Steinbeck displays an extraordinary ability to delve into the complexities of a woman’s consciousness. “The Chrysanthemums” is told in the third person, but the narration is presented almost entirely from Elisa’s point of view. After the first few paragraphs that set the scene, Steinbeck shrugs off omniscience and refuses to stray from Elisa’s head. This technique allows him to examine her psyche and show us the world through her eyes. We are put in her shoes and experience her frustrations and feelings. Because she doesn’t know what Henry is discussing with the men in suits who come to the ranch, we don’t know either. Because she sees the tinker as a handsome man, we do too. Because she watches his lips while he fixes her pots, we watch them with her. As a result, we understand more about her longings and character by the end of the story than her husband does.
Steinbeck’s portrayal of Elisa seems even more remarkable considering that he wrote the story in 1938, when traditional notions of women and their abilities persisted in America. Many men unthinkingly accepted the conventional wisdom that working husbands and a decent amount of money were the only things women needed. Considered in this light, Steinbeck’s sympathy and understanding for women are almost shockingly modern. On the face of it, Elisa seems to invite the disapproval of traditional men: she is overtly sexual, impatient with her husband, and dissatisfied with her life. Yet Steinbeck never condemns her and instead portrays the waste of her talent, energy, and ambition as a tragedy. Instead of asking us to judge Elisa harshly, he invites us to understand why she acts the way she does. As a result, his attitude toward her is more characteristic of a modern-day feminist than of a mid-twentieth-century male writer.
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