Use of Symbols and Symbolism in John Steinbeck’s The Chrysanthemums

When John Steinbeck wrote The Chrysanthemums, he was in the midst of the Great Depression. The hardships of the time are evident in the story, which tells the tale of a woman who is stuck in a loveless marriage and yearns for more. Steinbeck uses symbolism to convey the emotional turmoil that his characters are experiencing.

One of the most striking symbols in The Chrysanthemums is the titular flowers themselves. For Elisa, chrysanthemums represent something beautiful and valuable, yet they are also inaccessible. She can only look at them from afar, never able to touch or smell them. This reflects her own life, which is full of disappointments and unfulfilled desires.

Another symbol in the story is Elisa’s husband. He is a strong, silent figure who represents the limitations that Elisa faces in her life. He is opposed to her having any sort of independence or identity outside of their marriage, and he tries to control her every move. Elisa rebels against this by gardening, which is one of the few activities that she can do on her own terms.

The symbolism in The Chrysanthemums is subtle but effective, and it adds depth to Steinbeck’s exploration of the human condition. The characters are forced to deal with difficult circumstances, and the symbols help to illustrate their emotional states. Ultimately, The Chrysanthemums is a poignant tale about a woman who is searching for something that she can’t quite find.

Elisa Allen is a lonely woman who adores nurturing and growing her chrysanthemums. Because her husband is constantly working the cattle on their farm, she never receives enough attention or affection. As a result of this cold marriage, Steinbeck has Elisa’s main character describe herself as follows: Her face was thin and strong; her figure appeared blocked and heavy in her gardening outfit, which was covered by a large corduroy apron (Page 206-207) The lack of attention from her husband caused Elisa to turn to her chrysanthemums, which she was extremely proud.

Elisa’s chrysanthemums are a symbol of her repressed femininity. They are a way for her to express herself in a world where she feels that she can’t. The flowers are lush and beautiful, and they represent all that is womanly and desirable. Elisa’s husband John regards the flowers with disdain, seeing them as only something to be chopped down. This shows the disconnection between John and Elisa, and their inability to understand each other.

Another symbol in the story is John’s black hat. It is often mentioned throughout the story, and it is clear that it holds great importance for John. At one point, John removes his hat and sets it on the ground. This shows his vulnerability and his willingness to let down his guard around Elisa.  John’s hat is a symbol of his masculinity and his strength. It is also a symbol of the barriers that John has built up between himself and the world.

The chrysanthemums are a powerful symbol in The Chrysanthemums, and they represent many different things for the characters in the story. For John, they are simply flowers that need to be chopped down. For Elisa, they are a way to express herself and her femininity. They are also a representation of the disconnection between John and Elisa, and their inability to understand each other.

When her husband makes the statement, “I wish you worked out in the orchard and grew some apples that enormous,” (Page 207), he reveals his lack of passion for her chrysanthemums. Elisa does not feel appreciated by her spouse, as demonstrated in this passage, so she takes care of her chrysanthemums, which are tokens of how wonderful she is. Steinbeck employs little symbolic words to indicate that the chrysanthemums are a extension of Elisa early in the narrative.

For example, when she is first seen working in the garden, Steinbeck writes “She was ptching chrysanthemums from a wet and newly plowed field” (Page 204). The use of the gerund “pitching constantly” shows how Elisa is tending to her plants, just as she does with her marriage.

The most significant use of symbolism in The Chrysanthemums comes when Elisa finally reveals her true self to John. After discussing her chrysanthemums with John and showing him her prized specimens, she takes John to see her secret garden. John reacts with shock at the sight of all the flowers, but especially at the sight of Elisa’s chrysanthemums:

He stopped and looked at the mass of flowers. He looked long and curiously at the big, ordinary chrysanthemums that grew there in the wild profusion of a garden gone to seed. Then his eyes lifted to Elisa’s face and he smiled with comprehension and admiration (Page 214).

At this moment, John understands that the chrysanthemums are not just flowers to Elisa–they are her life. John recognizes her beauty and admires her for it. By recognizing her beauty, John also accepts her for who she is inside. Elisa has finally found someone who understands her and loves her for all that she is.

She has built a cage around herself to keep anything harmful at bay. She believes that her husband does not care about her chrysanthemums because he is not interested in them. The meanings of the flowers and Elisa are interchangeable, as will be explained later in the tale. A strange man on a junky wagon approaches Elisa while her husband is away with one of the cattle buyers.

The man on the wagon is a symbol of temptation for Elisa. He is dirty and represents the opposite of everything that she stands for. The fact that he paid attention to her, made her feel wanted for the first time in a long time. John Steinbeck uses symbolism to convey the feelings that Elisa was experiencing at the time.

Elisa’s flowers represent her femininity and purity. The fact that they are in a cage, shows how she feels trapped by her life. She is stuck in a loveless marriage and has no way to escape. When John Steinbeck uses the Symbol of the wagon, he is hinting at the temptations that Elisa will face in the near future. The junky wagon is a symbol of the dark and sinful world that she is trying to avoid. John Steinbeck uses this symbolism to show the internal struggle that Elisa is facing.

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