Term Paper: Imagery and Symbolism in the Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck

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Imagery & Symbolism in the Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck

Mother Nature in Steinbeck and Hemingway

There has been a fairly exhaustive amount of academic and literary criticism directed towards the character of Elisa Allen in John Steinbeck's short story "The Chrysanthemums" (Hunt). Interestingly enough, virtually all of the analysis given towards her characterization reflects her sexual repression and status as a woman, as a glance at most serious academic sources regarding this tale would demonstrate (Budnichuk). However, the most interesting aspect of Allen is her relationship to nature, primarily expressed through the earth and its several manifestations of flowers and other creatures that are sustained by it. In this respect, Steinbeck utilizes both symbolism and imagery to reflect the concept that Allen actually represents the strength and vitality found in the earth itself. Furthermore, it may be argued that this representation of this female character that becomes empowered by nature or the earth is merely a continuation of the 'mother earth' motif that has been traditionally seen in works of literature as well as in various cultural myths regarding tradition. There is evidence that Ernest hemingway employed this similar motif in "Hills Like White Elephants." Both authors use various facets of imagery and symbolism to reinforce the notion that their female protagonists reflect many of the characteristics of nature, only to be repressed at the hands of man.

Steinbeck alludes to the fact that Allen is the symbol of strength throughout "The Chrysanthemums" quite early and often (Renner 305). None of the other characters, Allen's husband, Henry, who evinces considerable difficulty in even talking to let alone understanding his wife (Renner 305), nor the wandering repairman (who is just trying to scrape up enough funding to supply a meal for the night) can be considered particularly strong. Yet Steinbeck utilizes the words "powerful" and "strong" to describe Allen and her work with nature no less than seven times in the initial descriptive paragraphs of her. The following quotation (in which Elisa speaks with her husband) demonstrates the fact that Elisa symbolizes strength in the story, a strength that stems from nature. "At it again," he said. "You've got a strong new crop coming." Elisa straightened her back and pulled on the gardening glove again. "Yes. They'll be strong this coming year." In her tone and on her face there was smugness" (Steinbeck). This quotation demonstrates that the source of Elisa's strength that she symbolizes is nature, in the form of the crop (described by both husband and wife as "strong") Elisa is tending to. The imagery of her standing with her back straightened, reinserting her tools in the form of her "gardening glove," is in accord with this sense of fortitude and empowerment which Elisa feels while being closely connected with nature. The "smugness" of her tone of voice underscores this point as well.

Furthermore, the physicality of her work in nature, that of tending to her precious Chrysanthemums, reflects itself in a heightened sense of physicality (that borders upon sexuality) that can be found within Allen herself (Budnichuk). This point is most prudently made during Elisa's conversation with the vagrant repairman, who is observant enough to sway what is rapidly deteriorating into an unprofitable conversation into one that will eventually yield profits by referring to Allen's connection to nature through her gardening. Steinbeck utilizes a fairly stunning show of imagery to demonstrate the physical effects that Allen's relationship with nature has upon her, as demonstrated by her conversation with the journeyman. "She'd sure like to have some, ma'am. You say they're nice ones?" "Beautiful," she said. "Oh, beautiful." Her eyes shone. She tore off the battered hat and shook out her dark pretty hair" (Steinbeck). In this quotation, Steinbeck gives the reader a stark series of imagery that illustrates how potent an effect that nature has upon Allen, who had previously been described as wearing a man's work clothes. Just the mentioning of her chrysanthemum's causes her to she her workman clothes by tearing away her "battered hat" and loosening her own beauty, evinced in this passage by the reference to her "pretty" hair. When Allen glows that her flowers are "beautiful," it is deliberately ambiguous as to whether the woman is actually talking about the flowers, herself, or the effect of nature upon her, all of which are decidedly "beautiful" (Budnichuk).

Another passage that is particularly insightful into the understanding of Allen as a reflection of the strength and beauty of nature can be found when she inadvertently describes her relationship with nature to the journeyman. There are certain aspects of nature that are indescribable and unknown to the minds and ways of men. Elisa describes these qualities of nature, while simultaneously symbolizing them through her efforts in her garden, in the following quotation in which she explains her methods of working. "Well, I can only tell you what it feels like. It's when you're picking off the buds you don't want. Everything goes right down into your fingertips. You watch your fingers work. The do it by themselves. You can feel how it is. They pick and pick the buds. They never make a mistake. They're with the plant" (Steinbeck). There are a number of relevant points to be made regarding this particular quotation, which utilizes imagery to underscore the incomprehensible qualities of nature. There is a lot of sensory imagery in this passage, as Allen claims the only way she can describe her process of work it to elaborate on how it "feels," which she refers to more than once. The images of her fingers removing buds are rather strong visual representations of this process. Yet the ineffable qualities of nature are also highly suggested -- in the fact that Allen does not quite understand the process herself. The fact that her fingers perform this labor "themselves," and are described as being a part of, or "with" the flowers, reinforces the notion that there are parts of nature which she does not understand -- and that there are parts of her relationship or personification of nature, which her character symbolizes, that she does not fully understand as well.

As alluded to in the introductory paragraph, the motif of using nature to symbolize various aspects of womanhood is quite common in works of literature. This theme can be found in Ernest Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants," in which the author utilizes a decidedly picturesque setting to symbolize certain qualities inherent within women (Renner). Whereas the reaching into the earth to till the land and bloom Chrysanthemums is utilized in "The Chrysanthemums to imply the strength and vitality of Elisa Allen, there are certain passages in "Hills Like White Elephants," a story in which a woman and her lover contemplate whether or not she should have an abortion, in which Hemingway uses the setting to represent fertility (Renner) -- which in several ways, can be considered one of the primary forms of a woman's strength. The following quotation (in which the protagonist, Jig, looks at the scenery around her) emphasizes how Hemingway utilizes the setting within this story to symbolize fertility. "The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station. Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro" (Hemingway). This passage is fairly endemic of fertility for several reasons. The references to the grain symbolize a growth of life alongside the river's bank (Renner), and not that of just any life, but the life of wheat which itself is used as a means of sustenance and nourishment by other forms of life -- namely humans who eat it. This picturesque setting of water -- which is one of the primary requirements for life on earth, and the growing of wheat is a fairly symbolic of the growing life that is being nurtured within Jig's body due to her pregnancy.

Furthermore, it may be argued that this fertility, this growth of life within her body that Hemingway symbolizes through the ripe imagery of his setting, can be considered a source of power for Jig. Since the child is developing within her and not her American lover who attends her in this story, Jig ultimately has the power to influence both of their lives by either choosing to either keep the baby or to terminate its life through the means of an abortion. In much the same way, Allen's power and strength is realized through her tending and growing of life in the form of chrysanthemums. She views this growing of life as an intrinsic connection to nature that infuses her very body with being. That is why in both stories, it becomes necessary to analyze the effects that men have upon these respective women, who are representative of the mother earth motif so often found in literature. Steinbeck utilizes Allen's husband Henry to symbolize mankind, which has traditionally been at odds with nature and has continually attempted to defeat it or withstand its natural effects.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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