The 1930’s was a period of empowerment for women. The Great Depression gave women a taste of what life would be like as strong, independent people. However, when the Great Depression came to an end life returned to the way things were. In American author John Steinbeck’s short story “The Chrysanthemums” (1938), he explores the life of a woman desperate for independence from a world run by men. Steinbeck uses symbolism to illustrate a woman’s search for fulfilment in a male dominated society. The description of the Salinas Valley is a direct symbol of Elisa’s isolation and unhappiness. The high gray-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from the rest of all the world.
On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made the great valley a closed pot” (Steinbeck 325). This closed pot suggests that Elisa is trapped in a world where she cannot see the end and has reached the ultimate point of frustration. She has isolated herself from her husband and society by desiring to be more than just a house wife. Steinbeck uses Elisa to illustrate the desire of achieving the American dream. Steinbeck was-and will likely remain-the preeminent American novelist of the Great Depression. No other writer has better exposed the dark underside of the American dream. At the same time, few novelists have matched his ability to celebrate the human hopes symbolized in that dream” (Shuman 1453).
Elisa hopes to par take in the American dream, however, due to society’s view on the role of a woman, she is forced to settle for less. The Salinas Valley also illustrates Elisa’s unhappiness. “On the foothill ranches across the Salinas River, the yellow stubble fields seemed to be bathed in pale cold sunshine, but there was o sunshine in the valley now in December” (Steinbeck 325). The definition of sunshine is, “something (as a person, condition, or influence) that radiates warmth, cheer, or happiness” (Merriamwebster. com). When a scene is described as without sunlight it suggests that the character is unhappy. Steinbeck describes the foothill ranches having plenty of sunshine, but in the valley, where Elisa is, there is nothing but cold, darkness. This describes her loneliness even further. Everyone around her is happy enjoying a blissful life, while Elisa is trapped in a life that is stagnant.
Elisa desires to live an adventurous life, but due to the societal views on the proper ways a woman should conduct herself, she is denied her dream. It is the desire to be independent in society and live the same life a man could live that drives her to isolation and frustration. She proves her independence when she addresses the tinker, “you might be surprised to have a rival some time. I can sharpen scissors, too. And I can beat the dents out of little pots. I could show you what a woman might do” (Steinbeck 330). Elisa believes she can be just as successful as a man.
The tinker replied however, “it would be a lonely life for a woman, ma’am, and a scary life too… ” (Steinbeck 330). This encounter is a prime example of the view society has on Elisa’s dream of being a successful independent woman. Women in this time are described as weak and unimportant and the strong character that Elisa is refuses to take it anymore. The chrysanthemums are another important symbol in understanding Elisa. Chrysanthemums are large plants that are difficult to care for. Elisa, however, pours herself into these plants each day.
She cares for these plants so tenderly, and it is this tender love and care that makes the reader understand that these chrysanthemums represent Elisa’s children, or lack thereof. She planted them, raised them, and watched them die. She even protects them with anything she can. “She took off her glove and put her strong fingers down into the forest of new green chrysanthemum sprouts that were growing around the old roots. She spread the leaves and looked down among the close growing stems. No aphids were there, no sow bugs or snails or cutworms.
Her terrier fingers destroyed such pests before they could get started” (Steinbeck 326). She protected them as if they were her own children, in a way that no harmful “insect” would even dare to try. Also, when you mention her chrysanthemums her face lights up just like a proud mother would at the mention of her child. Elisa wants nothing to do with the tinker when he arrives, and is frustrated with his presence. However, the moment the tinker mentions the chrysanthemums everything about Elisa softens. “I’m sorry,’ Elisa said irritably.
I haven’t anything for you to do. ‘… What’s with them plants ma’am? ‘ the irritation and resistance melted from Elisa’s face. ‘Oh, those are chrysanthemums, giant whites and yellows. I raise them every year, bigger than anybody around here” (Steinbeck 328). She takes so much pride in these flowers that the reader cannot help but make the connection that these chrysanthemums she raises symbolize her children. This interpretation of this symbol is favored by many. “The chrysanthemums are symbolic of her children, and she is very proud of them.
When Elisa’s husband compliments her on her flowers, she is proud, and ‘on her face there [is] a little smugness’ (240). She is happy and pleased by her ability to nurture these beautiful flowers. Elisa’s pride in her ability to grow such beautiful flowers reinforces the fact that the flowers are a replacement for her children” (Kassim). In this time period the role of a woman is to have and care for the children. Elisa does not have any children of her own so she pours that energy into her gardening. It would make sense as a reader to infer that this may be the cause of her desperate search for herself.
She physically cannot fit the mold that society has created for her so she searches for a new life style that will suit her needs and desires. This could be a direct link to her frustration and desire to be a strong independent woman-independent from society, her disappointing husband, and her children she could not conceive. Finally, the last symbol that is important to address is the pot. A pot is a yonic symbol that represents Elisa’s body. The tinker sweet talks Elisa by complimenting her chrysanthemums, and even goes on to explain to Elisa that a customer of his is in need of a chrysanthemum plant. Look. I know a lady down the road a piece, has got the nicest garden you ever seen. Got nearly every kind of flower but no chrysanthemums… she said to me, ‘If you ever run acrost some nice chrysanthemums I wish you’d try and get me a few seeds” (Steinbeck 329).
After hearing this Elisa became ecstatic; she was so excited to share her chrysanthemums with someone who cares. She explains to the tinker how nurture these chrysanthemums. She gives him detail after detail of the proper way to show these plants love, and then sends him off with a flower pot full of chrysanthemums. I’ll put them in a flower pot, and you can take them right with you” (Steinbeck 329). She began to prepare these chrysanthemums with the intention that the tinker would take care of them. With each chrysanthemum placed inside that pot, the more of herself she was giving away.
That pot was her, a vessel carrying her very soul inside her. He takes this pot not fully understanding what this gift meant. The tinker misuses this gift of herself for his own personal gain. “… Elisa sees the discarded flowers on the road and realizes that the tinker had deceived her… e had merely used her to his own advantage” (Fiorelli 2210). He manipulated her to gain her service and did not have the decency to guard her from that truth. “He might have thrown them off the road. That wouldn’t have been much trouble, not very much. But he kept the pot… he had to keep the pot” (Steinbeck 332). He emptied her soul and threw it away without care. He kept the pot. He kept Elisa’s body: the gender role she is expected to fulfill in society. Women of this time were meant to be attractive and skin deep.
The tinker makes this evident when he manipulates Elisa to give him all of herself with the intention of using only one thing, her body. He threw out her intelligence, strength, and ambition to keep an empty vessel. It will most likely be sold again and again or to be used until it needs to be repaired- as if it was not already broken. “The Chrysanthemums” is more than a story about a woman on a farm. This story can transcend time with its relatable context and characters. Today there are cases of women who feel oppressed by the intimidating presence of men.
Elisa is not just a woman in the 1930’s. Elisa can be found in the work place, on the street, and especially in the home. She is the spirit of ambition that each woman has. The difference between Elisa and some women now is that Elisa’s voice was stifled by society. The United States has attempted to make all areas of society an equal playing field for both genders. However, there is still the idea in society that men are superior. I urge the public to put aside this bias and bury it. Women do not deserve to live the isolated, misunderstood, and vacant life Elisa was forced by society to live.