Comparing Stories: The Astronomers Wife & The Chrysanthemums


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Recently, I saw a movie about female tennis champion – Billie Jean King, and although I have never been into the feminism (neither can I say that I quite understand it), her character woke up some other kind of sensitivity in me. After this – to me significant change – I could not help myself not to notice different approaches of John Steinbeck and Kay Boyle to the similar thematic. They both deal with marital relationships and it was quite interesting to view lives of ordinary married couples through both “male” and “female eyes”. While Steinbeck opens his story describing the Salinas Valley in December metaphorically referring to the Elisa’s character, Boyle jumps directly to Mrs. Ames’s inner world. Although both writers give us pretty clear picture of their characters, Boyle does it with more emotions aiming our feelings immediately, unlike Steinbeck who leaves us more space to think about Elisa Allen.
Mrs. Ames from “The Astronomer’s Wife” and Elisa Allen from “The Chrysanthemums”, two women in their best ages, did share similar lives. They were loyal wives, of decent beauty and good manners. They were married for some time, without any children and they were fighting the dullness of their marriages. At first, it looked like they were just caught in marriage monotony, but after the surface has been scratched deeper, it was clear that these two women were crying for attention: but they had different reasons.
While Boyle describes Mrs. Ames as elegant, gentle, and quiet, Steinbeck gives to Elisa more strength. Her face was “lean and strong”, and her figure looked “blocked and heavy in her gardening costume”. Both women find their own ways to cover lack of happiness in their everyday lives. The astronomer’s wife is managing the house finding the silliest things to keep her busy: “…from the removal of the spot left there from dinner on the astronomer’s vest to the severe trashing of the mayonnaise for lunch”. Elisa spends her days in garden raising chrysanthemums “bigger than anybody around here.” The fact that these two women did not have any children can mislead us to the conclusion that they were both trying to satisfy the instincts they were probably having at the age of thirty-five. While this is the case with Elisa, the astronomer’s wife had different problem: the lack of communication with her husband and incapability to understand the world he was in.

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On the other hand, Elisa does communicate with her husband, but the gentle side of this woman is buried in the sand together with her chrysanthemums. What they do have in common is the need for some warmness in their colorless lives. And for both of them colors came suddenly out from strangers who just happened to be there.
Kay Boyle gave to Mrs. Ames more feminine look. She is somewhat conservative: “The astronomer’s wife put on her white and scarlet smock very quickly and buttoned it at the neck,” but her red slippers were revealing her passion and need for attention. She is aware of herself and unlike Elisa, she is open to the flirting. Steinbeck made Elisa harsh and resistant. Her conversation with the handyman was almost rude, thus making a big barrier between the two. But this was Elisa’s way. She made herself “strong”, even more than she ever wanted, and now there stood a man threatening to shake up her world. She is trying to keep up with him, to show her confidence and strength. But unconsciously, she opens herself to him and the woman in her is awake: “Kneeling there, her hand went out toward his legs in the greasy black trousers. Her hesitant fingers almost touched the cloth.” He was the one that reached her need to nurture and take care that has been neglected for a long time. On the other hand, Mrs. Ames did not stop to flirt with the plumber. But she was enjoying different kind of awakening than Elisa. The plumber’s presence was giving her a feeling that she has forgotten. He was everything her husband was not. His strong figure and the depth of his voice kept her on the ground as strongly as she ever wanted. And from the senseless dreams she was living in together with her husband, there was something different she could feel. And she did not want to stop flirting. She did not want him to leave her, simply because “there was a young and strange delight in putting questions to which true answers would be given. Everything the astronomer had ever said to her was a continuous query to which there could be no response.”
Both women got something from these strangers, that may not have changed their lives, but made them feel what they were urging for, for such a long time. The astronomer’s wife finally touched the ground even she knew that it is not going to last – but she finally felt it. She had a proof that she was still alive. Elisa became a woman – at least for that day. She knew that she will return to her “children” there in the sand, the first thing in the morning, but that evening there she was: beautiful and happy.








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