In the second month of autumn in 1937 a short story by John Steinbeck ‘Chrysanthemums’ was published in Harper’s Magazine. It was not serene and stable times but on the contrary, the elections of the President were just held and Franklin D. Roosevelt gained his position of the Head of the country for the second time. The Great Depression laid its grave mark on the economy of the United States and both hardly started to recover. Significant changes touched upon a social sphere as well, meaning that now it was time for women to emerge as equal members of the male-predominating society. Francis Perkins was the first one to be a female Secretary of Labour in American government; however, a formal liberation of woman did not mean that all women gained freedom in reality. Most of them still struggled for the right to be accepted as deeply rooted traditional institutions were not ready to such drastic changes.
On the background of these historical events John Steinbeck wrote his story ‘Chrysanthemums’ where through the main character Elisa Allen the struggle of women on the whole to reach equality was portrayed. The protagonist by her nature is a capable and strong woman, but these valuable qualities are step by step erased from her character by constant reminding that she is a married woman and must behave as representatives of her gender are supposed to behave. She has no ability to express herself either socially, sexually or personally.
Steinbeck skillfully showed the woman trapped in the men’s world, where any endeavor to stand out from the crowd to achieve liberation was seen as something immoral by the society.
Elisa’s journey has begun long before a reader gets acquainted with her – she has started her own way the moment she bonded herself with marriage. The author presents the audience only the part of this long journey. From the very beginning we observe an evidently frustrated woman. Dark colours and ‘heavy’ adjectives are used to describe her state: Elisa herself is portrayed as ’blocked and heavy’ wearing heavy ‘manly’ shoes and gloves with an apron hiding her dress (Steinbeck). The reader can trace vivid men’s influence imprinted on the house as such epithets as ‘hard-polished’ and ‘hard-swept’ emerging in description are considered as purely masculine. These stylistic devices are meant to convey the image of Elisa trapped in the traditional role of the housewife, being unhappy and thus left with the only opportunity to express her abilities in doing masculine things.
The first important point to look into is the location where the scene takes place. The story opens with the words: ‘The high gray-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world’ and the reader from the very beginning becomes aware of the topic the author wants to expose (Steinbeck). The whole sentence can be seen as absolutely symbolic, where the fog represents gender stereotypes, the Salinas Valley represents the women’s society and the ‘rest of the world’ is the men’s world where everything is permitted. It is interesting to note that the motif of fog can be traced throughout the whole story and the fact that it does not disperse indicates that Elisa as the representative of the women’s society has not achieved anything in her struggles, and still has to subdue to the existing orders.
Though always reminded where her place was, Elisa manages to react to every single fluctuation in the men’s society. Here an important locus emerges, which plays part as a reminder for the main heroine what her aim is. It is a garden where Elisa grows chrysanthemums. Giving that gardening was considered a purely manly occupation, the protagonist’s attachment to it can be translated as a kind of the rebellion, one more struggle to tear the chains apart the chains of stereotypes imposed on the society. This thought can be confirmed by the illustration of one of the fragments from the story. As Elisa spends so much time with her flowers, it is very pleasing for her to hear her husband’s appraisal, when he comments on her ‘strong’ crop of chrysanthemums. Deep inside the woman feels elated not only because her husband’s recognition, but also by the word he uses to describe her work. ‘Strong’ is typically associated with men’s qualities; it is contrasted to the word ‘weak’ when applied to women. In other words, Elisa is pleased that her husband, even though unconsciously, confirmed her right to do things on a par with the other sex. However, in a second he offers to go to the town in the evening, reviving again the necessity to behave ‘womanly’. Elisa goes back into the garden to continue with her ‘manly’ chrysanthemums again.
As the story develops we see Elisa rushing about between the two roles – the first one feminine is expected to be taken on and followed and the second one, the masculine is her response to men’s resistance to accept the fact of equality of genders. Taking into consideration this point of view, it can be claimed that Elisa above all experienced a psychological and spiritual journey in effort to contradict her natural ego as a woman, intensified by the necessity to obey socially accepted gender stereotypes. This is also supported by the fact that Elisa fights inwardly and shows almost no bright physical signs of her resistance. Her tears, taking a bath and occupation with chrysanthemums are not perceived as something extraordinary by surrounding men, because they never show a sign of compassion and an effort to understand women. In other words, they are concentrated on their own personalities. The woman remains lonely like all the other ones of her race as she understands what females condemn themselves to when getting married.
Thus, Elisa Allen who represents the women’s society on the whole, clearly realizes the horror of her submissive position but she has no power to change anything because of spending too much time being frustrated by the society where males dominate and dictate what rules women must obey. Generally, the woman is supposed to be passive and capable of nothing. With this story Steinbeck described a typical order of things in the society of the late 1930’s when so desperately desired gender equality and liberation was bound to admit defeat. The author presented a bleak, monotonous life of the women who were never to be understood by males and thus, remained like that cut out from the outer world the Salinas Valley.
John Steinbeck. ‘The Chrysanthemums’. 09 December 2013.
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