Self-Identity Through Symbolism in John Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums"

Essay by Xtina16High School, 12th gradeA-, September 2004

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"The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck illustrates through subtle symbolism a woman's struggle for sexual identity. Elisa Allen, the protagonist of the story, cultivates a likeness of herself through her chrysanthemum garden, but fragments of her are also depicted by key objects encountered during the story. Elisa tries hard to project a tough, masculine image of herself rather than the feminine alternative, but the effort results in nothing but a façade.

"The Chrysanthemums" takes place in Salinas Valley, California, a site of isolation that builds an atmosphere of hopelessness. The winter fog sits "like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot," (Steinbeck 359) which effectively foreshadows what a dead end Elisa's life will reveal itself to be.

Elisa Allen is a woman capable of doing many things but has no outlet to showcase her skills due to the social implications imposed on her by the males of society.

She is physically described as being "thirty-five...her face was lean and strong and her eyes were as clear as water...her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man's black hat pulled low over her eyes" (Steinbeck 360). Elisa can be seen as unhappy with her female role, and her unhappiness as a woman has led her to try to take on both more masculine activities and to put more fervor into the feminine tasks she already does--when she is pruning the chrysanthemum stalks, "her face was eager and mature and handsome; even her work with the scissors was over-eager, over-powerful" (Steinbeck 360), and her home is described as being a "hard-swept looking little house, with hard-polished windows" (Steinbeck 360). Men are generally described as being "handsome," and the adjectives used to describe Elisa's activities reflect the personality of someone who is...