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Use of Symbols and Symbolism in John Steinbeck's The Chrysanthemums

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The Use of Symbols in John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums”


In John Steinbeck’s short story, “The Chrysanthemums,” he uses the flower to symbolize his main character’s thoughts and ideas.  There are many examples of such symbolism in this work.

            Elisa Allen is a lonely woman who enjoys growing and nourishing her chrysanthemums.  Since her husband is always working the cattle in their farm, she never has enough attention or any kind of affection.  The result of this dispassionate marriage leads Steinbeck to describe his main character as follows, “Her face lean and strong…Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man’s black hat pulled low…clod-hopper shoes…completely covered by a big corduroy apron…” (Page 206-207)  This neglect from her busband causes her to turn to her “chrysanthemums,” of which she is very proud.  Her husband’s remark, “I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big” (Page 207), shows how little his interest he has for her chrysanthemums/herself.  As shown here, Elisa does not feel appreciated by her husband and so she takes care of her chrysanthemums, symbols of how beautiful she really is.  Early in the story, Steinbeck uses little symbolic phrases to let the reader know that the chrysanthemums are an extension of Elisa.

            Her gardening area could be described as a “cage” to protect herself from anything harmful.  Knowing that her husband does not show interest in her chrysanthemums, gives her the thought that he does not have interest in her.  The flowers and Elisa have interchangeable meanings that are explained later on in the story.  When her husband goes off with one of the cattle buyers, a mysterious man on a junky wagon approaches her.  Although appearance is not the greatest, she is interested in him.  The reason being is that he shows interest in her chrysanthemums in order to persuade her to find something for him to fix.  Again, the connection there is that he was interested in her flowers, meaning herself.  The man says, “Kind of a long-stemmed flower?  Looks like a quick puff of colored smoke?”…”That’s it.  What a nice way to describe them.” (Page 209)  With this, she now feels appreciated and attractive to this stranger.  His compliment to her about her flowers leads her to feel obligated to allow him to fix her pots. 

            In their exchange, she gave him herself for a little bit of attention.  Right after the stranger leaves, she is full of confidence in her womanhood and goes to do a complete makeover.  “After a while she began to dress, slowly.  She put on her newest underclothing and her nicest stockings and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness.” (Page 212)  In this scene in which she transforms from gardener to a model, she goes through a revelation of thoughts.  Her excitement from the stranger’s interest in her chrysanthemums, gives her the confidence to grow and blossom like her flower.

            When Elisa’s husband got home and saw her, he said, “Why – why, Elisa.  You look so nice!”  With her boost of confidence now, she says “Nice?  You think I look nice?  What do you mean by ‘nice’?” (Page 212)  Elisa obviously goes on the offense and wonders why she just looks “nice.”  For the last critical scene of symbolism, Elisa sees her precious chrysanthemum on the ground, but without the pot it was given in.  With everything that happened between the stranger and Elisa, this could be explained by simply saying, “used.”  She was basically fooled into giving herself away to someone who showed some interest in her.  Her flower symbolizes all this and it is used throughout this story.  The last sentence of this story is one that can have many meanings.  “She turned up her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly – like an old woman.” (Page 213)  This means that she has lost her confidence and her self-esteem to keep her head high in the air.  Symbols such as the flower are used sporadically throughout this story and gives the reader many meanings on what to think the last sentence means.  This is why symbols are an essential part of a great story, because it gives the reader more to think about.

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