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Posted on June 14th, 2012, by

The Chrysanthemums is a symbolic short story written by Steinbeck in 1938. The main character of this story is Elisa, who lives in isolation with her husband on a ranch. She tries to gain the popularity among people but all her attempts are futile. Her only comfort and joy is her garden with beautiful chrysanthemums. These flowers symbolize Elisa’s inner state it does not change all the year, as these flowers stay unchanging in the garden. Elise’s existence is empty and the author uses the symbol of chrysanthemums to show it. All this short story is full of different symbols, which play an important role in delivering the author’s message.

The main character tries to find her place in the male world; she wants to realize her female role in the surrounding society. She is depressed by her surrounding, while her garden gives her power and energy.

The image of fog at the beginning of the story is not accident: The high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world (Steinbeck 146). It symbolizes the closed society with all its restrictions and boundaries. Elisa’s garden is surrounded by the fence, so Elisa’s soul is surrounded by the numerous social restrictions. She can not be free and open her heart for the world. There are a lot of narrow paths in her garden and she follow these paths, as well as she must not cross social boundaries and change her path. The society limits person’s freedom, depresses his or her desires making him or her moving in one direction.

Elisa tries to cross these boundaries and her own garden with chrysanthemums can prove it: her care about these flowers symbolizes the development of her individuality, which arouses above the social norms. Her garden is unique and it is the result of her efforts. Elisa is able to resist the pressure of her environment. Her care of the garden also means her desire to be a mother and have children. She does not have children and it is really a serious test for her.

She gives these flowers all her love and care which she could have given her children. She protects chrysanthemums from any possible danger: Back at the chrysanthemum bed she pulled out the little crisp shoots, trimmed off the leaves of each one with her scissors and laid it on a small orderly pile (Steinbeck 148). She puts a small fence to protect them from cats and dogs, she does not allow any snails or bugs to get to her flowers: she behaves as a mother treating and protecting her children.

Chrysanthemums are a symbol of her motherhood and femininity. She lacks this femininity in her real life and realizes it in such a way. In the story we have Elisa’s masculine image in front of our eyes. This becomes obvious in her clothes style: Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man’s black hat pulled low down over her eyes, clod-hopper shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron (Steinbeck 148). Her husband does not feel her female nature and can not realize her femininity and this becomes the main obstacle in their relations. He does not understand her and they live in two parallel worlds which are not connected. Elisa is absorbed in her thoughts and this meditation helps her realize her femininity.

Her flowers help her inner transformation: when the tinker raises chrysanthemums, Elisa thinks that he admires her. Her male image disappears and she appears in a new transformed image. Even her husband notices these changes: Whywhy, Elisa. You look so nice! I mean you look different, strong and happy (Steinbeck 153). She feels hope for her happy future: now Elisa believes that her husband Henry will appreciate her as a woman. Nevertheless, these hopes soon disappear, when she sees her flowers on the road. This symbolic scene is very meaningful: her flowers are pulled up and her hopes are destroyed. She understands that she will never be able to express her real sexuality and femininity and that her husband will never treat her as a real woman.

Steinbeck’s short story The Chrysanthemums creates the image of the main character, Elisa, with the help of numerous symbols. Steinbeck chooses these symbols so carefully that they help to see the whole image of the character at the end of the story. Steinbeck leaves the end open. We do not know anything about Elisa’s future and destroyed hopes. The author leaves his readers a chance to think over the ending.

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