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Literary Criticism of John Steinbecks The Chrysanthemums

Importance of Criticism

To fully appreciate literature, we must look at it from every angle possible. There are many ways to criticize a piece of literature. Each way helps a reader to better understand the work in its own different way. I hope to outline and give examples of the many different ways that the short story The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck can be interpreted.
The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck

One morning an energetic housewife named Elisa Henry is working busily in her garden, watching in secret interest as her husband sells cattle to another man. When a peddler drives up to her gate, she is intrigued by the peddler’s lifestyle. She talks to him and he mentions chrysanthemums, and she eagerly gives him a few chrysanthemums in a bright new pot. She gives him some pots to fix and they talk about his life. When he goes on his way, she feels decidedly more powerful. She cleans and dresses herself for a date with her husband. When they are driving on the road she sees a spot that she knows must be her discarded chrysanthemum gift. She then resigns to being her old self and weeps like an old woman.

Moral/Intellectual Criticism

When using the Moral/Intellectual criticism, the analyst approaches the content and values of the story. The intent of the Moral/Intellectual approach is to find the underlying message and/or lesson that is in the story. The message or lesson that is found in the work can then be applied to either the main character or the reader.

In The Chrysanthemums, John Steinbeck intends to suggest that women are not equal to men in society. Elisa experiences this when she is not able to participate in male-oriented activities that her husband takes part in. Elisa, the woman, is thus a lesser person because of her gender. It leads me to believe that myself along with all other women may not be suitable for certain kinds of work.

Topical/Historical Criticism

When using the Topical/Historical criticism, the analyst approaches the literature in relation to the time period when the work was either written or when the story took place. The criticism helps to link the social world of the time period to the work. The criticism may also approach the author’s history and compare the work to that.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s, women were oppressed and held under a glass ceiling in both their career goals and home life. The women were not held in the same respect as men were. John Steinbeck lived and wrote the story The Chrysanthemums in this time period. The ailments of women greatly affected the way John Steinbeck wrote this and other stories.

New Critical/Formalist

When using the New Critical/Formalist criticism, the analyst approaches the text, exploring and explaining it. The technical aspect of the work is under scrutiny in this type of criticism, and also how the author succeeds in using whatever is being analyzed.

John Steinbeck’s development of Elisa in the short story The Chrysanthemums is very clear and concise. In the beginning she is seen as a hard-working housewife, and nothing more. After she meets the peddler she is empowered, and seems more dignified and dominant in her world. However, when she sees her discarded chrysanthemums, she is reduced down to a sobbing, helpless woman. John Steinbeck makes each change in the characters behavior large and direct, allowing for full character development within a few pages.


When using the Stucturalist criticism, the analyst approaches the work and compares the patterns that appear in all other types of work. The characters in the story can be easily identified as either a protagonist or an antagonist. The criticism can be used to look at the character and his activities, and whether or not he was successful in his journeys. The criticism can be used to compare the similarities of the work to other works.

In The Chrysanthemums, John Steinbeck chooses to make the main character Elisa a passive protagonist who takes life as it is given to her. She makes no real attempt to escape the monotony of her housewife duties. In a similar circumstance, an active protagonist might stand up for herself and be rid of the dullness in her life. However, Elisa does not do so and therefore does not pass her test. She must as a result live out the rest of her life in oppression because of her lack of courage.


When using the Feminist criticism, the analyst is trying to show how a woman in the story is dominated by a male or by a male supremacy in general. The work is approached by finding the fault against the woman character or entity and condemning the act of oppression.

As a simple housewife in the story The Chrysanthemums, Elisa Henry is neglected. Her talents remain unnoticed due to her gender. When she meets the peddler, she feels empowered and as though she knows that she can do anything that a man can. When she saw the chrysanthemums that she gave the peddler thrown away to the side of the road, she is broken down and is forced back into her life of tediousness. John Steinbeck draws attention away from her talent with flowers by breaking down her sturdy facade and replacing it with a feeble one.


When using the Psychological/Psychoanalytic criticism, the analyst approaches the reason behind the character’s actions. This approach finds the motive behind the action by analyzing the character’s circumstance and personality.

In the short story The Chrysanthemums, Elisa is subject to being submissive as a part of her lifestyle. When Elisa begins to feel powerful, she is all too easily shot down by seeing her discarded chrysanthemums. Had she truly believed in her mind that she was as capable as any man, such a sight might only enrage her – not distress her. Elisa’s only escape from oppression lies in her mind, if only she believed in her self and her abilities.

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