She was wearing “a man’s black hat…clod-hopper shoes, heavy leather gloves” and “a big corduroy apron” doing her best to cover up her femininity. In John Steinbeck’s short story, “The Chrysanthemums”, we are introduced to Elisa Allen. Elisa is living during a period after the Great Depression when women’s rights issues were becoming a topic of public concern. Steinbeck uses the character Elisa Allen to portray the women’s struggle for equality. She is a woman deprived of social, personal and sexual fulfillment in a male-dominated world. Elisa struggles to find satisfaction in her womanhood and a desire to escape from her isolated world.
“She was thirty-five. Her face was eager and mature and handsome…her figure looked blocked and heavy…” Elisa seems to be very masculine in appearance, and envious of the male authority. She has a very strong character and wishes to be independent and free herself. She struggles with the idea of women being inferior to men and feels that she must live up to what society believes a woman should be, passive. Elisa is unhappy and bored with the traditional roles she must play being a woman and frequently tries to behave as a man would. In several points in the story, she seems to take on a masculine role. For instance, when the man looking for work came by the house, she took authority and told him sternly “I tell you I have nothing like that for you to do”, a typical male response. She shows her strong qualities as she refuses him work making her feel like she has authority over him. Elisa tries so hard to be equal to her husband; she works so hard in her garden as he works on the farm. He compliments her garden, “you’ve got a strong new crop coming”, making her feel that she is equal to him in her eyes. However he returns with “I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big”, completely neglecting her prize possession, her chrysanthemums, and unknowingly disrespecting her. She fights for his attention and acceptance throughout the story. This makes her turn weaker and weaker until the point where she does not care anymore and accepts the fact that she is a woman and consequently, inferior.
“On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made the great valley a closed pot.” Steinbeck is showing how isolated Elisa feels and how hard it would be to escape the “pressure of the closed pot”. In many parts of the story she seems very frustrated and trapped with her life and has a need to let go. She envies the freedom of the visitor, “you sleep right in the wagon…it must be nice”. However, he reminds her of her sexuality by saying “it ain’t the right kind of a life for a woman”. Elisa becomes very defensive by this remark, the feeling of hopelessness comes over her and she realizes that she is indeed inferior to men.
Elisa tends her garden with care and finds happiness and strength in it. Figuratively speaking, it takes the place of the children she does not have; it defines her sexuality and femininity. She cares for her flowers so delicately and motherly, placing a “wire fence that protected her flower garden”. This wire fence symbolizes her isolation from the rest of the world as well as her closed off heart towards her husband. Elisa waits for the time when she will be appreciated and desired by her husband. She hungers for a man to accept her femininity and instill an acceptance in her sexuality. The man looking for work tests her sexuality and begins to weaken her masculine character. He acknowledges her chrysanthemums, it “looks like a quick puff of colored smoke”, he remarks, touching her feminine side. This makes her feel comfortable about being a woman. Elisa allows her feminine nature to take over as she gives the man some seeds and explains how to care for them; “these will take root in about a month…now you remember this”. This is unquestionably a woman-like characteristic, being so sensitive during a business transaction, whereas men are usually very serious and unemotional. Elisa finally seems to be content with her sexuality, just because one man took an interest in her and what she does.
Taking a shower, “she scrubbed herself…until her skin was scratched and red”, washing away the masculinity and realizing “I am strong”. She finally realizes the strength in her womanhood. When she dresses “she puts on her newest under-clothing and her nicest stockings and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness”. Elisa is happy by the way she looks, however, she is displeased when her husband describes her as “nice”, she is more satisfied when he uses the words “strong and happy”. As Elisa and her husband made there way out for the evening Elisa’s self-esteem and satisfaction in herself quickly ceased. “Elisa saw a dark speck. She knew”, it was her prized chrysanthemums on the side of the road. Elisa feels weak, betrayed and feminine once again. This was the lowest point of her sexuality, causing her to withdraw back into a delicate, unconfident woman for the last time. She attempts to regain strength in herself by bringing up the fights to Henry. She’s trying to show an interest in something he can relate to, attempting to put them at the same level. The attempt goes unsuccessfully, he immediately crushes her effort by saying “I don’t think you’d like it”. She finally comes to the conclusion that she will always be a passive female who is inferior to men. “She turned up her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly — like an old woman.”
Throughout the short story Elisa Allen suffers through the feelings of inferiority in a world of male domination. She goes from having masculine characteristics to positive female ones and finally regresses to a low point of weakness and inadequacy. All she ever wanted was to be appreciated and noticed by men at an equal level, however, it never happened. Many women suffered, like Elisa, during this point in history. Steinbeck portrays the women of the past through Elisa’s isolated life in which she can not change. Inside she feels that she is a strong, dominant, female, but she never gets the opportunity to have her accomplishments noticed. After many failed attempts to bring herself to the same level as the men in her life, she sadly realizes that she will never be able to live up to her expectations she has for herself. Life was difficult for women during the 1930’s, however, without their fight for equality, women today wouldn’t have the great freedom and equality they possess.