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Essay on ‘The Chrysanthemums’: Short Story Analysis

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In Literature, symbols are used in order to produce impact and accomplish additional meaning to the story. In stories there is normally always some symbolic meaning behind the authors writing, this reflects the purpose for writing the piece. In his short story “The Chrysanthemums,” John Steinbeck uses symbols to represent the main character, Elisa Allen, who struggles in living in a ‘man’s world.’ The struggles that Elisa Allen experiences relate to the oppression of women, this is when women were being unjustly held back from achieving full equality for much of human history.

In “The Chrysanthemums,” Elisa Allen is unhappy with the traditional female role and experiences this struggle that limits her to gardening and holds her captive to her wifely duties. Readers see that Elisa keeps a neat house, “with hard-polished windows, and a clean mud-mat on the front steps.” (pp.227) This points to the fact that Elisa is a simple housewife, that keeps up with her duties. While Elisa is working in her flower garden, surrounded by a wire fence, her gardening style takes on a masculine perceptive. Gardening is a symbol of her trying to find her own strength. This is the manliest thing she is able to do. The way she is gardening is described as “over-eager” and “over-powerful,” and her fingers are described as “strong.” (pp227) Steinbeck then uses the wire fence as a symbol for keeping Elisa protected from a ‘man’s world.’ This fence symbolizes a boundary, and as long as she stays inside the fence and does her wifely duties, she is doing what a woman of that time is supposed to do. These symbols show readers that Elisa is bound to this lifestyle. Although she is fully capable of doing manly work, she is held back. For example, her husband mentions “I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big.” She replies, “Maybe I could do it,” but Henry dismisses it and says, “well it sure works with flowers” (pp227) His dismissal of her saying shows again that she, as a woman, should not do a man’s job. The symbols Steinbeck uses, reinforce the fact that Elisa is stuck in an unhappy life, unable to have more out of it.

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The oppression of women was, and in some places still is, a problem where women face being unable to achieve full equality. This can be seen in Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums,” through Elisa Allen’s struggle with being overlooked as a woman. Steinbeck uses symbols like the discarded flowerpot, Henry Allen’s actions towards his wife, and Elisa herself to enhance how she was overlooked in her life. The author makes a point to show readers the chrysanthemum’s importance to Elisa, especially when talking with the tinker. The tinker later throws the flower pot that had the chrysanthemums she gave him. The discarded flowerpot symbolizes how she feels discarded. She is overlooked for being “just a housewife” she takes on the feeling of being lesser, and she loses a sense of strength when she sees the discarded flowerpot. This can also symbolize how she feels discarded and overlooked by her husband. Elisa seems bored with her husband and life, mainly because Henry Allen overlooks his wife. This can be seen in Elisa’s preparation for their evening. She starts by cleaning herself “until her skin is scratched and red,” (pp231) There is a sense of strength being shown from the level of scrubbing Elisa does to herself. She then dresses in her best dress which is a “symbol of her prettiness,” (pp231) because she wants to see herself as feminine and wants her husband to recognize that as well. She also would like Henry to recognize the amount of dressing up she has done for their evening. When Henry sees her he does not really comment on the amount of work she put in, and has a hard time even complimenting her. This shows, again, she is overlooked, and this struggle she faces drives her to feel unimportant in her life with Henry.

Through his use of symbols, Steinbeck is able to help readers really understand how his characters are feeling. In his short story “The Chrysanthemums,” John Steinbeck uses symbols to represent the main character, Elisa Allen, who struggles in living in a ‘man’s world.’ When doing this he makes not only a statement of the time, he is able to relate this to his female readers struggling with oppression. Readers see the use of symbols to where Elisa Allen is being “thrown out” and she loses strength and hope. She is reminded over and over that she is limited to being a housewife, and oppression is a very real thing she deals with. The symbols allow Steinbeck to bring deeper meaning to his story, and through this deeper meaning, readers can find his pieces of work to be more powerful.

Work Cited:

  1. Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing, edited by X. J. Kennedy, et al., 14th ed., Pearson, 2020, pp226-232
  2. Maiti, Article Author: Abhik, et al. “A Story of Repressed Feminism: Exploring Steinbeck’s Women Characters with Special Reference to ‘The Chrysanthemums’.” EA Journals, 2017, Pp1-14

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