Symbolism in “The Chrysanthemums”
John Steinbeck is a very well known author. One of his many short stories includes “The Chrysanthemums.” This story is about a strong woman named Elisa Allen who is frustrated with her present life. Her frustration comes from not having a child and from her husband not admiring her as a woman. The only way she can let out her frustrations is through her flower garden with her beautiful chrysanthemums. Steinbeck uses the chrysanthemums as symbols of the inner-self of Elisa Allen.
First, the chrysanthemums symbolize Elisa’s “children.” She tends her garden and handles the chrysanthemums with love and care, just as she would handle her own children. Elisa is protective of her flowers and places a fence around them; she makes sure that “no aphids, no sowbugs or snails or cutworms” are there. “Her terrier fingers destroyed such pests before they could get started” (221). These pests represent something that harms the flowers, and she removes them before they can harm her “children.” The chrysanthemums are symbolic of her children, and she is very proud of them. She is happy and pleased by her ability to nurture the chrysanthemums as she would her children.
Second, the chrysanthemums symbolize Elisa’s femininity. The idea of Elisa caring for the flowers as though they are her children is clearly a feminine thing, but her masculine side shows in her “hard-swept and hard-polished” house (221). This idea is carried into her relationship with her husband. She does not feel as if her husband, Henry, appreciates her. Henry fails to see his short-comings, yet Elisa fails to point them out to him. There is an obvious lack of harmony between them. When Henry observes her beautiful chrysanthemums, all he can say is, “I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big” (221). Henry’s lack of admiration for Elisa allows her to become vulnerable to the peddler. The peddler shows an interest in the chrysanthemums when he describes them as a “quick puff of colored smoke” (223). By admiring the chrysanthemums, he figuratively admires Elisa Allen. During her encounter with the peddler, “she tore off the battered hat and shook out her dark pretty hair” (224). The peddler makes her feel feminine again. By giving him the pot, she gives him the symbol of her inner-self. She begins to feel hope as the peddler leaves. After the peddler leaves, she washes herself and scrubs herself until she is clean. She dresses up nice and prepares for her night out with her husband. This preparation process symbolizes that she is preparing for a change in her life. She is looking forward to the evening with her husband.
In conclusion, the chrysanthemums symbolize Elisa’s role as a woman. First, they symbolize her children that she does not have. Second, the chrysanthemums represent her femininity. She feels frustrated with her life because children and romance are missing in her marriage with Henry. The encounter with the peddler brings her hope, but that hope shatters when she sees the flowers in the road. The flowers in the road are a symbol that her life is not going to change.