by John Steinbeck
Elisa is our girl. She's a rancher's wife, an awesome gardener, and a pretty strong lady. But still, she doesn't quite seem happy with her day-to-day life, so when the tinker approaches and the pair strike up their mysterious and revealing conversation, her life changes, maybe forever.
Someone Call the Fashion Police
When Elisa is first introduced, she's wearing a gender-bending outfit that conceals her body, making "her figure [look] blocked and heavy" (5). The fact that she's wearing men's clothes might mean that Elisa's the kind of lady who isn't afraid to go against what's expected of a woman. But on the other hand, the clothes, which are manly, could also be seen as oppressing her womanliness by hiding it from the world. (For more on Elisa's clothing, see "Tools of Characterization.")
So which is it? Is Elisa a modern woman, ready to stick it to the man? Or is she a woman repressed by the roles men have handed her? Give yourself a moment to revel in the mystery.
Mrs. Henry Allen
Elisa's relationship with her husband makes us lean toward the second option – that Elisa is a woman repressed. Take a look at their first exchange in the story. She's checking for creepy crawlies among her chrysanthemums, but she's such an awesome gardener that "her terrier fingers destroyed such pests before they could get started" (8). Elisa is clearly in her element. But when she agrees to Henry's joking suggestion that she work in the orchard, he dismisses her, and she changes the subject, perhaps hurt that her husband didn't take that possibility seriously, or perhaps feeling like it wasn't such a good idea in the first place. She's not about to defiantly insist she be allowed put down the flowers and pick up a shovel. Maybe she doesn't really want to.
Then, when Henry jokes that they might go to a fight in town, and Elisa "breathlessly" (21) declines, saying "I wouldn't like fights," (21) as if to say she is a woman – what fun could she possibly have at such a gruesome event? Now she's out of her element, and his joking suggestion literally takes her breath away. The thought of going to the fight is almost too much for her to bear. Is she horrified because a woman shouldn't be seen at a fight? Or is she horrified at her own hidden desire to go? Like many things about Elisa, this remains a mystery.
Finally, when Henry leaves her take care of his ranch duties, she tells him, "I'll have plenty of time to transplant some of these sets, I guess" (25).
Wait. What? Since when does Elisa "guess" when it comes to chrysanthemums? If there's one thing Elisa knows, it's chrysanthemums, and yet here she is, after her conversation with her husband, unsure of her abilities.
Strangers in the Night…
… Or day. A strange man approaches and what is Elisa's first response to his big opening line? Laughter. Elisa, you flirt.
Her warmth toward the visitor cools a bit when he makes it clear he's looking for her business: "Her eyes hardened with resistance" (43). But once he asks about the chrysanthemums, the flirt fires up again, and Elisa's suddenly "alert and eager" (59). She even "[tears] off her battered hat and [shakes] out her dark pretty hair" (63). It seems something about our Elisa has changed, now that this stranger is hanging around. She has someone to impress.
Indeed, the longer they talk, the bolder Elisa gets. When he mentions how it feels alone at night in the wagon, Elisa leaps at the chance to reveal herself to him. Her voice becomes "husky" (74) as she tells him she knows just what he means. All of the sudden, she's reaching out to touch his trouser leg, but she chickens out, and the moment is lost. Did anyone else leave this moment feeling vaguely unsatisfied?
It seems Elisa certainly did. Her relationship with this strange guy tells us that she's a woman who's capable of great passion. But when she's around her husband, she seems meeker and more tentative. In fact, if you contrast her relationship with the tinker to her relationship with her husband, one thing becomes totally clear: this is a woman who is much more complicated than her simple life suggests. She's passionate, but timid. She's trapped in a boring marriage, and desires something more. She seems to love her husband, but is that enough? The questions abound. Stubborn Steinbeck wants us to make up our own minds.
Strong Like an Ox, Old Like a… Woman
But Steinbeck does give us one other hint about our mysterious Elisa. She's strong. The narrator calls her strong, her husband calls her strong, and towards the end of the story, she even declares herself, "I'm strong […] I never knew before how strong" (104). But Elisa, tell us: if you're so strong, why does the story end with you "crying weakly – like an old woman"? (122).
At the end of the story, one thing is clear: Elisa is a total mystery. We may be able to gather that she's less than happy with her current life. We may know that she's strong and passionate at times, meek and mild at others, but ultimately, we're never quite sure what, exactly, is up. All her strange expressions and curious comments tell us that the only person who can know what's really going through her head is the mystery herself – Elisa.Timeline