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Symbolism in Steinbeck’s Story “The Chrysanthemums”

A reader who makes serious effort to analyze the short story The Chrysanthemums,/can comprehend the signs of the autobiographical elements of the writer John Steinbeck. The story is considered one of Steinbeck’s most gifted short stories. Author builds up the story through the eventful life of woman named Elisa Allen who is more intelligent and creative. Steinbeck uses number of literary devices in his story The Chrysanthemums and the rich usage of symbolism is marked first. Accompanied with rich objectivism and narrative Steinbeck portrays the frustration of the heroine Elisa Allen. The title itself reveals the literary technique symbolism. The flower chrysanthemum discloses the thoughts, feelings and ideas of his characters. Steinbeck’s heroine suffered from negligence of her husband and because of this Elisa turns to her own isolated world. If she is as beautiful as the flower Chrysanthemum she is suffering from negligence. Analyzing the story a reader can find the effective use of symbolism in Steinbeck’s The Chrysanthemums. Critics state number of examples such as the flower, the fences, clouds and the approaches of wife and husband which constitute meaningful discussions about the work.

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The symbols like the fence, garden, and the chrysanthemums are creating very emotional feelings for the audience and it leads to readers in a different world. “The chrysanthemums” reflects the author’s personal life. The character called Elisa is totally based on the author’s wife’s character. In this story Symbolism is used for showing Elisa Allen’s isolation, frustration and hidden passion. John Steinbeck adapted his wife’s mannerisms for making the character Elisa Allen. In this story Elisa and her husband Henry seem a good pair and she loves him very much but her husband is often busy with his work. Whenever they had a conversation, it was very formal and serious. Therefore their life becomes narrow and boring.

The lonely life of Elisa Allen creates come serious thoughts in the mind of the readers. Her Husband’s negligence forced her to nourish her Chrysanthemums. If she is lovelier than the flower she cannot break the walls of isolation. Steinbeck uses symbolism in his story with a mystic background. That book titled the moral philosophy of John Steinbeck provides considerable statements about the use of symbolism in Steinbeck’s The Chrysanthemums. Stephen K. George states; “Symbolism, in Steinbeck’s literary artistry, is mystic, identified with human experience, tradition, aspirations, and significance.” (George, 35).

At the beginning of the story the author himself uses some words and phrases which comprise symbolism and the reader can get the opportunity to think that the Chrysanthemums are an addition of the character Elisa.

John Steinbeck’s use of symbolism in his story is not only a literary device but an effective medium for social interaction and criticism. Allen’s isolation makes known the picture of sexually depressed and disheartened womenfolk who are trapped in a patriarchal society. Steinbeck makes use of Chrysanthemums to symbolize Elisa’s children and her suppressed feelings of motherhood burst out when handling the flowers. Her husband’s remark, “I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big.” (Steinbeck, 207) reveals his hesitation towards her and Elisa’s Chrysanthemums. Elisa sees Chrysanthemums as not only the substitution for her children but her suppressed womanhood. By nurturing her Chrysanthemums Elisa expresses her wish to lead a carefree life. Falling of the flower stands for the death of her wishes, senses, and earthly pleasures. The flower also symbolizes the detainment of Elisa’s female traits. The stranger utilizes the flower for enriching Elisa’s sensuality. Symbolism reaches its zenith when Elisa made some e sexual relationship with the stranger on a junky wagon has a mysterious personality that showed interest in both the flower and Elisa. The Fallen flowers expose the pathetic and deceived stature of the protagonist Elisa. One of the major themes in Steinbeck’s story is the limitations of a woman in a male dominating society. Famous critics M. Tomberger, and K. Fend, Ch. Dangl share their views about the symbol of flower in Steinbeck’s story. They remark; “The reader’s attention is intensively drawn in the flowers, thus it is shown that they are of special significance.” (Tomberger, Fend, and Dangl, 6).

Analyzing the character of Elisa readers can easily find that mere compliments about Chrysanthemums can change the mood of Elisa and these changes make her either irritated or enthusiastic.

The fence is another example of Steinbeck’s unique craftsmanship as a writer by using effective symbols. The fence represents her marriage and garden replicates her life. Henry never showed an interest in Elisa’s chrysanthemums. By analyzing this readers can understand that he does not have any interest in his wife and children. Elisa Allen and the chrysanthemums have alternate meanings in this story. Sometimes readers can analyze the chrysanthemum as her children because she handles the flower very carefully. At the same time the fence has taken the responsibility of a protector. The covered fence will not allow anybody to hurt her and children life. The garden which is surrounded by a fence symbolizes the isolated life of heroine Elisa in a world of male domination. She feels the imprisonment in Salina valley and she is getting relief only working in her garden where she enjoys grows and nurture of Chrysanthemums.

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But the garden is bounded by the fence. John Steinbeck, the author illustrates her dissatisfaction and frustration with married life by using the wood fence.

The character of Henry and The Thinker decorate a significant role in the discussions about the use of symbolism in Steinbeck’s The Chrysanthemums. Henry leads a closed, fully capitalist and responsible life while The Thinker symbolizes the free world without rules and restrictions. Elisa’s life is filled with the conflicts between the ideology of a structured responsible life and a carefree life. Steinbeck’s heroine is a middle-aged woman who has the ability to do many things but the existing male dominating society prevents her. The stranger complements in her chrysanthemums showers enough confidence and self-esteem and she makes some immediate changes in her dressing. Elisa remarks “Nice? You think I look nice? What do you mean by ‘nice’?” (Steinbeck, 212). The garden and the pot in the story reveal the secluded and frustrated life of the central character Elisa. The rows and slender paths of her garden symbolize the structured and narrow-minded society where men enjoyed ultimate dominance. The pot represents Elisa’s body the circumscribed life of the lady.

River is one of the symbols appearing in story which stands as a way that goes out of the valley. It is symbolical in the sense that it is like the way leading Elisa out from the narrow world of farm by disregarding her isolation. Some regard it as symbolical to her escape from aggravated life in “closed pot.” (Steinbeck).

After reading the story one can see that Elisa never uses this opportunity, but others come to her, breaking away from her fenced life. She likes the tinker who enters her isolated kingdom. Elisa’s incapability in recognizing the real character of the outsider is very clear that she/his arrival positively as drops of water to dry land. The good opinion formed in her mind is mainly because of one reason that the man comes to her through the road, which is the only way to her “closed pot.” (Steinbeck).

Water has symbolized in the story as the image of innocence and cleanliness. It is clear with the eyes of Elisa when the author writes, “as clear as water.” (Steinbeck, 204). One can see a notable change when looking into the tinker’s eyes and she feels it as interesting. It is her look to his eyes that made weak and infirm and disregards all other factors, including her husband and engages in sexual intercourse with him. Towards the end of the story Elisa rethinks with guilty conscience and cleans her up with hot water. She feels prick of conscience for cheating her husband and she tries to purify her with hot water, i.e. tears.

Another symbolism that has direct relationship with water is the representation of the rain for which the country and the people were looking for days. It is possible to identify or find the symbolism of rain as it is the desire of Elisa to have a good companion who is willing to share her feelings emotions and physical pleasures. The quality of the rain, both preservative and destructive function has been illustrated here. Rain is capable of destructing or washing away the complete land and it is symbolical that rain washes away all the sins of Elisa. The same rain brings joy and a note of hope like a new growth.

Another notable symbol that attracts the attention of the readers is the symbolic presentation of sunshine which here brings a negative connotation, contrary to the general expectation. The words that the author used to describe sunshine itself are ‘frosty’ and ‘pale cold’. The two ways to get out of the farm, the road and the river have portrayed as covered with imaginary bright sunshine. The yellow color of the sunshine which covers the road and river is symbolical that it is less used. Her cowardice causes all the troubles represented with yellow color of world.

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Fence as a symbolical element assumes much importance that Elisa lives within the fence from the outside world. Generally, it has been inferred that the fence provides a sense of security and it is also the symbol of the creativity of Elisa. Her husband has been portrayed as sitting outside the fence, that he has no part in her life. Elisa’s wish to remove the fence wishes to see the fence broke. It is part of her intention. After inviting the pot meander, she provides him what he needs and permits him to go out of the fence. Evaluation of the story reveals that the role of women typifies and she is fenced and isolated and she has no other option.

Dogs are the symbolical of humans in the story are really apt that they have illustrated as irresponsible. Elisa compares Henry farms to dogs and the newcomers are also possibly compared to different dogs as they possess the quality of them. Other minor symbols are also visible in the story and they include, cranes, flights, wine, stars, and so on.

At the end of the story author gives unique examples for effective use of symbolism in the story The Chrysanthemums. The sight of tossed Chrysanthemums reveals Elisa’s realization about her life and reaches the world of reality. With a severe aggravation she realizes the fact that men use women only for gritting sexual satisfaction. After the evaluation of the story, one can realize the fact that there are different symbols in it. Each symbol has its own significance and it really blends with the story that a cursive reading makes it difficult to identify them all. Among these symbols, the symbol of flower, especially the chrysanthemum assumes greater significance that it is the true representation of the main character, Elisa. The symbol of fence is accurate in the sense that it really portrays the state of Elisa bound up in the patriarchal society. Her mind is thirsting for love and care which her husband fails to provide and she tries to seek it in others who come to her. To conclude, one can infer that the different symbols used in the story are apt that it moves the story elegantly.

Works Cited

George, Stephen K. The moral philosophy of John Steinbeck. Scarecrow Press. 2005.

Steinbeck, John. The chrysanthemums. Harper & Brothers. 1937.

Tomberger, M., Fend, K., and Dangl, Ch. Feminist, Phenomenological and Psychoanalytic Approaches to “The Chrysanthemums” by John Ernst Steinbeck. GRIN Verlag. 2007.

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