ENL 259: Best Essays in Literary Theory

3rd Place Winner

Elisa’s Unhappiness in “The Chrysanthemums”

Emily Wingate

John Steinbeck’s short story “The Chrysanthemums” centers on Eliza and her relationship with her husband Henry. Critic Gregory Palmerino brings light to their relationship issues. He argues: “everywhere there is conflict in ‘The Chrysanthemums,’ but nowhere is there a fight. This absence of friction prevents Henry and Elisa’s relationship from progressing, whether it be as lovers, partners or parents” (Palmerino 1). What Palmerino does not focus on is where these deep-rooted communications stem from. Because the ideology of patriarchy is so ingrained in both Elisa and her husband, Elisa feels she cannot communicate with her husband or even with herself. In this text, the patriarchal ideology is reinforced by the way the characters are presented and their interactions with one another.

When the story begins, Steinbeck addresses the weather and we see that a thick fog was covering the land: “It was a time of quiet and of waiting […] the farmers were mildly hopeful of a good rain before long; but fog and rain do not go together” (Steinbeck 438). It is important to note that the weather is introduced before our two main characters are, foreshadowing what kind of relationship they have. Palmerino sees the fog and rain as symbols of Elisa and Henry; of the female and male: “The natural elements of the foothills and ranch seem as unwilling to confront each other as the characters that inhabit its environs” (Palmerino 1). To extend this symbol into feminism, the fog symbolizes the patriarchal male; it is thick, grey and consumes the surface of the land just as the male consumes the female. The rain is Elisa; it is passive and does not come to confront fog just as the patriarchal female who submits to the male cannot confront him.

When Elisa is first described to us, she is completely unsexed: “her figure looked blocked and heavy,” and she wore a “man’s black hat pulled low down over her eyes” (Steinbeck 438). It is interesting to note that she while this description does not focus on her feminine characteristics, it does show that she is gardening, tending to her flowers, which is an ultimate symbol of femininity. Contradicting this feminine symbol is the way in which Elisa gardens; she has strong hands and uses “over-powerful scissors” (Steinbeck 439). These descriptions are adjectives that are used to describe the traditional male, showing a conflict within Elisa. She mentions that her mother had a gift for gardening which she has as well. Perhaps Elisa only gardens because she thinks she should, just as her mother did, but she goes about it in a traditional male way. She doesn’t nurture the flowers; she is strong and uses powerful scissors to “destroy the pests” (Steinbeck 439). Elisa also cleans the house so that it is immaculate: “It was a hard-swept house with hard-polished windows, and a clean mud mat on the front steps” (Steinbeck 439). She completes her feminine duties, but does so in an unfeminine manner; she is not nurturing and gentle as society should like but strong and harsh.

The stranger that comes to the farm is another character that reinforces male patriarchy. When the stranger asks Elisa about her chrysanthemums, she becomes very happy and excited. Previously, when her husband commented about the flowers, she was not really interested in his comments. When she talks about the flowers with the stranger, for the first time in this story, Elisa is animated and actually having a conversation instead of the short responses she gives her husband. The stranger reinforces patriarchal thought when he begins to talk about his lifestyle. When he talks about living on the road and sleeping in a wagon outside, Elisa says: “It must be very nice. I wish women could do such things” and the stranger believes that “it ain’t the right kind of life for a woman” (Steinbeck 445). This raises the question: what is the right kind of life for a woman? As most patriarchal men would believe (as well as society), a woman’s place is in the home. Elisa challenges this thought by asking the stranger how he knows. She responds by saying that she could have the same lifestyle: “I could show you what a woman might do” (Steinbeck 445) and the stranger again says it’s not a good life for a woman. This conversation shows us the Elisa is unhappy with her position in life and desires another type of life away from her husband. The stranger represents society’s view of the life she wants, that it’s not the life a woman should life.

Elisa even becomes sexually aroused by the stranger; when talking to him, “her breast swelled passionately” (Steinbeck 444). The stranger notices and looks away. Palmerino believes that this is “Elisa’s failed attempt to shatter their dreary existence […] by shamefully and inadequately prostrating herself in front of an implausible paramour” (Palmerino 2). Elisa is clearly unhappy with the life she is living and will do anything, even become attracted to a complete stranger, to change her present position.

The stranger gives Elisa a boost of confidence that was not in her before. She takes off the clothes that made her masculine; she bathes and dresses in “her newest underclothing and her nicest stockings and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness. She worked carefully on her hair, penciled her eyebrows and rouged her lips” (446). She clearly wants to arouse the male gaze in her husband but he fails to notice her for her beauty. He simply says: “You look so nice!” and continues to say “You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon” (447). She is clearly upset by his response as she wanted Henry to compliment her beauty and he merely says she looks nice and strong. He upsets her but she does not confront him. As Palmerino says “Anger has been successfully repressed. Both husband and wife (fog and rain) have been restored to their distant and ambiguous lives” (Palmerino 2).

Throughout the story, Elisa is constantly being described as strong; at the same time, she is a woman and society has told her that she must be feminine and to be feminine means to be weak. This is a binary opposition: strong versus weak. In this story, strength is emphasized but Elisa is conflicted with this. She desires a life that requires strength, but is told it is not the life for a woman. As a woman, she must show strength with her domestic duties but everywhere else, she must be weak.

The ultimate illustration of Elisa’s unhappiness with her station in life comes at the end of the story. She sees the chrysanthemums that she gave the stranger carelessly tossed onto the side of the road, but she hides the flowers from the view of her husband so that he won’t see. Seeing the flowers sparks some anger in her and she expresses this by asking Henry about the fights that take place in town. She says: “I’ve read about how the fighting gloves get heavy and soaked with blood” (Steinbeck 448). Henry is shocked that she is reading about these things and stops the car to ask if she really wants to go to the fights. She says no and starts to cry, hiding in her coat collar so that “he could not see that she was crying weakly—like an old woman” (448). In the end of the story, Elisa is left vulnerable and is for the first time described as weak. It is now even clearer how unhappy Elisa is with her life. Palmerino says that “Elisa turns her back and avoids the overarching truth that she is unwilling or unable to face: she is mired in a ‘mismatched’ marriage, one that avoids inherent discord and, ultimately, any possibility for progression” (Palmerino 2).

Elisa is clearly unhappy with her life but will not confront this unhappiness. She hides her emotions from her husband. Just like the rain that never comes to confront the fog, Elisa will never be able to change her position in life; she will always submit to her husband and be caged in a marriage with a man who shows very little interest in her as a woman. Their marriage will never progress and both individuals remain unhappy. Patriarchal thought is reinforced and Elisa will never have the life she wants.

Works Cited
Palmerino, Gregory J. "Steinbeck's 'The Chrysanthemums'." Explicator 62.3 (2004): 164-167. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Claire Carney Library.

Steinbeck, John. "The Chrysanthemums." The Seagull Reader Stories. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008. 437-448.


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