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The Years of Greatness, 1936â?"1939
By Tetsumaro Hayashi
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 1993 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
"Your Own Mind Coming Out in the Garden" Steinbeck's Elusive Woman
for Mimi Reisel Gladstein
During the period in which John Steinbeck wrote the three Depression novels that are the special focus of this Third International Steinbeck Congress, he also published one other notable volume of fiction: the memorable assemblage of short stories collectively entitled The Long Valley. Few readers or critics of Steinbeck would argue with the claim that these four volumes represent Steinbeck at his best. But as Robert S. Hughes, Jr., noted in his paper for the Tenth Salinas Steinbeck Festival in August 1989, there are very different orientations in Steinbeck's short fiction as opposed to his novels, with the differences being bridged perhaps only in the hybrid work The Pastures of Heaven. Moreover, little of The Long Valley has anything to do with the struggles of the American worker, the preoccupation of the novels that are our subject.
Tetsumaro Hayashi, our director, originally suggested apaper on Steinbeck criticism as it is today and as it will be in the future. But I feel I exhausted my powers as sage and guru when I did much the same sort of thing in 1988 at the Ninth Salinas Steinbeck Festival. And the future of Steinbeck criticism is rapidly passing into younger hands that have no need of my powers of prophecy. I would therefore like to speak about parts of The Long Valley in a way that expands upon the observations I made in Salinas in 1988, and also springs from some of what I had to say in the same city a year later. In so doing, I would like to try to pin down some of the characteristic means by which Steinbeck, as though he were a writer of detective fiction, made a lifelong quest of understanding that elusive thing called Woman—and perhaps, like most of us, failed.
The most prominent of Steinbeck's feminist critics is certainly Mimi Reisel Gladstein, who has written with conviction about Steinbeck's "indestructible" females, as well as about the apparent "misogyny" The Wayward Bus evidences. More recently, she has also written about the curious anomaly by which Steinbeck, who knew so many remarkable women in his life, fails to recreate them in his own fiction. Gladstein fairly admits that the autonomy of the artist includes the right to do precisely that if he chooses, but she just as rightly raises the issue of the peculiarity of the situation. The Depression novels clearly prove that Steinbeck's depiction of events on the picket lines and at the hiring tables does not reflect the "actual" presence of charismatic women at those scenes in the "real" 1930s. With the classic exception of the "indestructible" Ma Joad, the women in In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath are apt to be either sad or silly—or both. But in The Long Valley, as Susan Shillinglaw has recently been proving, women—or the Woman—come into their own, albeit a bit at a time. That this quest for the nature of Woman occupied Steinbeck for a lifetime is a subject beyond the scope of this chapter. That certain key stories in The Long Valley speak to the issue is what I intend to address.
In the three labor novels being discussed during this congress, the world of action is the world of men, with the women surrendering their relative passivity only in the third volume of the trilogy, if we can call it that, The Grapes of Wrath. There, it is true, Ma's assumption of the "male" function of action does come to represent the potential for revolutionary change in the human family, but its highest and most notorious achievement is the closing tableau, in which revolutionary action can also be said to be passion of a sort. Indeed, what Rose of Sharon participates in is a curious kind of act of love that has reminded some readers, myself included, of the results of another Passion, the biblical one, in its culmination in a version of the Pietà. Woman here has not yet succeeded in moving out of her mythical and archetypal role; rather, she has simply stretched it a bit.
Hughes pointed out in Salinas that while the novels focus on society, the short stories deal with individual psychology. It is in the short stories, then, that we might expect to see women portrayed as individuals, whether or not they are confined there to doing the womanly appropriate things. In a recent issue of the Steinbeck Quarterly, I discuss one of the stories from The Long Valley, "The Murder," in which Woman is truly presented as the unfathomable Other, with her nearly species difference conveyed by Jelka's being a member of the Slavic race. I also suggest that there is ambiguity in "The Murder" over whether Jim Moore's point of view, in its failure to understand womankind, is not also characteristic of Steinbeck himself. It may be significant that the last two stories in The Long Valley before the "Red Pony" pieces deal in a way with womankind: "The Murder," with its aforementioned ambiguities; and "St. Katy the Virgin," which I am not for a moment going to risk considering as a commentary on the female sex—though I did wake up in the middle of the night recently with the troubling question of whether St. Katy, that nasty little porker, might at least subconsciously have served as the model for Cathy Ames.
I am not about to deal with those stories in which Steinbeck may be throwing up his hands at the impossibility of understanding women, any more than I wish to deal with the symbolic implications of the collection's title, which just may allude to the existence of a patient, everlasting, and naturally female place where Man—male horse, male rider—thinks he is free to act. I want to deal with those three of the first four stories in the collection that attempt to answer the question "What is Woman?": "The Chrysanthemums," "The White Quail," and "The Snake." These stories have been extensively analyzed before, and I do not expect to be able to do much that is truly novel with them here, but perhaps I will be able to glean something from them that can take our thinking in a new direction.
Many of us have written about "The Chrysanthemums," surely the most often anthologized of Steinbeck's pieces, but few of us have wholly agreed. Like the other stories under consideration today, its ambiguities are centered in the mystery of Woman herself, but unlike the others, it pretends to a sympathy the others do not possess. Interestingly, however, what might strike a male reader as Steinbeck's most "feminist" piece of fiction does not seem to evoke the same response among women. In a recent class of mine, the women were deeply divided over the issue of whether Elisa Allen is a sympathetic figure or not. It would seem that more than half a century after the writing of "The Chrysanthemums," women are impatient with a character who appears to be unable or unwilling to do anything about her own perceived state of entrapment.
But Elisa's entrapment is deeply rooted in character, and her psychology is complicated by the fact that she both dresses and addresses her work in her garden in a mannish fashion. Furthermore, in her encounter with the tinker, it is the freedom of his man's life on the road that appeals to her as much as, if not more than, his maleness. I have written recently about the theatricality of this story, and I would extend my remarks now by observing that Elisa is manipulated by the tinker into playing the female role, finding him some work to do and thus catering to his maleness, before he will complete the pretended transaction by accepting her unwanted flowers—which he, of course, abandons heartlessly. It is on the strength of this bit of dramatic self-delusion that Elisa indulges in her narcissistic cleansing, admiring, and adorning of her body. Her bewildered husband, Henry, noting the results, inadvertently but accurately describes them as "a kind of play." But he also describes what he sees as "strong," a curious term to use to describe a woman in the full flush of womanhood—that is, a woman fully possessed of stereotypical womanliness. Elisa is enough of a person by this time—a woman with a man's sense of freedom—that she can even consider going with Henry to the fights, and one can only guess what rewards poor Henry might have reaped later had she indeed gone. But only moments after the not-unexpected finding of the discarded chrysanthemums along the road, Elisa subsides into a state of "crying weakly—like an old woman." It is a tribute to the perceptiveness of Steinbeck's presentation of the equivocal nature of human sexuality to note that after half a century or more, we have not by any means run out of things to say about this little story.
But no single Steinbeck story is able to express the ambiguities of the writer's attitudes towards Woman. Her mysteriousness would remain largely unfathomable to him until, perhaps, quite late in his career. To enlarge upon a point made earlier, we remember that Steinbeck's greatest novel ends with an awestruck visit to a shrine to femaleness, and that the book's last word is "mysteriously," referring to Rose of Sharon's smile. The mystery of femaleness presented in "The Chrysanthemums" is approached from another angle in "The White Quail." Again, the female character is so preoccupied with her long-planned garden that she chooses her husband on the basis of whether or not the garden will "like" him (TLV, p. 28). When her choice lights on Harry Teller, her beauty makes him "hungry," but access to her "untouchable" nature depends on his compliant acceptance of the importance of her garden to her, for he recognizes—in the line which is the title of this paper—that the garden is the expression of her psychology (p. 29). But her mind, when it comes "out in the garden," is a curious one indeed, for she talks about the garden "almost as though she were talking about herself," and yet when she refers to a particular fuchsia tree—part of the garden that is herself—she calls it "he" (p. 31). This "he" is meant to protect the garden from intrusion from the wild world without; "pretty" Mary is not bothered by the process of destroying "slugs and snails" for her garden's sake, and she is willing to poison an intruding cat to preserve what is meant to be a bird sanctuary (pp. 31–32). Harry wonders what is going on inside her "cool, collected mind," but Mary indicates that she may not be what he thinks he sees; indeed, when she looks indoors from outside one evening, she finds herself "seeing" herself through the window, and she admires what she sees—and also the ability to appreciate her doubleness (pp. 33–34). But she cannot reveal herself to Harry on this score, for that would ruin things; her mind is as spoilable as her garden.
The secret garden of Mary's mind is thus preserved from infiltration in the same way she withholds her body from Harry when he cannot understand her attempts to prettify his man's world of business ethics. Later, when Harry has the temerity to crave an Irish terrier puppy, Mary's "curse of imagination" causes her to become feverish with a psychosomatic headache. One notes here, and with interest, the connecting of the power to imagine with the sexuality of the female, even to the extent of punishment by denial of sex—not to mention the proverbial headache that accompanies the denial, if not as part of the same incident then at least as part of the same page of narrative (TLV, p. 36).
One dusk, which Mary considers her "really-garden-time," a "little white hen quail" appears in her garden, and Mary immediately concludes—rather remarkably—that the quail is "like the essence of me, an essence boiled down to utter purity" (TLV, p. 38). The quail brings Mary memories of a ritual three "ecstasies," a sequence of moments in which her imagination stood poised on the threshold of experiences new to her: candy she mustn't taste, praise for her patience "like a gentian," and news of her father's death (p. 39). Mary's inhumanly protracted "purity," embodied in the quail, is next seen as threatened by a cat, and Harry's refusal to use poison against "animals in my garden" brings on predictable results: the headache, the locked bedroom door. Harry promises to shoot the cat with his air rifle to scare it off and thus protect what Mary calls "the secret me that no one can ever get at" (p. 41). Instead, he kills the quail, of course, though he tells himself he just wanted to scare it away, and he buries it outside the garden. Interestingly, the story switches focus at its ending to Harry; having killed his wife's "secret me," he blames himself and bemoans his loneliness.
Mary Teller can be called a pathological, grown child or what you will, but the salient fact of her story's narration is that it changes sides. At its ending, the male figure accepts his fate: he will never get inside his wife's mind and soul, and the story has already suggested that his access to her body may be at an end. The otherness of Woman has been confirmed again, as mystified men are left outside the garden with the unruly elements of existence: cats, dogs, horses, and tinker's dams. The balance of empathy seems to have shifted: the last words of "The Chrysanthemums" are "old woman," but those of "The White Quail" are a man's wailed "I'm so lonely!" (TLV, p. 42). The stories tally, however, in terms of the presentation of Woman as mysteriously possessed of the ability to order the garden of herself through the powers of the imagination. In the process, we have also moved closer to the narrative form of the parable.
Parabolic form is approached even more closely in "The Snake," the third of the stories on Woman under consideration. In it, the mystery of Woman is heightened by the fact that Steinbeck makes use of (but alters) an incident that took place in Ed Ricketts's lab to present supposedly objective observations in a supposedly objective milieu. The woman in this story has no name, however; she is neither Allen nor Teller. She is a case history: something that happened. She enters a scientist's domain with a special request—to purchase a snake and watch it feed. We learn nothing about her but her gender. But in the process, she becomes a species watching another species—Woman watching reptile—and thereby she also becomes an intermediate subject for observation: she becomes Woman being watched by Man watching a reptile consume a rat. Man, the reader presumably included, is thus tempted to stand back and annotate the proceedings. In effect, she offers herself, albeit unintentionally, as datum.
Putting things another way, this is the third in a sequence of fictional relationships between men and women. Like Mary Teller's husband, Dr. Phillips recognizes through his experience with his woman visitor that he is lonely—"alone," as the story puts it. The same recognition would come to Doc in Sweet Thursday, but before what most readers take to be a sentimentalized, hence improbable, mating ritual. In the two laboratory stories, however, the objective scientist is made to discover his aloneness through contact with the other "species," Woman. Dr. Phillips is introduced as being methodical in his life and work, which are inseparable as routines from one another. He will stroke a cat moments before coolly putting it to death to become a science exhibit. The woman, when she arrives, is not interested in his preparation of slides; indeed, her presence causes him to abort a preparation sequence. The dispassionate technician is moved by the sight of the woman to want to "shock" her and reach her; in fact, the operative word is "arouse" (TLV, p. 77). Her apparent passivity is the motivation—something he thinks must signal a low metabolic rate, "almost as low as a frog's." As the story progresses, the woman's black, seemingly unfocused eyes seem to become "dusty," the word used to describe Jelka's in "The Murder" (pp. 77–78, 86).
Many have noted the empathy between woman and snake, something Steinbeck heightens for artistic purposes, partially by having Dr. Phillips be alone with the woman. No other male observers are present, which apparently was also the case in the real-life basis for the story; thus the woman's imitation of the snake's movements—which Steinbeck avoids having to make truly bizarre by having Phillips turn away while the snake devours the rat—takes on a semblance of the grotesque that it might not otherwise possess for anyone who has bottle-fed an infant and observed his or her own imitative response. Phillips had expected empathy for the rat, not the snake, but the woman has surprised him, and he feels almost a moral revulsion for what he has allowed to occur, for he objects to making sport of "natural processes." The killing of the snake is to the scientist "the most beautiful thing in the world," "the most terrible thing in the world" (TLV, p. 83). This is that "burning bright" force of life and death in the universe which Man may worship and measure; Woman simply embodies it naturally—as the Other.
Excerpted from John Steinbeck by Tetsumaro Hayashi. Copyright © 1993 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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