In the short story The Chrysanthemums, John Steinbeck uses the chrysanthemums as the central symbol to help the reader understand the storys plot and recognize the emotions and thoughts of the main character. Elisa Allen is an intelligent hard working woman who is unhappy and unfulfilled with her life. Her frustration arises from her husband who does not admire her as a woman and from not having mothered a child. She has a flower garden where she grows and takes care of beautiful chrysanthemums which are the only outlet for her frustration and her emptiness.
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The chrysanthemums in this story illustrate plenty to the reader about Elisa’s struggle to finding herself and fulfilling herself as a woman. Steinbeck uses the flower throughout his story to symbolize his main character’s thoughts and ideas. Elisa relates herself to these chrysanthemums and her frustration is evident when she is first introduced in this story. She is a lonely, discontented woman. Her husband is always busy working in their farm, he does not pay any attention to her or her needs as a woman. She discovers an outlet for her dissatisfaction in a garden where she cultivates beautiful chrysanthemums. She takes refuge in her chrysanthemums, which symbolize herself. Steinbeck uses these lovely yet hardy flowers as a symbol to represent the soft spirit of Elisa. The chrysanthemums symbolize Elisa as well as the limitations and restrictions of her life. One can clearly see the hostility in their relationship yet she comes out as an emotionally strong woman. “Elisa stiffened and her face grew tight. Henry stopped short and looked at her. “Why-why, Elisa .You look so nice!” “Nice? You think I look nice? What do you mean by nice’?” Henry blundered on “I don’t know. I mean you look different strong and happy.” “I am strong? Yes, strong.” (Steinbeck 218). It clearly shows her strength of mind here. Elisa took great care of their flowerbed and like her house, it was neat and carefully ordered. Elisa relates herself to the flowers and as a reader we can see that she becomes one with the plants when she tends to them. She does not feel appreciated and is neglected, but still has enough to give herself to the care of her chrysanthemums. These flowers symbol how beautiful she really is and how she wants to be seen. Steinbeck lets the reader discover that the chrysanthemums are a part of Elisa.
Elisa’s chrysanthemums also represent children that she does not have. Nurturing and taking care of these flowers satisfies her barren maternal instincts. The care she tends her garden with symbolizes her desire to look after children. The reader gets the feeling that they are her children and she looks after them like a mother. The chrysanthemums symbolize Elisa’s desire to be a mother and her children as well. She takes care of her garden and handles the chrysanthemums with a lot of love and attention just as she would tend to her own children. Elisa is very protective of her flowers and yet very proud to show them off like any mother would have been. “She spread the leaves and looked down among the close-growing stems. No aphids were there, no sow bugs or snails or cutworms. Her terrier fingers destroyed such pests before they could get started” (Steinbeck 212). She feels these insects will harm her flowers so she removes them before they can do any damage. Just as any good mother she does not want to see her children get hurt and she is happy and pleased to nurture these beautiful flowers. Elisa’s pride to grow such beautiful chrysanthemums show that the flowers in some ways replace for the fact that she has no children. The reader also sees that when the tinker praises her garden she swells with pride, almost feeling like she herself, and her children are being admired. The blossoming of these flowers to Elisa is like her own children shinning. These flowers clearly symbolise her needs as a woman, her need to be a mother and how she feels.
In conclusion, we can understand that John Steinbeck uses many symbols in “The Chrysanthemums”. Elisa’s garden and the chrysanthemums all symbolize different phases of her life. The use of symbols in this story plays an important role in the readers’ understanding of the plot. Imagery and symbolism are well placed throughout the story to help explain Elisa’s feelings, her deepest fears and desires. They also establish the chrysanthemums as a direct extension of herself. After reading this short story one must wonder if Elisa will continue to live this discontented and unhappy lifestyle or will she finally blossom like one of her chrysanthemums?
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