- The Real Woman Inside the Fence in "The Chrysanthemums"
Steinbeck's classic short story "The Chrysanthemums" has long attracted admiration and respect from discriminating readers and eminent critics. But quite clearly the story's fame was enhanced during the last couple of decades as it was caught up in the eager discovery of works of literature dramatizing the female consciousness and was, in effect, included in the feminist canon.1 Indeed, in the criticism of this period, "The Chrysanthemums" emerges as something of a feminist tract. The keynote was sounded in the late Fifties when Peter Lisca commented on "Elisa's silent rebellion against the passive role required of her as a woman" (95). As the woman's movement gathered momentum, [End Page 305] critics enthusiastically followed the lead, and the standard reading developed: "The Chrysanthemums" is a story about a strong, capable woman kept from personal, social, and sexual fulfillment by the prevailing conception of a woman's role in a world dominated by men. Her husband, decent but dull, excludes her from the important business of the ranch. Content with the way things are in their marriage, he ignores her lack of fulfillment in keeping house and raising flowers. When an itinerant tinker happens by, Elisa's latent yearnings are awakened for the larger life that men enjoy of significant work, adventure, and sexual expression; and when she entrusts the tinker with cuttings from her chrysanthemums, she, in effect, reaches out to the wider world. But the tinker dumps her flowers in the public thoroughfare, thus rejecting her gesture toward a larger life, and she remains a pitiable victim of male domination and female disadvantage.2
I must make it clear at the outset that I have no objection to stories such as the one I have summarized. I simply want to question whether the story as it appears in the criticism is the one Steinbeck wrote. He himself implied that "The Chrysanthemums" might have a delayed and surprising impact on the reader (Steinbeck and Wallsten 91), The closer one looks at the story, the more one sees that the prevailing interpretation fails to square with its figurative design and structure, in which the female; protagonist appears to be less a woman imprisoned by men than one who secures herself within a fortress of sexual reticence and self-withholding defensiveness. For, one thing, Elisa Allen is a good deal more like the monstrously narcissistic Mary Teller of "The White Quail," companion piece to "The Chrysanthemums," than has yet been perceived. For another, the story's central image and its main and recurring action are a virtual obverse of the feminist view of a woman smothered by male domination. Finally, although, of course, biography need not inevitably determine a writer's perspective, Steinbeck's feelings about his marriage at the time the story was written were far from those of the implied author who would have written the essentially feminist version of the story.
As they are juxtaposed in The Long Valley, "The Chrysanthemums" and "The White Quail" are also often juxtaposed in discussions of Steinbeck's short fiction. Because of the presumption that the former is sympathetic to the female protagonist's plight and the latter is clearly not, Elisa Allen and Mary Teller are customarily discussed in terms of contrast.3 In balance, I believe the story far more strongly supports the opposite conclusion: although there are minor [End Page 306] differences between Elisa and Mary, physically and emotionally they are very much the same woman presented in different fictional contexts. "The White Quail" is something of a fable about a narcissistic female withholding herself from the grossness of physical intimacy in a marital relationship. To a significant extent "The Chrysanthemums" puts a quite similar female protagonist into a different kind of story, one more balanced and realistic.
Both Elisa and Mary, for example, are named after women famous for their virginity: Mary, of course, after the Madonna, whose virginity bespeaks her deeply spiritual calling, and Elisa for the Virgin Queen, whose virginity is associated with sexual reticence and fear. Both are married to men named Henry (Harry is a diminutive of Henry), meaning...