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The Chrysanthemums | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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John Steinbeck | Biography


Early Years

Born February 27, 1902, in the farming town of Salinas, California, John Ernst Steinbeck is best known for his works examining the experiences and struggles of the poor and the oppressed. From an early age Steinbeck displayed sympathy for and interest in the working-class experience. The son of a schoolteacher and a local politician, Steinbeck began attending California's prestigious Stanford University in 1919. He did not pursue a degree at Stanford; rather, he took classes that piqued his interest, and he dropped out several times to take jobs in factories or on farms and ranches.

Early Works

Steinbeck left Stanford in 1925 without a degree and traveled to New York City. There he wrote his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929). The novel examined the psychology of the pirate Henry Morgan. In that same year the catastrophic collapse of the stock market ushered in the Great Depression, a decade-long worldwide economic downturn that sparked widespread social and economic changes. Cup of Gold was not a critical success, and Steinbeck returned to California.

In 1930, a major year in Steinbeck's life, he married Carol Henning and met marine biologist Edward Ricketts. This was the beginning of a friendship that would have a profound influence on Steinbeck's life, worldview, and literary output. Steinbeck next published a short story collection, The Pastures of Heaven (1932), and a second novel, To a God Unknown (1933). These works examined the spiritual nature of the relationship between humans and the land through the context of life in rural California. Neither was a critical success in its time.

Tortilla Flat (1935), a lighthearted story about friendship set in Monterey, California, was the first successful Steinbeck novel, and it was well received by both critics and the public as a sweet, frivolous read, praised for its humor and its depiction of a carefree life—two qualities people craved during the Great Depression. Even critics rarely looked at the novel as anything more than entertainment, and few delved deeply into its themes of goodness, evil, and the conflict between wealth and poverty. These themes are explored more explicitly and solemnly in the activist fiction of Steinbeck's later career.

Steinbeck's Activist Fiction and Publication of "The Chrysanthemums"

As the Depression wore on and migrant workers poured into California seeking relief from poverty, Steinbeck turned his attention to the problems of labor and workers' rights. Working as a journalist, Steinbeck published a series of articles in a San Francisco newspaper about migrant farm workers. The fiction Steinbeck published in the late 1930s also dealt with these issues. In Dubious Battle (1936) is the story of a grape picker's strike. The following year Steinbeck published what was to become one of his most beloved and well-known works, the novella Of Mice and Men, a tale of friendship between two very different farmhands.

In 1938 Steinbeck published a short story collection called The Long Valley, stories set in his native Salinas Valley, including the novella "The Red Pony." The short story "The Chrysanthemums" was originally published in Harper's Magazine in October 1937 and is the opening story of this collection. The collection as a whole was received by some critics as lacking emotional impact, but readers loved the book, which sold extremely well. Even the critics who felt the book lacked passion had to agree that Steinbeck's direct style and insightful yet pared-down descriptions accurately reflected real life in its complexity. Steinbeck's characters, particularly in "The Chrysanthemums," are unable to find meaning in their mundane daily lives, and the plot lines show Steinbeck's sympathy for their inability to get themselves unstuck. "The Chrysanthemums" is the story in the collection that has been analyzed the most frequently because it addresses gender roles, economic difficulties, sexual desire, and the need to have agency and spontaneity in one's life. Literary critics argue about whether or not Steinbeck's treatment of the main female character in the story, Elisa, is sexist. However, his portrayal of her desire to choose the direction of her life, contrasted with the wholly meaningless choices society offers her as a married woman, shows his empathy for the plight of women in American society during the Great Depression.

In 1939, as the Great Depression ended and the horrors of World War II (1939–45) began, Steinbeck published his most famous work, The Grapes of Wrath. The following year he was awarded the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for this story of dispossessed Oklahoma farmers who encounter contempt and further hardship after traveling to California in search of better lives. Despite its reception, the novel was subject to censorship, including banning and burning, beginning the year of its publication. The censoring of Steinbeck's novel prompted the American Library Association to pass the Library Bill of Rights the same year. This was meant to ensure controversial opinions and points of view were not withheld from the American public.

Later Years

Steinbeck continued to write and publish throughout the 1940s and 50s, notably the novels Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl (1947), and East of Eden (1952). In 1961 his novel The Winter of Our Discontent received praise from critics. Also well received was his 1962 book Travels with Charley, an account of his travels around the United States with his dog. In 1962 Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel Academy called Steinbeck one of "the masters of modern American literature" and his writings "realistic as well as imaginative ... distinguished by a sympathetic humor and a keen social perception."

Heart disease took Steinbeck's life on December 20, 1968. Toward the end of his life, Steinbeck's increasing uncritical support for American policies, including the unpopular and disastrous Vietnam War (1954–75), led him to fall out of favor with some of the day's liberal thinkers. His work, however, continues to attract a strong readership. Because the issues Steinbeck wrestled with in his art are still relevant today, his work continues to compel, interest, and educate the modern reader.

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