“The Chrysanthemums” is written by John Steinbeck, an author whose works are infused with political and social undertones. In “The Chrysanthemums”, Steinbeck focuses on the role and struggles of a woman in the 1930s. It is a story about Elisa, a lonely, childless woman who lives with her husband, Henry, in Salinas Valley, California, a dark, isolated place. The story presents several themes such as gender inequality, the role of women, sexuality and the relationship between a man and a woman.
Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” is his way of highlighting to his readers the unacceptable gender inequality that persisted in the past. The traditional role of a woman is presented in the story and that is a housekeeper, a person subservient to her husband and even a sex object. Elisa simply stays at home, does the gardening and sees to it that the needs of her husband are met. Elisa’s subservience to his husband is illustrated in Part 95, when she had to prepare the clothes and shoes of her husband while he was taking a bath, when, in fact, she could just have let her husband do it himself (Steinbeck, 2011). Being the traditional woman of the house, she is not expected to go out unless in the company of her husband. She is not even expected to be expanding her knowledge when her husband remarked in Part 115, “I didn’t know you read things like that” (Steinbeck, 2011). It seems that it was unusual for women at that time to read about things that relate to men.
The inequality between the two genders is emphasized as Henry is shown to be the breadwinner while Elisa stays at home. Society would probably frown if Elisa worked while her husband stayed at home. The “wagon man” even thinks that traveling along the country is something which is unfit for a woman.
The story shows that women are viewed as the weaker sex, as someone whose role is to be a housewife fit for child-bearing and caring for children only. This is symbolized by Elisa’s planting, taking care and propagation of the chrysanthemums. In Part 10, when Elisa talks to Henry about her skill with chrysanthemums, one senses that she is so proud of this accomplishment, maybe, her only accomplishment.
The era described in the story is the time when women feel so lowly about themselves. This is illustrated through Elisa’s perception of herself. She feels unappreciated by her husband. She even had to convince him that she was good at something, and that is the planting of chrysanthemums. Although they have a good relationship, it seems to be lacking in passion; thus, one observes Elisa as a wife who is longing for a more meaningful sexual relationship with her husband. Elisa’s desire for sex is ignited by her encounter with the “wagon man” as shown by her reaction after they met. However, her false sense of being appreciated is cut short when she sees the chrysanthemums which she gave left on the road.
The story also depicts how women suppress their feelings and thoughts, maybe, for fear of being reprimanded by their husbands or fear that they may be accused of knowing too much for a woman. One further observes this suppression of feelings in Part 120 when Elisa cried, yet she did not want her husband to see it (Steinbeck, 2011). She views crying as a sign of weakness which she does not want to admit in front of her husband. Elisa is actually devastated inside but would not show it to her husband. She wants him to believe that everything was alright and that she is satisfied with her life, when deep inside she is longing for greater things. She wants self-fulfillment which she is not allowed to pursue because she is a woman and women are supposed to be satisfied with being a housewife.
Steinbeck used this story in light of improving society’s perception of the roles of the man and the woman. The woman need not be someone who simply lurks at the shadow of the man. The woman should be given a chance to be her own person and prove that she can do something aside from being a housekeeper. Men, on the other hand, should accept the fact that women are not just sex objects whom they can manipulate. Men and women should have equal roles in society and this is, probably, what Steinbeck wants to inculcate to his readers.
Steinbeck, J. (2011). The chrysanthemums. In D.L. Pike and A.M. Acostas (Eds.) Literature: A world of writing stories, poems, plays, and essays [VitalSource digital version] (pp. 375-380). Boston, MA: Pearson Learning Solutions.