Characters Reactions To Situations

Characters Reactions To Situations

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As Henry James sees it, characters are only as interesting as their responses to particular situations. This is true not only in any piece of literature with a character but also in life. I following text is my exploration into characters and their reactions to situations in John Steinbeck’s, "The Chrysanthemums" and John Cheever’s, "The Five-Forty-Eight". Characters in both of these stories are full of passion and come alive in the text as you read them. It is this resurrection of the text to full life in your mind’s eye that is at the core why people like to read!
In John Steinbeck’s, "The Chrysanthemums" we find husband and wife Henry and Elisa Allen as the main characters. Henry and Elisa live a peaceful stationary life on their farm in the Salinas Valley in California. Henry spends his days tending to his orchard and steers while Elisa is busy with housekeeping and cultivating her flower garden.
Elisa is 35 years old and cultivates chrysanthemums in her garden with strong determination and passion. She is described as being full of energy and quite possibly too much unexpressed energy. Elisa is feeling stuck in her life and she feels Henry is not appreciating her as much as she would like. She would like Henry to not only appreciate her passion for her Chrysanthemums but also have more intimacy in the marriage as seems plausible while reading paragraphs six through 14.
In a private moment for Elisa ,while Henry is pre-occupied with the gentlemen by the tractor shed, she takes her gloves off and has somewhat of an intimate moment with her flowers. Henry subsequently sneaks up on Elisa and immediately her gloves go back on as if she got caught and needed to cover something up.
Elisa appears to have enjoyed this private moment because while she could see Henry and the other Men, they could not possibly see her strong naked fingers going down into the forest of new sprouts and spreading the needy leaves. We also see references to ten inch flowers and very big apples in the conversation between Henry and Elisa after she puts her gloves back on. I will leave these references and their meaning up to your imagination as I may be painting myself as a pervert here. I see Elisa as an untended flower that with just a little more attention would blossom into the beautiful women she can be.

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It is her troubles with intimacy that prevents this from occurring with Henry thus creating a troubling endless loop for Elisa.
Elisa comes across a handyman who passes by her farm asking her if he can get some work sharpening knives and scissors as well as mending pots and pans. Elisa covered in her gardening attire, tried to make this man go away with no luck. He was insistent on getting some work and she was even more so on him getting back in his vehicle and leaving.
The handyman then started to talk to Elisa about her Chrysanthemums with great interest and excitement. He asks Elisa if he can take some seeds of hers to another lady who in the past had asked for some. Elisa, like a flower, opened to the warmth this man was showing in her Chrysanthemums. She explains to him that this woman must not know much about growing Chrysanthemums because using seeds is the hardest way to grow them. She offers to give him a pot with a few little sprouts in some wet sand so he can then carry them to his friend. The reader can see the excitement Elisa feels and how she is like a blossoming Chrysanthemum in these sentences: “Beautiful,” she said. “Oh, beautiful.” Her eyes shone. She tore off the battered hat and shook out her dark pretty hair. “I’ll put them in a flower pot, and you can take them right with you. Come into the yard.” (Steinbeck 63)
After this wonderful encounter with the handyman, Elisa is elated and goes inside and prepares herself for a dinner date with Henry. On the road to dinner Elisa’s mood is reversed as she sees the Chrysanthemums sprouts lying in the road. She discovers that the handyman not only lied about his interest in her Chrysanthemums but also kept the pot and only threw away the flowers. He didn’t even have the decency to throw them to the side of the road where they might have a chance at life. Elisa feels discarded like these Chrysanthemums at that moment and the readers can feel it in this quote from the story:

“Far ahead on the road Elisa saw a dark speck. She knew.
“She tried not to look as they passed it, but her eyes would not obey. She whispered to herself sadly, “He might have thrown them off the road. That wouldn’t have been much trouble, not very much. But he kept the pot, “she explained. “He had to keep the pot. That’s why he couldn’t get them off the road.” (Steinbeck 108-109)

Like Elisa, Miss Dent’s character comes alive in the writing in John Cleever’s “The Five-Forty-Eight”. At gunpoint Blake’s former secretary Miss Dent, who is mentally ill, forcefully confronts him on a train. She is very angry for him firing her after a one night stand. The reader can feel her anger throughout the writing but the following reaction to Blake wanting to get up and move to the next car makes it clear:

“Oh, no,” she said. “No, no, no.” She put her white face so close to his ear that he could feel her warm breath on his cheek. “Don’t do that,” she whispered. “Don’t try and escape me. I have a pistol and I’ll have to kill you. Don’t, don’t, don’t! (Cheever 34)

As a reader, the words “Oh, no” and “No, no, no” just come right out and grad my mind and convince me of the distress in Miss Dent’s mind! This alone spoke to me more than any other character building John Cleever did in “The Five-Forty-Eight”.
As Henry James sees it, characters are only as interesting as their responses to particular situations. As you can see Elisa and Miss Dent come alive by the writing style of John Steinbeck and John Cleever. I always wonder how many attempts the authors made before settling on the words we see in final print. Moments like Elisa’s on the road to dinner when she realizes the handyman lied to her and Miss Dent’s on the train when Blake wants to get up and move are exciting. This is what makes reading so much fun.

Works Cited

Cheever, John. The Five-Forty-Eight, USA, Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, 1978.

Steinbeck, John. The Chrysanthemums, USA: Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group Inc., 1965.
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