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John Steinbecks short story The Chrysanthemums is about a proud, strong woman named Elisa, who seems disheartened with her life. Her dissatisfactions stem from not having children and from her husband's failure to admire her romantically as a woman. The only joy in her life is her flower garden where she cultivates beautiful chrysanthemums. In this short story the author uses symbolism to represent the repressed life of Elisa, a person who is not taken seriously because she is a woman. There are many examples of such symbolism in Steinbeck's work.
The first example of symbolism in this story is the garden. Elisa longs for a child and Steinbeck uses the garden is portray that child. The time and care that Elisa takes on the garden represents the care and time she would take if it were a real child. The author gives examples of this when describing the work she does there, "she turned the soil over and over and smoothed it and patted it firm. Then she dug ten parallel trenches" (299).This shows the reader how meticulously Elisa tends to her garden, as if it were a baby she is tending to. Another example the other has given was when he writes about how she tends to the sprouts. Eliza is looking at the ground examining the area where the new flowers are starting to grow. The author then states, "No aphids were there, no snow bugs or snails or cutworms. Her terrie fingers destroyed such pests before they could get started" (298). In this passage, the author is telling us that she protects her flowers endlessly. The flowers are like her babies and she would never let anything hurt them. Steinbeck uses the garden as a symbol in the story to portray the child that Elisa is longing for.
The second example of symbolism is the description of the valley. The Saline Valley symbolizes the emotional life of Elisa. In the lengthy opening scene Steinbeck defines the valley as a "closed pot" (298). He illustrates this by stating "the high gray-flannel fog of winter closed off the Saline Valley from the sky and the rest of the world" (298). This implies that Elisa maybe trapped inside the world she lives in. The reader also discovers that although there is sunshine nearby, no light penetrates the valley. It is December and there is a prevailing atmosphere that the author describes as "a time of quiet and waiting" (298). The author is stating that Elisa is unhappy and that she is quietly waiting for her life to change. As a person reads the opening scene the portrayal of the valley seems almost lyrical. However, it is then revealed to be a powerful symbol of Elisa's suffocating, ill-fated, yet hopeful life.
The last and most clear logical symbol that Steinbeck uses is the chrysanthemums themselves. The chrysanthemums are used to symbolize the insufficiencies of Elisa's life as well as, Elisa herself. The chrysanthemum flowers, like Elisa are strong, thriving and lovely. Elisa identifies herself with the flowers; one could even say that she becomes one with the plants when she tends to them. The garden in which the flowers grow, like Elisa's house are tidy and scrupulously in order. The author illustrates this with the house by stating, "It was a hard swept looking little house, with hard polished windows and a clean mud mat on the front steps" (298). In this section the author is showing us that Elisa keeps her life, in a clean orderly fashion just like a flower garden would be kept. Then in the story when the tinker notices the chrysanthemums, Elisa face brightens. As if the man had noticed her instead. The author then states, "Her eyes shone. She tore off the battered hat and shook out her dark pretty hair" (301). Throughout the story Elisa has been a conventional and conservative woman. Then when the tinker notices the flowers she suddenly changes as revealed in the quote. Eliza then offers him the chrysanthemums. However, at the same time she is offering herself. The tinker ignores her offering and tosses her advances aside. It isn't until Elisa sees the plant starts on the side of the road that she feels the sting of rejection and isolation. Until that moment her gardening had protected and distracted her from her feelings of inadequacy, her loneliness and the seclusion in her life. Just like Elisa, the flowers are trivial and insignificant. They are merely embellishments and add little value to the world depicted by the author. By giving the reader these passages the author is showing how Elisa identifies herself with the flowers as a symbol of the story.