Sunday, March 18, 2007

Description of Beauty and Strength in Elisa Allen (Annotation G1-7/Goddard)

Elisa Allen’s character in John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” may be a study of beauty and strength but each is only a facade. Steinbeck introduces the reader to only three characters in this short story, Henry Allen, Elisa’s husband and a traveling fix-it man. Elisa attempts to display both beauty and strength to each.
“It was a time of quiet and of waiting.” (283) As the fog of winter covers the Salinas valley Elisa is quietly cultivating her Chrysanthemums. “Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man’s black hat pulled down over her eyes, clod-hopper shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron with four big pockets to hold the snips, the trowel, and scratcher, the seeds and the knife she worked with. She wore heavy leather gloves to protect her hands as she worked.” (283) In this initial tableau, Steinbeck describes a woman doing her designated work task. As gender roles go, it is not impossible to see the wife of the ranch out from digging in a flowerbed. The care used her to describe her garb puts the façade of this worker into perspective. In such heavy clothing and laboring over such a minute task, the reader cannot help but to place this woman into view. The black man’s hat, and pulled down over her eyes brings an image of a child wearing an adult’s hat. “Her face was lean and strong and her eyes were as clear as water.” (283) Even clear as water one must get right up to Elisa and under the brim of the hat to see her eyes. The fix-it man gets just that close too. Entreating her for work, this fix-it man is as close as the fence, which separates the flowerbed from the animals of the ranch. Seemingly self-conscious of her appearance the meeting makes Elisa acts less blocked. “Elisa took off her gloves and stuffed them in the apron pocket with the scissors. She touched the under edge of the man’s hat searching for fugitive hairs.” (286)
After a quick conversation of the Chrysanthemum sprouts, Elisa finds work for the man to do. She watches the man, inquiring details of his existence and believes she has the strength to live the way he does. “You might be surprised to have a rival some time. I can sharpen scissors too. And I can beat the dents out of little pots. I could show you what a woman might do.” (286)
As the man exits in his wagon, Elisa retires to the house to get ready for a night out in town. As the heavy clothes come off, she bathes. “After a while she began to dress, slowly. She put on her newest under-clothing and her nicest stockings and the dress, which was a symbol of her prettiness. She worked carefully on her hair, penciled her eyebrows, and rouged her lips.” (290) Henry upon seeing her sees something different in his wife. He explains how strong she looks to him: “You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon.” (290) Despite the care, she had just given to her appearance she agrees with her husband: “I never knew before how strong.” (290)
The care given to her appearance after a day of work in her gardening costume is impressive, but the clothes do not make the man, or in this case the woman. Likewise, despite the care given to describe her strength she is not nearly as strong as someone who might be inclined to break a calf over her knee. The haunting end of the story is in the car along a country road moving toward town. Dolled up as she talks to her husband about the prizefights in town; however, she is not intending to see a fight herself but asks if women go to see them. As the car approaches the wagon of the fix-it man on the road the flush of emotion, come over Elisa. “She turned her coat collar up so he could not see that she was crying weakly – like an old woman.”

Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums.” 50 Great Short Stories. Ed. Milton Crane. New York: Bantam Books, 1952. 282-291.

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