Gender Fights in “The Chrysanthemums” by Steinbeck Research Paper

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Aug 23rd, 2020


Although many of Steinbeck’s works pertain to politics and ideology, the writer also looked beyond these issues and described the adverse consequences of the rigid patterns of behavior in relation to people’s lives. “The Chrysanthemums” is a perfect example: the story received much critical attention for its showcase of male and female power struggles (Ellis 46). In this story, the author managed to challenge the traditional views on gender roles and demonstrated the tragedy of a person constrained by the existing order. “The Chrysanthemums” pictures individuals in the stagnant world and identifies the role models typical of women and men through the example of three characters: Elisa, Henry, and the tinker.


The story is told by a third-person narrator, and it not only gives the opportunity to scrutinize the events objectively but also creates the effect of distance. The description of nature at the beginning of the story solidifies it: the fogged land, the sky, and could help recognize the same tendencies among people. While the men are incapable of appreciating their opportunities, Elisa strives for recognition. The meeting with the tinker makes a considerable impact on her. Although she begins to believe that this person can understand her, the expectations are not eventually satisfied. The story ends with the main character’s attempts to conceal her tears and empty small talk.

Elisa is a typical victim of the twisted societal order that justifies the lower rank of women and their inability to apply their talents to practice. The metaphor of the valley as the closed pot is indicative: it represents the tense relationships between women and the environment. For instance, Elisa’s husband does not let her take part in what is believed to be “male” businesses: he must have never thought that his wife was unhappy with her position.

When he talks to the men and solves problems independently, Elisa is ignored because her roles are minor. The woman is seen only as a housekeeper, and she is also allowed to work in the garden – Elisa’s love of growing chrysanthemums and wearing masculine clothes may be regarded as whims but they are, nevertheless, tolerable. Under these circumstances, she leaves no stone unturned: since she is bursting with energy, she must channel it somewhere.

As she is depicted from different perspectives, she is a round character, and readers cannot help admiring her strength. Her house is neat and beautiful, and the fact that “her terrier fingers destroyed such pests before they could get started” proves that she spends much time in the garden (Steinbeck 1). Finally, she suffers from the thoughts that greater opportunities are unavailable. In fact, she is jealous of men who can run a business or see the whole world driving a wagon. Thus, this character is an excellent illustration of the results of the musty ideas rooted in the past: the person is broken, and the moment of softening could have been the beginning of changes.

The bathing scene symbolizes the escape from the dirt of the past and the promising future. However, everything ends before it even starts. It was her last chance, and it was lost forever. Therefore, owing to such changes, Elisa is a dynamic character, and one can feel her tragedy deeply.

Male characters serve as the instruments to understand the protagonist. Henry, one of the representatives of the “male world,” seems a good and caring husband who takes Elisa out and holds her in respect. Still, he is not as intelligent as his wife: he talks to her like to a child when he admires the flowers and fails to recognize her true feelings. He cannot see that Elisa is fed up with their routine activities. Motherhood could probably be a way out for Elisa. Still, the couple does not have children, and it might be possible because of Henry. The author demonstrates that he works with steers, and it is one of the symbols: it is the husband’s responsibility.

Finally, the tinker is another male character who helps unveil the protagonist’s character: he seems to be the picture of what Elisa always dreamed, and it attracts her. This affection is the result of her blindness caused by the desire to find a soulmate. As she meets the tinker who has lost his way, the protagonist can see her life from another angle. The conversation about driving a wagon and the stars is the turning point: it awakens Elisa and makes her feel alive. Simultaneously, his sympathy was only the illusion: he wanted to get a job and lied to achieve his goal. Because this man seemed to be the only good person Elisa knew, she was broken: her hopes were a mere mirage. She was hurt so much because she could see the better tomorrow of which she was deprived. Tinker’s actions ruined everything.


In conclusion, the author demonstrated the typical models of female and male behavior dictated by the patriarchal society. Elisa and other characters illustrate the idea that this order is harmful since it destroys the potential of great people for the sole reason that a person is a woman.

Works Cited

Ellis, Meagan. “Focalization and Proletarian Gender Dynamics in Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums.” Omnino (2013): 45-54. Print.

Steinbeck, John. The Chrysanthemums. n.d. Web.

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