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The Chrysanthemums | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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The Chrysanthemums | Context


American Realism

The realism movement in American literature began in the 1860s as a reaction to the romanticism espoused by writers of fiction and poetry at the time. As a style, realism continues to be reflected in literature and can be defined as the representation of the world as it really is. As a movement, realism allowed writers to explore the sweeping changes in society resulting from industrial development and the growth of cities in the United States. The social implications of change are expressed in realistic literature, transmitted to the reader through a clear picture of the lives of characters in fiction and speakers in poems. The first proponents of realism in the American literature scene included Mark Twain (1835–1910), William Dean Howells (1837–1920), Henry James (1843–1916), and Rebecca Harding Davis (1831–1910).

As the movement progressed through the turn of the century, the tendency to describe contemporary life in great detail, right down to local customs and dialects, continued. Writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) and Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951) shone a light on social interactions, and William Faulkner (1897–1962) used his stark representations of life in poor communities in the South as social criticism, showing the suffering caused by the Great Depression (1929–c. 1939), a period of worldwide economic downturn. Writers of the Harlem Renaissance (c. 1918–37), such as Jean Toomer (1894–1967), Claude McKay (1889–1948), and Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) wrote in great detail about the realities of life for African Americans during the Great Depression. John Steinbeck's works use the technique of realism to portray the daily lives of low-to-middle-class people in his native Salinas Valley and elsewhere. His writings brought to the American reading public a vivid picture of working people during this era, sparing no detail.

Salinas Valley and the Great Depression

Salinas Valley has long been a force in the agricultural production of the United States. Nicknamed "The Salad Bowl of the World," Salinas was a primary source of sugar beets and beans at the beginning of the 20th century, and in the 1920s, it became a major producer of lettuce and other types of fresh produce grown in rows. The area was also known for dairy farming.

The labor force for large agricultural operations was largely Filipino, so the culture of the valley included influences from Filipino culture. Filipino laborers formed one of the first farming labor unions in California. Refugees of the Dust Bowl (1930–40), a severe drought throughout the early 1930s in the Great Plains, came to find work in Salinas Valley and also created a union, the Vegetable Packers Association. The city of Salinas expanded rapidly, using federal money to expand its infrastructure. The surrounding area was sparsely populated and mostly rural, and the population of the valley was still only in the thousands, until migrants, over a thousand a day, began to arrive. Migrants from the Dust Bowl states lived in makeshift camps, where they paid rent for shoddy accommodations.

While other parts of the nation struggled with joblessness, plenty of work was available in the Salinas Valley, but wages were extremely low and hours were long. Farm laborers were hit the hardest by the Great Depression. These conditions led to sometimes violent labor strikes against the Associated Farmers and other large organizations in the agricultural industry, portrayed in John Steinbeck's novels In Dubious Battle (1936) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The isolation of farm life and the suffering of people who were not landowners are illustrated in the story "The Chrysanthemums."

In "The Chrysanthemums," as in some of his other work, Steinbeck also explores the life of a transient worker during the Great Depression. Tinkers such as the one in the story traveled the country, relying on other people's poverty and thrift for their own livings. If a family could have pots and pans repaired rather than replaced, the saved money could make a real difference in income, just as the smaller expense for repair could provide an income for someone else in need.

American Gender Roles in the 1930s

The 1930s, during the Great Depression, was a time of job losses and financial ruin. Women, who had been traditionally working at home taking care of household duties and children, began to take jobs outside the home to make ends meet. The types of jobs women could get were unlike those of men. Women took menial jobs men did not want, and they performed office work that was also not desirable for men. They were still expected to run the home but had to balance it not only with work but also with the possible resentment of men at home who might be unemployed. Women were expected to present themselves well, conforming to the standards of beauty at that time, but remain humble about it. Being forward about sexuality, desire, or pride in one's abilities was not socially acceptable for women. However, women began to explore their power once they were given the opportunity to broaden their horizons beyond home and submission to men, despite a backlash of men against these social changes. In rural areas, many women were farm workers, helping to support their families. This move toward independence gave them power they had not yet experienced, though the wages were extremely low. Women played a part in fighting for reasonable wages during the labor strikes. Many authors of the time portrayed these women as fighting for wages specifically for their children, which was the expectation in society. Working women fought for their own dignity and power as well, but feminists of the time were not yet able to push past the expectation that all was accomplished for the family.

Literary critics refer to some of Steinbeck's representations of female workers as unrealistic because these characters are working only briefly and only because their children will starve if they don't. In real life the opposite was true, as almost a million women worked in the agriculture industry, and they were not temporary workers. Even writers who broke convention in describing women in the workplace still had a difficult time making the radical move to allow their characters to recognize their own needs and pursue their own fulfillment. In "The Chrysanthemums," Elisa Allen, the main character, recognizes her needs, but she is unable to take the next step to fulfill them and doesn't seem to know how she might break out of her mundane life. However, in this story, Elisa doesn't go back to being a happy, docile farm wife with no ambition and no desires. Steinbeck shows her longing for freedom and distressing over meaninglessness. Her tears at the end of the story show that it is not, in fact, a happy thing for a woman to lack fulfillment in life, and sticking to typically feminine things is not, for this character, a desirable result.

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