by John Steinbeck
The Clothes Make the (Wo)man
One of the first things we learn about Elisa is what she's wearing: "Her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume," and her dress is "almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron with four big pockets" (5). She's also got on a man's hat, clunky shoes, and a pair of thick leather gloves. In other words, she's not exactly looking her most feminine and alluring.
When we meet the tinker, he's wearing an old suit that is "wrinkled and spotted with grease" (33). His hat, too, is "battered" (33). So he's not dressed to impress either, and he's definitely not rolling in the dough.
A Costume Change Changes Everything
Remember, too, that Elisa changes her clothes. She goes from an unflattering, concealing, mannish outfit to a dress that is "the symbol of her prettiness" (94). Could that change in clothes represent a change in Elisa the character?
Speech and Dialogue
The characters in this story say some weird, weird things. Elisa tells the man that at night, when "every pointed star gets driven into your body," it's "hot and sharp and—lovely" (74). What's that all about? Later, her husband tells her, "You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon" (103). Come again, Henry? Is that what you call a compliment?
Sometimes the characters react strangely to the words of others, too. For example, when Henry tells her she looks strong and happy, Elisa's reaction is downright moody. She tells Henry not to say such things. And then suddenly, strangely, she's back to her good spirits—she's "complete again" (104).
Reading Between the Lines (of Dialogue)
So why do the characters say funny things, and why do the other characters react in funny ways? Funny you should ask. Maybe we're meant to just chalk it up to Steinbeck being weird.
But that's not the most interesting explanation in the world, and frankly, there could be a lot of explanations. Every time a character says something strange, we're left with a bunch of different interpretations to choose from.
When the tinker first mentions the nighttime, is he really connecting with Elisa? Or is he just trying to earn a living? And When Elisa talks about the stars, is she talking about a spiritual experience? A sexual one? And when she gets mad at her husband, is she worried about seeming too strong? Or is she frustrated because he doesn't understand just how strong she is?
It's all in the hands. Because these characters aren't exactly go-getters, their hands do the doing. The tinker's hands mend pots and pans, and in the end, cast the chrysanthemums aside. Elisa's hands grow flowers, and in the climactic moment of the story, they reach out to touch the tinker.
Of course, these are tiny actions, and there are bigger actions in the story. But Steinbeck is a master of the understatement, and each tiny motion of hands in the story carries a huge meaning. Take, for example, when Henry pats Elisa's knee in paragraph 113. Is that patronizing? Loving? Dismissive?