Literary Analysis Essay Sample

"The Chrysanthemums": Creation and Frustration

    "The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck is set in the Salinas Valley, California, Steinbeck's home during late autumn or early winter. Steinbeck opens with a bleak description of the landscape:

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 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. (288)

Steinbeck later adds that the farmers of the valley had hopes for rain, "but fog and rain do not go together" (288).  The lack of sun and rain establish the scene as a somewhat desolate one for anyone unfortunate enough to live in the valley.  Steinbeck's protagonist Elisa Allen is such an unfortunate. Elisa's uneventful life lacks purpose and hope of purpose here in Steinbeck's remote wilderness.  While the title of the story, "The Chrysanthemums" hints to readers of life and creation, they are the single bright spot in Elisa's life of frustration.
    Elisa is thirty-five in this story originally published in 1937. She is thirty-five and childless during an era when her childbearing years would be considered long-gone.  Steinbeck's description of Elisa's home alerts us to the fact that she likes to busy herself with the work available to her as a woman:  "Behind her stood the neat white farm house with red geraniums close-banked around it as high as the windows.  It was a hard-swept looking little house, with hard-polished windows, and a clean mud-mat on the front steps" (288).  It is apparent that Elisa has tended to her home as aggressively as she tends to her flowers.  "Her face was eager and mature and handsome; even her work with scissors was over-eager, over-powerful.  The chrysanthemum stems seemed too small and easy for her energy" (288).  Through these descriptions, audiences must conclude that Elisa would enjoy some more enterprising task were it available to her.  Later, however, we meet her husband Henry who has just sold a herd of steers for an acceptable price.  Henry has made enough money that he would like to go out to dinner that night. While Henry is complimentary of Elisa's chrysanthemums, "You've got a strong new crop coming" (289), Henry doesn't offer Elisa any information on the two businessmen visiting Henry and their business deal until Elisa asks  about them, thus, excluding her from his world (289).
    When the unexpected pot mender arrives, Elisa initially has no work for him mending pots or sharpening knives, we assume, because she performs these tasks herself (290-291). The clever pot mender, however, notices Elisa's chrysanthemums: "Kind of a long-stemmed flower?  Looks like a quick puff of colored smoke" (291)?  Elisa is proud of her achievement with the chrysanthemums, "I had ten-inch blooms this year" (291), and as a result, she is eager to share her knowledge of the flowers.  The clever pot mender feigns interest in hopes of convincing Elisa to reconsider whether or not she has work for him.  She speaks passionately to him about caring for the flowers, and he responds to her passion:  "Maybe I know...[s]ometimes in the night in the wagon there--" (292). Fascinated with the freedom of his lifestyle and vagabond existence, Elisa opens up to him, "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" (292).  The reader must conclude that her own life is not fulfilling or she would not respond so intimately to a total stranger, especially one so grisly and crude as the pot mender.
    Following the visit, Elisa immediately bathes and scrubs herself, as though she feels guilty for having revealed so much of herself to the stranger.  She readies herself for the evening out with Henry, who surprises her with his reaction: "Why--why, Elisa.  You look so nice!...you look different, strong and happy....You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon" (294).  This scene alerts the reader to the fact that Henry does not know how to respond to Elisa as a woman.  His comparisons are rather unfeminine and almost comical.  He does not act like a man about to take his wife out for a romantic evening.  Later as they travel down the road, Elisa spies the plant that she has given to the pot mender, lying in the middle of the road.  This final rejection from the pot mender destroys the confidence she had gained in describing her passion to him, and "she turned up her collar so he [Henry] could not see that she was crying weakly--like an old woman" (294).
    Although audiences of today do not often relate to Elisa Allen's isolation, they still understand the frustrations of anyone with unfulfilled dreams or longings.  Elisa obviously wants more than her remote existence has to offer.  And even though Henry is a loyal and devoted husband, he is as impotent as the steers he raises and sells in terms of viewing her as a passionate woman with needs. While some readers view Elisa as a woman with nothing to complain of, others see her solitude as a living hell.  Steinbeck was most likely hopeful when writing "The Chrysanthemums" that students would experience this gamut of reactions because the story speaks of the existence of frustration in even the easiest of lives.  Surely Elisa would have gladly traded most anyone for a more challenging life