“The Chrysanthemums” : “The Chrysanthemums” Notes on the story John Steinbeck : John Steinbeck Born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California
Wrote about American working class poor, often agricultural laborers
First literary recognition includes:
The Red Pony (novel) 1933
Of Mice and Men (novel) 1937 John Steinbeck : John Steinbeck Most significant work: The Grapes of Wrath (novel) 1939
A displaced family migrates from Oklahoma to California
Themes: problems of migrant farm laborers, social protest, + survival through adversity
Steinbeck won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award and the Nobel Prize for Literature for The Grapes of Wrath. The Grapes of Wrath : The Grapes of Wrath In 1940, director John Ford's released his adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath.
The film had 7 Academy Award nominations, 2 wins: Best Supporting Actress (Jane Darwell) Best Director (John Ford). Henry Fonda (center) in The Grapes of Wrath. The Grapes of Wrath : The Grapes of Wrath The film begins with a historical prologue:
In the central part of the United States of America lies a limited area called 'The Dust Bowl,' because of its lack of rain.
Here drought and poverty combined to deprive many farmers of their land.
This is the story of one farmer's family, driven from their fields by natural disasters and economic changes beyond anyone's control and their great journey in search of peace, security, and another home. John Steinbeck : John Steinbeck Married 3 times, had 2 children with 2nd wife
Steinbeck was a private person who shunned publicity.
Later works include: Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl (1947), East of Eden (1952), Travels with Charley (1962).
Steinbeck died in New York City of heart disease,1968. Plot : Plot “The Chrysanthemums” Plot : Plot Explication: Story opens with Elisa and Henry both hard at work on their farm in the valley; interaction between husband & wife
Story of an unhappy marriage is typical of Steinbeck's fiction Plot : Plot Crises:
arrival of the tinker
his interest in the flowers
Elisa’s captivation with him
Elisa’s preparation for dinner Plot : Plot Climax:
Elisa sees the chrysanthemums and dirt discarded on the road:
“Far ahead on the road Elisa saw a dark speck. She knew.”
Elisa realizes she is not so strong, and she breaks down in weak tears ''like an old woman.'' Characters : Characters “The Chrysanthemums” Elisa : Elisa Elisa : Elisa Protagonist
35 years old
Lean and strong
Wears shapeless, functional clothes
Has no children
Has ''a gift'' for growing things
Isolated Elisa : Elisa Described as “having terrier fingers”
The tinker makes Elisa think about how limited her life is
She feels attracted to and aroused by the tinker
She “‘crouched low like a fawning dog’’ Elisa : Elisa Realizes that her opportunities for creative expression are limited
Her outlets are her “hard-swept” house and her garden
She senses that an important part of her is lying dormant and that the future will be predictable and rather mundane Elisa : Elisa When the tinker mentions taking some chrysanthemums to a woman down the road, Elisa feels energized and encouraged that her work and talent will be appreciated.
Elisa feels connected to a larger world beyond her isolated farm life. Elisa : Elisa She is devastated by the rejection of her flowers and realizes her future will be mundane and unremarkable.
She cries like an old woman - she sees herself growing old in the same isolated, stifling environment. (or is she already “old” in her own mind?)
Old woman: wise but non-sexual; weak; not useful on a farm Henry : Henry Henry : Henry Hard-working, successful small-scale rancher
Practical - does not fully understand Elisa’s desire to grow flowers
Appreciates function rather than beauty
Elisa asks his permission (“Can we…?”) Henry : Henry Polite but not intimate
Blundering; does not know how to compliment Elisa
Elisa hopes Henry will see how pretty she is, but he does not.
His compliment falls short of what Elisa needs:
You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon." Henry : Henry Concentration on his own role as provider, organizer, and decision-maker has blinded him to the fact that Elisa needs something more in her life than a neat house and a good garden The Tinker : The Tinker The Tinker : The Tinker Antagonist
To Elisa, the tinker is exotic and sexually attractive in an unkempt way
His eyes are "full of the brooding that gets in the eyes of teamsters and of sailors"
Represents freedom, connection with others that Elisa longs for but cannot have The Tinker : The Tinker He is a skilled salesman, extremely skillful at exploiting potential customers
immediately discerns Elisa's vulnerabilities
captures her sympathies by describing her flowers as looking "like a quick puff of colored smoke." The Tinker : The Tinker Like Henry, he values what is practical. He has saved the flowerpot, but tossed the flowers into the road
Is the tinker satisfied with his nomadic life? Or is he trapped in his wandering just as Elisa is trapped in her domestication?
Satisfaction with predetermined gender roles? Setting : Setting “The Chrysanthemums” Setting : Setting “The high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from the rest of the world”
Isolation, separation from others
Flannel--practical fabric, masculine = male dominance?
Closed off from the sky = dreams/aspirations limited?
Grey = dull, colorless Setting : Setting The winter fog sits “like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot”
pots would be familiar to Elisa – is this her thinking?
Closed pot = unavailable? Simmering? Forgotten?
A lid = covers and protects, no exposure, no additions Setting : Setting "It was a time of quiet and of waiting."
The Valley is shut off from the rest of the world by fog, and the weather anticipates change (foreshadowing)
Elisa’s life is a “time of quiet and waiting”—but for what is she waiting? How long will she wait? Will the awaited item ever arrive? Setting : Setting Garden is fenced it off to protect it from the domesticated animals, the “cattle and dogs and chickens.”
Fence: separates, isolates, sets aside, protects, limits, restrains...Elisa’s heart? Elisa’s life? Elisa’s true desires?
Fence protects against domesticated animals—domestication? Elisa needs protection from domestication? From being kept like a domesticated animal? Setting : Setting Elisa’s world is closed off on many levels House Ranch Valley Fenced garden Her heart Male dominated society Point of View : Point of View “The Chrysanthemums” Point of View : Point of View 3rd-person (mostly) objective narrator
Narrator helps establish the mood of the story by forcing the reader to discern tone, emotion, and meaning with little or no hints. Point of View : Point of View When the tinker praises the beauty of the chrysanthemums, the narrator does not provide explanation or hint of his insincerity.
Readers discover his deceit as Elisa herself discovers it. Point of View : Point of View Henry’s thoughts are also not available to readers as he stumbles to find the words to please Elisa and explain himself.
The reader is able to share Elisa's frustration at not being able to read Henry’s thoughts. Point of View : Point of View Elisa also remains largely a mystery, as readers never discover what she thinks about during her long hours in the garden as she attacks the weeks and pests with such vigor.
Is she angry? Happy? Frustrated? Point of View : Point of View The narrator also does not reveal Elisa’s thoughts/feelings as she gets dressed for her evening out.
The narrator describes her actions in extraordinary detail: "she scrubbed herself with a little block of pumice, legs and thighs, loins and chest and arms, until her skin was scratched and red. When she had dried herself she stood in front of a mirror in her bedroom and looked at her body. She tightened her stomach and threw out her chest. She turned and looked over her shoulder at her back."
Clearly these strange actions signal moments of contemplation for Elisa, but readers are left to wonder what she is thinking. Point of View : Point of View A glimpse at the end?
The narrator provides little beyond what is observable, but at the end of the story, readers face a revealing description:
“she was crying weakly--like an old woman.”
Whose assessment is this?
Could it be Elisa revealing how she felt? Themes : Themes “The Chrysanthemums” Themes : Themes Limitation vs. Opportunity
The most commonly agreed upon theme is the limitation of women, especially married women. Married women stay home for the most part and their husbands provide for and protect them.
Elisa may not be dissatisfied with her life, but the idea of traveling around does appeal to her.
When the tinker describes his journey, Elisa says: ‘‘That sounds like a nice way to live.’’
Elisa asks him more about his life. ‘‘You sleep right in the wagon?’’ ‘‘It must be nice,’’ ‘‘It must be very nice. I wish women could do such things.’’ Themes : Themes Sexual limitation
Elisa is a married woman, so naturally she would not seek out a man to flirt with. However, her sexual energy with the tinker is undeniable:
She runs “excitedly” and takes off her gloves as she works
After her explanation of “planting hands” (note the breathless, choppy sentences), she kneels and looks up at him, revealing her sexual energy: “Her breast swelled passionately.”
Her voice is described as becoming “husky.” Themes : Themes Sexual limitation
Elisa’s marriage to Henry is civil and polite, but seems to lack passion or intimacy.
The lack of children could signal a lack of intimate relations.
Elisa’s description of traveling is clearly sexual:
When the night is dark--why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there's quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It's like that. Hot and sharp and--lovely." Themes : Themes Utilitarian vs. Aesthetic
Note the conflict between the practical and the beautiful
Henry & Elisa do not share an aesthetic sense.
Compliments the flowers but suggests a better use of her time: ''I wish you'd work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big.''
Men and women – a different aesthetic sense = lack of understanding / communication? Themes : Themes Utilitarian vs. Aesthetic
The tinker seems to have an aesthetic appreciation for the flowers, as he describes them: ''Kind of a long-stemmed flower? Looks like a quick puff of smoke?’’
However, this appreciation is false, part of his ploy to make money (a practical endeavor) Themes : Themes Feminism
At the time the story was published, feminism and women’s rights were not at the forefront of majority issues.
Critics point out that Elisa’s desire to work + inability to escape a dictated gender role make this an important piece for feminist interpretation.
Some critics point out that Elisa’s own ineffectiveness/defeat = defeat and uselessness of feminism. Themes : Themes Dogs
Dogs: fidelity, protection, companionship
Henry has 2 dogs who help work the ranch
Tinker has a mongrel dog that will fight if provoked, but backs down to Henry’s dogs Themes : Themes Dogs:
Elisa makes dog-like gestures:
Elisa “crouched low like a fawning dog.”
“Her upper lip raised a little, showing her teeth.”
Elisa is more like the mongrel dog than the working ranch dogs – she is strong when she needs to be but also knows when she is outnumbered. She accompanies Henry more than she helps him on the ranch. “The Chrysanthemums” : “The Chrysanthemums” Many possible interpretations exist for this story! “The Chrysanthemums” : “The Chrysanthemums” End of presentation