The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck
In The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck we have the theme of opportunity, dissatisfaction, gender roles, boredom, responsibility and equality. Taken from his The Long Valley collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Steinbeck may be exploring the theme of boredom. Elisa though she is working and planting the Chrysanthemums most likely would prefer to do a job on the farm that is not gender defined. Similarly the only other work that Elisa does is in the family home. It is as though she is a victim a male dominated society. Something that sits uncomfortably with Elisa. She knows that she is being judged simply because she is a woman yet she feels as though she should be treated as a man is treated. In Elisa’s eyes there is no difference. She is able to do the work of her husband yet never gets the opportunity to do so. It is for this reason that the reader senses as though Elisa may be bored while tending to the chrysanthemums. Elisa would not be alone. At the time the story was written many women who have had to take on the role that was deemed suitable to them with their husbands taking on the tasks that were not seen as befitting to a woman.
If anything Elisa may feel dissatisfied with her life with each day being the same. Something that is noticeable when the tinker comes. Elisa continues to talk to the tinker more out of boredom than anything else. It would not be often that Elisa would have visitors to the farm so every stranger who arrived meant for an opportunity to engage with the stranger. How lonely or bored Elisa may actually be is noticeable by the fact that she gets one of her pots repaired when she originally had no intention of doing so. It is as though Elisa is desperate to keep the tinker talking for as long as possible. The fact that Elisa is not afraid of the tinker who in reality is a complete stranger to Elisa may also be significant as it may suggest that Elisa does not fear any man. To her she is the equal of any man. However the simple fact is that she does not get the same opportunities as men. With her role on the farm being already defined.
Though some critics might suggest that Henry at times can treat (innocently) Elisa to be like a little girl this might be important as it suggests that Henry in reality does not view Elisa as a peer. Most likely due to the traditional values or learnt behaviours of a generation men who have influenced Henry. Henry can see Elisa as both as a girl and a woman. Something that is noticeable when Elisa changes into her dress to go to the movies. It is as though Henry is allowing the clothes that Elisa is wearing to define her. When clothes regardless of who wears them should not be the tool used to define another person. If anything Elisa is pleasing to Henry’s eye but the narrator makes no mention of Elisa appealing to Henry’s intellect. Which would further suggest that at the time the story was written male and females had very different roles to play in society. The fact that Elisa also knows she is strong might also be important as it would suggest that Elisa is full of confidence. Despite the fact that she is not treated equally by Henry on the farm.
The end of the story is also interesting as Elisa begins to ask Henry about the boxing match. Though she does not wish to go to the boxing match she appears to be intrigued at how two grown men could hit each other in the name of sport. For Elisa boxing is not a sport that she would like to watch. She sees no point in it. This may be important as in many ways Elisa’s feminine nature is taking control. Though there may be some women who like boxing. Elisa is not one of them. She would much prefer to go to the cinema with Henry and enjoy herself. Also the benefit of going to the cinema is the fact that Elisa can escape from the world around her for an hour or two. She does not have to remind herself of the injustices she feels living in a world that is dominated by the male. Though Elisa likes to be as independent as possible she is still reliant on Henry. However there is a sense that Elisa would like more responsibility when it comes to the running and management of the farm. She knows that she can do the work. She just needs to be given the opportunity to do so. In reality Elisa is looking for the same opportunity that many women of her generation are looking for. Simply to be treated as an equal.