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Elisa’s Unhappiness in The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck

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.

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…scord 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

Elisa of The Chrysanthemums

“Why-why Elisa…. You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy

enough to eat it like a watermelon.” (Steinbeck 232) Most people reading this would just pass it

off as a tactless man’s attempt to compliment, but is that all it is? In “The Chrysanthemums”,

Elisa is a farm wife, whose only passion in life is found in her gardening. Henry, her husband,

owns a farm and is oblivious to the monotony of Elisa’s life. Throughout the story, Henry is on

the outside, never really understanding Elisa and how she feels. Until, a tinker comes by the farm

and speaks with Elisa about her Chrysanthemums. By asking just one question, the tinker opens

Elisa and allows her to release the passion and femininity that she keeps hidden throughout her

life. In John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums”, Henry Allen’s seemingly inept comment is not

just that but an allusion, put in place by Steinbeck, to the Dionysian maenads.

Dionysus is the Greek god of wine, merrymaking and gathering. His followers, the

maenads, were said to be pushed into some form of “divine madness”, aided by wine, which

would lead to prophecy and insight. More often, however, it led to drunkenness and promiscuity.

They would then dance, sing and wander about, not to mention, join in sexual activities to

stimulate fertility of the earth and achieve ecstasy. The maenads would occasionally reach a

dangerous “frenzied state” where if they happened across it, they would “tear animals apart and

devour the raw flesh” (“Maenads” par.1). So, knowing that, we take a second look at our story.

Elisa Allen has had an erotic experience with the tinker by merely speaking of the passion she

has for her chrysanthemums that has opened her eyes to how much of herself that she hides and

subdues. Henry notices a difference in Elisa, beyond the way she is dressed, but he has never

seen the passionate side of her and does not know what to say. When Henry claims that Elisa

looks strong enough to kill and eat a cow, Steinbeck is making an allusion to the maenads of the

ancient Greek world. David Leon Higdon, a scholar, claims that “With this image…Steinbeck

transforms the characters and the ranch, synchronizing empirical and mythical realities, and

identifying Elisa’s new power and beauty with those of the Maenads or Bacchantes in their

worship of Dionysus” (par. 1).

It is quite clear that Henry’s comment is more than just that. “It is as if Steinbeck wished

his reader to feel, for one brief moment, that he or she had opened a door inappropriately and

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