Literary Elements in 'The Chrysanthemums' and 'The Things They Carried'
Today, I'd like to take a look at the basic literary elements in two classic stories: The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck and The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien.
These tools, when expertly employed, allow authors to create a story with depth enough to resonate in our hearts - and within the annals of literature.
Placing the Frame: The Role of Setting
Each story opens with a rich description of its setting. With The Chrysanthemums, Steinbeck takes us into the Salinas Valley in California. He immediately establishes it as being a sort of self-contained place, telling us how the winter fog “closed off Salinas Valley from the sky and all the rest of the world…like a lid…(on a) closed pot” (Steinbeck p157).
Already, a reader feels as if its inhabitants, too, might be similarly contained– perhaps even cut off or disconnected from everything else. Steinbeck tells us that on the foothills, the sun is shining. In the valley, though, it is gray. This seems set up to be a parallel to Elisa’s sheltered life and her feelings about escaping it. Later, after her encounter with the savvy traveler, she ruminates, “That’s a bright direction. There’s a glowing there” (Steinbeck p163).
From her position in the safe and orderly (but drab) valley, she regards the possibility of a more unpredictable and exciting life – like those sunny foothills - with idealistic envy. The Allen farming property, which is described as being Henry Allen’s ranch specifically, lies on said hills, while the home -Elisa’s domain - is in the area covered over by fog. Steinbeck has created a landscape that tells a story in itself.
In Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, there seem to be two concurrent settings – the hostile and frighteningly alien world of the Vietnam jungle, and the starkly contrasting beaches Lieutenant Cross inhabits in his mind as he dreams of Martha. There, O’Brien paints a landscape of “sun and waves and gentle winds, all love and lightness” (O’Brien p1040).
He then sobers the mood by abruptly returning the reader to “…the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay” of Cross’s real surroundings throughout the story (O’Brien p1043). While Steinbeck immediately establishes a vivid setting, in O’Brien’s story a reader doesn’t see a landscape right off; instead, the full picture emerges as the author reveals it.
Either tale’s setting itself is rife with symbolism, as is the entire body of each work.
The Importance of Tone
Throughout The Chrysanthemums, the tone feels anticipatory. “It was quiet and of waiting” (Steinbeck p157). Just as the farmers cautiously hope for rain, Elisa anticipates something more for herself. The farms, the new chrysanthemums, the orchards – all tentatively await something just beyond reach.
The tone in The Things They Carried is reminiscent of a soldier’s marching chant.The recitation of items carried on each man reads with a cadence that feels like the plodding march described later on as “marching for the sake of the march” (O’Brien p1043). A seemingly endless litany of stuff and the weight of it keeps this pace going throughout. There are glimmers of beauty, when the men fantasize and the wording becomes lighter and more comfortable.
The breezy, sandy shoreline where the young lieutenant meets Martha in his waking dreams stands in looming disparity to the sweltering, mine-filled jungles of Vietnam. The tone is intrinsic to the unraveling of the plot in both short stories.
Following the Plot
The organization and development of plot in these works are carefully crafted to convey meaning and seem to implore the reader to consider how experience robs innocence. The plot in Steinbeck’s yarn builds, crescendos, and then subsides. Elisa is at first bold and plucky, carrying the innocence of a child who thinks she can do anything. Once she has been burned a bit by reality after being taken by the pot-and-pan-man, she retracts and once again resigns to her ‘proper’ place as a demure wife.
Where The Chrysanthemums has a linear plotline, The Things They Carried circles around and around as it hones in on the climactic moment at the center. The non-chronological telling of the story creates layers that peel back one by one until our view of the whole story is complete. The lifeblood of both plots, of course, is the main character.
Getting to Know the Protagonists
Each author has his protagonist in a place that is cut off from another world for which he or she longs until the epiphany moment whereupon they discover that their fantasy does not fit into actuality. When Lieutenant Cross finally gives himself fully over to the adult matters at hand, O’Brien completely loses the dreamy, hopeful voice that has interjected throughout the story.
From that moment on, the character’s thoughts are matter-of-fact and businesslike – apt for the transition that has just taken place in him. He tells himself that he will now “be a man about it” (O’Brien p1048). The weight of Lavender’s death is borne in the way O’Brien’s main character conducts himself thereafter. Each story’s main character is separated or cut off somehow. Cross’s exile is more blatant as he has no doubt been drafted and is “just a kid at war” (O’Brien p1041).
Elisa is more caged by societal norms and by her own confusion about what she wants and who she is. When Elisa is feeling her most empowered, her language is confident and precise – “I’m strong. I never knew before how strong” (Steinbeck p163). Once she has been whipped a bit by her experience with the roadman, she speaks more timidly, as if unsure of herself – “Oh, no. No ... It will be enough if we have wine. It will be plenty.” This is very effective in conveying her state of mind to the reader.
Going Deeper: Exploring Symbolism
Symbols are used very effectively in the conveyance of the theme within these two writings. The Chrysanthemums contains strong symbols that Steinbeck uses to saturate the text with meaning. The chrysanthemums Elisa grows seem to be a representation or extension of the woman herself. Just as Elisa longs for experience beyond her own, her tender young Chrysanthemum shoots ready themselves to extend beyond their comfortable bed.
The descriptions of her home, her garden, and even the way she conducts herself further illustrate the larger theme. The perfectly square planting garden and “hard-swept home” with “hard-polished windows” as well as the orderly manner in which she stacks the young plants reflect her organized, stable life (Steinbeck p158). These also allude to her energy, the “over-eager, over-powerful” way in which she tackles her chores (Steinbeck p158).
The traveling stranger then represents the dirty, dangerous adventure Mrs. Allen secretly longs for, as does the boxing match that seems to intrigue her despite her efforts to conceal this fact. (Later, she returns to being put off by the prospect of attending the match after having suffered the bruised ego at the hands of the tricky nomad).
In The Things They Carried, many of the objects described as being “humped” by the men are very much symbolic. Many of the items carried are tokens of the innocence that these men have for the most part left behind. The condoms Sanders carries have great impact as a symbol – a link back to where sex is the biggest moral conundrum a young man might face.
The stone Lieutenant Cross holds symbolizes his youthful innocence, his tangible link to his fantasy existence with the elusive Martha (who herself represents foolish boyhood hopes and dreams). Also drenched with symbolism is the description of where Martha found the stone and why she chose it. She has selected it because it was at a place where “things come together and where they are separate” (O’Brien p1039).
Her toying, cryptic words seem to allude to her feelings (or lack thereof) for Cross. This seems like a perfect metaphor for his mental process at the moment he decides to discard the stone, which is the culmination of the all of the plot elements coming together. At that moment, everything comes together for Cross as well and he understands that he must separate himself from the gauzy daydreams that cannot be realized.
A Farewell to Ideals
Both The Chrysanthemums and The Things They Carried share a message about letting go of the innocent, undaunted part of one’s heart. Each main character must examine his or her hopeful perceptions in the face of real world harshness. Each comes to a life-altering realization that things as they are cannot and perhaps should not be changed.
Neither story ends comfortably, both leaving a haunting reminder that life is not necessarily fair or as one may have imagined. In both stories, the main character looks out beyond his or her situation to an alternative reality. Whereas Elisa returns in a sense to her innocence shy from the bite, our young soldier has presumably left his behind forever. In both cases, though, the clever authors have begged their reader to look into the human condition – its power and its frailty - and to perhaps look at one’s own story of disillusionment or abandoned innocence.
Questions & Answers
© 2009 Arby Bourne