John Steinbeck’s The Chrysanthemums focuses on the theme of gender roles and the discrimination of women based on their gender. The author tells the story of Elisa, who is trapped in her roles and responsibilities of being a perfect wife and housekeeper that is expected to take care of her family and do everything that her husband wishes. The wishes of the woman to have a career as a tinker are immediately dismissed under the pretense that she is not the woman that could do such things (Steinbeck 344).
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Therefore, no matter how eager Elisa is to develop as an individual and pursue activities that are outside of her gender roles, the man controlling her life does not allow her to do anything of personal value for her (Sweet 211). Thus, the theme of gender roles and the relationships between husbands and wives is raised in the story, showing an immense degree of control that men have over the life of women.
Diminishing Women’s Role
Being controlled by her husband due to stereotypical gender norms, Elisa feels isolated within her responsibilities of being a wife (Schultz and Li 52). Living on a farm far from social life, she rarely speaks with other people, wishing that her work would bring some degree of satisfaction: “Her eyes sharpened. “Maybe I could do it, too. I’ve a gift with things, all right” (Steinbeck 339). Despite her abilities, she is frustrated and lonely but still interacts with her husband civilly and politely, but only on a surface level.
Despite the isolation and frustration, all feelings are kept quiet and to herself, which is a method that Steinbeck uses for encouraging readers to intuit the protagonist’s frustration and loneliness based on her actions and thoughts, instead of describing them directly. The issue of women not opening themselves to new life opportunities is something that many of them face even today. There are numerous instances of husbands controlling their wives under the pretense that women should stay at home and do everything to maintain the house and the entire family in perfect conditions. Thus, similar to Elisa, who understands her abilities but is afraid of breaking free from oppression, many women cannot live to their full potential because of doubt and fear.
The sadness of Elisa’s story is associated with the fact that she is a smart and talented woman who can do much more than being just a wife (George 103). She is quick-witted, with a great degree of intellectual dexterity. This is shown in her conversation with the tinker regarding his dog: “The man in the wagon seat called out. ‘That’s a bad dog in a fight when he gets started.’ Elisa laughed. ‘I see he is. How soon does he generally get started?” (Steinbeck 340).
When interacting with the outside world, Elisa is eager to have a conversation and joke around. However, when speaking to her husband, her conversations are predominantly mundane and banal, which shows her lack of interest and passion for being with that man. The lack of passion for interacting with the man with whom she lives suggests that Elisa has no interest in her family life as it is. If her husband was more supportive of her beginnings and ambitions, she would interact with him differently. This shows that positive relationships within families depend on the support for each other’s ambitions and desires. The relationship between Elisa and her husband lacks compassion and understanding because they are based on mere housework.
The final pages of the story are controversial regarding Elisa’s ultimate fate, as illustrated in the quote: “It will be enough if we can have wine. It will be plenty.’ She turned up her collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly – like an old woman” (Steinbeck 348). While some believe that she was defeated by societal norms and expectations of her as a woman, others state that she will inevitably become a complete and fulfilled person. The request for wine from Elisa represents an increased sense of the woman’s independence that can facilitate her personal development and success in life. At the same time, such a way of speaking up may seem subdued, for Elisa, the direct request for having something so minor as wine is a way to break free from being continuously quiet and obedient.
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The theme of the dominance of men over women in family life is the issue that Steinbeck wanted to put to the general discussion. The oppression of women and their diminishing to the mere roles of child-bearers or housekeepers is rooted in the history of society, with Elisa’s example not being an exception. However, as the story progresses, the protagonist understands the importance of being her own woman and making small but effective steps toward reaching that goal. The protagonist eventually acknowledges the importance of being vocal in her interactions with the husband in order to live the life she wants to live.
George, Stephen. The Moral Philosophy of John Steinbeck. The Scarecrow Press, 2005.
Schultz, Jeffrey, and Luchen Li. Critical Companion to John Steinbeck: A Literary Reference to His Wife and Work. Facts on File, 2005.
Steinbeck, John. The Chrysanthemums and Other Stories. Penguin, 1995.
Sweet, Charles A. Jr. “Ms. Elisa Allen and Steinbeck’s The Chrysanthemums.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 20, no. 2, 1974, pp. 210-214.