Feminist, phenomenological and psychoanalytic approaches to "The Chrysanthemums" by John Ernst Steinbeck

by M. Tomberger (Author) K. Fend (Author) Ch. Dangl (Author)

Seminar Paper 1997 37 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Approaches

3. Analysis
3. 1. Elisa - part I
3. 2. Elisa and Henry
3. 3. Elisa and the pot mender
3. 4. Elisa - part II

4. Symbols

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

According to Norman Holland, a story deals with the author, the author's relationship to his work or what he creates. In Holland's opinion texts contain autobiographical elements, or are totally autobiographical. In the case of The Chrysanthemums this is not true, although there are at least some biographical elements in the story. Elisa Allen, the main character, has been suggested to be Steinbeck's second wife Carol, because of the description of her outward appearance (bulky figure, strong, energetic, ...). Additionally, the Steinbecks, like the Allens in the story, had no children at the time the story was written. Owing to the fact that these elements are not significant to the story itself, they are neglected in our interpretation. However, the short story The Chrysanthemums does not tie the reader down to a certain interpretation. A psychoanalytical approach appears as practicable as a feminist or a phenomenological one. The central theme in the story is Elisa's frustration. She is the main character, the reader's attention is focused on her throughout the story. In our analysis the reasons for her development as well as the source of her frustration, the different symbolisms and metaphors will be discussed from several perspectives. In the phenomenological approach we can see to what extent the reader influences the text - an explanation for the feminist and psychological approaches following on. In the feminist approach we will mostly focus on Elisa's character as her behaviour gives indications of her frustration: Elisa is forced to play a role, which is determined by her gender. This role strongly influences her sense of identity and her behaviour; moreover, it gives rise to her conflict and frustration. The psychoanalytic approach also concentrates on Elisa, for she is the main character and the other characters are closely connected with her. And it is the three of them that form the reader's psychological background.

2. Approaches

Steinbeck's short story The Chrysanthemums evoked our curiosity and left us, the readers, with a lot of open questions. This story offers scope for different types of interpretation, therefore we considered it appropriate to analyse the story according to not just one, but several different approaches of literary criticism. We decided to interpret this short story the three of us together, but from different perspectives in order to find various possible and plausible meanings of the text.

Additional interest was raised by a letter from the author to George Albee, in which he wrote:

I shall be interested to know what you think of the story, The Chrysanthemums. It is entirely different and is designed to strike without the reader's knowledge. I mean he reads it casually and after it is finished feels that something profound has happened to him although he does not know what nor how. It has had that effect on several people here. (Hughes 1987: 59 or Hughes 1989: 21)

In fact, the story had the same effect on us and we wondered why and how this could happen. The story of a young farmer's wife, who is led to deep sadness and resignation only because a stranger throws away some flowers she has given him, seems worth examining carefully. We wanted to understand why the characters act as they do and to find the reasons for our own reactions after having read the text. Obviously, reading 'casually' would not be sufficient to come to any helpful conclusions, some interpretative work had to start.

According to Wolfgang Iser, the interpreter can only illustrate possible meanings of a literary text (cf. Iser 1978: xi). The reader as interpreter should undertake "not to explain a work, but to reveal the conditions that bring about its various possible effects" (Iser 1978: 18). Moreover, Iser claims that a text can only become a literary work through the reader's activity:

The work is more than the text, for the text only takes on life when it is realized [by the reader]. (Iser 1974: 274)

'Realising' necessarily includes the reader's creativity, for he has to bring in his "imagination in the task of working things out for himself" (Iser 1974: 275). This means that the reader not only reads the story as it is, but is open to bring in his own perceptions where the text demands it. Iser provides us with a constructed reader who is neither an ideal nor an individual reader but "embodies all ... predispositions necessary for a literary work to exercise its effect": the "implied reader" (Iser 1978: 34). The implied reader, as a construct, is based on the structure of the text which "offers guidance as to what is to be produced", but is not itself the "product". He undergoes the process of reading as a "dynamic interaction between text and reader" (Iser 1978: 107). Supported by this guidance of the text structure the reader must bring in his personal expectations, look at whether the text meets them or not and later on produce his own interpretations. Hence, we as interpreters are not only consumers of what is literally written in a text, but we have to (re)create what is not explicitly said and is important to understand, to perceive a work's possible message.

As Iser states, "the whole text can never be perceived at any one time" (Iser 1978: 108) and "the potential text is infinitely richer than any of its individual realizations" (Iser 1974: 280). The reader is involved in the unfolding of what the text offers during the course of reading and he becomes part of the literary work in some respects, grasping it "by way of different consecutive phases of reading" (Iser 1978: 109). These phases coincide with a consecutive change of perspectives. The reader has to cope with the structure of a "wandering viewpoint".[1] What seems clear and obvious to him reading one 'chunk' of the text may be (and actually often is) revised when reading the subsequent chunks. In the sequence of reading, the reader always has to be open to modify his expectations (cf. Iser 1978: 111). As Iser claims,

it is this very shifting of perspectives that makes us feel that a [literary text] is much more 'true-to-life'. (Iser 1974: 288)

Indeed, it is the lifelikeness of a literary text that enables the reader not only to grasp a text, but also to "absorb an unfamiliar experience", i.e. to shift the fictional world of the text, "into [his] personal world" (Iser 1974: 288).

As far as The Chrysanthemums are concerned, one can state that the reader needs neither to be a farmer nor a pot mender himself nor must he love gardening to understand what is going on in the story. The text enables him to imagine what the fictional world is like and thus makes him capable of entering into it. Imagination allows him to experience the unfamiliar against the background of the familiar.[2]

To gather this experience, to learn something from a text, the reader has to do some work. He has to participate actively in the process of communication between the text and himself. In generating an individual realisation it is the reader who decides whether or not to take what the text offers at a certain point. Furthermore, he is always free to revise or modify his decisions. Thus it is inevitable that the reading process is always selective and therefore always subjective to some extent - as subjective as all personal experiences. In Iser's words,

the way in which this experience [from reading] comes about through a process of continual modification is closely akin to the way in which we gather experience in life. (Iser 1974: 281)

Both the reader's openness to new experiences and the structural organisation of the text are fundamental to a successful communication between text and reader. Iser's remarks indicate that "the dynamics of the reader's experience constitute the rewards of literary communication" (Beaugrande 1988: 133).

One of the strategies to evoke the reader's active participation in unfolding what is 'unwritten' in the text is the absence of explicit information, i. e. the presence of blanks. In simple words one could define these blanks as 'what is not said, but necessary to know'. Therefore, missing information must be reconstructed by the reader. If the interpreter is not satisfied with the written surface of the story, but wants to get deeper into it and reveal one or more of the text's possible meanings, he is cued to complete what is missing - the blanks have to be filled.

In case of The Chrysanthemums the reader is quite often forced to think about what is not said. In order to elicit why and how Steinbeck reached his aim to 'strike without the reader's knowledge', we have to look carefully at how he designed the written sequence of information. We must denote the gaps where our own perceptions can replace missing information, prove whether those perceptions fit into the action and whether they are helpful to reveal what is possibly meant.

This is especially true for the story's characters. One of the most striking features of this short story is that Steinbeck refuses to give any explicit information about the characters' thoughts. He uses a third person objective narrator who has a restricted point of view and never enters into the mind of the characters. Characterisation is obtained through description of activities and outward appearance, supported by the use of a great amount of symbols. This kind of characterisation enables the reader to get to know the fictional characters almost as he learns about people in real life - by observing their behaviour, listening to them talking and arguing about what lies behind. In contrast to a real-life situation, however, getting to know (fictional) characters from reading is, of course, always directed by the author's literary strategies.

... someone else's thoughts can only take a form in our consciousness if, in the process, our unformulated faculty for deciphering those thoughts is brought into play - a faculty which, in the act of deciphering, also formulates itself. Now since this formulation is carried out on terms set by someone else, whose thoughts are the theme of our reading, it follows that the formulation of our faculty for deciphering cannot be along our own lines of orientation. (Iser 1974: 294)

In order to find out about the background of their actions and thoughts, to get an insight into the characters' (and thus probably also the author's) intentions, we are expected to have this faculty. If we want to succeed in revealing what a text may offer, we have to prove both the will and the ability to decipher the given text. Although "no reading can ever exhaust the full potential [of a literary work]" (Iser 1974: 280), one can try to create not only one, but several different realisations of one text. When the reader is guided by the structure of the text, individual interpretations become defensible.

Considering Iser's phenomenological approach so far, one can assume that its principles are also true for other approaches to literary criticism. Whatever approach is applied to a literary text, the reader always has to be aware of his own influence on it. One can even go further and contend that every single approach can serve as one possible perspective from which the text is 'unfolded'. What makes Iser's model different from others is that he emphasises the process of interpretation more than its results, for "the reader's activities offer the most direct contact with reality" (Beaugrande 1988: 132). "Iser has scant reason to uphold a division between 'right' and 'wrong' reading" (Beaugrande 1988: 144) or 'right' and 'wrong' interpretation. He focuses on the dialectical structure of reading:

The need to decipher gives us the chance to formulate our own deciphering capacity - i.e., we bring to the fore an element of our being of which we are not directly conscious. The production of the meaning of literary texts ... does not merely entail the discovery of the unformulated, ... it also entails the possibility that we may formulate ourselves and so discover what had previously seemed to elude our consciousness. (Iser 1974: 294)

To us it seems evident, that the potential of our faculty to 'decipher' will expand as we widen the range of possible attempts at interpretation. 'Shifting perspective' in the course of reading can be understood as 'shifting approaches'. As different approaches to literary criticism provide us with different possibilities of 'unfolding' a text, and as a single approach will always exclude other possibilities of 'deciphering', we consider it meaningful to combine different approaches and thus come to variations of interpretation.

3. Analysis

Unlike Hughes, who presumes that Steinbeck "was more concerned with plot than character when he wrote the story" (Hughes 1987: 59), we are of the opinion that it is the characters he most carefully worked on. There is not much of action in the story, as the following plot outline will show:

One December afternoon on the Allen ranch, "grey flannel fog" seals the Salinas Valley like a "closed pot." Elisa Allen, a vigorous woman of thirty-five, works in her fenced garden powerfully cutting down chrysanthemum stalks. Her husband, Henry, having just sold thirty head of cattle, appears and suggests they dine out that evening. When Henry returns to the fields, a rickety wagon drawn by a horse and a burro wobbles toward the house. The big, bearded driver introduces himself to Elisa as a pot mender. Although Elisa three times declines his services, she warms to him when he expresses interest in her chrysanthemums. He tells her that a lady on his route wants some chrysanthemums, and Elisa exactly prepares several sprouts in a red pot. As she talks with the tinker, Elisa becomes empassioned and reaches toward his leg, almost touching it. Then she scurries behind the house to find two old, dented saucepans, which he repairs for 50 cents. After the tinker departs, the exuberant Elisa bathes, exults in her naked body before a mirror and dresses for dinner. When Henry returns and marvels at how strong she looks, Elisa confines that she never before knew how strong. As they leave for dinner in their car, Elisa spots the chrysanthemum sprouts she had given the tinker lying in the road. He has thrown them away and kept the red pot. She begins to cry, but hides her tears from Henry. (Hughes 1989: 21-22)

Steinbeck picks out one day in the life of the Allens. Up to the tinker's arrival there seems to be nothing extraordinary in this day, nothing that distinguishes it from an ordinary winter day in an ordinary farmer's life. With the arrival of the tinker the routine is interrupted, and it is how the characters manage the situation that gives the story its subliminal quality. However trivial the events may seem to the reader, it is their relation to Elisa's circumstances that lead the action on to its surprising conclusion. Although, on rereading the story, even this conclusion has become trivial in the reader's mind, he can now concentrate on understanding Elisa's circumstances and sympathise with her.

As mentioned above, 'getting to know' the characters in the course of reading is always directed by the author's writing strategies. As we observe how Steinbeck presents the main character of The Chrysanthemums, Elisa Allen, we will note that there is a sequence of information units, each of which shows a certain aspect of her personality. Moreover, any single unit raises certain impressions and expectations in the reader's mind.

If we go through the information units in the sequence of their appearance in the text, we get an outline of the main character as follows:

In her outward appearance Elisa reminds us of a pioneer woman: She wears men's clothes and in her gardening work she is "over-eager" and "over-powerful". She has "strong fingers" (204)[3] and shows a lot of energy. The following passage suggests that she is probably the ideal farmer's wife and a good housewife:

Behind her stood the neat white farmhouse with red geraniums close-banked around it as high as the windows. It was a hard-swept-looking little house, with hard-polished windows, and a clean mud-mat on the front steps. (204)

She looks self-confident ("Her face was lean and strong", it is "eager and mature and handsome" (204)) and is proud of her talents ("I've a gift with things" (205)). So far Elisa Allen appears as a diligent and conscious woman full of composure - a character almost too good to be true. But then this impression is disturbed. When her husband suggests to take her to a boxing match, she refuses "breathlessly" (205). Moreover, she welcomes the opportunity to have dinner in town, what would relieve her from the duty of cooking ("It's good to eat away from home" (205)). Both of her reactions indicate the presence of facets in her character that are still hidden.

We learn that Elisa has a good sense of humour, when she jokes about the tinker's dog (cf. 206) and the rest of his team (cf. 207). She thinks realistically and practically when assessing the tinker's chance to ford the river: "I don't think your team could pull through the sand" (206).

At the beginning of her conversation with the stranger her behaviour is ambiguous: She is polite and friendly by showing interest in the stranger's life ("That sounds like a nice kind of a way to live" (207)), but distant when he wants to make business: She declines "quickly", her eyes harden "with resistance", she answers "shortly" and at least apologises "irritably" (207). After that there is a complete change of behaviour when the stranger shows interest in her chrysanthemum (cf. 207). From this moment on Elisa seems to be quite attracted by him and shows great interest in keeping up the conversation. Finally, she even gets some work for him to do and sends him away with her chrysanthemum sprouts (cf. 209, 210). When the caravan leaves, she comments on her environment for the first time: "That's a bright direction. There's a glowing there" (211). We notice that she obviously does not see 'a glowing' in her own setting.

Elisa seems to have been strengthened through her contact with the stranger: her shoulders are "straight", her head is "thrown back" (210). Later on, there is another sudden change in her behaviour as soon as her husband arrives. She sits down "primly and stiffly", her face grows "tight" (211) but she boasts about her strength: "I'm strong ... I never knew before how strong" (212). From the conversation between Elisa and her husband we get the impression that they usually talk about completely different things. As the familiar pattern, the image of a good marriage demands the existence of the partners' mutual understanding, we draw the conclusion that the union of the Allens is not a very successful one.

In the last sequence it turns out that Elisa has only been happy as long as her chrysanthemums have been appreciated. As she sees that her flowers are scorned, she falls into deep sadness and resignation. The most interesting and at the same time most mysterious statement concerning Elisa is: "She knew" (212). Having read the ensuing lines, it becomes obvious to the reader that she 'knows' that her chrysanthemums have been thrown down on the road. But somehow he feels that this is not all. Steinbeck's brief and concise words 'she knew' indicate that some process of deep recognition has happened to the protagonist.

And again her behaviour changes: She suddenly shows interest in the "prize-fights" (212) she formerly refused to visit. It is a quite surprising element that the motif of 'violence' is connected to this woman. The reader expects to learn further details about her, but this expectation remains unfulfilled: Elisa rejects her husband's invitation to the fights again. She relaxes "limply" and starts "crying weakly - like an old woman "(213). The reader is aware that this act of resignation is connected to the scorned flowers, but the connection is still not formulated explicitly in his mind.


[1] for more detailed information about the 'wandering viewpoint' see Iser 1978: 108 ff.

[2] cf. Eco, Umberto. 1996. Im Wald der Fiktionen. Streifzüge durch die Literatur. München: dtv. On page 117 Eco is of the opinion that reading fiction helps us to cope with our own reality, a reality that is much more complex than a fictional world ever can be: "Streifzüge durch fiktive Welten haben die gleiche Funktion wie Spiele für Kinder. Kinder spielen, ... um sich mit den physischen Gesetzen der Welt vertraut zu machen und sich in Handlungen zu üben, die sie eines Tages im Ernst vollführen müssen. In gleicher Weise ist das Lesen fiktiver Geschichten ein Spiel, durch das wir lernen, der Unzahl von Dingen, die in der wirklichen Welt geschehen sind oder gerade geschehen oder noch geschehen werden, einen Sinn zu geben."

[3] Page numbers without any reference to a book refer to the short story The Chrysanthemums in Foley, Martha (ed.) 1965. Fifty Best American Short Stories. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Amaranth Press.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
579 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Vienna – Anglistics/American Studies
very good
Feminist Chrysanthemums John Ernst Steinbeck Linguistic Seminar Applications Theories Discourse


  • M. Tomberger (Author)

  • K. Fend (Author)

  • Ch. Dangl (Author)



Title: Feminist, phenomenological and psychoanalytic approaches to "The Chrysanthemums" by John Ernst Steinbeck