A Woman Bound by Society in John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” When John Steinbeck’s short story “The Chrysanthemums” first appeared in the October 1937 edition of Harper’s Magazine (Osborne 479), Franklin D. Roosevelt had just been reelected president. The country was recovering from the Great Depression, unions were developing, and child labor in manufacturing was terminated (Jones 805-6). The first female cabinet member in American history, Frances Perkins, was appointed the Secretary of Labor (Jones 802). She was one of the few women in her time to gain equality in a male-dominated society. For most women, liberation was a bitter fight usually ending in defeat. In “The Chrysanthemums,” this struggle for equality is portrayed through Steinbeck’s character Elisa Allen. According to Stanley Renner, “The Chrysanthemums” shows “a strong, capable woman kept from personal, social, and sexual fulfillment by the prevailing conception of a woman’s role in a world dominated by men” (306). Elisa’s appearance, actions, and speech depict the frustration women felt in Steinbeck’s masculine world of the 1930’s. “Steinbeck’s world,” observes Charles A. Sweet, Jr., “is a man’s world, a world that frustrates even minor league women’s liberationists” (214).
This frustration is evident when Elisa is first introduced. Her figure is described as “blocked and heavy” because she is wearing heavy gloves, heavy shoes, a “man’s black hat,” and a big apron that hides her printed dress (Steinbeck 330). Her home has the masculine qualities of being “hard-swept” and hard-polished” (Steinbeck 330). Elisa is bored with her husband and with her life (McMahan 455). Obviously, Elisa is unhappy with the traditional female role and is attempti…
…et al. America and Its People: Volume Two From 1865. London: Scott, Foresman, 1989.
McMahan, Elizabeth E. “‘The Chrysanthemums’: A Study of Woman’s Sexuality.” Modern Fiction Studies 14 (1968-69): 453-8.
Marcus, Mordecai. “The Lost Dream of Sex and Childbirth in ‘The Chrysanthemums.'” Modern Fiction Studies 11 (1965): 54-8.
Osbourne, William R. “The Texts of Steinbeck’s ‘The Chrysanthemums.'” Modern Fiction Studies 12 (1966-67): 479-84.
Renner, Stanley. “The Real Woman Inside The Fence In ‘The Chrysanthemums.'” Modern Fiction Studies 31 (1985): 305-17.
Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums.” Literature and the Writing Process. Ed. Elizabeth McMahan, Susan Day, and Robert Funk. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1989. 330-6.
Sweet, Charles A., Jr. “Ms. Elisa Allen and Steinbeck’s ‘The Chrysanthemums.'” Modern Fiction Studies 20 (1974): 210-14.