Literary Critique - The Chrysanthemums

John Steinbeck
Photo Credit: Nobel Foundation
(Wikimedia Commons)

John Steinbeck and Overt Symbolism

In Steinbeck’s 1937 story, “The Chrysanthemums,” powerful symbolic imagery forms an underlying message. This Nobel Prize winner wrote to entertain and succeeded in creating the extraordinary.

The chrysanthemums are a symbol of a woman’s dormant sexuality. When a handyman stops by her home looking for work, Elisa’s attraction is apparent as she takes an unusual interest in his skills. She does not offer him a job immediately, but they talk about her flower garden. He likes her mums, and she gives him a bouquet.

Steinbeck reveals a hindered woman trapped in a male-dominated society. “Kneeling there, her hand went out toward his legs in the greasy black trousers. Her hesitant fingers almost touched the cloth. Then her hand dropped to the ground.”

Suggestive and competitive, Elisa’s need for equal status with this virile stranger emerges. She’s dissatisfied with traditional marriage and craves activities designated only for men. Later she notices he has abandoned her chrysanthemums in the road. This may appear to be the action of a rude, ungrateful lowlife, but in Steinbeck’s story the action symbolizes rejection and refusal to allow the woman to participate in a man’s exciting world.

In the end, Elisa resigns herself to a substandard, restricted existence and expresses desire to engage in the once forbidden activity that sheltered wives are allowed. She turns to her husband and says, “It will be enough if we can have wine. It will be plenty.”

Steinbeck’s overt symbolism captures the essence of women in a difficult state of transition as they emerged from the flamboyant, free-spirited 1920s and plummeted into the somber, Depression-ruined 1930s. His depiction of a humiliated rural woman makes a stronger impression than a history textbook.