So I took a short story class last semester because I needed a literacy credit. Naturally, this included writing essays. This is my essay on “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck. This essay is not for young kids because of the nature of the story which you can find here if you wish to read the rest of my essay. I made minor edits transferring it from MLA to something more consumable. Nor did I include the works cited.
- Enter Henry, her husband.
“Love’s Labour’s Lost” is a Shakespeare comedy about a king and his lords swear off the company of women in favor of studying and fasting but ultimately failing and learning that maybe the greatest study mankind can achieve is love itself. Similarly, “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck contains love, labor, and ultimately loss. Welcome to the Ted Talk. Today, an analysis was conducted with a focus on gained or lost identity and the weird sexual undercurrent present in the story. It sounds a lot more like a Shakespeare comedy than one might search for at first glance.
First, like any good play, to set the scene. Picture two hands cupped together–that is Salinas Valley. Zoom in a bit and you have a large farm with a giant fence surrounding it. Come closer to the house and meet Elisa Allen, the main focus and protagonist of the story. Looking at her, one would not be able to tell what gender she is as she wears bulky, masculine clothing, a hat to cover her hair, and gloves that hide her hands as she works dutifully on her prized chrysanthemums.
Enter Henry, her husband.
He tells her he got paid for the cattle and asks if they can go out for dinner and a movie once he is done taking them over to the buyer’s field. She agrees and he rides off. A shifty figure comes to the fence. He says he is a peddler and asks if she has any work for him.
After telling him no a couple of times–he is persistent–she concurs that yes, she does have something for him. He mentions how beautiful her flowers are and she offers for him to take one. He takes it, does his job, and leaves. She goes in, showers, scrubbing the dirt, grime, and guilt off of her. She dons makeup and a dress, laying out clothes for Henry. He comes in, gets ready and they head out after he tries to compliment her and she takes offense to it.
They talk a bit about boxing matches that it might be too much for a lady but if she really wants to go, he will take her. They drive by a familiar cart and she sees a familiar chrysanthemum in the road. She hides the tears streaming down her face as she asks if they can have wine with dinner.
Before doing a proper analysis of identity, it is important to consider the patriarchy identity for women.
Women must be married and have kids. They are to be caretakers, and home workers and must not have any interest in violence or “manly” work. Elisa is a 35, married woman with no kids. She is a caretaker to her flowers and Henry. When Henry asks her about cultivating their apples to be as big as her flowers or boxing matches, she seems disinterested. So for the most part, it seems Elisa has accepted her role as a submissive wife.
Enter the peddler. Initially, she shoos him away but he breaks down her defenses by asking her about her chrysanthemums (sounds like an innuendo).
Out of nowhere, the language becomes very sensual, she prostrates herself before him, takes off her gloves and hat, and perks up her breasts (to which he looks away awkwardly). I do not think it far-fetched to say the peddler awakened something in Elisa.
Exit the peddler, pursued by a bear (but not really).
Steinbeck implies she feels guilty about the interaction from the way she scrubs herself off in the shower with the pumice until her skin was “scratched and red”. It could also be indicative of a transformation of sorts. Notice that she slowly dresses into her best undergarments and a pretty dress and does her hair and makeup. Change takes time, and she comes out looking beautiful, ready for her date. Henry comes out of their room looking nice for their date, notices her transformation, and compliments her saying she looks nice.
She has a weird response, questioning what he means by looking nice. He says she looks strong and that she must be playing some kind of game with him. “She grew complete again. ‘Yes I’m strong,’ she boasted. ‘I never knew before how strong.’”. Notice Steinbeck uses the word “complete” there, implying that before her transformation, she was not complete. The part of her identity missing, of course, being her sexual identity, the one awakened by the peddler. When driving to town, they pass by the deserted flowers on the ground and the peddler’s cart, Henry comments that she has changed again.
He thinks she is stressed and they need to go out more.
She asks for wine with dinner, which implies she wants to drink away her experience with the peddler and ultimately, his betrayal. She asks about the fights again and if they really get as gory as she has heard and Henry offers to take her but then she says “‘No. I don’t want to go. I’m sure I don’t.’” Elisa is undoing her transformation, adorning her previous identity of the submissive housewife, content with the wine instead of becoming more. She hides her face and turns away so Henry can not see her crying “like an old woman.” Interesting comparison there, Steinbeck. Older women under the patriarchy are thought to be crazy and childless.
There seems to be a theme of lack of communication in this story.
If Elisa told Henry she wanted kids or more sex, he would probably happily oblige. Henry may be part of the patriarchy problem. He seems very supportive, offering her chances to do things most women probably would not be “allowed” to do. For example, going to boxing matches or farming more than flowers, or fixing the pots and pans around the house. However, under the patriarchy, she can not stand up to her husband and say her needs and desires. That would go against the rules.
For a story named after a flower, they show up everywhere. Flowers, in general, represent virginity, hence why sex is referred to as “deflowering”. Chrysanthemums have their own special meaning. Yellow symbolizes “neglected love or sorrow” (Fresh) and white symbolize “loyalty and honesty” (Fresh). Eliza grows both.
Given Elisa and Henry’s passionless marriage and the aforementioned flower meanings, I think it would be safe to say the deflowering has not happened or it is not frequent enough. Henry comments on how big the yellow ones are at the beginning of the story, signifying Elisa’s neglect. When the peddler shows up, their conversation seems almost like one big innuendo when he mentions the dog is a fighter “once you get him started”. It becomes increasingly more and more ridiculous where she ends up “crouched low like a fawning dog”. When the peddler leaves, she is standing there watching him leave. “Her shoulders were straight, her head thrown back, her eyes half-closed”. A very sensual pose for someone she had a brief encounter with.
In “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, the story ends with the death of the princess’s father and the men promising to wait a year for the princess and her ladies to mourn and grieve before they wed the king and his lords. In “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck, the story ends with the death of Elisa’s newfound complete identity (including her sexual identity). While Henry may love and support her, it is not enough. She still feels old and neglected and now betrayed by men. Maybe Steinbeck’s story is closer to a Shakespeare comedy in that tragedy still occurs but ultimately, his characters live to see another day.
Thank you for reading my lengthy essay on the work of Steinbeck, I appreciate it. Comment below your favorite flower. If you like my content, consider subscribing to my mailing list and if you want something similar, click here.