The Roles of Men and Women in Society

John Ernst Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902 in Salinas, California. After he graduated for Salinas High School, he went to Stanford University until he dropped out in 1925. In 1925, John traveled to New York to find a publisher, but he had no luck, so he worked as a manual laborer and had odd jobs. John eventually got back to California in 1926. There, he worked as a concierge in Lake Tahoe, and after few years he met his first wife Carol Henning. Carol supported John financially while he worked on his writing career. By the year 1942, John and Carol divorced, and by 1943 he married his second wife Gwendolyn Conger, who was a singer. They had two children together, Thom and John IV. John and Gwendolyn were divorced by 1948. John married his third and last wife Elaine Scott in 1950. His novels The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Of Mice and Men brought himthe Pulitzer Prize award. John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in Literature and Pulitzer Prize in 1962. President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded John Steinbeck the Medal of Freedom in 1964. John died on December 20, 1968. The body of this great writer was buried in the Garden of Memories cemetery in Salinas California.

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In the short story “The Chrysanthemums”, John Steinbeck returns his readers to the time when women did not have the right to speak in a male-dominated society. In the story, the protagonist Elisa Allen, Henry’s wife, understands her role as a woman, but she is sad that her life will never reach full potential because of inequality. Henry provides for the family, and he is a good man, but Elisa is lacking romance and conversation in her marriage. Henry views Elisa as strong and smart, but Elisa is not involved in any decision making. Thus, Elisa is a bright example of a woman that is not treated as equal in a male-dominated society.

This kind of treatment made women feel disappointed, discouraged and frustrated. The way Elisa appears, behaves and speaks illustrates the women’s frustration in that kind of world. This frustration is obvious when Elisa appears for the first time. Her character is termed as "blocked and heavy" for she is dressed in a big apron over her dress, she is wearing "man's black hat," heavy gloves and shoes (Steinbeck 330). Her house has some masculine features, too. It is described as "hard-swept" and "hard-polished" (Steinbeck 330). Elisa is tired of such life. She is not interested in her husband anymore. As Sweet points out, Elisa is dissatisfied with the old-fashioned female role and is therefore shown in a bit masculine way.

Elisa’s character is not even close to the feminine stereotype in the society of that time. According to social beliefs of the 1930s, women were duty-bound to be mainly homemakers. Such kind of women is presented in different books. One can name Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, for instance. One of the main characters of the book is named Mrs. Emily Shelby. She is portrayed as a clever woman with a kind heart, but she is bound by society expectations. Particularly, she cannot get a paid work. Only men can have a paid job and be therefore the breadwinners of their families. Women are supposed to stay at home and raise children. But here the reader can notice that Elisa does not fit that image exactly. She is depicted as somehow stronger comparing to the other women. She wants to be treated equally. Distinctive traits of feminism are discovered in Elisa’s behavior while evaluating her efforts to behave like a man in this male-dominated society. This fact becomes obvious when she meets a stranger. That one day when the tinker comes reveals what her true desires are. She wants to travel like that man does. But he, of course, considers that as “It is not the right kind of life for a woman” (Steinbeck 335).

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The roles of men and women in society are shown well enough in the relationship between Elisa and the other male characters. Her husband Henry is doing his own business at the beginning of the story. While reading the story, one comes to realize that Elisa does not have a clue what it is all about. She becomes informed later after all the decisions are made. Her husband does not ask for any advice from his wife. All Henry Allen can tell her is to continue grow flowers. Furthermore, he thinks only about the financial side of her hobby. He does not understand what it means to her, and he does not even try. To his mind, a man should be a breadwinner and a woman is a homemaker. The similar attitude is expressed by the tinker.

During the conversation, Elisa's behavior changes and becomes more feminine. The tinker knows how to win her trust – he starts to speak about her favorite chrysanthemums. He acts like he loves the flowers as much as Elisa does. When the tinker says that her flowers are like cloud “of colored smoke" (Steinbeck 333), something starts to happen. Elisa becomes more feminine that is seen from her symbolic taking-gloves-and-hat-off move. She likes the tinker since, as Stanley Renner states, he serves as an embodiment of exciting life and liberty reserved for men only (306). Finally, Elisa understands that she will never possess equality for she is just a woman.

One more notable aspect is the depiction of sensitive feminine side of this story. Sensitiveness and vulnerability are the key characteristics of women. The society expects women to express their weaknesses, but Elisa hides them. She cannot admit that the husband’s attitude hurts her. She wants to be strong and play men’s role in the story. Then one day the tinker comes, and he turns Elisa’s spiritual world upside down. She understands what she had lost, what life and love she missed. Though Elisa’s husband satisfied her material needs, he never cared of her heart.

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The travelling stranger was somewhat different. She has gotten a feeling that he could be trusted and that he shared her interests. Therefore, she opened her heart to the tinker. She told him something she would never tell her husband. After some moment of hesitation, Elisa explained him “the planting arms” phenomena, “the fingertips …do it themselves… never make a mistake” (Steinbeck 1938). In the evening, when her husband Henry came, he noticed that something changed. But he accepted that just like sensitiveness that all women possess. He did not want to know anything more. She was just a woman, and her feelings were not something special to her husband, the breadwinner.  

Elisa’s character in “The Chrysanthemums” represents how women were treated in a male-dominated society. She cannot influence men’s decisions and she is frustrated with that fact. Her frustration leads her to act like men do. She hides her feminine clothes under the big apron. She even wears man’s hat. This woman is "blocked and heavy" as well as her house is. Nevertheless, Elisa desires for more. She wants to make decisions on her own, to travel and to have an interesting life. She is stronger than other women and she wants to be treated equally. Therefore, she does not meet the expectations of society. Her husband cannot accept another Elisa, and the tinker believes that travelling is not an appropriate kind of life for a woman. Thus, Elisa realizes that she is just a week and sensitive woman. She cannot be treated as equal in a male-dominated society and she accepts that.

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