John Steinbeck published “The Chrysanthemums” in a collection of stories called The Long Valley (1938). They are set in the Salinas Valley in California where he was born, the fertile farmland that the “Okies” settled after their flight from the Dust Bowl. Freed from the crushing burden of absolute poverty and social disintegration, Steinbeck’s characters, like Henry Allen, are quite pleased to be able to make a decent living, but equally important, like Elisa Allen, they are beginning to sense that not everybody can be satisfied by bread alone.
In a subtle prefiguration of feminist philosophy, Steinbeck challenges the tradition of woman’s “place”; although Henry Allen is well-meaning and basically decent, his 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. He is ready to offer what he can (a share in the work; brighter lights and bigger cities for occasional recreation), but Elisa’s urgent need for someone to talk to who can understand the essential nature of her yearning for a poetic vision of the cosmos is, unfortunately, beyond Henry’s range and insight. The question Steinbeck poses is whether one should settle for security and a lack of pain, or risk one’s dreams in an attempt to live more completely and intensely. The retreat from action at the conclusion suggests that the risks are high, but there is a possibility that Elisa might not be permanently crushed by her pain.
The situation recalls D. H. Lawrence’s story “The Shades of Spring,” in which a woman reconciles herself to a steady man when the sparkling boy of her youth goes off to seek his fortune. However, she knows what she misses, and tells him on his return, “The stars are different with you.” Elisa Allen is not ungrateful for her husband’s kindness and for his provision of security, but the dark stranger brings thoughts of a life she has only sensed she was missing, and her response to his vague romantic encouragement startles her in its suddenness and its force. The paradox here is that the stranger has actually lost his spontaneity and manipulates her emotions not to satisfy his own romantic longings but to earn the money he needs for survival: money with which she no longer has to be concerned.
The Inequality of Gender
“The Chrysanthemums” is an understated but pointed critique of a society that has no place for intelligent women. Elisa is smart, energetic, attractive, and ambitious, but all these attributes go to waste. Although the two key men in the story are less interesting and talented than she, their lives are far more fulfilling and busy. Henry is not as intelligent as Elisa, but it is he who runs the ranch, supports himself and his wife, and makes business deals. All Elisa can do is watch him from afar as he performs his job. Whatever information she gets about the management of the ranch comes indirectly from Henry, who speaks only in vague, condescending terms instead of treating his wife as an equal partner. The tinker seems cleverer than Henry but doesn’t have Elisa’s spirit, passion, or thirst for adventure. According to Elisa, he may not even match her skill as a tinker. Nevertheless, it is he who gets to ride about the country, living an adventurous life that he believes is unfit for women. Steinbeck uses Henry and the tinker as stand-ins for the paternalism of patriarchal societies in general: just as they ignore women’s potential, so too does society.
The Importance of Sexual Fulfillment
Steinbeck argues that the need for sexual fulfillment is incredibly powerful and that the pursuit of it can cause people to act in irrational ways. Elisa and Henry have a functional but passionless marriage and seem to treat each other more as siblings or friends than spouses. Elisa is a robust woman associated with fertility and sexuality but has no children, hinting at the nonsexual nature of her relationship with Henry. Despite the fact that her marriage doesn’t meet her needs, Elisa remains a sexual person, a quality that Steinbeck portrays as normal and desirable. As a result of her frustrated desires, Elisa’s attraction to the tinker is frighteningly powerful and uncontrollable. When she speaks to him about looking at the stars at night, for example, her language is forward, nearly pornographic. She kneels before him in a posture of sexual submission, reaching out toward him and looking, as the narrator puts it, “like a fawning dog.” In essence, she puts herself at the mercy of a complete stranger. The aftermath of Elisa’s powerful attraction is perhaps even more damaging than the attraction itself. Her sexuality, forced to lie dormant for so long, overwhelms her and crushes her spirit after springing to life so suddenly.
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