John Steinbeck’s short story “The Chrysanthemums” is centered on the protagonist named Elisa Allen. The vivid portrayal of her character in different parts of the story makes the reader wonder who she really is. Steinbeck started by portraying her as a strong and knowledgeable gardener, with a sense of masculinity, following which she is portrayed as someone who yearns for sexual attention in her sensual encounter with the tinker, and concluded with her being described as a beautiful, feminine lady, and then back to her masculine self all within a span of a few hours.
The evolution in the expressions, emotions, and the portrayal of Elisa Allen is an important element of Steinbeck’s “The Chyrsanthemums. ” Firstly, Elisa Allen is described and presented in a very masculine manner. The words “strong”, “a man’s black hat” and “heavy leather gloves” showcase the masculinity. Additionally, her features described as, “her face was eager and mature and handsome……over-powerful. ” lend substance to her masculinity.
Interestingly, this description of Elisa is in stark contrast to the societal perception of females in that era who are meant to be more feminine.
The fact that she is she is thirty five years old and has no children also de-emphasizes her femininity. However, this presentation of masculinity augurs well with her acuity for business which is demonstrated in her interest in knowing more about the conversation of her husband, Henry Allen with the men in business suits. Also, her negotiation skills with the tinker showcase the business acuity of Elisa that has gone unnoticed by Henry. The societal norms have dictated that she carry out her role as a gardener with penchant. As a result, Elisa devotes all of her energy to maintaining her house and garden.
Although she rightly brags about her green thumb, Elisa’s connection to nature seems rather coerced and not something that comes as naturally as she claims. She knows a great deal about plants, most likely because as a woman, gardening is the only thing she has to think about. This constant tussle between her femininity and her masculinity lend an interesting insight into Elisa’s character. Next, Elisa is been demonstrated as a woman who lives an unsatisfying, under stimulated and frustrated life who looks to the tinker for a stimulating conversation and even sex.
Her physical attraction to the tinker and her flirtatious, witty conversation with him bring out the poet in Elisa. The phrases, “she shakes out her dark pretty hair and with her eyes shining, she admits the stranger into her yard. She strips off her protective gloves”, “she looks deep into his eyes, searchingly” and “She was kneeling on the ground looking up at him. Her breast swelled passionately. ” describe the sensual encounter of Elisa with the tinker. During this encounter, there is also evidence of how unsatisfied Elisa is with her life when she says the following, “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. ” This statement also showcases the poet in Elisa. Besides the poetic conversation, it symbolizes the level of incompleteness in her life. It seemed that she got carried away in the heat of the moment, and realized at a later point and felt ashamed of what she did and had been saying. After the sensual encounter with the tinker, the femininity is showcased of Elisa is showcased at its fullest by the narrator.
Firstly, when she tries to dress up and present herself as a beautiful lady. This is seen in the following narration of the scenario, “After a while she began to dress, slowly. She put on her newest underclothing and her nicest stockings and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness. She worked carefully on her hair, penciled her eyebrows and rouged her lips. ” Following the dressing up, and showing up in front of Henry, the conversation that the couple have is nothing less than hilarious. Evidently, Henry is not used to seeing Elisa dress up and presents her in the feminine manner that she did.
The banter that takes place between Henry and Elisa, especially when describing her as “strong and happy” and “You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon” was amusing. This conversation clearly showed that Henry did not know how to react to Elisa’s femininity, supporting the fact that Elisa could have been unsatisfied with her current relationship with Henry, and hence seeking an escape in her encounter with the tinker who seemed to be more receptive and appreciative to her.
However, the conversation that took place while in the caravan negated the short burst of feminism in Elisa and was overpowered with a sense of masculinity by the topics of their conversation which included: “wine over dinner,” and “women going to fights. ” This could be because of the realization that nothing has changed. She is still the same lady who was gardening a few hours ago. The tinker, despite showing interest and stimulating her, was only concerned in his profit, and was manipulative to say the least.
Interestingly, in the final sentence of the story, the narrator describes Elisa as a “weak, old woman. ” In conclusion, the narration has been so vivid that the reader could see the emotions and the constant tussle that Elisa faces as a woman and a wife. Her life as a woman has been confined to her duties as a gardener, with no affection and love been shown by her husband Henry. This incompleteness in her life leads her to seek solace in her encounter with the tinker where she sees a ray of hope to experience her feminine self.
However, this feel-good experience is short-lived when she says her chrysanthemums that she gifted to the tinker lying on the road. This shattered her dreams of being a free woman, and brings her back to reality. The reality of course is that she is confined to her reserved, unfulfilling, monotonous life as a wife with no children. The pace at which she experienced the highs and lows of her life, in a span of a few hours is note-worthy and adds to the literary value of Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums. ”