John Steinbeck was born in the early 1900s in Salinas County. Most of his stories take place in the county that he grew up in. Readers can easily relate to the characters because they for the most part were social outcasts or were battling inner battle that mimicked a problem that was prevalent in the time period that the story was set in.
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He is mostly known for his work “The Wrath of Grapes.” Another piece that was contemporary to the era of the 1920s-1930s was the literary piece “The chrysanthemums,” which brings forth the social hardships that women were dealing with.
The short story “The Chrysanthemums,” was set in the era of 1920s-1930s. This can be seen when the author says ” The strangers were getting into their Ford Coupe.” (“The Chrysanthemums,” Steinbeck, page 106, paragraph 8, line 1-2.) The car shows the time period because for the most part the author would probably use a mode of transportation that was prevalent to the era that they are writing in. This time era is also important for the setting because the societal problems such as women’s rights were being brought to light. Similarly in the short story ” The chrysanthemums,” the main protagonist, a female by the name of Elisa Allen, is grappling with a lot of the same issues women of that time period were facing.
“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 black hat…” (Steinbeck, 105) This description of the protagonist brings forth the image of a strong independent women. Her age suggests that she is a mature lady. The fact that her “gardening outfit,” gave her a bulky appearance suggests more manly qualities as opposed to feminine attributes. This helps in suggesting that she is strong despite her being associated with what society presumes to be the “weaker gender.” When we are introduced to the protagonist she is working in her garden on her chrysanthemum flowers. These flowers are going to hold a central standpoint as the story goes on especially with the exchange that happens between a unnamed traveling handy man and the protagonist
“…he was a very big man. Although his hair and beard were greying, he did not look old. His worn black suit was wrinkled and spotted with grease. His eyes were dark, and they were full of brooding…The calloused hands… were cracked…” (Steinbeck, 108)
The way the handyman is described to the reader gives the aura of mystery to the character. His black suit despite the stains suggests that this character tries to maintain a professional appearance. His hands were described in a manner that suggested that he worked a lot with his hands. Overall the impression this “Handyman,” gives is that of a strong, mysterious somewhat young and free.
Is the protagonists husband, who doesn’t think that Chrysanthemums are worth growing. ” You’ve got a gift with things…Some of those yellow chrysanthemums you had this year were ten inches across. I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big.” (the chrysanthemums, pg.106.)
Despite the fact that the husband acknowledges Elisas talent with flowers, he wishes that she could use her talent for a more profitable cause, such as growing plants. Her husband’s behavior also shows that women of that era were not really allowed to work so there for women had to use their talents for a more socially acceptable cause for women, such as growing flowers.
The main protagonist Elisa Allen in the beginning of the story is seen working on her chrysanthemums. The protagonists husband, Henry Allen, tells her to stay ready because they are going to go out into town for dinner to celebrate the profit that he has made selling steers. As he is talking he mentions that he thinks that Elisa should help around the ranch because she has a”green thumb,” so to speak. This erks Elisa because she’d rather work on her flowers.Once her husband leaves, a traveler who fixes things appears. This man tries to get work from Elisa a number of way through means of sympathy or praising himself. When none of these tactics work he resorts to manipulating her, by faking interest in her flowers. He even creates a fake story about a women who wants the flowers she has, this makes Elisa very excited because for once someone has acknowledged something that she is proud of. Elisa feels a connection towards this man because he made her feel valued and appreciated so once he leaves with her flowers she feels happy and for once understood. This is even noticed by her husband when he comes back home and their getting ready to go out to town to eat. As they are walking along the path to go to the city Elisa notices that the man had dumped her chrysanthemums alongside the road, taking the pot, because he saw that as valuable. In that moment she realizes that everyone around her feels that her hard work does not matter, therefore any confidence and importance she felt towards herself was shattered. This realization made her go back to being the same Elisa that was at the beginning of the story.
The theme of self worth can be seen in many different ways throughout the short story “The chrysanthemums,” by John Steinbeck. In my opinion the author is using the theme of self worth to show the reader not define their self worth on one thing or person, but instead have their self worth be defined by who they are as a person. One such place that this is evident is when the protagonist, says “Yes. They’ll be strong this coming year”.The author also said. ” Her tone and on her face was a little smugness.”( The chrysanthemums, pg 106, paragraph 11) This in my opinion shows that Elisa cares about her plants and is proud that she is able to make them grow. This also shows that since she is proud of her ability to grow flowers, that she places a lot of self worth in the flowers that she grows. This in my opinion is a bad thing because she loses all sense of self worth once that particular thing is taken away from her. This is shown later on as the story progresses. Also when the main protagonist is talking to the wanderer and he “supposedly,” takes an interest in her flowers. The wanderer asks her “What’s them plant’s, ma’am?” and the author states “The irritation and resistance melted from Elisas face.” (p.109, paragraph 51-52.) When the wanderer shows interest in Elisas flowers, she becomes excited because someone has finally, in my opinion, acknowledged something that she is proud of in a positive manner without scoffing and desmising her passion as a whimsical unnecessary pastime, this affects her positively later on as the story progresses. Elisa’s self worth can also be seen when according to the author “She tightened her stomach and threw out her chest…After a while she began to dress slowly. She put on her newest underclothes, and her nicest stockings and the dress that was a symbol for her prettiness.” (112.) This shows that after her interaction with the wanderer she felt empowered and important. It also shows that since she began dressing more feminine, and breaking away from the persona of a man and began to embrace her feminine side.
The last time the theme of self worth, in my opinion is brought up is when Elisa sees the flowers that she worked so hard to grow dumped on the side of the road as if they are nothing. This can be seen when the protagonist says ” He might have thrown them off the road. That wouldn’t have been much trouble…But he kept the pot.” (pg.114)
The protagonist, Elisa, in this moment sees her self worth shatter and break just like her flowers. She realizes that the things that she cares about do not necessary hold the same value in other people’s eyes as they do to her. Elisa’s self worth similarly to how her flowers bloom, blossomed and also welted. Her self worth blossomed because the traveler complemented something that she cared about, but it shattered when she realized that he was just using her as a means to an end. In these ways steinbeck is trying to show the reader not to place their self worth on one thing. Similarly to the theme of self worth this story also has the theme of being under appreciated.
The theme of under appreciation can be seen in the story. For example when the author says “Kneeling there, her hand went out toward his legs …Her hesitant fingers almost touched the cloth.” (p.111) The protagonist feels a sense of under appreciation from the world around her, thus the protagonist reaches for the wanderer in an attempt to latch onto the little appreciation he provided her. The reason that she stopped herself in my opinion is because she realised that she did not have that right in that era to show affection to anyone that treated her humanly apart from her husband. The theme of under appreciation correlates with the theme of freedom because the protagonist has desires to be free and feel appreciated.
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