The short story, as a form of popular literature, began in earnest in the early 20th century and acclimated well to Modernism. It is in the early part of the twentieth century that the two short stories, “He” and “Chrysanthemums,” were written and they emulate several new forms of literary subject matter which were unknown to literature prior to The Great War. These short stories, both being somewhat dark and dismal, are really quite similar despite their different styles and amount of detail.
First, their similarities must be taken into account. On the surface, one can realize that both stories have similar settings as well a feminine viewpoint. The setting in both stories is very similar if not the same. The Whipples and the Allens live in a rural farm area. The Whipples have livestock, a chicken coop, peach trees, and much more which would label them as a farming family (Porter 1). The Allens are definitely a farming family as well. Their piece of land is labeled as a “foothill ranch” where they raise cattle and fruit (Steinbeck 1). Both short stories are also written from a woman’s point of view. In “He,” Mrs. Whipple is the primary character and it is her mind that we come to understand throughout the story. While the story may be about her son He, the story is primarily her thoughts and words about her son. In “Chrysanthemums,” Elisa Allen is the chief character and her thoughts and words, which are laid bare before us by the omniscient narrator, give us an understanding of her own psyche as well as an understanding of the rising feminist movement. These stories are also similar in the way they lay bare the true nature of a person. From Porter’s “He,” we come to understand that whilst Mrs. Whipple may always say that she loves her son, she keeps having to remind or convince herself that she does (1). That is not true love then. Moreover, the neighbors are just as convalescing to He as she is. They criticize his actions and even try to ignore Him and His family because of Him. This is manifested in the section talking about He climbing into the peach trees as well when they have to take Him to the hospital (Porter 2&7).
In “Chrysanthemums,” we really understand Elisa’s personality and her own psyche. In the beginning we learn that she is a hard, determined woman full of strength and energy (Steinbeck 1). In her strength and energy she boasts about her gardening feats and desires to do greater things, like work in the apple orchard, but her husband beats her assertions down (Steinbeck 2). He does this when she desires to work in the apple orchard as well when she gets dressed up to go into town. His “praise” is not very affectionate in that passage (Steinbeck 10-11). Through these passages we come to realize that she is a strong woman who is constantly being degraded by her husband. However, when the peddler comes along, we learn of new sort of Elisa that shows a side of the human condition. As he compliments her for her gardening, she suddenly becomes “awake” and the description of her thoughts and their manifestation in her body are very sensual. As she explains how to plant the chrysanthemums, she speaks very enthusiastically and as she kneeled on the ground, “Her breast swelled passionately. The man’s eyes narrowed. He looked away self-consciously” (Steinbeck 8). The sentences following that are even more telling:
“Maybe I know,” he said. “Sometimes in the night in the wagon there–” Elisa’s voice grew husky. She broke in on him. “I’ve never lived as you do, but I know what you mean. When the night is dark–why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there’s quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It’s like that. Hot and sharp and–lovely.” Kneeling there, her hand went out toward his legs in the greasy black trousers. Her hesitant fingers almost touched the cloth. Then her hand dropped to the ground. She crouched low like a fawning dog. (Steinbeck 8)
This passage shows that despite her energy and melancholy attitude, Elisa is very emotional and human. The other passages that describe her energy make her seem like an Amazon.
The stories are very similar in their manner of giving the reader a sense of pity after having read the story. Porter’s “He” deals with the issue of treating a mentally handicapped child as a thing, as a non-entity. All the characters in the short story are guilty of it. The mother keeps reassuring herself that she loves him and the neighbors say that,
“A Lord’s pure mercy if He should die,” they said. “It’s the sins of the fathers,” they agreed among themselves. “There’s bad blood and bad doings some¬where, you can bet on that.” This behind the Whipples’ back. To their faces everybody said, “He’s not so bad off. He’ll be all right yet. Look how He grows!” (Porter 1)
With such statements by their neighbors and family members, we feel pity for Him and are appalled at the lack of real love for the boy. We feel that He is de-humanized through the usage of a pronoun as his name. It is as if the whole world treats him as a thing.
In “Chrysanthemums,” the reader might also be inclined to pity Elisa Allen just they pitied He although for a slightly different reason. Elisa is continuously being described as a woman with great energy and strength. This is primarily in context to her gardening and once when she gets dressed up to go into town (Steinbeck 1 & 11). However, she is also discouraged from pursuing that energy in other areas which are not womanly. While he never really actively discourages her from working in the orchard, he speaks about it in a condescending manner, “I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big” (Steinbeck 2). His comment almost insinuates that her gifts are only used in wifely or womanly tasks, such as gardening, and not real jobs. Furthermore, he doesn’t give her any more encouragement than this and the subject is dropped. There are a couple other statements which are useful to this thought. As her husband speaks of going into town, he talks about going to see a fight. As he suggests this idea, he says it in a joking manner which would mean that he knew she wouldn’t or couldn’t go to that because she is a woman (Steinbeck 3). He emphasizes this later as they are in the car, “Do you want to go? I don’t think you’d like it, but I’ll take you if you really want to go” (Steinbeck 12). Her reply is, “Oh, no. No. I don’t want to go. I’m sure I don’t” (Steinbeck 12). Such a reply would denote that she knows she couldn’t go because it’s not her place or its not proper for a woman to go to them. Just after this discussion, Elisa is described as crying in manner so that her husband doesn’t see her doing it (Steinbeck 12). She is broken by the way everyone treats her. Even the peddler doesn’t let her fulfill her awakened desire and she responds to it “like a fawning dog” (Steinbeck 8). By the end of the story she is disheartened by everyone’s treatment. Although she is not treated as lowly as He is, Elisa is nonetheless discouraged from doing “unwomanly” things. She is treated very condescendingly by her husband. It is in this way that the two stories are similar.
There is one key difference between the two stories that should be taken into account. While they may both speak of the human condition and psyche, the stories differ on how well the outside scenery and setting are incorporated into the. In “He,” the scenery and setting are not really all that important as a vehicle to the short story. There is no real picture of what the Whipple’s farm looks like or even what the characters look like. This is due to the fact that the key focus is not on the characters and their surroundings but the characters’ interactions with Him. All their conversations and statements, especially those of Mrs. Whipple, are centered on tolerating and loving Him.
In “Chrysanthemums,” we are given the details of the setting as well as the characters. The countryside and valley emulate the atmosphere of the short story and its chief character, Elisa. We get a clear image of what the area is like as Steinbeck writes,
The high gray-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot. On the broad, level land floor the gang plows bit deep and left the black earth shining like metal where the shares had cut. On the foothill ranches across the Salinas 1~iver, the yellow stubble fields seemed to be bathed in pale cold sunshine, but there was no sunshine in the valley now in December. The thick willow scrub along the river flamed with sharp and positive yellow leaves. (1)
This imagery gives us a very vivid idea of the surroundings of where Elisa lives and may even how those surroundings has shaped her into the hard energetic woman that she is. Elisa herself is well described in the short story,
She was thirty-five. Her face was lean and strong and her eyes were as clear as water. Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man’s black hat pulled low down over her eyes, clod-hopper shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron with four big pockets to hold the snips, the trowel and scratcher, the seeds and the knife she worked with. She wore heavy leather gloves to protect her hands while she worked. (Steinbeck 1)
Her personality and energy is well described too; this is perhaps the most defining thing about her since it sets her up for the rest of the story. The scenery also gives us the image of disparity which may be a metaphor for Elisa’s own psyche during the story.
Overall, the stories are very similar since they both describe the true nature of the human condition and both compel the reader to pity some character in the story. They both center on two characters that possess some sort of energy but are criticized because it is unnatural for them to possess it. In the case of “He,” the butt of everyone’s jokes or supposed pity is He who is both simple and strong but also mentally handicapped. Therefore people shun him or try to convince themselves that they love Him. In Steinbeck’s “Chrysanthemums,” Elisa possesses strength and energy which compels her to be more at liberty to do what she pleases. However, she is confined by the decorum of the times to do womanly tasks such as gardening and cooking and not to go to watch fights or grow apples. Her passions are not only quelled by others but herself as well especially when she cowers before the peddler when she is sexually excited (Steinbeck 8). The stories are very compelling as they draw the reader in thus making them singular works of modern literature.