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Character Analysis in 'The Chrysanthemums' by John Steinbeck

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To the casual eye, the story “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck, is about a woman named Elisa Allen who has a green thumb for her well-taken care of the garden. However, when an individual dedicates the time to analyze this short story, one can infer that it goes far beyond a relationship between a woman and her garden on a much deeper level. From portraying the efforts of how a woman tries to fit into a male-dominated society along with traces of patriarchy, Elisa struggles to obtain power. John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” is analysed in this essay. The paper shows how throughout the story, Elisa attempts to figure out her role in such a patriarchal society. Elisa achieves this by being able to show her growth through specific scenarios that happened in her life and thus, allowing the readers to understand that uncovering oneself will allow them to further develop.

With this in mind, Elisa is the protagonist and a dynamic character, meaning she undergoes internal changes due to the conflicts that she faces in the duration of the story. Her appearance is quite relevant when pertaining to the internal changes because she tries to protect herself from giving in to her own needs and wants. She is first introduced when wearing “her gardening costume, a man’s black hat pulled low over her eyes, clod-hopper shoes…”. With an outfit that makes “her figure look[ed] blocked and heavy” it simply means that she is shielding her femininity away from the world. By wearing “heavy leather gloves to protect her hands’ she is also protecting herself from society’s harsh judgment due to the fact that she can cease her presence in it and hide her vulnerability. Elisa takes pride in her garden along with caring for it, but these thick gloves do not allow her to physically come in contact with her flowers and/or plants. This can be viewed as her happiness, represented by the flowers, which are kept well-hidden. Wanting to feel joyous and allowing oneself differs from one another and in this case, Elisa does not allow herself to feel this strong emotion that she yearns for or any other for that matter. Elisa’s sacred garden with “the chrysanthemums have been interpreted as symbols of Elisa’s sexuality, or childlessness, or artistic sensibility, and all of these connections make sense when looking at Elisa’s connections to her husband or to society”. These connections of hers make up who as well as how she is. When looking at just the surface of Elisa’s characteristics, it just seems like she is a regular woman who loves to garden. No one would come to think that her garden symbolizes what she is longing for. To go along with the story starting off with a description of Elisa’s appearance, Steinbeck also vividly describes the setting for the readers to visualize in their minds. She keeps her guard up just like how the “high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world”. For Elisa to grow, she needs to be able to let her guard down. However, seeing as how Elisa is impenetrable like fog whereas rain is symbolized as growth, “fog and rain did not go together”. Rain is needed for growth and nourishment within a garden, but in this case, Elisa must be willing to let her guard down to be able to feel the emotions that are presented right in front of her to flourish like her garden when she takes care of them.

Additionally, not only does she not let herself feel joy, but she is also closed off to her own husband, Henry. Referring to how the garden is a symbolization of Elisa, the author mentions Henry “leaning over the wire fence that protected her flower garden”. This wire fence captures the true inner essence of who Elisa is. Wanting to protect herself, she is the only one who gets to enter her garden and all of its beauty. Not even her husband, Henry, dares to enter because, like a fence, Elisa keeps people out and feelings out with her thick gloves. She does not want to open up to the idea of letting people in and invading her personal space. Although, Henry’s and Elisa’s relationship with each other is quite unique, “Oppression” seems too strong a word for the ways in which Elisa is subdued by her life as Henry’s wife, yet clearly she is limited in ways that frustrate her”. For instance, although they are married, she will never reveal her true feelings to him. Moreover, he patronizes her with “going in town about five and have dinner at the Cominos Hotel. Like that?”. Rather than asking her what she wants to do, he directly tells her and does not give her any choice but to go along with the plans he had already made. Traditional gender roles partake in their relationship because Henry is the man when they are within the outside perimeter of the house yet when they are inside of the house, Elisa becomes the “man” of the house. Transitioning from the yard and/or garden to when Henry was telling Elisa the plan to the inside of the house, Elisa tells him “there’s hot water for your bath. Hurry up. It’s getting late”. This fits right into traditional gender roles because women are always seen taking care of their husbands while their husbands are off providing for the family, such as when Henry “sold those thirty head of three-year-old steers. Got nearly my own price, too”. He is out trying to make a living to provide for himself and Elisa while she takes care of the household chores which also includes the yard work. Despite the fact that he is a simple man, his relationship with Elisa makes her feel oppressed, especially when he “wish[es] [Elisa would] work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big”. She hides her inner emotions and subjects to unjust impositions just like when Henry mentions the apples. She tends to please everyone around her but herself.

Furthermore, Henry was not the only male character to exist in the text. A tinker was introduced towards the middle-end of the story. Elisa’s interaction with this man revealed relatively a lot. Notwithstanding the fact that she is married, she gets along with the tinker right away. With each sentence spoken, the story reveals bits and pieces of Elisa’s true personality and who she really is. This is a completely different interaction than with Henry considering how “Elisa took off her gloves” as well as “touching the under edge of her man’s hat, searching for fugitive hairs’. Her hair displays her feminine side and moreover, her taking off her gloves presents Elisa with the opportunity of feeling all the sensations of emotions and all that life has to offer because she finally has the “ability” to touch. The chrysanthemums are her uttermost pride and joy so when the tinker takes interest in them, her “eyes grew alert and eager’. By permitting the tinker to “[come] through the picket fence,” he also enters her world, thus gaining her trust. She is revealing her innermost self to him, which is why this leads to her removing her hat as well. This would explain how Elisa is finally submerging herself into life’s simplicity of joy and is blooming like her flowers. While this interaction allowed her to enjoy herself without any care, it also unveils the harsh reality of women’s power and choices in society being dominated by men. Previously mentioned, a woman’s choice and/or power in society is not being taken seriously when Elisa mentions, “I wish women could do such things” referring to sleeping in the wagon. Immediately, the tinker dismisses that thought by declaring how “it ain’t the right kind of a life for a woman”. Keeping in mind how this story was published post-depression and during the rekindling of the feminist movement, in the article, “The Chrysanthemums” by Cynthia Bily, she states that “woman and nature are dominated by men in similar ways, and that women’s connections to nature can be a source of strength”. Elisa gains her strength through her garden, hence, how it embodies her whole being. She is diminished because the men in this story hold power over her. They do not realize that all she ever wanted was to feel appreciated. Due to Henry not understanding her as a person and the tinker tossing the chrysanthemums, she feels rather frustrated or otherwise stated, powerless.

Last but not least, there were many objects and/or symbols that contribute to the theme of this story. The main object was the chrysanthemums, hence the title. The chrysanthemums represented Elisa because they are contained in a garden just as how she is limited with her options to obtaining freedom. Flowers do bloom so there may be a chance for Elisa to finally taste the ever so sweet independency. Another object that stood out to me was the dogs because Elisa’s dogs represented her, whereas the tinker’s dogs stand as a symbol for him. Seeing as how Elisa’s dogs were stronger than his, she was superior to him because of her wits and intelligence. However, the tinker remained superior because he charmed her out of fifty cents and left with his unharmed dogs. Clothing also plays a big part in relation to the theme because, in the beginning, she was dressed in her gardening outfit, then took off some articles of clothing when she met the tinker to finally getting properly dressed with makeup on towards the end. Each outfit change showcased each of her distinct “sides” as in the dress and makeup showing her feminine side and her undressing after her interaction with the tinker giving her a new profound sense of growth. Last but not least, the pots are the last important object and/or symbol. The tinker tossing the chrysanthemums and only keeping the pot made Elisa angry. In this situation, the pot symbolizes Elisa because it is objectified and proves how easily men can manipulate women to satisfy their own selfish needs. From this, the reader can infer that Elisa is strong because she is crying out of frustration rather than sadness. Her tears and/or that are seeping out illustrates water, giving her what she needs to grow. Her once contained feelings are also known as the pot is now set free and can now find out her own pursuit of happiness.

To conclude, “The Chrysanthemums” provides the readers with an extraordinary perspective on the meaning of life. Through Elisa’s eyes, to truly gain new insight on life, one has to fully be exposed to the raw emotions and experiences of what life has to offer. Not only do individuals get the pleasure of embracing the joyful emotions, but they also have to endure through the painful ones as well. Growing involves meeting people and letting them into one’s life to further expand their knowledge and capabilities of handling emotions. To go along with that idea, meeting people and opening up to them is a way for them to learn through one another, thus further developing who they are as a person. Though granting the tinker to into her world, she got hurt ultimately in the end. However, if she did not experience the deception from him, she would not have had the chance to expand outside of her personal bubble and learn from her mistakes and/or rejection. Allow oneself to experience the true essence of life through opening up to others and maturation. 

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Character Analysis in ‘The Chrysanthemums’ by John Steinbeck. (2023, February 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from
“Character Analysis in ‘The Chrysanthemums’ by John Steinbeck.” GradesFixer, 11 Feb. 2023,
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