John Steinbecks' "The Chrysanthemums" is a story that utilizes symbolism on many levels. Most of all, I believe in the character of Elisa Adams. Elisa and her garden seem to be considered one. Because of all of her hard labor and love the Chrysanthemums flourish. The Chrysanthemums being a symbol of children that she never had. Also Chrysanthemums are a symbol of death. The pairing of the death association and the symbol of what the Chrysanthemums mean to Elisa is ironic. In modern society Chrysanthemums are generally brought to funerals, but they keep her going. Steinbeck also uses symbolism in his description of the time of year and surrounding area. He first describes the farm as having a lack of sunshine and the season being December, all attributes to the overall feeling of death.
At the begging of the story Steinbeck set the tone of the story. "The high gray-flannel fog of winter...made the valley like a closed pot." Here the tone is very plainly presented, it's cold and foggy, a sense of dark, even perhaps death can be seen. It is intrusting to note the parallel and symbolism between the clay pot and the valley Elisa. It is almost as if Elisa was to leave the valley, like the Chrysanthemums, she would be dumped out on the "road of life"
The chrysanthemums are the most powerful symbol in the story. Not only do the flowers represent motherhood for Elisa, they also represent her womanhood. Elisa isn't described as being a very feminine woman. Steinbeck instead uses the word "strong" to describe her. All of her surroundings such as the house and the valley are also described as being very stark. The only colorful thing in the story are the flowers. It is obvious that the symbolism of the flowers is encompassing of Elisa's whole livelihood: her own mother's "gardening hands," the children she never had, and the creativity that so greatly contrast her surroundings.
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