Essays

Symbolism in John Steinbecks The Chrysanthemums

“The Chrysanthemums”, one of John Steinbeck’s masterpieces, describes a lonely farmer’s wife, Elisa Allen. Elisa Allen’s physical appearance is very mannish yet still allows a hint of a feminine side to peek through. John Steinbeck brings symbolism into play to represent Elisa Allen’s frustrations and hidden passions. Isolation is another representation through symbolism found in “The Chrysanthemums. ” Elisa’s failing detached marriage is represented through two symbols. The two reoccurring symbols are the chrysanthemums and fences.

John Steinbeck draws pity from the reader for Elisa Allen who desperately wishes to experience the passions of a fulfilling marriage and the stimulation of a man’s life. Through symbolism in ”The Chrysanthemums,” John Steinbeck creates a sexually repressed and discouraged Elisa Allen who is isolated from society however still retaining their values and is also trapped in a fruitless marriage. Elisa Allen and her repressed sexuality are introduced to the readers through a manly appearance with a small clue of a womanly figure making an effort to peer through. This suppressed sexuality will eventually symbolically emerge.

Elisa’s symbolic clothing shows her concealed passions. “Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume (Steinbeck 1463). ” Elisa tries to subdue her sexual desires by hiding beneath manly clothing, tools, and even her home (Duncun 1). “She wore a man’s black hat, clod-hopper shoes…[and] heavy leather gloves (Steinbeck 1463). ” She carried “ short and powerful scissors (Steinbeck 1463)” and her house was “hard-swept and hard-polished (Steinbeck 1463). Although she had a manly appearance she was still doing the woman’s job of tending a flower garden.

All of these manly traits did not hold her back; Steinbeck still allowed her suppressed sexuality to shine through (Pittmann 1). “ A figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron with four big pockets (Steinbeck 1463). ” Steinbeck, by allowing the dress to be seen, is showing the readers Elisa passion that long to be unbridled. The manly gloves that she wore to protect her hands show that she still wants to be a women yet long for the adventure a man’s life contains. Clothing was not the only symbol of repression in John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums.

There are many symbolic references to Elisa Allen as a sexually repressed and frustrated woman. One representation of the chrysanthemum is Elisa’s passion and eagerness to live and experience life a content woman. While tending her chrysanthemums “she pulled out the crisp little roots and trimmed of the leaves of each one with her scissors (Steinbeck 1464). This is a symbolism of Elisa Allen closing off all opportunities to grow as a sexual woman; She has resigned herself to the monotonous life as a complacent farmer’s wife (Lee 1).

The “figured print dress (Steinbeck 1463)” under the apron shows the readers that Elisa is aware of her sexuality but instead of acting on it has chosen to subdue it. She keeps her sexuality and passions under control like she cares for her chrysanthemums “laid [in a] small [and] orderly pile (Steinbeck 1464)” (Lee 1). Elisa begins to allow this sexuality to emerge when the traveling tinker romantically describes her chrysanthemums as a “quick puff of colored smoke (Steinbeck 1465).

She begins to talk eagerly about her chrysanthemums has a sexual experience with the tinker when describing the planter’s hand which should have been called lover’s hands. She described the lover’s hand as “they never make a mistake, know[ing] [where to touch], when your like that you can’t do anything wrong (Steinbeck 1467). ” She goes on to describe it as “hot sharp and—lovely (Steinbeck 1467). When she has given the merchant her chrysanthemums her suppressed sexuality wholly emerges.

This is a form of an orgasmic experience for Elisa when “the night is dark [and] every pointed star gets driven into your body [and] you rise up and up (Steinbeck 1467)” (Lee 1). Unfortunately, shortly after the glimpse of the full passion and sexuality that Elisa is capable of it is ruthlessly crushed and she restrains it forever. When Elisa spots the chrysanthemums lying broken in the road “she tried not to look as they passed but her eyes would not obey (Steinbeck 1469).

She knows that she will never experience the uninhibited passion again but is resolved to overcome her longings. I’m strong… I never knew before how strong (Steinbeck 1469). ” Because she has been subjected to that passion and the fact that she now knows that she will never experience it again her tender resolve breaks and she retreated to her manly ways. “She turned her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly-like an old woman (Steinbeck 1470). The fact that she has pulled up her coat collar shows that she has once again withdrawn inside herself and has given up on her sexuality and resigned herself to an isolated life as a planter’s spouse.

John Steinbeck incorporated many symbols into “The Chrysanthemums” to represent isolation. Elisa Allen is an eager person who hungers for excitement and passion in her life. Unfortunately due to circumstances beyond her control she is virtually isolated from society trapped on a country farm. Although she is isolated she is able to retain the values that society hold dear. The high gray-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas valley (Steinbeck 1462). ” The fog surrounding the Salinas valley is a representation of the barrier of isolation between Elisa and the rest of the world.

Another example of Elisa’s seclusion is that her house sits “across the river, [is] Henry Allen’s house (Steinbeck 1462). ” Steinbeck placed Elisa’s house away from town to allow the audience to realize that Elisa has virtually no contact with other humans other than her husband who barely paid her any attention. On every side [the fog] sat like a lid on the mountain and made of the great valley a closed pot (Steinbeck 1462). ” The symbolism of the fog creating a pot that encloses Elisa in her own little, remote world is Steinbeck’s way of showing the reader Elisa as she really is.

A lonely farmer’s wife with only flowers to give her love who longs for a companion who will return the affection and passion that Elisa must restrain in her marriage for fear of breaking societies norms. The fences is a reoccurring symbol with two implied meanings, one being isolation. This fence not only separates her world as a woman from the world of a man but also protects her from any outside influences that may unleash her passion (Lee 1). Elisa did not abandon the protection of the fence until after the Tinker’s entrance had violated and penetrated the sanctity it represented and awakened her slumbering passions.

Elisa stood in front of her wire fence watching the slow progression of the caravan (Steinbeck 1468). ” Once her eyes were open to the outside world Elisa felt suffocated and smothered in her self-made haven. Not only did she feel stifled but also felt guilt due to her uninhibited release of her passions. “She tore off her soiled clothes and then she scrubbed herself with a little block of pumice until her skin was scratched and red (Steinbeck 1468). ” She would not have thought of this encounter with the Tinker as a sin if society had not brainwashed her at an early age.

Society made her believe that to feel alive with a person other than your spouse, for a woman at least, is an unforgivable sin. Fences in “The Chrysanthemums” are the barriers that separate Elisa from the rest of the world, including her husband Henry. Her fences protect “flower garden from cattle, dogs, and chickens (Steinbeck 1463)” while isolating Elisa and keeping her from realizing what she is missing out on in life (Lee 1). The cattle, dogs, and chickens represent her husband’s world while her flower garden represents Elisa’s world.

The fence is separating Elisa from her husband. “He had come near quietly, and leaned over the wire fence (Steinbeck 1463). ” This shows that Henry is always treading softly around Elisa, courteous but always leaning over careful not to intrude into the woman’s world (Lee 1). The Tinker’s caravan pulls “up to Elisa’s wire fence and stop[s] (Steinbeck 1464). ” The Tinker, bearer of outside influences begins by resting his hands on the wire fence “and made it sing (Steinbeck 1465).

As the meeting progresses and Elisa’s sexuality is awakening the Tinker begins to “lean confidently over the fence (Steinbeck 1466)” and eventually penetrates Elisa’s barrier to come “through the gate (Steinbeck 1466). ” The Tinker’s entrance into the gate represents Elisa’s passions fully released and she is no longer completely isolated. Elisa’s fence helped to divide her from the outside world full of influences and from a husband who was not completely aware of her. There are two major symbols of Elisa failing marriage.

One is her husband’s mannerism towards her. The other is her approach to tending and protecting the flowers. When observing the flowers, the only thing Henry can come up with is “I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big (Steinbeck 1463). ” Henrys inability to understand Elisa and her longing for a more exciting life is proof of the distinct lack of harmony between the two (Kassim 1). The Chrysanthemums embody Elisa’s children for her own unharmonious marriage has produced none.

Elisa, a very protective mother of her flowers, places a fence around them and “her terrier fingers destroyed [any] pests before they could get started (Steinbeck 1463). ” As any mother would be, Elisa is very proud of her chrysanthemums and when she receives compliments “on her face there was a little smugness (Steinbeck 1463). ” Because her husband Henry is too shy and so out of tune from Elisa their monotonous marriage ahs failed to produce children and the chrysanthemums have come to be Elisa’s children.

John Steinbeck’s Elisa Allen is the depiction of a woman in Steinbeck’s world (Dickman 1). They are typically isolated and held away from outside contaminating influences. Though Elisa was isolated she was still able to pick up the stereotype of a woman’s place. She kept her sexual urgings in place for a more dull life as a farmer’s wife. The tedious life could not have been spiced up for they were lacking the fruit of a marriage, children. Elisa Allen allowed her suppressed sexuality and passion to have free reign only to have it crushed by a money-grubbing gypsy.

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