisa trying to act naturally as a female. When he sees her as female grace personified, he is surprised at her outstanding feminine appearance. However, when he tries to compliment her in a way that he believes will appease her, she actually takes offense.
 On the way to Salinas for dinner and a movie, Elisa makes the unfortunate discovery of her most prized possession castaway on the side of the road. She comes to the sad realization that nothing that belongs to her would ever survive escaping from the life of mediocrity, save for the pot, which was no longer hers. Unlike her heart, Elisa’s flowers require constant care and would never survive a rough life on the road, which confirms that Elisa is not as tough and rugged as she would like to believe- Elisa will always be female at heart.
At the end of the story, Elisa, while going to the town with her husband, finds the bunch of chrysanthemums discarded by the tinker on the road. She feels extremely hurt by this cruelty towards her flowers by the tinker. It once again shows the male indifference and disregard towards Nature and prove that they use it to their own benefit. Because he had wanted to touch the right chords of Elisa’s heart and to make her yield to his request, the tinker had initiated conversation with her revolving around the chrysanthemums and had appreciated her skill of growing it. He was not actually impressed by them. Hence he just discards them on the road oblivious to the fact that Elisa might travel through that road and notice them lying there.
An eco-feminist study of the story reveals the fact that women as well as nature are usually ignored, oppressed and destroyed by male-chauvinists. Steinbeck aims to criticize the patriarchal ideology, utilitarianism and man-centrism as he strongly holds that there exists a natural tie between nature and feminine spirit. Through the image of Elisa, the insightful author expresses his sympathy towards nature, women and their fate.
There is a strong connection between Elisa and the chrysanthemums she has grown and gifted to the tinker. The chrysanthemums represent Elisa. Like Elisa, they are dormant and bare, not in bloom. Like Elisa, they are confined to a narrow environment of the garden, with no way to escape. They are beautiful, decorative flowers, but serve no useful function beyond this ornamental one - in the same way, as a woman, Elisa is unable to do or is not allowed to do anything more than a limited range of tasks, and certainly none that would allow her to be independent or provide for herself. 
The eco-feminist streak lies in the casual abandonment of the chrysanthemums at the side of the road by the tinker and is symbolic of the way he, as a man, so easily dismisses Elisa as nothing more than a source of income. Although she attempts to engage with him on an intellectual, spiritual, and even physical level, he barely considers these offerings, instead pressing her for money. Once he achieves his target, he departs, forgetting about her just as he jettisons the chrysanthemum buds at the side of the road. The tinker dumping Elisa's chrysanthemums by the side of the road and keeping her flowerpot demonstrates how easily he used her, and indeed, how easily men can use women within this patriarchal society as a means to whatever end they are pursuing. 
The helplessness and vulnerability of the woman and her exploitation by the males to their benefit is highlighted in the story.
1)     Steinbeck, John, The Long Valley, With an Introduction and Notes by John H, Timmerman, Penguin Books, New York, USA, 1995, pp.1-2
2)     ibid P.5
3)     ibid P.8
4)     ibid P.2


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