John Steinbeck’s 1937 story “The Chrysanthemums” depicts the strict gender roles that govern the life of Elisa Allen, a farmer’s wife living in the Salinas Valley during the early 20th-century. Elisa and her husband, Henry, live a modest life on their California land, and as the story opens, Elisa meticulously tends to her small chrysanthemum garden while Henry is engaged in business matters, brokering a cattle deal with a large meat company. Their gender roles dictate the types of work they do, and the respect others give them, but Elisa is not satisfied with this—she finds herself disillusioned by her life and is unable to find a proper outlet for her skill and ambition. Steinbeck’s depiction of Elisa’s struggles against society’s expectations of her underscores the damaging effects of gender inequality in American society and challenges the misconception that women are the weaker sex.
From the outset, Steinbeck depicts a society in which men’s work is considered more important than women’s work. This division of labor is clearest in the chores Henry and Elisa do on the farm: Elisa works in the garden maintaining an impressive display of chrysanthemums, while her husband tends cattle and negotiates livestock sales with men in business suits. Significantly, the chrysanthemums have no practical purpose (they are simply beautiful), while Henry’s cattle help sustain the family. This immediately places a greater value on Henry’s work than Elisa’s—something they both seem aware of when Elisa tells Henry that her that her chrysanthemums will be “strong” this year, and Henry replies, “You’ve got a gift with things […] I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big.” Here, he subtly belittles her skills, implying that they would be more impressive if she used them in the orchard, where she might grow something that actually contributes to the family.
Making this worse, when Elisa grows excited at the prospect of working in the orchard (thereby becoming more involved with the core aspects of the farm), Henry reveals that his comment was disingenuous—he has no intention of letting her work in the orchard, which he shows by redirecting the conversation. It’s obvious, then, that Henry does not want to change the dynamics of their life—he prefers to throw subtle barbs at Elisa’s uselessness over finding a way to make her feel challenged and fulfilled.
While Henry seems perfectly satisfied with the status quo, Elisa’s actions and appearance imply that she is out of place in a traditionally-female role. Elisa’s surprising masculinity is first apparent in her clothes. She wears “a man’s black hat pulled low down over her eyes, clodhopper shoes, [and] a print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron.” The black hat obscures her physical identity as a woman, while her bulky shoes and coarse apron hide any trace of femininity that might be reflected in her dress. Instead of presenting herself in a ladylike fashion (as would have been the norm), Elisa seems most comfortable in clothing that is functional. Furthermore, Elisa is interested in traditionally-masculine roles and activities. For instance, she demonstrates in the story’s final moments that she has been reading about the violence of prize fights, evidencing her curiosity about an activity that Henry seems to think isn’t the proper place for a woman.
Most significantly, Elisa shows that she dreams of an entirely different life. When the tinker arrives on the Allens’ farm in search of work mending pots or sharpening scissors, Elisa expresses an explicit longing for the tinker’s nomadic life of fixing household items for money—a life that he says “ain’t the right kind of life for a woman.” As she watches his wagon leave, she surprises herself by whispering aloud, “That’s a bright direction. There’s a glowing there.” Clearly, Elisa wants more than her lot has provided—and perhaps her surprise at her own words shows that she wants this more than she even knows.
While Elisa’s unfulfilled dreams are tragic enough, Steinbeck deliberately suggests that they would be within her grasp were she not a woman. After all, her curiosity is met with an energy, ambition, and capability that would seem to equip her for whatever life she wants. Steinbeck suggests early on that her current life cannot accommodate such capability and ambition: while gardening, Elisa is “over-eager” and “over-powerful,” and the chrysanthemum stems are “too small and easy for her energy.” This suggests that her “planters’ hands” (her gift with gardening) would make her a real asset to the orchard, if only Henry would allow her to become more involved in the farm. Furthermore, her curiosity about the tinker’s life isn’t idle—she shares his skill set and could therefore presumably do his job. “I can beat the dents out of little pots,” she says. “I could show you what a woman might do.”
However, despite Elisa’s skill and ambition—her skill in the garden and her vocal desire to work in the orchard or live as the tinker does—Steinbeck ends the story pessimistic about the ability of even the strongest woman to transcend society’s expectations of her. When Elisa shares her knowledge of gardening with the tinker, she feels empowered and useful. Someone has treated her like an expert at something, rather than simply belittling her skills, and it changes her manner. However, Elisa’s new confidence—her appearance of being “strong and happy”—dissolves as she sees the chrysanthemums on the road, an indication that not only did the tinker not actually want her gardening expertise, but he also used it to manipulate her. On this day, Elisa has glimpsed a life in which her ambitions are possible, and she believes for a moment that things might change. But the tinker’s manipulation of her desires leaves her devastated, making her an old and weak woman—the very destiny she hoped to avoid.
Gender, Power, and Ambition ThemeTracker
Gender, Power, and Ambition Quotes in The Chrysanthemums
She was thirty-five. Her face was lean and strong and her eyes were clear as water. Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man’s black hat pulled low down over her eyes, clodhopper shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron with four big pockets to hold the snips, the trowel and scratcher, the seeds and the knife she worked with.
“You’ve got a gift with things,” Henry observed. “Some of those yellow chrysanthemums you had this year were ten inches across. I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big.”
Her eyes sharpened. “Maybe I could do it, too. I’ve a gift with things, all right. My mother had it. She could stick anything in the ground and make it grow. She said it was having planters’ hands that knew how to do it.”
Elisa’s voice grew husky. She broke in on him, “I’ve never lived as you do, but I know what you mean. When the night is dark – why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there’s quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It’s like that. Hot and sharp and – lovely.”
Elisa stood in front of her wire fence watching the slow progression of the caravan. Her shoulders were straight, her head thrown back, her eyes half-closed, so that the scene came vaguely into them. Her lips moved silently, forming the words “Good-bye – good-bye.” Then she whispered, “That’s a bright direction. There’s a glowing there.” The sound of her whisper startled her. She shook herself free and looked to see whether anyone had been listening. Only the dogs had heard.
She tried no to look as they passed it, but her eyes would not obey. She whispered to herself sadly, “He might have thrown them off the road. That wouldn’t have been much trouble, not very much. But he kept the pot,” she exclaimed. “He had to keep the pot. That’s why he couldn’t get them off the road.”
She relaxed limply in the seat. “Oh, no. No. I don’t want to go. I’m sure I don’t.” Her face was turned away from him. “It will be enough if we can have wine. It will be plenty.” She turned up her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly – like an old woman.