In most criticisms of John Steinbeck’s work “The Chrysanthemums”, the flowers are often thought to represent the protagonist Elisa’s sexuality: a common symbolic interpretation, reaching even to the works of Georgia O’Keefe and Judy Chicago. However, English Professor Cynthia Bily was the first to suggest that the story has an underlying theme of ecofeminism: the chrysanthemums symbolize an intense connection between Elisa and the earth, with the flowers themselves acting merely as a conduit. Elisa appears to channel the energy and force from the planet, developing a kind of spiritual power as she gardens, a power she uses to combat the various oppressive and restraining forces in her life, such as her husband, the tinker and society as a whole. Could it be possible, then, to see a connection between the way men treat women and the way they treat the earth in Steinbeck’s work, and, by extension, see the connection drawn between the two forces?
Throughout the story, Elisa is seen as a trapped and lonely woman. As it starts, the “high grey-flannel fog” covers the area and “makes of the great valley a closed pot”, already illustrating her predicament as she gardens. She longs for her husband to take her out, away from the farm, and melts at the first sign the tinker appreciates her work. In addition, her clothes, masculine and clunky in appearance, do not seem to fit her frame, both figuratively and literally. Although Steinbeck was not “officially” a feminist, it is clear that the character is under the thumb of an androcentric society, objectified by her husband, with the only means of venting through her flower garden.
As Elisa is seen as a lonely woman in the story, men are often shown as tough and unappreciative. At the beginning of the story, her husband Henry is seen as an archetypical farmer: strong, masculine, and tough. He had violently plowed the soil in the orchard so that it would draw more water when it rained, in an attempt to manipulate nature to his liking and he had let the cattle become “shaggy and rough-coated” since they were not ready to harvest, showing his general disinterest and objectification of nature. While Elisa tends to her exquisite chrysanthemums, Henry, though outwardly appreciative of her talents, comments on their size and wishes she could focus her abilities toward the orchard, so that they can produce larger apples, not flowers. Along with Elisa asking his permission to drink wine and their apparent separate bedrooms, Henry is shown as a distant and selfish person.
When the character of the tinker comes along, Elisa is more than defensive upon their meeting, thinking he is only trying to manipulate her into spending money. When he compliments her flowers, though, she immediately gives in to his charm. She begins to tell him of her techniques, and it is here that the clearest example of the ecofeminist theme is shown: “I can only tell you what it feels like. It’s when you’re picking off the buds you don’t want. Everything goes right down into your fingertips…your fingers and the plant. You can feel that, right up your arm. They know.” Elisa explains (the best she can) about her “planting hands”: her ability to tend to her flowers through only sheer intuition and fondling. It is seen here how strong a connection she has to the earth, and how her hands are almost able to communicate with it to aid in her gardening. Foolishly, she hands over some of her chrysanthemum shoots to the tinker in a hubristic effort to show her skills off to another woman. However, soon enough, she discovers the awful truth: the tinker, bent only on business, tossed the shoots out of the pot onto the road. When she sees them, trampled and thrown on the ground, she begins to cry “like an old woman”. This is the clearest instance that shows men’s place as the destroyers of nature in the story. In true ecofeminist fashion, there are direct correlations to be seen between the destruction of nature and the undervaluation of women in Steinbeck’s story. The tinker could not have cared less about Elisa’s garden, illustrating his contempt for both women and the earth.
Even though the story was not necessarily feminist-based, through a critical analysis it is obvious to see the feminist inspiration, and, by extension, the ecofeminist theme. The earth filled the attention and connection Elisa was lacking through the male figures in her life; she developed a stronger relationship with her flowers than she ever had with her husband because she identified with them. In Steinbeck’s story “The Chrysanthemums”, women and the elements of the natural world were obviously treated in the same dishonorable manner, and developed an intense bond because of it.