ers in the works of John Steinbeck, with a special emphasis placed on Elisa Allen, the main character in his short story, “The Chrysanthemums.” Most of Steinbeck’s fiction is concerned with his native California, with the Great Depression and how people endured it, and with the deprivation that farm workers in the west suffered generally (Beegel et al. 54). Many of his novels and short stories take place in the Salinas area, and his characters often reflect the values of the working people–a people willing to work hard, required to endure adversity, and simple in their needs and lifestyles. Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath (1939) perhaps epitomizes this primary concern with “the people” and the land and how they lived their lives as farmers working the land (“Steinbeck” 2).
This essay will offer a very short biographical sketch of Steinbeck, bringing out the themes that seemed to concern him the most. It will then examine three women characters from his other works, including Ma Joad and Rose from The Grapes of Wrath, (1939), and Ruth Tiflin, Jody’s mother in “Leader of the People,” (1945). These women characters have been selected because they help us to set the character of Elisa Allen into a context which emphasizes both her similarities to other Steinbeck women characters and those traits which make her distinctive as a ?Steinbeck woman.’ It will be argued that Elisa Allen’s appearance, actions, and speech depict some typical frustrations of a woman during Steinbeck’s time, but that she is unique in her attempts to liberate herself from Steinbeck’s typically masculine world (Renner 306). As such, Elisa Allen is Steinbeck’s attempt to explore the authentic woman and her world, with all of its frustrations and yearnings for a freer existence.
Steinbeck spent the Great Depression in a house given to him by his father in Pacific Grove, California, where he survived by living on the land. From this vantage point, he composed his first successful novel, Tortilla Flats (1935), a warmly humorous, episodic treatment of the lives of the Mexican-Indian-Caucasian mix people?the paisanos?who lived in the Salinas Valley and whose earthy, uninhibited lives provided a colorful contrast to the valley’s more “respectable” society (Timmerman 84). Thus began a career of attending to the plights and concerns of the workers, and the themes of the workers vs. the bosses, townspeople vs. country people, and past vs. present. Steinbeck is concerned with the simple people who farm the lands, struggling to find a place for themselves in the world. His characters “glow with life,” (“John Steinbeck Page”) and reflect the simple passions of simpler times. Life is hard for these people, and the women are no exception.
A perhaps typical ?Steinbeck woman’ is Ma Joad, the mother of the family traveling west in The Grapes of Wrath. Ma Joad’s strength is apparent in her muscular build, and in her actions and attitudes. Her strength is for her family, and she uses it to encourage them. For example, on the road, Ma Joad says to her starving children: “I’m gonna set this kettle out, an’ you’ll all get a little tas’, but it ain’t gonna do you no good. I can’t he’p it. Can’t keep it from you.” (Grapes ). Her strengths are marshaled to help her family immigrate west. In contrast, we have Rose, abandoned by her husband Connie. Her baby is stillborn, “dropped dead,” typical of the women too weak to endure the hardships of a life of deprivation. Ma Joan and Rose offer a stark contrast to each other, and help us to understand the kinds of women who populate Steinbeck’s fiction. On the one hand, there are the “salt of the earth” women, the strong women who care about their men and who help them. On the other, there are women who are too weak, psychologically or physically, to endure. Their kind is typically disdained by both the stronger women characters, and by the men.
In “The Leader of the People,” Ruth Tiflin, Jody’s mother, is another ?Steinbeck woman.’ Like Ma Joad, she uses her physical strength and her psychological insights to endure hardships and to fight for what she thinks is right for her family members. Ruth stands up to her husband, Carl, when he complains about how her father’s stories of the conquests of the past bore him. She also seems to understand the importance of tradition, and of the needs of those who have given their lives to ?westering.’ “‘Look,’ she tells her husband. ?It’s as if he was born to do that, and after he finished it, there wasn’t anything more for him to do but think about it and talk about it. If there’d been any farther west to go, he’d have gone’….She had caught Carl, caught him and entangled him in her soft tone,” (“Leader” ). Thus, Mrs. Tiflin offers us more than a portrait of a physically strong woman. She is also a fighter, an independent, in her own way, a woman who will speak out against wrongs and who will attempt to right them, “soft-toned” though she may be. She is soft-toned because she does not do these things for herself so much as she does them for her “men”?in Mrs. Tiflin’s case, for her father, and for her son, Jody. Still, she speaks out, and as such, she represents a ?woman with a mind of her own,’ potentially whole.
“The Chrysanthemums”, which first appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1937 (Osbourne 479), was included in a loosely knit, episodic collection of short stories published at the end of the Great Depression called The Long Valley (Osbourne 479). This classic collection, published in 1938, serves as an introduction to Steinbeck country, linking the sturdy folks who populate its pages to the qualities of the land itself (Timmerman 88). Taking place on Henry Allen’s ranch east of Salinas, “Chrysanthemums” is about a woman, Elisa Allen, whose narrow life is concerned primarily with care-taking?of her home, her husband, and her garden. Elisa is a typically strong ?Steinbeck woman.’ Her strength may be like that of the land she lives on:
The high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot. On the broad, level land floor the gang plows bit deep and left the black earth shining like metal where the shares had cut. On the foothill ranches across the Salinas River, the yellow stubble fields seemed to be bathed in pale cold sunshine, but there was no sunshine in the valley now in December. (“Chrysanthemums”)
Like the land, Elisa is “closed off” from the rest of the world. It is winter, now, and there is little for her to do, so she is at work in her garden. And also like the “black earth,” Elisa is “shining like metal,” at work in her “closed pot” of a world.
Our first introduction to Elisa is in the garden:
She was thirty-five. Her face was lean and strong and her eyes were as clear as water. Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man’s black hat pulled low down over her eyes, clodhopper shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron with four big pockets” (“Chrysanthemums”).
Here, Elisa’s femininity is hidden behind her work clothes, her figure “blocked and heavy,” and her female attributes subsumed under the gardening costume. What makes this description noteworthy is its focus on the characteristics that have enabled Elisa to survive. She wears a “man’s black hat,” and her dress is “almost completely covered.” The covered dress symbolizes the fact that Elisa’s strength, almost masculine at the opening of the story, will transform. The strength combined with her love of her creation, her flowers?the “masculine” and the “feminine”–could be the very thing to push her to try for “more” than a woman can dare to hope for.
Elisa is frustrated as a woman, and so has taken on masculine qualities, so she is first depicted as a woman whose strengths are really too much for the tasks at hand. “She was cutting down the old year’s chysanthemum stalks with a pair of short and powerful scissors,” the reader learns. She has too much energy for the job. “Her face was eager and mature and handsome; even her work with the scissors was over-eager, over-powerful. The chrysanthemum stems seemed too small and easy for her energy.” Thus, we get a sense, early on, of Elisa’s promise, of her potential. But it is also checked and limited by her circumstances and by her stereotypical role as a woman, and as a farmer’s wife.
A tinker comes on the scene. Elisa’s first response to his overtures as a salesman is in her masculine guise?she simply tells him she has no work for him. But he persists, and he finds her “soft spot,” her chrysanthemums. While it is possible to interpret Elisa’s “love” for the chrysanthemums as her need to mother, (she has no children), it is also possible to see her love for her flowers as an expression of the creative female principle (Renner 307). In the next paragraphs, we witness Elisa’s flirtation with this tinker, who is really only interested in making a sale. But he succeeds in gaining access to her emotional side, her “feminine” side, and lets go of her need to control the situation.
As her “creative female” side emerges in the presence of the tinker, Elisa’s character undergoes a dramatic change. Her love for the natural beauty of the flowers?for her own feminine side?combines with her natural strength, and a whole woman begins to emerge. Let us track this process as it reveals itself. Her female, receptive side is revealed as she notices the size and sheer physical presence of the tinker, “Elisa saw that he was a very big man. Although his hair and beard were greying, he did not look old….He took off his battered hat.” With this felt urge to open up, Elisa stands up and “shoves the thick scissors in her apron pocket.” She shields the symbol of her energy and strength, as if the world weren’t ready to see it.
It is not the tinker or his attentions that interest her. Instead, it is the sharing of what she has grown from the bitter, hard earth, her chrysanthemums, a symbol of her potential for wholeness. When the tinker says that he knows someone who would like her flowers (in an attempt to gain her sympathy and get some work), she opens up to him like a flower in the sun, “The irritation and resistance melted from Elisa’s face.” Her eyes grow “eager and alert,” and Elisa’s enthusiasm for the sharing of the flower buds grows with her excitement at the possibility of such expansion.
The promise comes to a high point as Elisa transfers the symbolic chrysanthemum buds to the tinker. She doesn’t know whether he will understand her meaning, but she confides in him that she has “planting hands,” hands that “know” what the earth needs and wants. At this moment, she is at her best. She knows that she can be both strong and receptive, that she can be whole:
Elisa’s voice grew husky. She broke in on him. 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.” (“Chrysanthemums”).
At this moment, Elisa has access to the larger picture, and she knows what it means to be masculine and feminine, to be assertive and receptive. The “pointed star” merges with her “body” in her imagination’s world, and she knows the freedom of her potential for wholeness. Elisa’s husband re-enters the scene at this significant moment, and he notices that she has changed. “I am strong” she boasts. “I never knew before how strong.”
Elisa’s dream of wholeness ends here, though, almost as soon as it began. For she is a ?Steinbeck woman,’ and her strength must be given to others, like the land gives itself to help the people. To attempt to retain it, and to become more than the stereotypical role as a care-giver is not possible. But that Elisa dares to dream it is evident in the closing paragraphs of the short story. She explores what is possible. She dares to ask her husband for wine with dinner. She dares to ask what happens at the wrestling match. She imagines?but doesn’t dare to follow through on?a moment when she might join the world of men, the world where action and energy have a place, an expression, and an acceptance. This world is not for Elisa. “‘It must be nice,’ she said [to the tinker], ?It must be very nice. I wish women could do such things.” (“Chrysanthemums”). Elisa realizes her hopes for equality are only a dream, because in the world she populates, there is no other place for a strong woman with dreams of her own.
Hence, it can be argued that Elisa Allen is Steinbeck’s most “feminist” female, a woman who, like all of his strong women, is like the earth, strong, steady, and reliable. But Elisa is different than the others, too, for she has a dream of being more. In the “winter” of the world of “The Chrysanthemums,” Elisa imagines herself free to go where she desires, and to try whatever her wild and free heart tells her to try. As such, she foreshadows women who will step out and become “their own women” in later days, in the pages of other novelists’ works. For Steinbeck to have noticed the strength and extraordinary fragility of Elisa’s dream of wholeness is to have accomplished something, however, for Elisa is the harbinger of great women characters who will follow in her footsteps, who will have the social circumstances that enable them to enter that man’s world, and to explore their potential within it.
Beegel, Susan F., Susan Shillinglaw and Wesley N. Tiffney, Jr. Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.
“John Steinbeck.” Access Indiana Teaching & Learning Center. 1998. 5 April 2000. *http://www.tlc.ai.org/steinbec.htm*
“John Steinbeck Page.” Bibliography Webpages. 1999. 5 April 2000. *http://www.kghc.org/hula/amltt/steinbeck.htm*
Osbourne, William R. “The Texts of Steinbeck’s ?The Chrysanthemums.'” Modern Fiction Studies 12 (1966-67): 479-84.
Renner, Stanley. “The Real Woman Inside The Fence In ?The Chrysanthemums.'” Modern Fiction Studies 31 (1985): 305-17.
Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums” from The Long Valley. Penguin: 1986.
___________. The Grapes of Wrath. Penguin: 1976.
___________. “The Leader of the People,” from The Long Valley. Penguin: 1986.
Timmerman, John H. The Dramatic Landscape of Steinbeck’s Short Stories. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.