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The Chrysanthemums Through a Feminist Lens

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“The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck uses symbols to convey what he wants the reader to know about that time period. While using these symbols he also has very impacting scenes that make the readers think carefully about what he is trying to portray in the story. The story itself has a lot of meaning behind it. I’m going to use a feminist critical lens to explain what these symbols mean, go into depth about a few scenes within the story, and talk about why the setting was important.

What are the symbols? Symbols in literature are objects or situations that occur in the book that have an implied meaning. During the book, the chrysanthemums are a symbol of how Elisa feels. Chrysanthemums are flowers that have an atrocious smell and in some cultures are believed that they should only be present at a funeral “in Chinese culture, white and yellow chrysanthemums are used for funerals, and therefore represent death.” Chrysanthemums are not the flowers that people choose first. They are the flowers people use when they can’t get a hold of any others. This symbol shows that Elisa isn’t really wanted and that her husband does not take her seriously. When Henry said “You sure have a gift with those things… Some of those yellow chrysanthemums you had were ten inches across. I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big.”(Steinbeck 208) When Henry said this he was just fooling around. He didn’t actually take Elisa seriously and give her the job. Back in those times, the men worked while the women were taking care of the house and stayed quarantine in their gardens When Steinbeck wrote this book that was the only thing women did. They were treated as lessers. The other main symbol in the book is the Tinker. When he roles by he prey on women. They are the only ones that hire him to do a task for them. Men during this time period use women to get what they want or need. He uses small talk to get a job and make some money. Then he uses elaborate language about the chrysanthemums to appeal to Elisa. He uses that to get a pot that he needs. John Steinbeck later makes the tinker throw it out to prove that men take advantage of women.

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A few scenes that occur in the book show how women are looked down upon by men. Going back to the bathing scene Elisa looks at herself in the mirror and we don’t know what is going through her mind but we can infer that she worried about her body “ She tightened her stomach and threw out her chest.”(Kenedy 213) She thinks that she needs to have a bigger chest and a tighter waist for her husband Henry. During this scene and others throughout the book, you can see that men have expectations for women during this time period. Women should be in the house cleaning and cooking or outside working in the garden and that’s it. In Claire Jones’ article, she says “ In the 1900s women were confined to what the husband’s believed was their job.” She says this because women always did the work around the house and never got taken seriously by anyone. Women were expected to do these things and these things only.

Another scene that showed how men look down on woman during the 1900s was the scene where the tinker took advantage of Elisa. He sweet talked her in to give him a job to make some money. He used little bits of small talk to make her feel like she was wanted. Especially when he started talking about the chrysanthemums. He messed with her emotions to get something that he needs. Which was the flower pot. When he was speaking to her about the chrysanthemums he made her feel like he cared about her and her work. She felt so good to talk to someone about her work. He even made her think twice about her marriage because he got her to think that he cared. Even though he was just manipulating her, she felt amazing just to talk to someone about her own work. Back then women didn’t do much talking. They mainly did exactly what their husband wanted them to do. 

The setting of the story, besides a few scenes, took place in the garden. Elisa spent most of her time in the garden. The only time she left was if her husband was taking her somewhere. The setting is important because it provides proof that in the 1900s woman spent the majority of their time at home. The garden shows how while men were off doing whatever they wanted the women were at home doing what they were expected to do. Elisa spending most of her time in the garden proves this. The only time she left her garden was to get cleaned up for dinner and a movie because her husband said they were going out. In the 1900s this was expected by all women. They spent all day doing work that wasn’t necessary to live. The garden was like busy work to keep the wife’s occupied while the men were off doing whatever they wanted.

In conclusion, John Steinbeck’s book “The Chrysanthemums” was written to show how women were treated in the 1900s. It showed what they were expected to do and how they were expected to act during this time period. This book portrays how men treated women as lessers and never gave them equal opportunities.  

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