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The Chrysanthemums

The Chrysanthemums

by John Steinbeck

Analysis: Narrator Point of View

Who is the narrator, can she or he read minds, and, more importantly, can we trust her or him?

Third Person (Objective)…

… Or so it would seem.

"The Chrysanthemums" opens with a wide-angle lens, and right off the bat, we're confident we're dealing with an objective narrator, who's far away from the character's feelings and emotions. After all, if the first paragraph were a camera shot, it would be a broad pan over the Salinas Valley, taking in details no single person could possibly know. We're squarely in the third-person objective camp, right?

Not so fast. In the fourth paragraph, we zoom quickly in on Elisa, and for the rest of the story, the camera stays mainly on her. All right, Mr. Steinbeck, she's ready for her close-up. So now we've veered into a different territory, and we might assume we're dealing with a narrator who could, at any moment, jump right inside Elisa's head.

But there's a catch (isn't there always?). If, after we zoomed in, we were expecting VIP access to Elisa's inner-most thoughts and feelings, we're doomed to disappointment. All we learn is that "She was thirty-five. Her face was lean and strong and her eyes were clear as water" (5). We don't get anything from the narrator that we couldn't get ourselves, if we were sitting right next to Elisa.

For the rest of the story, the narrator, while still zoomed in on Elisa, simply refuses to read her mind. The closest we get to directly understanding how Elisa feels are the few words the narrator uses to describe her dialogue or physical reactions.

Her face shows "smugness" (11) when her husband compliments her flowers. She responds "irritably" (49) when the tinker asks her for work. When he tells her he sometimes goes without dinner, instead of saying "Elisa felt ashamed," the narrator opts instead to tell us "her face was ashamed" (77). Is there a difference in effect between these two statements? And why oh why is the narrator oh-so shy? Why not just jump right in and tell us all about Elisa? What's the effect of that on the story itself?

Seriously, awesome readers – we're really asking.

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