John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums”

Posted: November 27th, 2013





John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums”


Gender inequality

“The Chrysanthemums” has many underlying themes one of them being the theme of gender inequality. The story is a critique of a society that has demeaned its women. The society is filled with male chauvinists who give their women little regard. This is seen in the way the society fails to appreciate the qualities of Elisa, as she is smart, energetic, attractive, and ambitious. On the contrary, we find two key men who do not exhibit such qualities like Elisa being more successful in the society than she is. The gender inequality is depicted in the way we see Henry managing the ranch, eking out a living for the family yet he is not as intelligent as Elisa is.

Elisa is relegated to the role of being a subordinate member. Henry refuses to treat her as equals. He informs her on the on goings of the ranch and does not involve her in any decision making. The story even portrays Tinker as more intelligent than Henry yet it is clear that he does not match up to Elisa’s spirit and passion. Elisa even goes ahead to confess that he cannot match up to her thinking. However, Tinker gets the opportunity to explore and travel the countryside instead of Elisa. He travels across the country in the belief that adventure is unfit for women.

Importance of sexual fulfillment

Another theme that is highlighted in the story is that of the importance of sexual fulfillment. The story highlights that need for sexual fulfillment is very influential and its pursuit can lead to men performing unnatural acts. Elisa and Henry are a married couple. However, instead of treating each other passionately, they end up treating each other as siblings or mere friends. Their relationship lacks any romance or passion. The lack of passion in her relationship renders her depiction as a robust nature coupled with fertility and sexuality useless. This however, does not interfere with her character as a sexual, normal and enviable person.

The lack of passion from her marriage leads into having an obsession to Tinker. This obsession is very powerful and uncontrollable. It can be seen in her conversations with tinker while looking at the stars. Her conversation is illicit and very strong; it could be described as nearly pornographic. Her acts are also very suggestive as she takes a posture that depicts sexual submission. The narrator describes it as that of a fawning frog. In the end, her unfulfilled desires lead her into more traumatized state than the pleasure itself.

The major characters in the story are Elisa Allen, her husband, and the Tinker. The writer manages to develop them into three-dimensional by giving them humanistic attributes and placing them in realistic situations. Elisa Allen is a major character in the story. She is a major character in the novel because through her we get to see how women are oppressed in the society. It is also through her that the characters of other major characters in the story are established like that of her husband and Tinker. She is depicted as having the humanistic characters of being interesting, intelligent, and passionate. She is a woman who lives a very unsatisfied and unappreciated life. Despite her intelligence, she does not have a career to pursue or a business to run. The writer manages to depict Elisa as a three dimensional character by giving her contrasting personalities. This makes it impossible for the reader to put her in a box or stereotype her. She is depicted as both having a strong and rough exterior and at the same time retaining a sense of compelling beauty (Steinbeck, line 6, 348). This is seen in the way that she gently tenders to her flower garden and at the same time depicted as a strong manipulative woman who uses her wit to get her way.

Her efforts are thwarted and are constantly ignored as if she is not worth any sense. She is totally left in the sidelines in the running of the ranch. She is not consulted nor is she included in any decision making in the running of the ranch. All her efforts to try to participate in the running of the farm are frustrated by the condescending remarks by her husband. Her own motherly attributes are also left to waste, as she does not have any children of her own to foster. She is denied the chance of traveling and getting to experience the countryside. She therefore dedicates her efforts into tending the garden and her home. Her dedication and pride in her garden is highly exaggerated. It shows what all her worth has been reduced to.

The other major character in the story “the chrysanthemum” is Henry Allen. Is the husband to Elisa Allen. The writer manages to depict Henry as a three dimensional character by displaying character traits that are conflicting. We see him appreciating his wife’s gardening skills and at the same time we see him giving her condescending remarks and demeaning her. He treats his wife kindly and even makes the effort of taking her out occasionally in the evenings yet we get to see that he does not have sexual relations with the wife leaving her feeling neglected. He is depicted as being a very moderate man but who is unable to fulfill the needs of his own wife. He does make the effort of providing for his family by managing the farm and taking his wife out on several occasions. This could be considered very commendable for any caring husband. He tries his best to treat his wife with the utmost respect. He even goes to the lengths of speaking well of his wife, he constantly complements her and gives her praises. By any standards, he could be considered as the perfect husband by many women. On the contrary, his wife does not appreciate this but feels very inadequate and unfulfilled (Crane, 35-41).

He fails to realize the potential of the wife to run the ranch and other more meaningful duties. He instead leaves her to tend to her little garden and other household chores. Henry is used by the narrator to represent the patriarchal man who is chauvinistic in nature and has low expectation on women. He does not see women as equals and ends up running everything on his own. This is because he does not have enough faith in her potential. He refutes her efforts at trying to contribute in the ranch with condescending remarks. He is of the traditional nature that believes that women are soft and men are rough. He is a sure depiction of the typical societal male who believes that men and women cannot be equals.

The Tinker is another major character in the story. He is depicted as both exciting and smart. He is ignorant in that he did not go through the education curriculum. This is seen in how misspells the advertisement for kitchen implements and repairs. He is person who loves to flirt with Elisa even though he knows that she is married to Henry. He is also a chauvinist who has low opinion about women. This is seen on his view that traveling adventure is meant for men. Women are not meant for such but are to be left at home tending to the house chores.

He is very clever and witty. This is because he able to use his canny nature to successfully convince the Elisa who is very skeptical to offer him employment. He uses his cunningness by first begging Elisa for employment. After he has secured employment, he ends up flattering her. He is able to manipulate the manipulator. This is because he managers to manipulate Elisa who was known to manipulate her husband. It could be argued that the Tinker does not posses these qualities and they are just an imagination of Elisa. This is because Elisa is so desperate to find someone who understands her and is a worthy partner. The story goes ahead to show the Tinker throwing away the chrysanthemum shoots. These are a symbolism to Elisa herself. This shows that the Tinker does not share the same passions and interests with Elisa.

Historical Era (Time Period)

The story is based in the period of the nineteenth century. The historical context of the “The Chrysanthemums” was the era around the year 1934. During this time, America had suffered a great economic slump and was just recovering from it. The great depression resulted in the crumbling of the New York stock market in the year 1929. The effect of the economic slump rippled throughout the entire world. Many people lost their jobs and ended up starting their own businesses (Davidson, 41-50). The story depicts this time because we see that neither Henry nor the wife is employed. They own a ranch in which they eek out their living from. From the clothing that the wife is adorning, we get to see that they are not very wealthy which was common with many a folk at that time. The story is successful in depicting this period. The story highlights the struggle and limitations that were imposed on the nineteenth century woman. The society then was very patriarchal and the men were chauvinists. The author is able depict the characters and symbolism to create images and lifestyles of the way life was in the nineteenth century. The women are depicted as second-class citizens who do not have the ability to make any solid decisions. Thus, decisions on issues that pertain to them are made by the men.

Flannery O’Connor: “Good Man Is Hard to Find Study Guide”


Salvation and redemption can only be made through faith

The story “A Good Man is hard to Find” is a grotesque writing that has a couple of major underlying themes. One of the major themes is that salvation and redemption can only be made through faith. The author highlights no matter the gravity of ones iniquities, one can obtain redemption and the remission of ones sins by accepting Jesus Christ and having faith in him. This is seen in the way the old woman reaches out for the misfit and takes him as one of her very own young children. Because of this leap of faith, she obtains salvation and the remission of her sins. All her wayward past is completed remitted against her. This included her selfishness, racist mentality and falsehood. Her act illustrated her contrite acceptance of Jesus as savior and hence her consequent sainthood. Due to this act, she becomes what the story describes as the “good man” who is hard to find”. The misfit on the other hand refuses to accept Christ for the remission of his sins and continues to reject Christ (Asals, line 24, 54).

 Breakdown of moral values

Another dominant theme is that of breakdown of values. The characters in the story behave in such a manner that suggests that the there is total moral decadence in the society that they are living in. the children are morally decadent yet the parents do not seem in any way appalled by their wayward behavior. We get to see the two siblings Wesley and June acting as hellions and having a very sassy attitude. Although it is common to see mischievous kids, what strikes the most is the way the parents act indifferent to their children’s immoral behaviors. This goes to show that this kind of behavior is an acceptable norm in this society. The society is also concerned with the wrongs of other people but is blind to its own. We find Bailey’s mother complaining of the way people have changed but is not concerned to notice her own shortcomings. She is nagging, constantly gives false information, and primps.

The writer manages to depict grandmother as a three dimensional character by giving her contrasting personalities. This makes it impossible for the reader to put her in a box or stereotype her. The grandmother in the story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is depicted as self righteous egotistical person. She deems herself as morally upright. She considers herself to be above the rest on the mere basis that she is a woman. She uses this condescending attitude to pass judgment on others. She believes that her conscience to be the source of guidance to her life. She tells Bailey that her conscience would not allow her to take her children in the same path that the misfit was taking. This shows that her conscience was pure and always obeyed it for decision-making. The irony of it all is the same conscious was not pointing to her personal flaws. She constantly reprimands the mother for not rearing the kids in a place where they could broaden their thinking. The three dimensional nature of her character is depicted at the end when she is seen as humble, remorseful and apologetic. (Orvell, 117-124).

One of the major characters in the story is Bailey. He is the son to the main character to the story. He is also father to June and Star. He is depicted as an indifferent father. This is because he is not perturbed by the wayward behavior of his children. He fails to discipline his own children even in the sight of their moral decadence. He is also very reserved as we get to see him being pushed and bossed around by his mother without his complaining. He is easily convinced to go out and visit an old house. He is also very unresponsive to the wife. He reluctantly accepts his wife to take advantage of him. His apparel is symbolic of his character. He adorns a yellow that has two parrots printed on them. This is probably a symbol to his cowardly nature (Johansen, 25-27).

Historical Era (Time Period)

Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” was written in the year 1953 and published in the year 1955. This time represented height of racism, segregation and the civil rights movement. During this time, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and other activists were conducting rallies and demonstration against the state of racism against the African Americans in the United States of America. This was fueled by the death of some activists in the riots and the inspiring speeches of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The story depicts this period in time because we see the underlying theme in the story is one of racism. We get to see the grandmother making racist remarks towards the misfit. The term misfit itself could be termed as a racist remark against this person (Davidson, 110-117).

An alternative ending to Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

The story “A Good Man is hard to Find” has a very tragic ending. In the end, the grandmother recognizes the driver to be the misfit who proceeds to shoot her three times. Since the story is about religion, a more suitable ending would be that the misfit spares the life of the old woman. The misfit ought to have had remorse on the old lady because at the moment, she seemed to have changed ways. This ending would be suitable because it would reflect he message of forgiveness that the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was preaching about. The African Americans were known to be his staunch followers hence the misfit’s show of remorse would identify with the typical African Americans at the time.





Works Cited

Asals, Frederick. Flannery O’Connor: The Imagination of Extremity. Atlanta, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2007. Print.

Crane, Milton. 50 great short stories. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1983. Print.

Davidson. American history. Canada: Glencoe / Macmillan, 2001. Print.

Johansen, Ruthann K. “O’Connor’s Episodic Tales of Sin.” Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers: Flannery O’Connor. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999. Print.

Orvell, Miles. “A Critical Study of ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’.” Readings on Flannery O’Connor. San Diego: Greenhaven Press Inc., 2001. Print.

Roberts, Edgar V. Writing About Literature. Brief 11th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2006. Print.

Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums.” A Prentice Hall Pocket Reader: Literature Ed. Mary McAleer Balkun. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Person, 2005. Print.















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