The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck
“The Chrysanthemums” written by John Steinbeck is a story about a woman worn and oppressed by a male dominated world. A world which breaks a woman’s will, strips away their humanity, and obscures who they really are what they really want out of life. Eliza, a married woman forgotten by her husband and the world, has found a bit of happiness in her garden. It is here that she finds solace and comfort. The flowers are her companions. She lives and breathes for her flowering children, the chrysanthemums. Steinbeck, a master storyteller, utilizes the chrysanthemums as a symbol of Elisa’s experiences as a woman, the victimization of women in a male created society, and motherhood
Chrysanthemums are hearty flowers which need specific care, patience, and tending. Like children, they must be cared for daily, treated with delicate and gentle hands. Within her garden paradise she hides herself, as a woman. Steinbeck describes her as a women that 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…” (X). Eliza, who is childless, takes pride and comfort in her ability to grow these amazing flowers. They represent for her the children she was never able to have. She is extremely protective of these flowers caring and feeding them like mother nursing her baby. She creates a “crib” of wire to ensure that “[n]o aphids, no sowbugs or snails or cutworms” are there. “Her terrier fingers [destroy] such pests before they [can] get started” (X). Like pointy corners of tables and light sockets, Eliza protects her “children” from the hazards of life. She cares for this flowers like she wishes someone had cared for her — gentle fingertips caressing her own blooms. These flowers inspire the only intimate moments that occurred between Eliza and her husband in the entire short story. He husband stops by her garden and tells her how lovely her flowers are. She blushes and Steinbeck observes “on her face there [is] a little smugness”(X). Eliza gives “birth” to these amazing creatures which bring so much beauty to the world, and supplies Eliza with her only taste of motherhood.
The chrysanthemums create a situation in which Eliza meets a man which stimulates and re-ignites her female sensuality which has been long forgotten. Steinbeck describes Eliza stripped of her female side and like her home, that she was “hard-swept and hard-polished” (X). Henry fails to notice and takes for granted the feminine qualities which Eliza brings to the relationship. His love for her did not exist anymore. The couple live like strangers. Eliza, submissive and loyal, does not addresses her discontent with her husband and their relationship remains empty. He remarks, to her about her chrysanthemums, “I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big” (X). She is resentful and unhappy which causes her to hide in her garden. One afternoon while she is attending to her flowers she meets a traveling salesman who stops and admires her flowers. When he flirts with her indirectly, she melts. She is thirsty for the attention a man gives to a woman. The stranger visually caresses the flowers, commenting that the flowers were like delicate “quick puff[s] of colored smoke,”(243) and she can feels his fingers like they were on her skin. Chrysanthemums represent Eliza long last sensuality and her need to be fulfilled physically and emotionally. Eliza quickly responds and “[tears] off the battered hat and [shakes] out her dark pretty hair”(X). The cold Elisa suddenly becomes the image of perfect femininity soft and flowing, contrasting against the strong male. She is attracted to him and offers him the only gift she can, a singe red chrysanthemum plant — a symbol of her sacred femininity. Through this stimulation, Eliza is inspired to again get in touch with her body and soul.
Eliza’s gift of the chrysanthemum represents the physical interaction between a man and a woman. After the stranger leaves, with quicken breath, she almost floats into her house and draws herself a hot bath. She finds her “little block of pumice” and literally scrubs her body — “legs and thighs, loins and chest and arms, until her skin was scratched and red”(X). She urgently washes, symbolically bringing blood back into her lifeless body and soul. She dresses slowly finding her best lingerie and dress. She applies makeup and prepares to go out on a “date” with her husband. She patiently awaits for her husband to come in from the fields. She hopes her husband will feel romantically toward her again. She hopes that he provide her with the same sensual stimulation that those few brief moments with the stranger. Unfortunately, her hopes are no fulfilled. When Henry finally sees his wife, he casually comments “You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon” (X). Eliza laments her husband’s lack of charm, as if he is intentionally trying to crush her soul. She slowly loses the woman that she had found hours before.
After a dinner eaten in silence with a man who does not love her, Eliza is forced to endure the car trip home. Weeping, and staring out the window she sees her bloody red chrysanthemums tossed on the side of the road, and she feels her soul die once again.
Steinbeck through the use of chrysanthemums asserts that women are oppressed and imprisoned by world that was built for men. Through intricate detail, wit, and symbolism Steinbeck breathes life into the story of a woman completely controlled by her husband, and suffocated by world. She experiences momentary awakening during a brief interaction with a stranger. Steinbeck uses chrysanthemums evoke the feeling of rebirth, renewal, autonomy, and femininity. Eliza completely broken down and she crumbles “crying weakly-like an old woman”(X). Her husband takes her granted and does not notice that she is woman with needs and desires. Not only does her husband ignore her but so does the world. The stranger which seemed to admire all of Eliza’s qualities represents the world. Just as that man tossed away Eliza’s beautiful flowers because they were unnecessary. Steinbeck’s point is that is exactly the male dominated world views and treats women. Society is oppressive to women, allowing them not to “bloom”, keeping women submissive and docile. Eliza is not valued by the world because she is female. She meant only to exist for her husband and family. Eliza tries to be a woman in world where her womanly charms are ignored by her husband and the world in general. To survive she forgets about who she truly is and finds happiness in her garden. When she is briefly re-awakening, she attempts again to find her true self. However, her husband and the world will not let her and she must once again, for the last time, suppress who she is and what she wants.
Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs. 4th Compact ed. New York: Prentice Hall, 2007.