The society of the United States is, and has always been, one that is highly and heavily patriarchal. Males are the gender that is in charge and women are expected and indeed required to accept this as fact. Their gender necessitates submission and dominion by their male counterparts. Women who strive for power in this society are meant to feel as though they are somehow very wrong because they want something that is supposed to be allowed only to the opposite gender. A woman was always made subordinate to her husband. This is the case at the center of the marriage between Henry and Elisa Allen. Throughout their union, he has been the lead and she has followed him, like a proper dutiful housewife should. At the age of 35, she has little life to call her own; no children and no power in the union. All she has are her chrysanthemums which she takes very special care of. The chrysanthemums are far more important than an everyday garden plant. They serve as the crux of Elisa's very identity and her self-assurance both as a woman and as an individual person potentially capable of complete self-reliance.
When the reader first meets Elisa Allen, they learn that she is relatively young, only thirty five years old. Very few would classify her as old and yet she has been hardened by a difficult life. She has lived on the farm at least since the start of her marriage and has had very few luxuries in her life. This is why the promise of a film and a nice dinner with husband where she gets to have the extravagance of drinking alcohol gives her such pleasure. She has very little to live for outside of these infrequent entertainments. In the article "The Real Woman Inside the Fence in 'The Chrysanthemums,'" Stanley Renner writes that Elisa Allen is "a strong, capable woman kept from personal, social, and sexual fulfillment by the prevailing conception of a woman's role in a world dominated by men" (306). Elisa Allen has been marginalized by her society and fenced in by her marriage, physically and socially unable to exist outside of the boundaries that her husband and his patriarchal power allow her.
It seems that these flowers are all in life that she does care for. So, when one day a handsome and charismatic salesman convinces her to purchase a pot and also to give him some of the cuttings of her precious flowers, she feels elated and strong, a healthy and vibrant and sexually viable creature again. Of course, this self possession and new confidence fades when she and her husband drive towards town only to find that the salesman has thrown her chrysanthemums, the only thing in her life which has preciousness to her, to the grown to be crushed and destroyed by oncoming traffic. This is enough to break Elisa and at the end of the story, she is very much the same woman from the beginning. She has had a brush with strength and vitality which have been crushed by the impending destruction of her gift. Man's attention has given her strength and the factually of that attention, the reasons behind it, serve to objectify and subordinate the woman again.
In John Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums," the female character is extremely marginalized, from a physical, emotional, psychological, and economical position. Elisa Allen watches from a distance while her husband discusses business. Her husband Henry does not even approach her until his business transaction has been completed. He tells her, "I sold those thirty head of three-year-old steers. Got nearly my own price, too" (Steinbeck). Henry here is in charge of financial gain for the farm and the resulting financial stability for the family. While Elisa strains to take care of the chrysanthemums in her garden, Henry sells their cattle without even consulting her. The lines of duty are clearly drawn here, paralleling the idea of the Cult of Domesticity wherein a woman had a sphere that was defined by the home. She was responsible for the care and upbringing of her household and anything that did not occur within the home was not her realm. Henry, as a male, is in the Public Sphere, dealing with the outside world and matters of finance. Only men are allowed to participate in the public sphere and discuss business and their potential economic interactions. Elisa's work is in the Private Sphere, dealing with flowers and gardens. Her responsibilities are solely regarding the home. Since, in the case of the farm, the home and the business are located within the same physical territory, husband Henry must make it extremely clear which portions of the land are accessible to Elisa and which parts of the farm are designate for man's work. Out of all the potential distributions of territory, Elisa is finally granted only a small portion of land near the fence of their farm. The meaning is undeniable; whereas the man grows crops which will provide sustenance in terms of food and money, what the woman does is unimportant and thus to be marginalized and given as little attention as possible. Her whims are to be tolerated, but only after the powerful male illustrates that it is only through his benevolence that she receives her desire because it can provide the man no aid.
The only chance Elisa has for interaction with her neighbors is through a male facilitator. A traveling salesman who mends pots and assorted metal works for his living approaches her with the information that there is another gardening woman, a little ways away who could benefit from Mrs. Allen's green thumb. Her demeanor completely changes when she meets this individual. He challenges her and because she has no other outlet, she allows herself to be altered by this man. When she comments about how interesting she finds his lifestyle, the man makes a comment about how it is not women's work. Her green thumb is equated with masculinity and male availability, also with male power. He gives her this strength by his words. In the face of this nameless and relatively meaningless man, she finds strength. "You might be surprised to have a rival some time. I can sharpen scissors, too. And I can beat the dents out of little pots. I could show you what a woman might do" (Steinbeck). She finds strength in defying this man.
However, the newfound strength of Elisa Allen disappears when she is once again confronted by her husband and then when she learns that her compliments from the stranger were only a ruse to get her to give him money. She tries to hold onto it to the point where even he notices the change. "I don't know. I mean you look different, strong and happy" (Steinbeck). Elisa confirms this assessment, trying to convince herself that she can retain this version of herself, asserting her power and trying to achieve equality with the male gender. She even tries to convince herself to go see the fights with her husband because of how uncharacteristic and unwomanly that would be.
In the end, however, her need for conformity with cultural norms takes over. After seeing the chrysanthemums that she had given the salesman thrown onto the ground, she can no longer believe the words that he told her. When forced back into female domination, Elias "remains a pitiable victim of male domination and female disadvantage" (Renner 306). Without those words, she has no evidence of her own ability and once again descends into the subservient position of womanhood. "She turned up her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly -- like an old woman" (Steinbeck). Elisa Allen is unable to retain her individuality once she…