From the Side of the Road to the Middle of the Mind:
A Deeper look into the sexuality of Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” and its Literary Criticisms


Reading over this excellent story once more, I am again filled with the same emotion (if it can be called that) that I experienced when first reading it. Steinbeck planned for that. In a letter to George Albee in 1933, Steinbeck comments on this story and his interest in Albee’s opinion of it. “...It is entirely different and is designed to strike without the reader’s knowledge. I mean he reads it casually and after it is finished feels that something profound has happened to him although he does not know what nor how.” I knew after reading this, that Steinbeck is truly a marvel. It is one thing to have enough luck to leave your reader’s with this sense after they’ve read something of yours, but to have it happen to them when you’ve actually planned it! This is incredible.
I was not the only person feel what Steinbeck had planned. And in that group, I was not the only one to want to pick apart this story to find out why I felt this way, what he intended me to feel, and what his story meant taking all things into consideration. when looking at various criticisms, I found a division line that could be made between the sexes. Most women agreed with me and felt the sexual tension apparent in the story. This sexual tension was quiet and sensual. The only men that picked up on this picked out some overtly sexual innuendoes and chose to ignore the subtleties as Eliza’s mood changes and tone of voice. The other men attributed any sexual tension to Eliza’s need for children, which is a valid point, but it ignores too many other things in the story to fit it well.
I found the words of R.S. Hughes to be a little trite. He seemed unable to grasp some uniquely feminine emotions. He doesn’t quite catch onto the eroticism of the story, and in stead, chooses to focus on the more crude innuendoes. “...The chrysanthemum stalks seem to be phallic symbols, and Eliza’s “over-eager” snipping of them suggests castration. Then in the “rooting” bed, Eliza herself becomes masculine, inserting the “little crisp shoots” into open, receptive furrows” (Hughes 235). He goes on explaining how the shoots became Eliza’s children and how she communicates with the tinker on how to care for them. This makes perfect sense, but Eliza seems more concerned with the loss of her own life. For too long, the chrysanthemums have served in place of children. She is looking into reclaiming her own life, not finding another electric connection to live her life through. Hughes seems to ignore this, because all women by nature want to procreate and have children, right? The androgyny of Eliza’s character, however, would suggest otherwise. She isn’t as pulled by that biological need as Hughes would suggest.
Elizabeth E. McMahan is strong in saying that although people will agree that “The Chrysanthemums” is a story of a woman’s frustration, no one can adequately explain why. McMahan attributes the frustration to her unhappiness with her marriage. She explains that although she and Henry have a relationship of “mutual respect,” he has no gift for words and no true understanding of her. McMahan explains that this is the reason for Eliza’s over eager tendencies toward work in the cultivating of her plants and the care she puts into the house -- it is referred to as Steinbeck as “hard-swept” with “hard-polished” windows. McMahan picks up on the fact that Henry and Eliza are caught in a situation of comfort, where he is not even close to being on her emotional or mental level. Henry is not unintelligent by any means. He is just not in tune with Eliza’s hidden needs, and he doesn’t pick up on this complex woman’s subtleties.
Marilyn L. Mitchell sees Eliza’s frustration, also, as unhappiness in her marriage. She sees the division in the marriage that McMahan confronted, but she veers off into a realm where Eliza is dissatisfied with what she has done or has been allowed to do with her life. She converts Eliza’s interaction