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The Chrysanthemums, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Elisa’s Attire, Appearance, and Attitude in The Chrysanthemums

The Chrysanthemumsis a story about a middle-aged woman named Elisa Allen who feels physically, socially, emotionally and spiritually entrapped in a lifeless marriage and a barren setting. A pot mender comes along seeking to sell his services to her. This storyexplores the effects of isolation on Elisa,who mistakes the interest of a passing thinker for a true connection. The descriptions of her attire, appearance, and her attitude show the impact of her feelings of isolation, frustration, and ultimate distress.

The physical description of Elisa points to the greater richness and attractiveness of her lifestyle, though (as usual) not at first look. It is interesting to see how deliberate and congruent the list of her features: hair, eyes, clothes, hands, hats, dogs, and horses, etc., all clearly inviting and suggestive of the quality of her lifestyle.

She is dressed in mannish work clothes with a hat pulled over her eyes and clodhopper shoes (Steinbeck 23). However, if one looks under the hat one sees that her eyes “were as clear as water” and that her hair is dark and pretty (23). Underneath a corduroy apron, she is wearing “a figured print dress”; heavy work gloves cover and protect what one learns is the very symbol of her womanhood – her planter’s hands (23).

The conversation between Elisa and the pot menders shows her to be witty and humorous, the one who has had deeper, more complex experiences, though one would suspect nothing of this at firstsight. It is ironic that the passing, carefree tinker, “a very big man” (Steinbeck 25), is outshone so completely by some critics, andthey may easily foolanyoneinto believing is a dull ranch wife (McMahon 456). In particular, her superior wit and attitude are demonstrated in their exchange over the animals. After his dog moves away from her shepherds (“the dog lowered his tail, and retired under the wagon”), the pot mender jokes “that’s a bad dog in a fight when he gets started” (Sullivan 215). Elisa chuckles and cheerfully tops this with a rapid and witty reply: “I see he is. How soon does he generally get started?” (Steinbeck 206) A moment later, if offering instructions, Elisa expresses some supportive concerns about the ability of the pot mender’s team to cross a particular ford in the river. The man takes this friendly suggestion as an insult, reacting with “some asperity” as he retorts: “it might surprise you what them beasts can pull through” (Steinbeck 207). Instead of reacting in kind to the tinker, Elisa uses humor again to relieve the potential tension and recover a more neighborly atmosphere, echoing his previous words in a funny retort: “When they get started?” (Steinbeck 207) Her thoughtful response succeeds, eliciting a brief smile from the man. And then, instead of just letting him find out for himself the hard way, she again goes out of her way – without being offensive – to encourage himchange his route: “Well”, she said, “I think you’ll save time…pick up the highway there” (Steinbeck206).

Her richer life is also evidenced by her futile attempt to tell the pot mender about “planting hands” (Steinbeck 204) – her ability to nurture and give tender care to plants. She has “strong fingers” (204)and shows lots of power. Her efforts fail, as he seems incapable of appreciating such an experience. But when he begins to talk about his nights in the wagon, she quickly interrupts and shows that she has shared some of the feelings and experiences that might seem the unique realm of someone like the pot mender. And she uses words that reach and touch the stars: “I’ve never lived as you, but I know what you mean… It’s like that” (Simmonds 109). These words have become another will-o’-the-wisp for many critics who, with McMahon, persist that the “sexual implications” here are “instantly recognizable” (McMahon 457) and then pursue them through out the story. Certainly, one seems to be invited to recognize an erotic passion in these words. What becomes problematic, however, is how concentrated, obsessive, and excessive the emphasis on Elisa’s sexuality then becomes – as if that is all that makes her tick and all one should focus on if one really wants to understand and appreciate Elisa (Berman 235).

A comparison between the animals of the ranch and those of the pot mender also suggests the richness of Elisa’s life, while foreshadowing a productive future of her and a sterile one for the pot mender:a “crawling team” consisting of an old horse and a burro, which “dropped like un-watered flowers”, draws the pot mender’s wagon (Steinbeck 12-13). Crossbreeding of a horse and a burro produces a mule, which is sterile, suggesting the ultimate sterility of the pot mender’s life. His dog is a mongrel, nondescript, of undefined ancestry (Sullivan 216). This is also suggestive of the pot mender, who is never given a name. Elisa’s dogs, however, are a particular breed – shepherds; they are a team and their offspring will not be mongrels (Sullivan 216). And they are stronger than the mongrel, causing him to retreat, all of which symbolically point to Elisa’s richer, stronger life.

Works Cited

Berman, Jeffrey. Diaries to an English Professor: Pain and Growth in the Classroom. University of Massachusetts Press, 1994. Print.(http://books.google.com/books?id=jz5JeYHAiPwC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Berman,+Jeffrey.+Diaries+to+an+English+Professor:+Pain+and+Growth+in+the+Classroom.+University+of+Massachusetts+Press,+1994.+Print.&hl=en&ei=JL6pTr6YEsTprAfsn-2eDA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CC8Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false – go to page number 235 for detailed discussion on it. Also please remove this after reading it, as MLA does not require links anymore)

McMahon, Elizabeth. ‘“The Chrysanthemums’: A Study of a Woman’s Sexuality”. Modern Fiction Studies 14 (Winter 1968): 457-460.(http://www.enotes.com/chrysanthemums-criticism/chrysanthemums-john-steinbeck/elizabeth-e-mcmahan-essay-date-1968-69& You can find some of the pages in this link as well http://dev.prenhall.com/divisions/hss/marketing/english_central/media/section_3/volume_1/book_1/119.pdfplease remove this after reading it)

Simmonds, R. “The Original Manuscript of Steinbeck’s The Chrysanthemums”, Steinbeck’s Quarterly 7, no. 3-4 (Summer-Fall, 1974): 109. (Source: http://www.enotes.com/chrysanthemums-criticism/chrysanthemums-john-steinbeck/roy-s-simmonds-essay-date-1974)

Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums” in Foley Martha’s Fifty Best American Short Stories. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Amaranth Press, 1965. Print. (Source: www.worldcat.org/title/fifty-best-american-short-stories/oclc/51638978?referer=di&ht=edition)

Sullivan, Ernest. “The Cur in ‘The Chrysanthemums’”, Studies in Short Fiction, 16 (1975): 215-220. (Source: http://www.enotes.com/chrysanthemums/cur-chrysanthemums)

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