When John Steinbeck's short story "The Chrysanthemums" first appeared in the October 1937 edition of Harper's Magazine (Osborne 479), Franklin D. Roosevelt had just been reelected president. The country was recovering from the Great Depression, unions were developing, and child labor in manufacturing was terminated (Jones 805-6). The first female cabinet member in American history, Frances Perkins, was appointed the Secretary of Labor (Jones 802). She was one of the few women in her time to gain equality in a male-dominated society. For most women, liberation was a bitter fight usually ending in defeat. In "The Chrysanthemums," this struggle for equality is portrayed through Steinbeck's character Elisa Allen. According to Stanley Renner, "The Chrysanthemums" shows "a strong, capable woman kept from personal, social, and sexual fulfillment by the prevailing conception of a woman's role in a world dominated by men" (306). Elisa's appearance, actions, and speech depict the frustration women felt in Steinbeck's masculine world of the 1930's. "Steinbeck's world," observes Charles A. Sweet, Jr., "is a man's world, a world that frustrates even minor league women's liberationists" (214).
This frustration is evident when Elisa is first introduced. Her figure is described as "blocked and heavy" because she is wearing heavy gloves, heavy shoes, a "man's black hat," and a big apron that hides her printed dress (Steinbeck 330). Her home has the masculine qualities of being "hard-swept" and "hard-polished" (Steinbeck 330). Elisa is bored with her husband and with her life. According to Sweet, Elisa is unhappy with the traditional female role and is attempting to extend her abilities into masculine areas (211).
Elisa intially reacts to each situation as a man would, but is forever reminded that she is a woman. When her husband, Henry, comments about her "strong" chrysanthemum crop, Elisa is pleased by the manliness the word implies, but her husband reminds her of her femininity by offering her an evening on the town. After this conversation with her husband, she goes back to her masculine role of transplanting the flowers.
The next situation involves the tinker. According to Sweet, he is to Elisa what the meat buyers were to Henry (211). Mordecai Marcus says that Elisa's first response to the tinker is that of a man, for she resists giving him work (56). But as the tinker talks, Sweet points out, Elisa's calculated and conscious masculine efforts become more and more feminine (212). The tinker then hits her in her vulnerable spot--her chrysanthemums. He pretends to be interested in her love for her flowers. He compares her flowers to a "quick puff of colored smoke" (Steinbeck 333). Elisa's feminine side begins to emerge as she takes off her masculine gloves and hat. She is attracted to the tinker because, as Stanley Renner points out, he represents a world of adventure and freedom that only men enjoy (306). She allows her emotions to control her and lets go of her masculine side, freeing her central feminine sexuality, according to Sweet (212). By the time she realizes her feminine emotions, it is too late: "Elisa's desires for equality are now bathed in failure" (Sweet 212). She has allowed herself to become emotional, "the trait women possess," whereas men conduct business unemotionally (Sweet 213). Elisa realizes her hopes for equality are nothing but a dream because she has been betrayed by her basic nature and by men. She gives the tinker the seedling and retreats indoors to find him some pots to mend.
After the tinker leaves, Elisa goes indoors to bathe. She scrubs herself "until her skin was scratched and red" (Steinbeck 335). By this action, Elisa is unconsciously withdrawing back to her feminine side and cleansing herself "of the masculine situation by turning to the feminine world in which she best functions" (Sweet 212). When she dresses, she puts on her best underwear and applies makeup to her face. By doing these purely feminine things, according to Marcus, she hopes to accentuate her role as a woman (56). Henry immediately notices the transformation and compliments her with the feminine "nice" instead of "strong," which is masculine. Elisa prefers "strong," but the meaning of it has changed from "masculine equal" to "feminine overlord" (Sweet 213).
Henry warms the car up to go into town while Elisa gets herself ready. As they drive along, Elisa spots the flowers she had given the tinker beside the road. The flowers beside the road signal Elisa's final retreat back to femininity. Her dreams of feminine equality are so broken that she can never go back to being what she once was; thus "she must endure her typical social role" (Sweet 213). Her only goal is to become "an old woman" (Steinbeck 336). Because she has gone back to her feminine role, according to Renner, "she remains a pitiable victim of male domination and female disadvantage" (306).
Throughout the story, Elisa suffers a regression from the masculine role she sees as equality to the feminine role she sees as submissive. Her frustration with the male-dominated society causes her to let go of her dreams for liberation and to become what society expects her to be--a passive woman. Steinbeck portrays women according to his time period. Elisa is representative of the women of the 1930's; she has become "the representative of the feminine ideal of equality and its inevitable defeat" (Sweet 213).
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