“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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