Chrysanthemums Literary Review – the Antagonist
Stephens 1 Jeff Stephens Kathleen Roddy ENGL 1102-208 7-20-2011 The Antagonist is Not Who You Would Think In “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck, the character’s conflicts are very obscure. The main character, Elisa, is in constant conflict with herself, which she projects onto her husband and the tinker. Though Elisa appears to be dissatisfied with her life, she has no way to change it, and she becomes increasingly crass as the story progresses. Although she appears to be the victim, she is the story’s antagonist.
Steinbeck describes different moods in relation to the fog and rain through the use of simile and metaphors. A specific use of this is when he writes about how the fog stretches across the roof of the valley, essentially closing it off like an iron kettle. He conveys, through the fog, that Elisa feels trapped and that only the rain can set her free, “fog and rain do not go together” (347). In his article, Gregory Palmerino takes note that the plowed fields represent Elisa’s fertile womanhood while the lack of rain would represent Henry’s sterile manhood.
He points out that while Elisa’s character is well pronounced throughout; Henry’s character is “altogether absent” (165). Elisa’s feeling of being trapped and unattended is a predominant trait throughout the story. Henry seems to be a lot like myself, and I identify with him through his steering clear of confrontations by using compliments and jokes. Palmerino states that “The initial dialogue between Henry and Elisa sets the tone for subsequent encounters and reveals the couple’s fundamental problem: they do not know how to fight” (165).
Steinbeck shows that Henry is avoiding getting into an argument with his wife when he says, “Well, it sure works with flowers” Stephens 2 after “her eyes sharpened” (348). Even though there is no way to know, I could feel a pause there- an uncomfortable silence- even if it was brief. Henry and Elisa seemed to know that continuing this particular conversation would lead to a fight, so she changed the subject. Immediately, it felt as if the mood had lightened and that they were on good terms again, but there was always something lingering behind their words.
Elisa appears to be the instigator, by default, even though she also seems to want to avoid confrontation. During her interaction with the tinker, Elisa flirts with the man, trying to get his attentions. Palmerino points out that Elisa is trying to cause a confrontation by “sexually and inadequately prostrating herself in front of an implausible paramour” (166). The tinker is a poor man, he says so himself, and knows full well that he cannot get himself into the kind of situation that she intends.
Elisa’s actions are impulsive and the sign of someone who is starved for the attentions of a lover. When Elisa practically throws herself at him, he immediately switches back to his business manner and says, pitifully, “It’s nice, just like you say. Only when you don’t have no dinner, it aint” (Steinbeck 351). She immediately switched gears and offered him some work, but she knew that what she had done was wrong. She felt dirty, not just from the soil in her garden, but also from her actions. Unfortunately, Henry seems to be a fairly dense individual.
While he can tell when a situation is going south, he doesn’t seem to be capable of understanding why the situation is worsening. Elisa constantly takes advantage of the fact that he is so thick-headed. She pokes and prods him at every turn, whether boasting about her planting skills or demanding to know what is meant by “nice” or “strong” (Steinbeck 352-353). Henry manages to worsen the situation by Stephens 3 joking about what he means, but Elisa breaks her composure at the idea that she would “break a calf over [her] knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon” (Steinbeck 353).
Both Henry’s choice of words and his demeanor manage to make Elisa angry, because what she really wants is for him to tell her that she is beautiful. Henry, however, is embarrassed. When he gets embarrassed or feels like there is a fight coming, he resorts to humor. Elisa is already feeling apprehensive from everything that happened at the farm, but on their way into town, she sees the chrysanthemums that she gave to the tinker and notices that while he had no use for the flowers, he kept the pot.
Palmerino writes that “Elisa cannot bring herself to acknowledge, much less confront, the reality of her situation; and instead of verbally or nonverbally expressing her outrage at the tinker’s insensitivity…she turns her back and avoids the overarching truth” (166). Palmerino is dead on in his description of her emotions at that moment. She is definitely outraged, but just like Henry, she is constantly avoiding confrontation. Her apprehension turns to sadness as she realizes that she is stuck in an unending loop of an unambiguous, non-committal, non-progressive, and non-confrontational (basically dead) relationship of a marriage.
The development of the story leads me to believe that Henry tries to lighten the mood by joking around or complimenting her, but Elisa always seems to negate his efforts. Steinbeck describes a painfully awkward few moments in this story, where Elisa misinterprets the actions of others. In Japan, this kind of character is called a tsundere. (Tsun means to turn away in disgust and dere means to become lovey-dovey. ) Elisa is constantly acting like a tsundere when her husband compliments or pokes fun at her. She could confront Henry, but her non-committal
Stephens 4 attitude would result in nothing changing. She would probably just change the subject like she did at the beginning of the story. She, basically, is the root of the problem. Stephens 5 Works Cited Palmerino, Gregory J. “Steinbeck’s The Chrysanthemums. ” Explicator 62. 3 (2004): 164-167. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 6 July 2011. Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing, 4th Compact Edition. Edgar V. Roberts, ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education. 2008: 347-353.