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“Why-why Elisa…. You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy
enough to eat it like a watermelon.” (Steinbeck 232) Most people reading this would just pass it
off as a tactless man’s attempt to compliment, but is that all it is? In “The Chrysanthemums”,
Elisa is a farm wife, whose only passion in life is found in her gardening. Henry, her husband,
owns a farm and is oblivious to the monotony of Elisa’s life. Throughout the story, Henry is on
the outside, never really understanding Elisa and how she feels. Until, a tinker comes by the farm
and speaks with Elisa about her Chrysanthemums. By asking just one question, the tinker opens
Elisa and allows her to release the passion and femininity that she keeps hidden throughout her
life. In John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums”, Henry Allen’s seemingly inept comment is not
just that but an allusion, put in place by Steinbeck, to the Dionysian maenads.
Dionysus is the Greek god of wine, merrymaking and gathering. His followers, the
maenads, were said to be pushed into some form of “divine madness”, aided by wine, which
would lead to prophecy and insight. More often, however, it led to drunkenness and promiscuity.
They would then dance, sing and wander about, not to mention, join in sexual activities to
stimulate fertility of the earth and achieve ecstasy. The maenads would occasionally reach a
dangerous “frenzied state” where if they happened across it, they would “tear animals apart and
devour the raw flesh” (“Maenads” par.1). So, knowing that, we take a second look at our story.
Elisa Allen has had an erotic experience with the tinker by merely speaking of the passion she
has for her chrysanthemums that has opened her eyes to how much of herself that she hides and
subdues. Henry notices a difference in Elisa, beyond the way she is dressed, but he has never
seen the passionate side of her and does not know what to say. When Henry claims that Elisa
looks strong enough to kill and eat a cow, Steinbeck is making an allusion to the maenads of the
ancient Greek world. David Leon Higdon, a scholar, claims that “With this image…Steinbeck
transforms the characters and the ranch, synchronizing empirical and mythical realities, and
identifying Elisa's new power and beauty with those of the Maenads or Bacchantes in their
worship of Dionysus” (par. 1).
It is quite clear that Henry’s comment is more than just that. “It is as if Steinbeck wished
his reader to feel, for one brief moment, that he or she had opened a door inappropriately and
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“The Chrysanthemums”, Elisa has ultimately, not shown any feminism other than, with the
caring of her flowers. Her femininity has been repressed to the point that she doesn’t know what
it is or if it even exists anymore. The tinker awakens the passion that has been stifled and Elisa
has a sort of out of body experience that causes her to feel for the first time in a long time, some
excitement. Author Peter Lisca points out that later on, when she is speaking with Henry before
they leave, Elisa enjoys a "silent rebellion against the passive role required of her as a woman"
(qtd. in Higdon par. 10). She teases Henry and he claims that she looks strong enough to murder
a cow and eat it raw. This allusion to the ancient Greek maenad’s, is meant to show the wild and
feminine side of Elisa that never gets to see the light.
Elisa is repressed into the passive existence of a farmer’s wife. One little outburst is
enough to show her what she is hiding from her husband, and herself. However, when she finally
lets a little of her femininity show, she is compared to a maenad. We could interpret this
comparison to show, possibly, that displaying even a little of her woman-ness, was too extreme,
during that time, and was completely tabooed. Especially considering that the maenad’s were
hunted and persecuted for their acts and inappropriate behavior. Is allowing just one little spark
of female essence show truly enough to be considered completely wild and inappropriate?
Higdon, David Leon. "Dionysian Madness in Steinbeck's 'The Chrysanthemums.'." Classical and
Modern Literature: A Quarterly 11.1 (Fall 1990): 59-65. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism.
Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic. Vol. 146. Detroit: Gale, 2011. Literature Resource Center. Web.
18 Sep. 2011.
Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Drama, and
Writing. Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia.. 11th ed. New York: Longman, 2010. 226-
“Maenads.” Encyclopedia Mythica. 30 March 2001. Web. 18 Sep. 2011.