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At first glance John Steinbeck’s "The Chrysanthemums" seems to be a story about a woman whose niche is in the garden. Upon deeper inspection the story has strong notes of feminism in the central character Elisa Allen. Elisa’s actions and feelings reflect her struggle as a woman trying and failing to emasculate herself in a male dominated society. Elisa is at her strongest and most proud in the garden and becomes weak when placed in feminine positions such as going out to dinner with her husband. Steinbeck carefully narrates this woman’s frequent shifts between femininity and masculinity over a short period of time.
In the opening of the story Elisa is emasculated by the description of her clothing. She wears "a man’s black hat pulled low down over her eyes, clodhopper shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron…" (paragraph 5). When Elisa’s husband Henry comes over and compliments her garden and ability to grow things Elisa is smug with him and very proud of her skill with the flowers. Her "green thumb" makes her an equal in her own eyes. When Elisa’s husband asks her if she would like to go to dinner her feminine side comes out. She is excited to go eat at a restaurant and states that she would much rather go to the movies than go see the fights, she "wouldn’t like the fight’s" at all (paragraph 21). Elisa is taken aback with her own submissiveness and quickly becomes preoccupied with her flowers as soon as her husband leaves. When the drifter comes and asks Elisa for work to do she is stern with him and refuses him a job. She acts as a man would to another strange man and becomes irritated. When he persists in asking her she reply’s "I tell you I have nothing like that for you to do" (paragraph 46). The drifter mentions Elisa’s chrysanthemums and she immediately loosens up as "the irritation and resistance melt(ed) from her face" (paragraph 51). The drifter feigns great interest in Elisa’s chrysanthemums and asks her many questions about them. He tells her he knows a lady who said to him "if you ever come across some nice chrysanthemums I wish you’d try to get me a few seeds" (paragraph 56). Elisa is overjoyed by any interest in her flowers and gives the man chrysanthemum sprouts to take to his friend.
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Elisa’s desperation to be a person that she cannot be is touching. Steinbeck makes it very easy to relate to this woman’s struggle for strength and contentment in a life that does not meet her expectations. Elisa wants to be not only an equal to her male peers but to be dominant. She sadly realizes that she can never live up to the expectations she places on herself.
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.