Monday, June 9, 2008


So, I'm taking "Short Fiction for the Mentally Retarded" this summer, and I just handed in my midterm paper analyzing John Steinbeck's short story "The Chrysanthemums". It's not perfect because I only had four days to write it, but I figure it's worth sharing. Please forgive the repetitiveness, awkward transitions, and over-reliance on certain devices. On a side note, I just discovered the  incredible philosophy of Ecofeminism and I wish I was a woman. Well, more of a woman anyway. 

Flower Power

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. 


.kate said...

you have no idea how much i love your writing.

how did you get so good at it?

i want to get better. i just feel dumb all the time

any advice?

Kanani said...

It's difficult to put today's constructs on a piece that was written when these didn't exist. I think the same analysis could be made (if one wanted) without using the terms ecofeminism.

Nevertheless, your writing shows some fine thinking as well as construction.

.kate....the way to become a better writer is to read a broad range of material across the genres and also to write... everyday!

TheNYCourier said...

Ecofeminism, while a modern philosophy, can be traced back to pre-Christian days, specifically pagan customs of earth-worshiping. Gaia, for example, was one of the earliest gods in human culture, and she was the earth. And a woman. The connection lies almost congenitally inside of us.

Of course Steinbeck was not thinking in this vein of thought, because, as you said, it technically did not exist, but I think the present should always influence the past, and we should let our specific views of our realities affect how we perceive anything, because it's all we have. In a sense, anyway...

Thank you both very much for your compliments!

Kanani said...

I think it's unavoidable that present perceptions will always influence how we see the past. How else would we (from a historical standpoint) learn from the errors or even the successes of the past?

Steinbeck is one of my favorite writer. Alas, apart from the halls of academia, many California libraries don't have an entire collection of his work, and daresay, most library employees have never even read him!

Keep going.... and good job!