Symbolism in Steinbecks Chrysanthemums
Symbolism in John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” In “The Chrysanthemus” Steinbeck’s ability to reveal major insights about both the central characters as well as humanity in general. Through heavy yet artful symbolism, an author can make something seemingly confusing or insignificant; manifest itself into a hugely relevant detail. “Chrysanthemums” is one of those tales.
Utilizing a variety if symbols, such as Elisa`s clothing, images of inside versus outside, fights and flowers carefully placed throughout he short story, Steinbeck highlight the emotional separation of the main couples, Elisa and Henry until it appears completely empty of all hope for any recovery. The opening lines of “The Chrysanthemums” serve to underscore the emotional barriers which surround Elisa, as well as to highlight her sense of alienation from “all the rest of the world” (Steinbeck 192).
Through the “high gray flannel fog of winter. ” Steinbeck utilizes complicated symbolism to characterize Elisa (192). Not only does the fog obscure her vision to accurately interpret the actions and persons around her, but it also conveys her impression of severe isolation. Elsewhere there is “pale cold sunshine” (192) or perhaps this is an inclination of how Elisa interprets the areas beyond her home. Throughout the story, Elisa shows preference towards the outdoors. She gardens flowers, appears to like the idea of living on the road.
In contrast to this, unlivable qualities of her “hard swept” house instantly bring the reader closer to the disconnect of Steinbeck’s tale. The inside and outside areas separate Elisa’s relationship with Henry. As Elisa and Henry parrot their news back and forth, they consistently repeat meaningless words such as good and nice this sort of diction allows them to hide truer emotions their real inclination toward a fight, either viewed as a show or demonstrated amongst them. As the reader is introduced to Elisa, we read that her eyes were “clear as water” (192) a pointed foreshadowing to the aged tears which end the tale.
Among the flowers which denote ancient connections to female sexuality, her figure has become “blocked and heavy” (193) and her covered shape symbolizes a repressed sexuality. Here, she is snipping the flowers as opposed to fertilizing, which further cements this image. As the reader learns of Elisa’s age, which is surrounded by talk of her health both lean and strong it is easy to wonder why this marriage is childless. The centering of the story around the Chrysanthemums, as opposed to children suggests that Elisa and Henry’s marriage is sexless.
Some critics, such as Stanley Renner (Renner) have suggested that this sterile marriage is promoted by Elisa’s securing herself within a fortress of sexual reticence and self withholding (312). When one considers the contrasting symbols of inside and outside, it does appear as though Elisa has effectively walled herself into tight garden. The only time Elisa appears to be acting naturally is when she is talking to the stranger. When the man in the wagon approaches Elisa they connect through their moment of shared laughter.
While it is apparent that he does not fully take care of either himself “his worn black suit was wrinkled and spotted with grease”(193) and he wears a “battered hat” (193) or his animals, who “drooped like unwatered flowers (193), which surely should have been a signal of warning for Elisa but she is attracted to him anyway. As they talk, her removal of several articles of clothing, including shaking out her hair, symbolizes this sexual atmosphere. She acts almost wantonly here through her desire, much changed from the suppressed atmosphere of her earlier attire, and certainly not the careful ladylike outfit she dresses in for dinner.
Elisa even symbolically gives him herself, through her gift of potted chrysanthemum seeds. Ernesto Zirkakzadeh writes that in Steinbeck, even in characters as repressed as Elisa, the suppressed desires for food, sleep, shelter, and sex never fully disappear. They quietly percolate in the corners of our minds and then unexpectedly swamp our minds with passion. At such moments, the internalized norms feel like heavy chains that we yearn to throw off (Zirakzadeh). When she talks to a stranger, she is the most alive, a stiff contrast to her unmoving stance while she waits for Henry to dress.
Her thorough and painful bath further symbolizes her unfaithfulness, as it hints of physical sexual guilt. It is not until later, however, when she views his rejection, that she feels fully lost. Her attempt at escape reaches its climax when Elisa sees that the tinker tossed the symbol of her existence to the side of the road. Elisa cannot bring herself to acknowledge the reality of her situation; in doing so, Elisa turns her back and avoids the overarching truth she is unwilling or unable to face. As briefly as she avoids the fights with Henry, she manages to avoid the truth regarding the stranger.
These fights appear to represent reality, truth and insights but Elisa would rather forget or avoid these subjects and pacify herself with wine. At the end however, it does bring her to tears, which Henry doesn’t see. Elisa is a woman torn between two conflicting symbols of inside and outside. Her mannerisms change from hard and strong to passionate and happy as she sways from one to the other. Even Henry, when we finally see more of him towards the conclusion of the story proclaims “why Elisa, you look so nice, you look different, your playing some kind of game, now you’ve changed again (193).
It is as if Henry is frustrated or has given up attempting to understand his wife. Henry is not able to fully understand the divide in Elisa, for he thinks she will not like the fights and turns his attention away from her beloved flowers towards his apples. Coupled with both of their avoidance tactics, she looks away when she cries, he looks toward the tractor shed in order to stay calm. They remain unable to unify their relationship and cement their conflicting passions.
Mimi Gladstein writes In “The Chrysanthemums” a “work that exemplifies Steinbeck at his best, the early starts, which Steinbeck rejected, depict Elisa in her kitchen and a fuller character development for Henry” (Gladstein). As Steinbeck moved closer to the symbols and artful connotations in this short story, he allowed the reader to look more closely into the tale to interperate the actions of Elisa and Henry. Through symbols such as flowers, the house, Elisa’s clothing, the house vs. outside and the fog. Details about the central characters come alive to the readers, even without full character development.
Works Cited Gladstein, Mimi. “”The Dramatic Landscape of Steinbeck’s Short Stories. “. ” American Literature 63 (3) (Sept. 1991): 558-560. Renner, Stanley. “The real woman inside the fence in The Chrysanthemums. ” Modern Fiction Studies (1985): 305-17. Zirakzadeh, Cyrus Ernesto. “John Steinbeck on the political capaceties of everyday folk: moms, reds and ma Joad’s revolt. ” Polity 36. 4 (2004): 596 (24). Kennedy, X. J. , and Dana Gioia. “7/ John Steinbeck. ” Literature: an Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Boston: Longman, 2010. 192-99. Print