“The Chrysanthemums”: An Early Depiction of Gender’s Role


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The traditional role of women in the American society has transformed as society has trended towards sexual equality. In the past women were expected to be submissive to the man and were looked upon as homemakers rather then providers. Modern day women enjoy the freedom of individuality and are considered as capable as men in many regards. John Steinbeck’s short story, “The Chrysanthemums,” portrays a woman’s struggle with accepting her life and role as a female (459). Through the protagonist-female character, Elisa Allen, and the symbolism of chrysanthemums, Steinbeck displays the gender roles that define past generations of women’s lives in the United States.
Elisa Allen embodies the image of a simple woman eager to escape the confines of a gender defined role in society. Readers are introduced to Elisa as a 35 year old, strong woman living with her husband, Henry, on a ranch in Salinas Valley (Steinbeck 460). Elisa’s masculinity is highlighted from the attire she is wearing to the strength in her hands. Henry affirms that Elisa is capable in her endeavors when he states, “you’ve got a gift with things,” in regards to her garden (Steinbeck 460). Even though Elisa is delighted at Henry’s suggestion that she work in the orchard, the idea does not seem to get a second thought (Steinbeck 460). The idea of a woman working in the orchard is dismissed on the premise that the orchard is not a woman’s place. In Elisa’s account with the man in the wagon, her sexuality exudes in her graphic explanation of picking off the flower buds and being under the stars, to the point that she almost physically touches the man (Steinbeck 463). Her desire would go unsatisfied, as it would not be appropriate for her to act on her impulse. Elisa is searching for fulfillment in life but finds her role to be trivial. Intrigued by the idea of traveling, as the gentleman in the wagon does, she states, “It must be very nice. I wish women could do such things.” She is shot down as the man replies, “It ain’t the right kind of a life for a woman” (Steinbeck 464). This conversation clearly depicts the prevalent inequality of the sexes. Furthermore, once the man leaves in the caravan Elisa cements her urge for something more, looking out at the horizon whispering, “That’s a bright direction. There’s a glowing there” (Steinbeck 464-465).

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Perhaps the internal conflict of Elisa’s character is the inspiration for the change in perception of gender roles.
Symbolism is a key literary technique used by Steinbeck to better illustrate how gender relates to one’s life purpose. As implied by the title, chrysanthemums carry symbolic imagery into Elisa’s conflict of being a woman. Just like the chrysanthemums, Elisa is beautiful and strong. Elisa identifies with the chrysanthemums, which provides her a sense of comfort and pride. In early comments about her chrysanthemums Elisa smugly proclaimed, “Yes. They’ll be strong this coming year” (Steinbeck 460). The correlation between the chrysanthemums and Elisa is so tight that her strength seems to emerge the flowers. When a man is trying to get work from Elisa, she is persistent in saying no; however, as soon as he turns his attention to her flowers, she is quick to welcome him into her yard (Steinbeck 462). Elisa’s demeanor is reflected by the deep connection to the chrysanthemums. She becomes flattered and welcomes the man when he notices her chrysanthemums. While the chrysanthemums are beautiful and strong, they have little value or use in society and thus symbolize the strongest feeling of despair as well. As the traveling man was leaving, Elisa had given the man some of her chrysanthemums as a gift. The man had had tossed the flowers on the side of the road as he drove off. “Far ahead on the road Elisa saw a dark speck. She knew” (Steinbeck 465). This quote reveals Elisa’s understanding of the worth of her chrysanthemums, and in turn, an understanding of her own self worth. Elisa feels as though she has been set aside and truly powerless. Ultimately, the chrysanthemums represent a life in which gender inequality has limited expectations.
With the equal opportunity and gender equality of today’s society, it is important to consider the position of Elisa. The character of Elisa allows perspective of how gender roles have defined the life of women in history. Further illustration of such a gender determined world is painted with the symbolism of the chrysanthemums. While symbolizing beauty and strength, the chrysanthemums have little worth or prominence, representing the portrayal of women in history. As gender roles have equilibrated in recent generations, Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” has inadvertently contributed to the progress in equal gender rights and responsibilities.





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