The purpose of this paper is to offer an analysis of the women characters in the works of John Steinbeck, with a special emphasis placed on Elisa Allen, the main character in his short story, "The Chrysanthemums." Most of Steinbeck’s fiction is concerned with his native California, with the Great Depression and how people endured it, and with the deprivation that farm workers in the west suffered generally (Beegel et al. 54). Many of his novels and short stories take place in the Salinas area, and his characters often reflect the values of the working people--a people willing to work hard, required to endure adversity, and simple in their needs and lifestyles. Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath (1939) perhaps epitomizes this primary concern with "the people" and the land and how they lived their lives as farmers working the land ("Steinbeck" 2).

This essay will offer a very short biographical sketch of Steinbeck, bringing out the themes that seemed to concern him the most. It will then examine three women characters from his other works, including Ma Joad and Rose from The Grapes of Wrath, (1939), and Ruth Tiflin, Jody’s mother in "Leader of the People," (1945). These women characters have been selected because they help us to set the character of Elisa Allen into a context which emphasizes both her similarities to other Steinbeck women characters and those traits which make her distinctive as a ‘Steinbeck woman.’ It will be argued that Elisa Allen’s appearance, actions, and speech depict some typical frustrations of a woman during Steinbeck’s time, but that she is unique in her attempts to liberate herself from Steinbeck’s typically masculine world (Renner 306). As such, Elisa Allen is Steinbeck’s attempt to explore the authentic woman and her world, with all of its frustrations and yearnings for a freer existence.

Steinbeck spent the Great Depression in a house given to him by his father in Pacific Grove, California, where he survived by living on the land. From this vantage point, he composed his first successful novel, Tortilla Flats (1935), a warmly humorous, episodic treatment of the lives of the Mexican-Indian-Caucasian mix people—the paisanos—who lived in the Salinas Valley and whose earthy, uninhibited lives provided a colorful contrast to the valley’s more "respectable" society (Timmerman 84). Thus began a career of attending to the plights and concerns of the workers, and the themes of the workers vs. the bosses, townspeople vs. country people, and past vs. present. Steinbeck is concerned with the simple people who farm the lands, struggling to find a place for themselves in the world. His characters "glow with life," ("John Steinbeck Page") and reflect the simple passions of simpler times. Life is hard for these people, and the women are no exception.

A perhaps typical ‘Steinbeck woman’ is Ma Joad, the mother of the family traveling west in The Grapes of Wrath. Ma Joad’s strength is apparent in her muscular build, and in her actions and attitudes. Her strength is for her family, and she uses it to encourage them. For example, on the road, Ma Joad says to her starving children: "I’m gonna set this kettle out, an’ you’ll all get a little tas’, but it ain’t gonna do you no good. I can’t he’p it. Can’t keep it from you." (Grapes ). Her strengths are marshaled to help her family immigrate west. In contrast, we have Rose, abandoned by her husband Connie. Her baby is stillborn, "dropped dead," typical of the women too weak to endure the hardships of a life of deprivation. Ma Joan and Rose offer a stark contrast to each other, and help us to understand the kinds of women who populate Steinbeck’s fiction. On the one hand, there are the "salt of the earth" women, the strong women who care about their men and who help them. On the other, there are women who are too weak, psychologically or physically, to endure. Their kind is typically disdained by both the stronger women characters, and by the men.

In "The Leader of the People," Ruth Tiflin, Jody’s mother, is another ‘Steinbeck woman.’ Like Ma Joad, she uses her physical strength and her psychological insights to endure hardships and to fight for what she thinks is right for her family members. Ruth stands up to