5 May 2002
Symbolism in "The Chrysanthemums"
In his story "The Chrysanthemums", written in 1938, Steinbeck introduces us with a woman, named Elisa, who is trying to obtain authority and control in a man's world. Elisa Allen struggles to characterize her position as a woman in a very close society. Her environment portrays the social depression, while the garden shows her power and masculine. Elisa has trouble extending this power outside the fence that surrounds her garden. She finally learns but not acknowledges that she possesses a fragile feminine power, not the masculine one she had attempted to attain. The symbols in setting and characters show the scope and nature of this empty society, and the chrysanthemums portray Elisa's existence and emptiness of her life. Those symbols can be found almost everywhere in this story, which takes place around the same time it was written, in Salinas Valley, California, during the wintertime.
The fog, in the beginning of the story, can be interpreted as something that can inhibit movement and sight, "sat like a lid on the mountains" (347). Moreover, the fog, like the close society, keeps things in step and restrained, like "a close pot". (347) Not only the
Elisa places a "wire fence to protect her flowers from cattle and dogs and chickens"(347). She sees a "bright direction"(90-95) and a new beginning of her marriage. "Her terrier fingers destroyed such pests before they could get started" (347). The fences, which surrounds Elisa's garden, her working environment, symbolize Elisa Allen to her life. As the tinker lives, Elisa starts to feel hope for herself and her marriage. The portrait of Elisa caring for her flowers as they were her children is strong feminine image, which interlace, in this story, with her masculine image. Henry's best compliment on her appearance after all her effort she put in order to look good is: "You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon" (100-105). Her devastation at this realization makes her "crying weakly-like an old women" (351) Steinbeck leaves the reader questioning the future for women, but Elisa's tears will not rid the valley of the fog, for as author tells us in the beginning, "fog and rain do not go together"(1-5). This one symbolic act has left her with no hope. Although, unlike her husband and the society he represents, Elisa shows us that at least she is trying to create something more than society dictates. The control and care for the chrysanthemums represent her own control and care for her individuality. The care she tends her garden with, also symbolizes her desire to have children and the frustration steams from not having them. After the tinker leaves, Elisa takes bath, scrubbing herself "with a little block of pumice, legs and thighs, loins and chest and arms, until her skin was scratched and red" (350). One can observe the masculine image in the way she dresses "Her figure locked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume"mans black hat"clodhopper shoes"She wore heavy leather gloves" (348), and in her "hard -swept and hard-polished" home (348). She prepares for her night out with her husband full of hope for a better, more exciting life.