Steinbeck's Allegory of the Cave: Deconstructing Elisa Allen in "The Chrysanthemums"
By David Hunt
Bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light.
--Plato, The Republic, Book VII, p. 43
“The Chrysanthemums” is one of Steinbeck’s most studied and acclaimed short works of fiction. Although the story lends itself to various approaches, it has earned a respected niche among feminists. Its value as a feminist work, however, is undermined by its traditional interpretation. Many suggest that the protagonist in “The Chrysanthemums,” Elisa Allen, struggles in vain to escape gender oppression through a value-affirming sexual episode that is discarded by her manipulative and illicit partner, and, unsuccessful, she weeps in frustration. However, ambiguity surrounding why she weeps has been misdirected by the sexist predispositions of critics. Steinbeck’s feminist writing challenged the idea that women are a “weaker sex” and he anticipated that “The Chrysanthemums” would be misinterpreted by sexist readers and critics. Like so many other Steinbeck heroines, Elisa Allen is a strong woman and her final tears were not shed in resignation or helplessness. Rather, she glories in womanhood, and like the enlightened one in Plato’s allegory of the cave, she recognizes the absurdity of the limited notions of her peers and, weeping, laments their ignorance.
Ambiguity in “The Chrysanthemums”
The story’s inherent ambiguity does not stem from the actions of the characters themselves, rather from attempts to discern their motives. The third-person objective style that Steinbeck uses to narrate the events in “The Chrysanthemums” renders the plot straightforward and unambiguous: Elisa meets a traveling tinker, she makes him a present of her flowers which is ultimately undervalued, and she concludes frustrated. That much is unquestionable. Steinbeck scholar R.S. Hughes, however, observes that over the years “critics have differed . . . on the specific source of Elisa Allen’s frustration.” Steinbeck maintains this ambiguity through his “restricted point of view—in which [he] reports events ‘objectively’ without entering into the minds of the characters” (Hughes 27). Differing analyses of “The Chrysanthemums” hang on what the reader determines those character motives to be. Why she cries is central to Steinbeck’s message. Predispositions concerning that “why” can adversely affect interpretation. Indeed, perhaps for this reason, Steinbeck scholar Jackson Benson tells us that Steinbeck himself was convinced that “there was a good deal more to his fiction than critics would ever be able to perceive” (qtd. in Hughes 12).
Sex-stereotyped devaluation of the feminine
The automatic assumption that Elisa cries because she is weak is fatal to Steinbeck’s innovative feminism in “The Chrysanthemums.” Like others of Steinbeck’s short works, this story has obvious feminist undertones. Indeed, as Mitchell observed in her essay on feminine identity in Steinbeck’s short stories, “It is in his short stories that Steinbeck’s understanding . . . of women is to be found” (154). However, as I recently noted, the direction that feminism takes in this story depends more on the reader’s interpretation of character motives, than on the actions of the characters themselves. These reader perceptions, however, are biased by what Lorelei Cederstrom called the “Sexism ingrained in American culture” (189). When we see a woman cry, are we trained to automatically cite oppression? This tendency may suggest what Cederstrom refers to as the “devaluation of the feminine in human experience” (204.
Widespread devaluation of the feminine among critics is what misdirects the ambiguity in “The Chrysanthemums.” What may appear to critics as Steinbeck’s sexist portrayal of women illustrates the depreciating awareness of the feminine rather than personal sexism on his part. Cederstrom explains that “The superficial and seemingly sexist characters of the women in Steinbeck’s [works] are much less at issue than the attitudes of the male characters [or critics] toward them” (204). It is by our culturally ingrained sexism that even we, as critics, fail to recognize that, through Elisa Allen, Steinbeck exposes “the limitations of our current attitudes toward the feminine in both the natural world and in life” (Cederstrom 204, emphasis added).
The “traditional” analysis
The pathetically weak Elisa Allen that has existed for the last half-century is the result of two conditions: a woman crying without an explicitly stated reason, and preconditioned feminine devaluation among critics. Critics find what they’re looking for. After an initial reading, critics who are conditioned to blame Elisa’s concluding tears on gender oppression marshal evidence for such repression throughout the story. Steinbeck sets the story with a fog that covers the valley like a “closed pot” geographically symbolizing female limitation. Both valleys and pots are yonic images and both suggest oppression in this case. As Carey observes, “Steinbeck’s descriptive setting . . . suggests a sense of barrenness . . . and an ambivalent oppressiveness” (36). Elisa emerges excluded from the men; she is in her garden, they are in the fields. She hides her dress, and her womanly figure, with a heavy corduroy apron. Carey calls her “A woman . . . trapped beneath her heavy work clothes” (36).
Through the lens of oppression, Elisa’s encounter with the tinker is, as Leroy Thomas declares, “a symbolic sexual experience.” Most critics agree that it “reveals her to be a sexually frustrated woman” (Thomas 50). She is literally deflowered by the disheveled tinker, and as he leaves she naively stands with her shoulders straight and her head thrown back—proud to have ‘been of service’ to a man.
The final image is, traditionally, a most pathetically harsh scene. As she and her husband drive to dinner, she boasts that she is now “strong.” But she is crushed in the end as she sees her flowers discarded on the dusty road. According to critics, she is hurt by this betrayal realizing that “her partner in coition wanted only her body symbolized by the pot [and] the product of their “love” is merely cast aside” (Thomas 51). She gives up her futile struggle against oppression and worthlessness and ends the tale weeping resignedly “like an old woman.”
Steinbeck’s message is elusive and easily missed
Steinbeck’s feminism was much more innovative than it gets credit for. As far as I’m concerned, the interpretation that I have just described is a total misconception. I agree with Mitchell that “Steinbeck’s [feminist] contributions to American literature . . . are ignored or dismissed” (Mitchell 154). I believe that his feminist contributions go largely unrecognized because they are misconstrued by critics’ ingrained sexism. Elisa’s tears are central to the story’s message. If she cries because she is frustrated with her lowly station of womanhood then file this story away for dismissal with a million others just like it—it offers nothing new.
Steinbeck, in a letter to George Albee, described his purpose in writing “The Chrysanthemums”: I shall be interested to know what you think of thestory, “The Chrysanthemums.” It is entirely different and is designed to strike without the reader’s knowledge. I mean he reads it causally 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. (qtd. in Hughes 21)
Could it be that this “profound” feeling is introduced because somewhere, even subconsciously, the reader sees and respects Elisa Allen in a new and elevated way? Formulaic feminism doesn’t “strike without the reader’s knowledge”; it’s predictable and used up. Could it be that instead of shedding frustrated tears of impotence, Elisa Allen cries because she pities man? Among all other characters in the story, she alone, as Plato would say, has left the cave and seen the light? She does not cry because life is unfair to her; on the contrary, she cries because despite her effort to elevate her peers, they continue wasting their lives discarding that of value and seeking honors as hollow as an empty flower pot.
Steinbeck’s feminism: how did he write women?
Steinbeck was an enemy of the cultural slide toward female devaluation—he wouldn’t have written his most lifelike, round, and complex character (Hughes 7) as a weakling. Cederstrom notes that, “Throughout his career Steinbeck was concerned with affording the . . . feminine its proper value” (203). Mitchell, commenting on Steinbeck’s short stories argued that he “tried to release woman from the pasteboard, shadowy role she generally assumed in fiction” (154). And finally, Hughes observes that, among the characters in Steinbeck’s short fiction are “bright, capable, and energetic females” (14). Drawing on the character of Abra from East of Eden, Cederstrom argues that Steinbeck created archetypes of women who are lovely, courageous, strong, and wise (203). Elisa Allen is no exception.
Steinbeck celebrated the feminine and frequently assigned his female characters positions of superiority. Elisa Allen is the only woman in “The Chrysanthemums.” She tends a garden. She makes things grow. She calls her innate ability to create and nurture life “planter’s hands”; she values it above all else. This ability symbolizes woman’s unique ability to conceive, deliver and nurture children—the first two being impossible to men and the third unconventional. Commenting on the symbolism of gardening, Cederstrom claims that “Steinbeck was celebrating the feminine and advocating the necessity of feminine values for a balanced life” (190). Truly, Elisa Allen has all the earmarks of a Steinbeck ‘strong woman.’ This observation alone demands the story’s rereading.
The enlightened Elisa Allen
If Steinbeck, then, did not intend for Elisa to be a weak character, she must have cried for some other reason than helpless frustrated resignation. Elisa Allen is not an ordinary woman—even to Steinbeck. Hughes calls her “Steinbeck’s most sensitively drawn female protagonist” (17). Of all of Steinbeck’s ‘strong women’ Elisa is perhaps the strongest. Mitchell points out that, in his fiction, “Steinbeck reveals fundamental differences between the way women see themselves and they way they are viewed by men . . . . Women perceive themselves as being equal if not superior partners” (Mitchell 155, emphasis added). A true critic must break the barriers and biases of female devaluation to correctly analyze “The Chrysanthemums.” He/she must attempt to see Elisa Allen as Mitchell and Hughes agree that she was truly written—superior.
From the outset, the author assigns the woman a separate position of enlightenment. She works far from the men who talk money and business; she chooses to. Cederstrom notes that “By invoking [gardening], Steinbeck . . . valorizes the long-degraded feminine principle in our lives” (191). Indeed, the garden symbol is one of the first indications that this woman is not pathetic—rather, in a way, godlike. Steinbeck makes this biblical connection in her name: “Elisa’s garden [is] evocative of Eden if one elides the sounds of Elisa and Allen” (Carey 38). Hughes concurs: “Elisa’s garden itself can also be thought of as a paradise or Eden” (26). The garden is further evidence of Steinbeck’s appreciation of the feminine and his intention of exalting Elisa Allen in this story.
Henry Allen, Elisa’s husband, never enters his wife’s Eden, possibly out of “obtuseness” (Hughes 24). Hughes blames his exclusion from the garden on his lack of “understanding of her sensitive emotions” (24); I agree with his analysis. Henry, although he means well, simply cannot understand or appreciate the import of what happens in his wife’s garden, and so, to avoid casting pearls before swine, Elisa never invites him in.
Elisa tenaciously avoids the degrading conversation and activities of the men that surround her. She works in heavy clothing not to impersonate a man, but to “protect her body”—her feminine attire and hands; these things are precious to her (Carey 37). When her husband asks her to come to the fights with him she refuses. Perhaps allusive to the shadow games in Plato’s cave, boxing is among the most degradingly bestial “manly” diversions. And indeed, in training, it is referred to as shadow boxing. Elisa, however, has no interest in man’s meaningless diversions—his shadows on the wall.
Steinbeck did not intend to portray men as superior beings; on the contrary. The leading man in “The Chrysanthemums” is the unkempt tinker. The tinker presents a stark contrast to Elisa’s “hard swept” house. He wears a black suit. His eyes and the cracks of his hands are described as dark, and black. The author compares his brooding look to that of teamsters and sailors—other professions of men. Steinbeck has introduced another prisoner of the cave and he describes him in one repeated word: black. After failing to obtain employment from her, the tinker applies to Elisa’s pity, saying that if she doesn’t help him, then perhaps he will go hungry. Undeniably, contrary to traditional feminist literature, in “The Chrysanthemums,” the man is quite dependent on the woman for his sustenance.
In her garden, Elisa has found significant fulfillment where men do not. However, she is not selfish with the pleasure she takes in nurturing; quite the opposite: she wants desperately to share it and is hurt when it is disregarded. By mentioning her flowers, the peddler hints to the Elisa that he is capable of understanding and appreciating the light that she loves and longs to share—the godlike glory of creating life. She latches onto his comment and becomes a missionary of the light. Carey calls it her “moment of exuberant trust” (41). She tries to explain to him the beauty and the importance of nurturing, of being female. “She [attempts] to share a knowledge that is private and almost mystical” (Carey 42). She tries to help him turn his head and leave the confinement of his sexist cave, inviting him to “enter her garden” (Carey 41).
She is hopeful that he can leave his dark existence and see the importance of what she has told him. She doesn’t realize that her words have had no affect on him. Through her entire message he ignorantly watches the shadows and finally asks for money again. As he leaves she stands straight. She whispers, “That’s a bright direction. There’s a glowing there.” The figurative reference to light is too obvious to be ignored. She has invited him out of the cave; literally into the “life-giving” light.
Elisa’s satisfied behavior after sharing her womanly gift is not that of an unhappy or oppressed woman. She hurries into the house and removes her manly overclothes. She bathes. And then, naked, she examines her feminine body in a mirror and throws out her chest, celebrating her femininity. Carey notes that here, “She is proud and stately as she views her . . . magnificence” (Carey 43). She dresses in “the symbol of her prettiness” and applies her makeup. This is not the behavior of a woman who wants to be treated, or even thought of, as a man. She is apparently quite content with her position. She recognizes the blessing of her “planter’s hands” and she is glad to have shared the light with a prisoner of the den. Upon seeing her, Henry loses his breath. He speaks to her “helplessly.” This is not an oppressed female. Indeed, she is quite in control.
As they drive away she sees dark specks on the road, not unlike the shadows that Plato’s enlightened returned to see and to lament. She is saddened. Not because she has failed to reach man’s plateau, but because she has failed to elevate the poor pathetic peddler from his dark cave of “emotional poverty” (Mitchell 163). She pities him.
She asks her husband about boxing, do women go? Yes? How tragic that they don’t see their worth. How awful that they must play at the shadows also. “I’m sure I don’t want to go.” She says. And then, lost in pity for all of the creatures of the cave, she can only “cry—like an old woman.”
Critics, predisposed to sexism, have traditionally misinterpreted Elisa Allen’s ambiguous tears to find a pathetic and oppressed woman. Steinbeck anticipated this misreading. Elisa was written as a strong, even a superior woman. Her tears are shed in pity for those who can’t understand or appreciate the value of “planter’s hands”—meaning femininity. The rich ambiguity that surrounds character motives is part of what made Carol Henning Steinbeck, the author’s first wife, praise “The Chrysanthemums” as “the best of all his stories” (qtd. in Hughes 21). Whether or not Steinbeck intentionally molded Elisa Allen after Plato’s enlightened ancient, the archetype of enlightenment pitying ignorance can certainly be seen in both stories—especially in Steinbeck’s description of Elisa’s tears: “like an old woman.”
The elderly do not typically weep out of vanity; they do, however, weep tears of wisdom, experience, and even pity. In her poem “Women” Adrienne Rich describes three sisters: the first two try desperately to fit into a man’s world at the expense of personal identity and self-worth; the third, the oldest, does not attempt to conform and although “Her stockings are torn, [she] is beautiful.” Elisa doesn’t cry like an angry child; but like an old woman she weeps. An old, beautiful woman.
Carey, G. K. Cliffsnotes Red Pony, Chrysanthemums & Flight. Lincoln: Wiley & Sons, 1978.
Cederstrom, Lorelei. “Beyond the Boundaries of Sexism: The Archetypal Feminine versus Anima Women in Steinbeck’s Novels.” Beyond Boundaries: rereading John Steinbeck. Ed. Susan Shillinglaw and Kevin Hearle. Tuscaloosa: Alabama UP, 2002. 189-205.
Gladstein, Mimi Reisel. “Abra: The Indestructible Woman in East of Eden.” Modern Critical Views: John Steinbeck. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. 91-103.
Hughes, R.S. John Steinbeck: A study of the short fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
Mitchell, Marilyn L. “Steinbeck’s Strong Women: Feminine Identity in the Short Stories.” Modern Critical Views: John Steinbeck. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. 91-103.
Plato. The Republic. WordCruncher Publishing Technologies. Provo: Hamilton & Locke, 1996.
Rich, Adrienne. “Women.” Collected works of Adrienne Rich online. Comp. Carol Bere. 9 Jan. 2000. Accessed 3 April 2006. .
Thomas, Leroy. “Steinbeck’s 'The Chrysanthemums.'” The Explicator 45. 3 (1987): 50-51.
© David Hunt