Monday, July 25, 2011

Cannery Row and “The Chrysanthemums”

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Throughout time, much has been discussed about the roles in which women and men have played. Men have always been seen as leaders and have held down positions of power throughout history, but there is also a saying “behind every man is a greater woman”. Although women had been restricted in gaining roles in which decisions were to be made, they had been able to use the influence of feminine charms and gentle persuasion. Through gently guiding their men folk into believing that the idea or the thought was there own. Men have been bought up with the notion to protect, whilst women had been bought up with the notion to nurture. John Steinbeck’s two narrative texts, Cannery Row and “The Chrysanthemums” both convey the values and attitudes of the 10’s, which are revealed through class and gender. Through the use of class representation, Steinbeck has managed to comment on poverty, different levels of class in society and also how people are judged on their material possessions and on the amount of money they earn. Through the use of gender Steinbeck has commented on the stereotypes of gender, genders place in society and how certain genders try to overcome their stereotype. These values and attitudes are conveyed through the establishment of the characters in both texts.

In the novel Cannery Row, John Steinbeck develops the structure within the society and demonstrates and creates characters that do whatever it takes to survive in life. Where as in the short story “The Chrysanthemum-s”, he writes about how life evolves. These meanings are produced through the use of Darwin’s Theory.

“A man looking at reality brings his own limitations to the world, if he has strength and energy of mind the tide pool stretches both ways, digs back to electrons and leaps space into universe and fights out of the moment of non-conceptual time. Then ecology has a synonym which is ALL”

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Steinbeck relates life culture, values and class of Cannery Road to the structures of the tidal pools. The story is set in the after hours, when the Cannery has closed, when the workers have left and only the inhabitants of the street are left. As within the tidal pool, when the tide recedes and the ocean draws back, the tidal pools are still full of life, the remnants left behind. The different life structures of the tidal pool directly relate with the social structure of Cannery Row. The lowest status at the bottom of the pool (the mussels and limpets), above the starfish who feed on them, the eels who hide in crevices, only coming out to feed. Hermit crabs scampering on the bottom, always on the lookout for an empty shell, which might be bigger and better than the one, they have. All to be silenced when the tide comes back in, but to start all over again when it recedes and the ocean draws back.

When the Cannery has closed the story revolves around the people left behind. Mack and the boys are at the bottom end of the social structure, the scavengers, who feed on everyone else. They don’t work unless they have to, who would rather steal or exchange favours than to put themselves out of pocket. Then there is Mr and Mrs Malloy who are the hermit crabs, looking for something bigger and better but having to make do with the pipe. Although they make it their home, they are always trying to improve upon it, hoping to make it more acceptable. Dora and the girls are higher in the social structure, only because they are able to earn money and have somewhere safe and warm to live. They would not be able to climb any higher in their status not only due to the fact that they are women but because of their profession. Lee Chong and his family are well respected because they are business owners and they supply the street with all their needs and wants. Unfortunately their status would not change because they are immigrants and during the period time of the book, immigrants were not highly rated. Doc is at the top of the social structure. He is an educated man. Everyone looks up to Doc because he is what they all strive to be. He has his own home, a job and because he is a scholar, he is well respected.

As with the story Cannery Row, Darwin’s theory also relates to “The Chrysanthemums” but in a different way. Where as Cannery Row uses the tidal pool, The short story “The Chrysanthemums” uses the reproduction and growth of the plants and flowers to portray the hardships and pitfalls of life.

“She took off a glove and put her strong fingers down into the forest of new green chrysanthemums sprouts that were growing round the old roots. She spread the leaves and looked down among the close-growing stems. No aphids were there, no sow bugs nor snails nor cutworms. Her terrier fingers destroy such pests before they could get started.”

The plants start off as small stalks with a few buds. Through careful planting, making sure they are in the right soil, water and sunshine they begin to grow and bloom. There are dangers from pests such as snails and aphids, from frosts and droughts but with careful nurturing they grow into strong healthy plants. Plant them in the wrong soil and it may prevent growth, forget to nurture and they may not bloom. Elisa is on the farm and although she is happy enough, her growth is stunted and she has forgotten to bloom. When the pedlar arrived he showed an interest in her and treated her as an intelligent person. He saw she loved her chrysanthemums and by showing an interest, Elisa began to bloom. While he paid her compliments and listened to her, her eyes began to sparkle, her movements became more confidant and she became “alive”. Through his nurturing, she began to grow. But as with the pitfalls of the chrysanthemums (the bugs and the elements), when Elisa saw the remains of her chrysanthemums on the road, her confidence began to wane, the sparkle began to lessen and she reverted back to her old self. The story portrayed that with the right conditions life can grow and expand but you must be prepared for pitfalls.

In the 10’s, women were to be seen but not heard. Their place was in the home was to raise babies, provide dinner for the man of the house and to nurture her family. A mans place was to be seen as the money earner, providing for his family. Women were stereotyped as “weak” and men were stereotyped as “strong”. In the short story “The Chrysanthemums” Steinbeck follows these stereotypes to construct his main characters Elisa and Henry.

“A light wind blew up from the SouthWest so that the farmers were mildly hopeful of a good rain before long but fog and rain do not go together”.

Elisa’s character at the beginning of the short story was portrayed as a farmers-wife who knew her place in society and in the marriage. As the story progressed Elisa was portrayed with more confidence, and became stronger within herself and it became more evident through her actions and dialogue. This quote is a metaphor, which focuses on strength and the female gender. The strength being Elisa’s new found hope in herself and the female stereotype gender of “weak”. When relating this to a woman in the 10’s, although it was not uncommon for women to be strong, it was just unusual for it to become public, Elisa allowed her new found confidence to be witnessed by her husband.

In the early 10’s just as society had started accepting women in the workplace, The Great depression settled in and many jobs were lost. Men found it hard to find work, so from 1-17 federal legislation prohibited more than one member from the same family working in the civil service. Once again reverting back to the old society rules, women were left back at home, in the weak nurturing position whilst the male once again became the money earner.

Dora, from Cannery Row was not cast as your typical stereotype woman of the 10’s. She was a woman who owned her own business which in a social standing, made her more acceptable.

“…Through the exercise of special gifts of tact and honesty, charity and a certain realism, made herself respected by the intelligent, the learned, and the kind. And by the same token she is hated by the twisted and lascivious sisterhood of married spinsters whose husbands respect the home but don’t like it every much”

Even though Dora was a respected member of the society, she was an out cast by moral and churchgoing people because of her position as a madam in a whorehouse. As her “job” was illegal, it put her on the wrong side of the law but she was able to get around this as the law was willing to turn a blind eye as Dora used her money “unsung, unpublicized, shameless dirty wages of sin” to give to charities and paid out double or more money than any other person. When the depression settled in Cannery Row, Dora spent out a lot of money for hungry children, jobless fathers and depressed mothers and paid other families grocery bills for almost two years. This kind giving almost sent Dora bankrupt and out of business. Even after all her giving and generosity, the hard-earned respect was unable to rise her in the social standing’s because of her profession.

Human nature’s first instinct is to survive by whatever means open to them. The survival of the fittest. Mack and the boys, outcasts by all standards, survive by accommodation � bartering with Lee Chong, placating the Captain who owned the frog-laden pond.

“dine delicately with the tigers, fondle the frantic heifers, and wrap up the crumbs to feed the sea gulls of Cannery Row”

Dora survives by prostitution. She knows that this is not an acceptable social position but her instincts to survive are strong. Elisa in “The Chrysanthemums” hides her inner feeling and accepts her place in life through sheer survival instincts to come out at the end with the least amount of emotional pain. When she finds the plant discarded in the middle of the road, the pain is quite unbearable to deal with, so she slowly buries her feelings again.

“Her face was turned away from him. ‘It will be enough if we can have wine. It will be plenty.’ She turned up her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly � like an old woman.”

Women were born with the reproductive organs and the instincts to nurture. Men were born with the instinct to provide (hunt) and protect. These instincts are imperative in the desire for our species to survive and grow strong. We are members of the animal kingdom and we all strive for the same thing. That our particular species is protected, nurtured and given all possible chance to survive. Men and women also have the instinct to bond together. Without one or the other, the chance of survival for the race is non-existent. Somewhere over the centuries, it was decided that the role of the male gender was more important to the survival of the race. Women were to be portrayed as weak and submissive whilst a man was strong and aggressive.

We still have the same instincts, only we use them to further our careers and acquire possessions. Even in our Modern times, we are assessed and judged by our possessions and the amount of money we earn. - low income earners, middle income earners, high income earners. Have we fine-tuned our instincts too much? What would happen if we had to rely once again on nature? Would the women go back to her basic instincts to reproduce and nurture or would she still fight for equal standing? Would man be strong enough to resume hunting and providing or would he let the dominant women take over and relieve him of that chore? I suppose the biggest question of them all is “What would happen to the human race?” if our basis instincts and survival instincts were to be lost.

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