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In a work of literature, it becomes difficult to conceptually understand a piece without viewing all aspects and underlying meanings. The novel “The Chrysanthemums” is the main topic for the essay. Here I would like to unfold topic sections that can be set up to illuminate that the relationship of Henry and Elisa paralleled to a society with the injustice of the inability to treat a woman as an equal.
The Chrysanthemums was published in 1937, by an American male writer. When teaching this work of literature, I’d begin with the context behind it. In the 1930s, the United States was under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt and undergoing end of The Great Depression, social and political catastrophe. “It was a time of quiet and of waiting”. Organized movements for women suffrage remained small and relatively weak, although it was the beginning the recovery from “the worst economic downturn in US History”. History is relative to the story because protagonist, Elisa Allen, is a woman that is given little to no attention as she was conveyed to be a wife living in the shadow of her husband, Henry Allen. The main characters are highly interpellated into their roles in society, Elisa is tending to her chrysanthemums while her husband is dealing with businessmen, matters that women were not to be involved with. The Chrysanthemums is based off of a society that has little to no respect for the value of a woman, a society that believes women are for taking care of the house and for tending the needs of her children. Through the relationship of Elisa and Henry, Steinbeck is able to convey a sense of what America was like socially during the 1930s, a society with an inequality of gender.
Following teaching the history of the 1930s, I’d illuminate more information about our characters. Beginning with Henry Allen, he was Elisa’s husband and a successful businessman, “Across the river, on Henry Allen’s foothill ranch there was little work to be done…”. He’s kind and respectful to Elisa, he provides her with dinners, compliments her beauty and her gardening work as she tends to her chrysanthemums. Although being very kind to her, he doesn’t genuinely value Elisa due to societies traditional view of male dominancy. He can’t fathom to expect anything more from her other than taking care of the home and her garden, which is why he doesn’t understand her dissatisfaction with their relationship. Henry also disregards her personal desires and emotional needs. He ignores her desire of having children and doesn’t give her the proper attention she longs for, to which Elisa fills that void through other interactions in the story.
Following context, I’d begin to acknowledge the setting. The setting is directly described in the first paragraph of the story, “The high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world”. In other words, it takes place on a ranch located in the Salinas Valley, California, specifically in the winter, midafternoon. In the 1930s many fled to California to find new land to settle on for newfound riches. The setting is described to be isolated, depressing and “a closed pot”. The imagery of the setting foreshadows a closed role in society. Going back to the context of the story, this was a time that women received no opportunities. Elisa is isolated within her role in society as she has limited mobility in her relationship and a closed sense of hope for the attention she longs for.
Elisa Allen is an attractive woman, but the reader gets no sense of femininity. ‘Elisa Allen, working in her flower garden, looked down across the yard and saw Henry, her husband, talking to two men in business suits’. When introduced into the story, we can conclude that she’s a person of a shy, quiet and curious nature who could also be considered to be a hard-working woman, but is overlooked because she’s a woman, and the wife of a farmer. “She was thirty-five. Her face lean and strong and her eyes clear as water. Her figure blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man’s black hat pulled down over her eyes…”. As Jane Smiley once said, “I am thirty-five years old, and it seems to me that I have arrived at the age of grief. Others arrive there sooner. Almost no one arrives much later. I don’t think it is years themselves, or the disintegration of the body. Most of our bodies are better taken care of and better-looking than ever. What it is, is what we know, now that in spite of ourselves we have stopped to think about it. It is not only that we know that love ends, children are stolen, parents die feeling that their lives have been meaningless. It is not only that, by this time, a lot of acquaintances and friends have died, and all the others are getting ready to sooner or later”. Elisa is at the peak of her life not only physically, but mentally and sexually and is no longer at an age of youth but she’s also not on the verge of her death. On the account of her physical attire, the labor she is doing, and the way her husband inadequately compliments her, the reader is drawn to conclude that she is a woman of male psychic. Elisa is ambitious, when her husband compliments her garden work and jokes about her being able to work on the orchard, she quickly grows enthused but just as quickly, loses interest when she changes the subject. Henry is incapable of understanding her interests and dismisses the idea as he doesn’t believe a woman can do such a masculine job. She thirsts for independence, freedom and self-expression. The relationship that Henry and Eliza illuminated the conflict of male dominancy in society as their genders depict their roles in society. Eliza is uninterested and frustrated with her relationship with her husband, she has no children or romantic attention. She’s displeased with the role in life that she’s living.
The Tinkerer is physically, directly characterized in the story, “Elisa saw that he was a very big man. Although his hair and his beard were greying, he did not look old”. He’s uneducated, poor and dirty. He travels to repair the broken household items of others. Indirectly, he is characterized as manipulative and dishonest, “The laughter had disappeared from his face and eyes the moment that his laughing voice ceased. His eyes were dark, and they were filled with the brooding that gets in the eyes of teamsters and of sailors”. As he interacts with Elisa, to solicit business his thoughts and actions become deceiving, only helping him to gain profit at the cost of manipulating her. As a man in society, he is allowed to freely attract customers and get what he wants through his lies, further enhancing the role of male dominancy in the 1930s.
Finally, to put context and characterization together, I’d finish by explaining the plot through quotes in the story. The fence suggests that her husband is protecting “her flower garden from the cattle and dogs and chickens” meaning her husband doesn’t believe that she is capable of dealing with the life of a “man’s” world, emphasizing her isolation and the division between a man and a woman’s world. The fence houses Eliza’s chrysanthemums. This important because in the beginning the reader understands that she is married without children. She tends her garden as if she were to tend her children, but the garden starts to change symbolically further down the piece, representing sexuality and femininity. The Tinker compliments her garden, to which she takes it to heart with great joy because she values her chrysanthemums as a mother would value her children. The Tinker grows comfortable in the conversation and Elisa grows out of the limitations of her marriage and becomes eager since she’s getting the attention she’s been thirsting for. “She tore off the battered hat and shook off her dark pretty hair”, after being described with such masculinity, the Tinker is unraveling this hidden femininity within her, just because he has displayed an interest in her garden. “She was kneeling on the ground looking up at him. Her breasts swelled passionately” the interaction that she’s having with the tinker is releasing a sexual passion that her husband has been neglecting. “I’ve never lived as you do, but I know what you mean…” Elisa is so excited and caught up in the sexual moment that she gets a feeling of epiphany after talking to the Tinker. “In the bathroom she tore off her soiled clothes and flung them into the corner. And then she scrubbed herself with a little block of pumice, legs and thighs, loins and chest and arms, until her skin was scratched and red”. This quote suggest that she has hope in seeing change in her life, she’s scrubbing her old identity off as she prepares to go to dinner and a movie with her husband. She presumes that Henry will finally fulfil her needs and she hopes that she will finally be valued the way she would like to be. After getting ready to go out with her husband things take a turn for the worst, “Far ahead on the road Eliza saw a dark speck. She knew”. Eliza now knows that she has been deceived, she returns to a realistic view of life and forgets her moment of excitement. She now realizes and accepts that she’ll never be able to break tradition in a male oriented society.
To end up, Elisa suffers from the oppression she feels from the traditional male dominated community. Teaching The Chrysanthemums in sections including, context, setting and plot can help develop a better understanding of why she felt such frustration, with her husband herself and with society.
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