Symbolism Analysis Symbolic Imagery in "The Chrysanthemums Term Paper

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Symbolism Analysis

Symbolic imagery in "The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums" which was published in 1938, is usually described as a story about an unhappy marriage. However, the significance and meaning of this work, I would suggest, is much more subtle than this description would allow. The central theme of the story is the search for self-identity and meaning in life. This search for meaning is conveyed in the story largely by the creation of atmosphere, symbols and symbolic imagery that creates or evokes a sense of suppression and oppression, which contributes to the central theme of the denial of individuality and individual expression.

The use of nature, clouds, fog and the central image of the flowers play a pivotal role in the story and serve to bring out and sharpen the central theme of the search for identity and meaning. The main character in the story, Elisa Allen, is presented as a woman who experiences deep feelings of frustration. She lacks a sense of personal fulfillment, both as an individual and as a woman in life.

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The story begins with an image of fog and winter, which becomes a central symbol of the emptiness and the obscurity that Elisa Allen feels psychologically. This refers to the, "The high grey-flannel fog of winter" (DiYanni 459). As the story progresses, this sense of "fog" becomes identified with Elisa Allen's life and lack of fulfillment in her relationship with her husband. This symbolic use of nature sets the tone and the atmosphere of the story. From the beginning, there is a moody restraint in the story, which acts as an undercurrent to the words and actions of the characters.

The symbolism in the story also relates to the hidden or suppressed energy and 'life force' in the main character. It is clear that Elisa Allen feels "covered by the fog" and does not feel fulfilled in her life and in her marriage.

Term Paper on Symbolism Analysis Symbolic Imagery in "The Chrysanthemums" Assignment

The sense of intense energy in the women is also symbolically conveyed is her obsession with growing and caring for her flowers. There is an "over-eager" emphasis in her work with the flowers that seems to indicate deeper underlying psychological dimension to her life. We see this in the description of the way she works with the flowers. "...even her work with the scissors was over-eager, over-powerful. The chrysanthemum stems seemed too small and easy for her energy." (DiYanni 460)

While her husband is away, a repairman in a wagon appears. The imagery and symbolic observations the author uses in the description of the repairman also adds to the atmosphere of brooding and the underlying loss of meaning that pervades the story. "His eyes were dark, and they were full of the brooding that gets in the eyes of teamsters and of sailors. (DiYanni 460)

Central to the symbolism in the story are the flowers. They are symbols not only of Elisa Allen's search for meaning but also of her feeling of being trapped or enclosed in her apparently empty marriage. Like the flowers, her life is also confined to a certain space and cannot reach beyond a certain "height." It is also noteworthy that the flowers are described as having a slightly bitter smell, which corresponds symbolically to the quality of Elisa's life. (DiYanni 462)

The flowerpot that she gives to the repairman is also a central symbol in the story. She is enthused and animated by the thought that she may be helping anther women and the pot symbolizes her desire for expression and self-identity. She only becomes aware at the end of the story that the repairman is making use of her and that he will discard her enthusiasm and the pot later on.

Her involvement with the flowers, symbolic of her search for self-worth and inner meaning, is also seen in the delight that she finds in preparing the pot for the repairmen. " Her face was tight with eagerness" (DiYanni 463). In another sense, the flowerpot and the growing of flowers are symbolic of her femininity and the core of her being. Like the flowers, she is alienated and separate from those around her and from her husband and essentially leads a life of inner seclusion. Her life is mundane and unexciting and this is possibly why she wishes to exhibit male characteristics, so that she may be more recognized and accepted by those around her.

This story reaches a deeper and more intense symbolic level in the description Elisa Allen gives of her intense relationship with the flowers. The flowers become an important symbol of the deep and intimate interaction with nature and life that her ordinary life and relationships seem to lack. The story provides a clear and incisive description of the way that she perceives this relationship.

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. They do it themselves. You can feel how it is. They pick and pick the buds. They never make a mistake. They're with the plant. Do you see? Your fingers and the plant. You can feel that, right up your arm. They know. They never make a mistake. You can feel it. When you're like that you can't do anything wrong. Do you see that? Can you understand that?"

DiYanni 463)

As she describes this intuitive and mysterious process, "Her breast swelled passionately" (DiYanni 463). One also has a sense in the above passage of the need to be understood, that is expressed in words like "Do you see that? Can you understand that?" What is important is that the woman is searching for images and concepts to express her deep and instinctive relationship to the flowers. This can be symbolically interpreted as a search for an intimate contact with life that she so deeply desires. However, in reality what she has in a seemingly sterile and empty relationship with her husband. As become clear in the interaction between man and wife, her husband does not relate to her at this deeper and more intimate level.

In one sense, the story is an existential study of the human search for meaning, not only from the female perspective but in a larger context, in that all human beings are searching for that inner contact and interaction with nature and reality that is often lacking in out modern world. In this sense, the entire story is a symbol of the need and search or alternatives and greater significance in life.

This view is emphasized by one of the most significant moments in the story. Elisa states the following while talking to the repairman. "I've never lived as you do, but I know what you mean. When the night is dark -- why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there's quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. it's like that. Hot and sharp and -- lovely." (DiYanni 464) This refers to the deep longing for contact with life and reality. The transcendent imagery used in the above passage elevates this short story to more than just a tale about a woman's feelings of frustration.

As the story progresses we receive slight but telling insights into the woman's character and her inner frustrations. This becomes evident in the way that she responds to the repairman's assertion that women cannot live as men do, or achieve the same things."

Her upper lip raised a little, showing her teeth. "How do you know? How can you tell?" she said" (DiYanni 464) This description of her teeth clearly refers back in the text to the image of the repairman's dog that bares his teeth to the other dogs in fear… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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Symbolism Analysis Symbolic Imagery in "The Chrysanthemums.  (2007, November 19).  Retrieved October 30, 2020, from

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"Symbolism Analysis Symbolic Imagery in "The Chrysanthemums."  19 November 2007.  Web.  30 October 2020. <>.

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"Symbolism Analysis Symbolic Imagery in "The Chrysanthemums."  November 19, 2007.  Accessed October 30, 2020.