Feminism in Literature: John Steinbeck's the Chrysanthemums

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“Literary criticism, the reasoned consideration of literary works and issues. It applies, as a term, to any argumentation about literature, whether or not specific works are analyzed. It is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature.” Written by Fredrick C. Crews, author featured on while there are many critical approaches to literature, today we will discuss “gender criticism”. This approach examines how gender roles and sexual identity influences the creation and reception of literary works as well as what the gender roles symbolize within the literature. “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck is great depiction of how the images of men and women in society have been put into place, how those roles have historically restricted sexes from achieving true equality, and how to properly reflect or reject gender roles in literature.

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When John Steinbeck’s short story ‘The Chrysanthemums’ first appeared in the October 1937 edition of Harper’s Magazine “women were still living in a society dominated by men. Although they had gained the right to vote in 1920, they were far from equal. The crusade for women’s rights slowed down and began to diminish throughout the 1920’s and with the Great Depression affecting the 1930’s women’s rights were more or less forgotten.” says Colleen Thornton of Mount Saint Mary College. When opportunities and jobs became available, they were for men. Working women were seen as untraditional and stealing jobs from men who needed them to support their families. There were many barriers and obstacles that women had to overcome, unfortunately some of those barriers and obstacles still exist.

In the short story The Chrysanthemums, Steinbeck gives a glimpse to what it was like being a woman living in a male dominated world. The main character Elisa is an interesting, intelligent, strong and passionate woman who lives an unsatisfying, unhappy, and under whelming life. Elisa was almost a typical housewife that lived her life according to the gender role society and men felt a woman should represent. Elisa was like many other women from this time, where she focused her attention on daily routines, such as taking care of the house, her husband, cooking, and cleaning. This story gives a few examples that were out of the norm at the time as well since she did not have any kids. Because she did not have kids, Elisa treated her chrysanthemums like her children. She protected and nurtured the flowers just as a mother would for her own children. The chrysanthemums gave her a sense of pride and brought joy to her life, which we can see in her response when her husband comments on her chrysanthemums crop telling her the crop is “strong”, “In her tone and on her face there was a little smugness”. If Elisa was living according to society, She would have been caring for children while her husband worked.

This theme of gender roles and sexual identity is successfully continued throughout the short story as the narrator described Elisa’s physical appearance stating, “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 down over her eyes, clod-hopper 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”. It is obvious this is not a typical description of feminine beauty. Continuing with the mental picture of her appearance from the description, It is implied that Elisa feels that her husband neglects her beauty. Elisa cleans her body really well preparing for an evening out with her husband. She begins dressing with new underclothing, her best stockings, and “the dress that was the symbol of her prettiness.’ But when Henry saw Elisa he told her she looked nice, and then changed his compliment by saying “you look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, and happy enough to eat it like a watermelon.’ Once again This is not a typical description of described feminine beauty.

Steinbeck also shines light on Elisa’s feminine sexuality in ‘The Chrysanthemums’. In the 1930s, there was a lot of control over a woman’s sexuality and sometimes it was such a negative way. Woman could not be so sexual and empowered only men were allowed sexual freedom. Society placed the heavy task to make sure a man was fulfilled and taken care of and left the women not fulfilling her own wants. There is some sexual tension throughout Elisa and Henry’s marriage but not between the two. Before their evening out, Elisa tries to highlight her femininity and sexuality but Henry, her husband, overlooks her efforts but she doesn’t stop there. One of the most important scenes in this short story is when the tracker recognizes Elisa’s femininity. The traveler does this by acknowledging her chrysanthemums the way her husband does not. The traveler looks past the appearance and truly noticed Elisa as a woman. Elisa seems very fond of this observation and expresses herself and shows how she feel for the first time in the story when she is talking about her flowers. This is also the first time throughout the story Elisa’s description is feminine, “Her eyes shone. She tore off her battered hat and shook out her dark pretty hair.’ We also see the sexual tension and feminine sexuality she posses But holds back, “her hand went out towards his legs in the greasy black trousers. Her hesitant fingers almost touched the cloth. Then her hand dropped to the ground. She crouched low like a fawning dog.’ This interaction is so important because it is the first time the reader sees Elisa in a positive light, a feminine light, and a positive sexual light. It’s also important to point out Steinbeck truly let her have a moment leaving the traveler unnamed slightly allowing more focus to be reflected onto Elisa, her actions, and emotions. Following this heated interaction Elisa gives the traveler a pot of chrysanthemum sprouts almost as if she’s giving herself to him.

This theme of gender roles, sexual identity, and sexuality continues throughout story. And I am pretty sure I would not consider Steinbeck a feminist but I do however consider him to be a great writer. Steinbeck was able to write a short story highlighting gender roles and the suppressed emotions of a woman at that time which still resonates today. Overall when reading The Chrysanthemums the reader is able to understand Elisa and what that time and the themes represent. Steinbeck makes certain the reader can see what he is revealing. The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck is great example of men and women in society and how those roles how have historically restricted women’s success, rights, happiness, and equality.     

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