In a society where the male gender is perceived as greater than the female gender, there exist some women who believe that they too can be greater just like the men and even be better to them. In today’s society, women are to some extent seen to be limited in reference to where they can go and what they can do while men on the other hand, have no restrictions in their actions and places they can visit. There are careers, subjects, hobbies, cars, name them that are attached to either the feminine side or the masculine side and there is no way that they can interchange. In the story ‘’The Chrysanthemums’’ by John Steinbeck`s Elisa gets a direct picture of a world dominated by men. This paper will show that at the end of the story, Elisa has a troubling breakdown simply because she has succumbed to a society she cannot hope to change.
At the beginning of the story, Elisa is pictured as a self-assured woman who puts on male outfit to conceal her feminine look and appear masculine. This is because Elisa knows very well that the society she lives within is a ‘man society’ and the only way people can listen to her and respect what she does is when she appears masculine. She wears the masculine clothing as a shield, to safeguard her from the discriminative society where women are perceived as the weaker sex while the men are the stronger sex (Tomberger, Dangl and Fend 124). In the society Elsa lives in, women are not valued or acknowledged for their actions thus have to work extra hard and at times even harder than the men do in order to be recognized. The women in the society Elisa is in are limited to the home where she lives and the garden where Elisa works daily. The women work extra hard and are not recognized at all while the men work less than the women with no limitations yet they are appreciated and recognized more compared to women.
Elisa’s thwarting is clearly seen when she is first introduced in the story. John Steinbeck describes her figure as “blocked and heavy” due to the fact that she is wearing heavy gloves and shoes, a “man’s black hat,” and a big apron which she uses to conceal her dress. He also describes her home to as having male characteristics of being hard-swept and hard-polished (Palmerino 30). Elisa is fed up with her life and her husband too. Sweet sees Elisa as unhappy with the customary female position the society puts on women and tries to encompass her skills into masculine duties.
Elisa firstly responds to everything the way a man would, but is constantly prompted that she is a woman. Elisa is happy when her husband, Henry, comments about her “strong” chrysanthemum crop. This is because he uses the word “strong”, which is masculine but the husband goes ahead and recaps her of her femaleness by proposing to take her to dinner in the town later that evening. After talking with her husband, she continues with her masculine role of transplanting the flowers (Steinbeck 211).
Elisa’s next experience is with the tinker. Sweet sees the tinker as what Elisa was when comparing what the meat buyers were to Elisa’s husband, Henry. Elisa’s first reaction to the tinker is that of a man for the reason that she refuses to give him work (Palmerino 56). Nevertheless, Sweet argues that as the tinker talks, Elisa’s deliberate masculine struggles turn out to be more feminine. The tinker then pretends to be interested in Elisa’s chrysanthemums, which captures her attention by associating them with a quick draft of colored smolder. Elisa’s feminine side is seen when she removes her masculine gloves and hat. Elisa only shows interest in the tinker because he represents a world of adventure and freedom that is only privileged to men (Steinbeck 306). She then asks the tinker if women could do the work he does and the tinker responds that the particular kind of job was not fit for women. She does not receive his response well. She further inquires why the tinker thinks that women are not fit for that kind of work and the tinker says he does not know. At the end of the conversation, she tells the tinker that she too can sharpen scissors and thump dents out of pots just as the tinker who is a man does.
Elisa is disappointed that the tinker cannot give her a reason why women cannot do his work. Sweet argues that Elisa allows herself to be controlled by her emotions at what time she puts her masculine side aside while conversing with the tinker (Tomberger, Dangl and Fend 212). She realizes her feminine emotions rather too late when she cannot change, when her desires for equal opportunity are currently suffused in failure. Sweet goes ahead and puts it out that Elisa has allowed herself to become emotional, this is a characteristic seen in women while men on the other hand do not mix their emotions with business (Palmerino 213). As a result, Elisa recognizes that her optimism for gender equality is just but a mere dream. This is because she has been deceived by her nature and by men. She gives up and goes ahead to give the tinker the chrysanthemums and some pots to mend.
Immediately the tinker leaves, Elisa rushes back to the house to bathe. John Steinbeck describes how Elisa scrubs herself while bathing until her skin is scratched until it turns red. This shows that she is moving back to her feminine nature from the masculine nature she had adopted before (Tomberger, Dangl and Fend 275). While dressing, Elisa puts on her best underwear and puts on makeup, feminine actions, hoping to highlight her role as a woman (Steinbeck 56). Her husband sees change and accolades her with the feminine “nice” instead of the masculine “strong”. Elisa likes the use of the word strong, but its meaning has been altered from the masculine equivalent to feminine overlord (Palmerino 213).
Elisa’s husband, Henry starts the car engine in preparation to going into town for dinner. Meanwhile, Elisa is in the house preparing herself for the evening dinner. On their way to town, Elisa sees the chrysanthemums she had given the tinker beside the road. She is disappointed but consoles herself that in as much as the tinker threw the chrysanthemums away; he had at least kept the red pot that they had been put in (Tomberger, Dangl and Fend 212). The flowers thrown by the tinker beside the road indicate Elisa’s last withdrawal back to femininity. Her hopes of gender equality are crushed making it hard for her to go back to who she was earlier. Therefore, she has to carry on with her typical societal role. Elsa’s only accessible goal is to become an old woman (Steinbeck 336). This is because she has resumed her feminine character, by remaining a deplorable casualty of male supremacy and female shortcoming (Palmerino 306).
The story depicts Elisa as a woman who suffers a relapse from the masculine character she views as equality to the feminine character she perceives as compliant. She is in constant frustration with the male-dominated society, which forces her to let go of her hopes for feminine liberty. Therefore, she has no choice but to be what society presumes her to be and all other women, which is being a submissive woman. Steinbeck depicts women in relation to his time-period as submissive. Elisa in this story represents the women in the 1930’s who turned out to be the envoy of the female ideal of equal opportunity and its unavoidable defeat (Steinbeck 213).
Women have always fought viciously for their liberation from feminine discrimination with no possible success. In the story “The Chrysanthemums,” the fight for gender equality is displayed through Steinbeck’s character Elisa Allen. 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. Elisa’s look, activities, and language portray the frustration felt by women within Steinbeck’s masculine world of the 1930’s. Without a doubt, when Elisa has a troubling breakdown at the end of the story, this happens because of total submission to a world she cannot hope to change.
Palmerino, Gregory. Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums”.(John Steinbeck) The Explicator, Spring, 2004, Vol.62(3), p.164(4). Web. 22 Sep. 2013.
Steinbeck, John. The Chrysanthemums. Logan, Iowa: Perfection Learning Corp, 2007. Print.
Tomberger, M, Ch Dangl, and K Fend. Feminist, Phenomenological and Psychoanalytic Approaches to “the Chrysanthemums” by John Ernst Steinbeck. München: GRIN Verlag GmbH, 2007. Web. 22 Sep. 2013.