Essay: Human Heart in Conflict With Itself

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Elisa Allen and Neddy Merril. Identification and Realization of the Self

What John Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums" and John Cheever's "The swimmer" have in common is their symbolic nature underneath a story that resembles what may appear as representations of typical events in one's life. Underneath that appearance though, there is a layer of internal struggle culminating with self identification of the characters. In the following, we will attempt to analyze how that happens for each of the characters and we will specifically address how the authors use symbolism to illustrate the process.

Steinbeck's protagonist is Elisa Allen, a woman with strong physical features, her face, "eager and mature and handsome," her will to work "over -- eager, over -- powerful," that even "the chrysanthemums stems seemed too small and easy for her energy." (Steinbeck 240) the author centers the plot of the story around Elisa and her flowers and the caring feeling she nurtures them with, almost as though she is to embody them with physical features. We read that "No aphids were there, no sowbugs or snails or cutworms," because Elisa's "terrier fingers destroyed such pests before they could get started." (Steinbeck 240) Elisa seems to be living a common married life within a common environment while she is preoccupied with regular households and typical daily activities. She appears to be leading a regular life with no less and no more of an expectation than any other woman in her community. However, following a conversation she has with a strange man passing through, Elisa emerges into a down path of frustration and disillusionment. As she comes to identify her position more and more, we learn that her feelings are also fused by her husband's lack of appreciation. That is to say that Elisa starts nurturing a feeling of resentment towards her husband due to Henry not being able to understand her needs, such as she wishes. He fails to realise that chrysanthemums are more to Elisa than simple flowers and he makes that very clear when he tells his wife "I wish you'd work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big." (Steinbeck 240) He reduces Elisa's work to a productive activity, while Elisa herself is not able to point Henry's shortcomings to him. Once we dive deeper into the story, we come to realize that Steinbeck alludes to this feeling of loss that his protagonist feels since the very beginning of the story when he introduces her figure as "blocked and heavy" and emphasizes on this heaviness by "covering" her hands in "heavy leather gloves" and her feet in "clod -- hopper shoes." The tinker is to Elisa what her husband is unable to comprehend: the one who lures her into a world of adventure. The traveler opens a door for Elisa which she perceives is an escape from her given situation. She gradually comes to the realization that her world is small and limited and the people around her oblivious to their own ignorance. She comes to see herself more as a woman than she has ever had and, when the tinker describes the chrysanthemums as a "quick puff of coloured smoke," Elisa feels she has found someone who can truly appreciate her flowers, thus her feminity, her sexuality. Due to the feelings that the tinker has aroused in Elisa, she is now able to nurture her feminity with the same caring as she nurtured her chrysanthemums. She "scrubs" her body to disperse herself of any remnants of her old self just as she fought against the pests to protect her flowers. She carefully picks up her best dress allowing herself to admire the reflection of the woman in the mirror and puts on makeup for the night out with her husband. She anticipates with excitement that her husband will romantically compliment her feminine revival but she is only met with Henry's practicality who points out she looks "strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon." (246)

Elisa gradually realizes she has allowed herself to believe in the idealization that her feminity would be recognized and she would thus be able to renew her spirit. However, she encounters one final blow when, in the car with her husband, she notices the flowers she had given to the tinker thrown away on the side of the road. She thus has no other choice but to conclude that her ideal had been nothing but a desire surfaced by her own imagination. She is left to live within a marriage that suffocates her feminity and she feels there is nothing she can do about it since the only man she thought had seen into her soul proved a lie.

Why the chrysanthemums are as much representative as they are symbolic in Steinbeck's story is because they mark three important positions in Elisa's life. They are the object of her maternal attention and caring in the beginning, they represent her awakened feminity when the tinker expresses his interest in Elisa's feelings for the flowers and finally, they mark the abandonment of what she sought would represent a change in her life. Elisa is torn between her secluded life and marriage and her visions of escaping that world. She is constantly trying to find something she can cling to in order to change the course of actions and she relies in doing so on her husband's appreciation, later on the tinker's. However, when she realizes none of them are capable of recognizing her spirit, she gives in to crying. However, there seems to be more to her crying than just loss of hope, just what exactly, we cannot know for certain, but merely speculate on.

Cheever's "swimmer" is a man who, although "far from young," resembles a youthful appearance, physical health and emotional stability. Neddy Merril, by his name, decides it would be a good idea to swim his way back home on a beautiful summer's day. But what Merril does not yet know is that obstacles are to slow down his evolution and make him come to terms with a different perception of reality. Ned has to make his way through a number of households where he expects to encounter "friends all along the way." (Cheever 2) So Ned starts his journey plunging into the water he feels grateful for and happily moves along the streams of swimming pools in the neighborhood. What starts as a simple adventure of a middle aged sportive man seems to be turning into something outside perceptive reality. What happens is that Ned's apparently innocent journey back home turns into a journey of recent memories which bring him face-to-face with something he had not wanted to accept before. He shifts from being a happy completed man to having moods typical for an old man once he starts recollecting his memories and looks them straight in the eye. The setting seems to be encouraging him to embrace reality but, at the same time, it creates a space for what appears supernatural. A storm breaks out of the blue to disperse the calm and the beauty of the day and introduces Autumn for what was supposed to be a time of youth. As seasons change and Ned starts feeling more and more tired, we realize these are representations of times past and events which Ned chose to ignore, thus jeopardizing his own reality of things and that of his family.

As he moves from one swimming pool to the other, the water turns colder and his tiredness makes swimming more difficult. Moreover, the friendly faces he anticipated as he embarked on the journey are carriers of bad news who only seem to remind Ned of what he had wanted to suppress. He indulges himself in alcohol with… [END OF PREVIEW]

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APA Format

Human Heart in Conflict With Itself.  (2013, June 19).  Retrieved May 21, 2019, from

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"Human Heart in Conflict With Itself."  19 June 2013.  Web.  21 May 2019. <>.

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"Human Heart in Conflict With Itself."  June 19, 2013.  Accessed May 21, 2019.