Elisa’s Unhappiness In The Chrysanthemums By John Steinbeck

1432 words - 6 pages

John Steinbeck’s short story “The Chrysanthemums” centers on Eliza and her relationship with her husband Henry. Critic Gregory Palmerino brings light to their relationship issues. He argues: “everywhere there is conflict in ‘The Chrysanthemums,’ but nowhere is there a fight. This absence of friction prevents Henry and Elisa’s relationship from progressing, whether it be as lovers, partners or parents” (Palmerino 1). What Palmerino does not focus on is where these deep-rooted communications stem from. Because the ideology of patriarchy is so ingrained in both Elisa and her husband, Elisa feels she cannot communicate with her husband or even with herself. In this text, the patriarchal ideology is reinforced by the way the characters are presented and their interactions with one another.

When the story begins, Steinbeck addresses the weather and we see that a thick fog was covering the land: “It was a time of quiet and of waiting […] the farmers were mildly hopeful of a good rain before long; but fog and rain do not go together” (Steinbeck 438). It is important to note that the weather is introduced before our two main characters are, foreshadowing what kind of relationship they have. Palmerino sees the fog and rain as symbols of Elisa and Henry; of the female and male: “The natural elements of the foothills and ranch seem as unwilling to confront each other as the characters that inhabit its environs” (Palmerino 1). To extend this symbol into feminism, the fog symbolizes the patriarchal male; it is thick, grey and consumes the surface of the land just as the male consumes the female. The rain is Elisa; it is passive and does not come to confront fog just as the patriarchal female who submits to the male cannot confront him.

When Elisa is first described to us, she is completely unsexed: “her figure looked blocked and heavy,” and she wore a “man’s black hat pulled low down over her eyes” (Steinbeck 438). It is interesting to note that she while this description does not focus on her feminine characteristics, it does show that she is gardening, tending to her flowers, which is an ultimate symbol of femininity. Contradicting this feminine symbol is the way in which Elisa gardens; she has strong hands and uses “over-powerful scissors” (Steinbeck 439). These descriptions are adjectives that are used to describe the traditional male, showing a conflict within Elisa. She mentions that her mother had a gift for gardening which she has as well. Perhaps Elisa only gardens because she thinks she should, just as her mother did, but she goes about it in a traditional male way. She doesn’t nurture the flowers; she is strong and uses powerful scissors to “destroy the pests” (Steinbeck 439). Elisa also cleans the house so that it is immaculate: “It was a hard-swept house with hard-polished windows, and a clean mud mat on the front steps” (Steinbeck 439). She completes her feminine duties, but does so in an unfeminine manner; she is not nurturing and...

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