John Steinbeck (1902-1968) is a notable author of Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. His books are often set in California (especially Salinas Valley) and have a focus on the Depression era, the Dust Bowl and migrant workers. Mr. Steinbeck received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1940 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962.
In “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck, setting helps to show the character of Elisa Allen as a hard-working woman who has, to this point, placed her attractiveness on the back burner.
Elisa Allen, wife of farmer Henry Allen, is a hard-working woman. One way that she works hard is to keep up appearances; you can tell a lot about a person by how they keep up their home and Steinbeck describes the ranch in the first pages of the story.
“Behind her stood the neat white farm house with red geraniums close-banked around it as high as the windows. It was a hard-swept looking little house, with hard-polished windows, and a clean mud-mat on the front steps” (1233-1234).
In this quote we see that Elisa Allen takes great care to keep up a tidy home, allowing herself the bright red blossoms in December as the only dash of color. At this point, by describing the manufactured setting of their home, I believe that Steinbeck is focusing on how hard people try to keep up appearances, even in a rural setting like Salinas Valley, California.
Steinbeck implies negligence in personal appearance by Elisa’s lack of attention to her own femininity. At the opening of the story, she is gardening and Steinbeck describes her appearance:
“She was 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 down over her eyes, clodhopper shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron with four big pockets to hold the snips the trowel and scratcher, the seeds and the knife she worked with. She wore heavy leather gloves to protect her hands while she worked.” (1233)
The setting in the preceding quote is important because her appearance describes a woman who dresses herself in clothing that very much hide her feminine wiles. Although this outfit may be entirely for practical reasons, her husband is later surprised by her changed appearance; “Why – why, Elisa. You look so nice!” (Steinbeck 1239), which leads me to believe that he is accustomed to seeing his wife dressed as a man. This piece of setting acts to show the reader the standard of dress of which Elisa is accustomed.
Elisa Allen is not initially conscious of her physical appearance to the opposite sex. She is working in her garden while her husband, Henry, is discussing a deal with some men nearby and she does not alter her appearance for the arrival of their guests. When the tinker arrives, however, and they are engaged in conversation, Elisa Allen “touched the under edge of her man’s hat, searching for fugitive hairs” (Steinbeck 1236).
This little sign of setting by Steinbeck reveals that she is subtly reminded of her physical appearance to the tinker. This is important because as the story progresses, we discover that the “big stubble-bearded man” (Steinbeck 1235) somehow births in her a wish to change.
The mirror in the scene reflects not only her body, but her heart as well. As Elisa pays attention to her physical grooming and later, examines herself in the mirror, she is now fully conscious of her attractiveness to the opposite sex:
“When she had dried herself she stood in front of a mirror in her bedroom and looked at her body. She tightened her stomach and threw out her chest. She turned and looked over her shoulder at her back. After a while she began to dress slowly. She put on […] the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness. She worked carefully on her hair, penciled her eyebrows and rouged her lips” (Steinbeck 1239).
The mirror Elisa Allen looks into reveals a woman who has blossomed in her femininity and awakened to her sexual appeal. As she emerges to drive with her husband she can no longer contain the revelation she’s discovered. “”I’m strong,” she boasted. “I never knew before how strong”” (Steinbeck 1239).
By looking at herself in the setting of the mirror after her encounter with the tinker, Elisa seems to have discovered more about herself than if she’s still attractive at her age.
Elisa Allen fails to use the strength of this personal revelation and remains in her life of gardening rituals with only an occasional remembrance of the attributes that make her beautiful and appealing to men. She, like the chrysanthemums, blooms for an hour.
Source Reading: Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Fiction, 11th ed. Ed. James Pickering. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007. 1233-1240.