The Unfulfilled Elisa in John Steinbeck's The Chrysanthemums

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The Unfulfilled Elisa in John Steinbeck's The Chrysanthemums

“The Chrysanthemums” is a short story in The Long Valley, a collection of short stories by John Steinbeck. This story dramatizes the efforts made by a housewife, Elisa Allen, to compensate for the disappointments which she has encountered in her life. Steinbeck makes it clear that Elisa yearns for something more in her life then the everyday routines of farm life. While Elisa is portrayed as strong, in the end, her strength serves to be insufficient in having the courage to effect any real change in her life since her fragile self-esteem proves to be too susceptible to outside forces.

From the beginning of the short story, Steinbeck emphasizes that Elisa is a strong, competent woman who finds her considerable energy channeled into things, such as her garden, which never give her the sort of recognition or satisfaction that she craves. For a brief moment, she senses that she is capable of much more and feels her own strength only to, once again, have a man bring down her efforts, and her self-esteem. The story opens with Elisa working in her garden. Steinbeck makes a point of telling the reader that she is thirty-five. Her age at once implies a woman almost at her middle-age who may be reexamining the dreams of her youth as she contemplates the second half of her life. Steinbeck emphasizes Elisa’s strength as he writes, “Her face was eager and mature and handsome” (Steinbeck 279). Her husband, Henry, comes back to the house having just completed the sell of some cattle. He is complimentary towards her gardening and comments on her talent. He suggests that she put her talent to work in the orchard growing apples, and Elisa considers his offhand comment seriously,...

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...’s nature which yearns for expression. For a moment, she feels she touched on such a shared intimacy with the tinker and it is easy to see why she could have been so easily mistaken because the tinker does imply that he also has that sort of aesthetic sensibility when he describes the chrysanthemums which will bloom later in the summer, “Kind of a long-stemmed flower? Looks like a quick puff of colored smoke?” (282). When the tinker casts her plants aside, it is almost as if he cast aside Elisa’s dreams as well. It’s not just this brief episode that makes Elisa’s cry, but what is really upsetting her is the thought of a future where she feels unfulfilled and unchallenged.

Work Cited

Steinbeck, John. "The Chrysanthemums." Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 6th ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1995. 239-47.

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