In the short novel “The Chrysanthemums”, John Steinbeck tells a love story of a beautiful woman that never knew a real love, before an incident. Though Eliza’s husband satisfied her material needs, he never truly understood her. She had a hobby of growing chrysanthemums, which were so beautiful that nobody else could grow alike ones. This engagement not only showed her ability of growing plants, but also revealed a secret of which her husband never suspected, though she tried to tell him about that. The mystery was hidden deeply in her soul, until a lonely traveler clarified it during an incidental talk. The short conversation with the stranger turned the spiritual world of the woman upside-down, as she understood what she had lost, what a real life was, and that her dreams of the real love would never come true.
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“The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck
The story begins with a description of a dull autumn time valley, where lives a family that is engaged in a hard routine ranch work. While the man, Henry Allen, is a fully satisfied professional farmer, who knows how to do his business better, his wife grows wonderful flowers that bring no obvious benefits. Henry tries to find a practical application to the wife’s gift of growing outstanding flowers. He does not understand, why Eliza loves the hobby so much, and what is worse, he does not try to understand her and her propensity to the beauty.
At first, the ranch life does not offer many possibilities for self-realization. Mr. Allen, a farmer that knows well how to sell “three-year-old steers” (Steinbeck, 1938), does not realize spiritual needs of his wife’s life. He takes her hobby of growing beautiful chrysanthemums as a useless prank that should be turned into a profitable bed, asking her to “raise some apples that big” (Steinbeck, 1938). Besides, though the ranch life is melancholic, he offers her to go out to a restaurant on the occasion of the successful bargain. Therefore, it is easy to imagine, how boring the life of a beautiful thirty-five-year-old woman was, who should have waited for three years for the appropriate event to go out.
Secondly, her husband is deaf enough to miss the meaning of the story about her inherited family talent. Eliza’s mother could “stick anything in the ground and make it grow”, because she had “planter’s hands” (Steinbeck, 1938). Therefore, it was not only Eliza’s hobby, but also a “family treasure”, a gift of which nobody else in the close proximity to the ranch possessed. It was the only engagement when she could fulfil herself on the ranch, therefore she accepted the husband’s offer to switch over to growing apples with “sharpened eyes” (Steinbeck, 1938).
The man that overturned Eliza’s “happy” life was the complete opposite of her husband. He was a poor man who traveled all his life and had nothing, but three animals, a cart covered with canvas and the star-sown sky over long cold nights. Therefore, Eliza was not interested in him or his offer to “sharpen scissors” or to fix something at first. But, as he expressed a sincere interest in growing flowers, her mood changed. Not only did she meet someone who liked her hobby, but also found a twin soul in an ordinary homeless tinker.
Eliza’s world changed in one instant. When she was talking about the secrets of growing beautiful flowers, there was something what she did not tell anybody before. It was a mystery, a gift that she was proud of and ashamed to open it to the stranger. At first, she hesitated, then showed him how “the planting arms” worked - almost unconsciously, “the fingertips …do it themselves… never make a mistake” (Steinbeck, 1938). She demonstrated the plant work “kneeling on the ground” and he said that he had felt something similar, when was alone under the star-sown sky (Steinbeck, 1938).
Besides, his way of living attracted Eliza as a chance to get away from her boring life. “I’ve never lived as you do, but I know … when the night is dark … the stars are sharp-pointed … you rise up an up,” she said (Steinbeck, 1938). After the conversation, being ashamed of her refusal to help him, Eliza gave him two plates for repair and watched him working in the same concentrated manner as she did before. At that very moment she understood that she wanted to follow the stranger to the edge of the world and said that she had wished “women could do such things” (Steinbeck, 1938). When the stranger departed, her husband came back, found her changed, beautiful, with shining eyes, and told her that she “was strong enough to break a calf” (Steinbeck, 1938). Though the woman was strong enough to do the ranch work, she was afraid to choose love instead of the well-being, therefore she “was crying weakly—as an old woman” (Steinbeck, 1938).
Eliza was an unhappy woman having a lot of hard work on the ranch and the husband who did not understand her. She chose the way to live her live; she was afraid to choose happiness instead of the well-being. She realized it, when she met her real love that changed her in one instant, which became the only moment of her real life. The fears of changes made her stay home and live a simple live. Therefore, she became even unhappier than she was before.
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