“Choices are the hinges of destiny.” –Pythagoras: On Elisa and Sammy

We are all faced with life-altering decisions that can change the course of our journey in life. Elisa and Sammy, the protagonists of Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums” and Updike’s “A&P” respectively,  inspire readers to reflect upon the motivation and outcome of the decision making process. There are many aspects that go into making a decision, including one’s morals and values, outside influences, predictable outcomes, and emotions, but the measure of a good decision is whether or not it contributes to one’s growth and the progress of one’s life. The overall choice that these characters make is one between abandoning a comfort zone to “follow the heart” or to maintain the status quo in favor of security.  While Sammy’s decision propels him forward into the possibility of self-discovery, Elisa’s holds her back and stifles her most intrinsic desires.

Steinbeck paints Elisa Allen as a woman who has no doubt faced many decisions in her over three decades of life; she decides to marry Henry, to live on his ranch, and consequently, to deny herself fulfillment. She is clearly a strong woman, who like her flowers, continually survives being “cut down”, but ironically, she is not strong enough to act on her desires. This becomes obvious when the tinker enters the picture; while discussing his life, Elisa reveals, “I wish women could do such things” (637) in regards to his nomadic lifestyle, traveling and fixing broken items. When he protests, “It ain’t the right kind of life for a woman” (637), Elisa defends herself, saying, “You might be surprised to have a rival sometime… I could show you what a woman might do” (637). The story also contains the indication that Elisa desires more of the Tinker than just his lifestyle;  as she looks up at him, “her breast swelled passionately” (636), which  may indicate that she is in a sexless (she has no kids), unfulfilling marriage. The glimpse we get of Elisa defending her abilities is refreshing, but it quickly fades as she is seen defeated, “crying weakly- like an old woman” (639) after seeing the pot she gave the tinker smashed into pieces on the highway. Rather than speak to her husband about what is bothering her, she merely “whispers to herself” (639), and when she is given the chance to speak up about her desire to go to the prize fights, she declines and settles, saying, “Oh, no… It will be enough if we can have wine” (639). In each of Elisa’s decisions, to live the Tinker’s lifestyle or not, to act on her feelings for the tinker or not, to attend the prize fights she reads about or not, and to openly communicate with her husband or not, Elisa chooses “not”; we learn that her strength is merely a façade.

Unlike Elisa, Updike’s Sammy is young and unmarried; while Elisa has already made key decisions in her life, he is only nineteen and still in the process of “coming of age”.  Sammy is working his job at the local A&P in his small town when “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits” (220); these girls challenge the status quo of conservatism in a town that Sammy sees as being full of “houseslaves in pin curlers” (221) and “the sheep” (221).  Sammy takes notice of the girls and of how they seem to “upset the system”; Updike uses the town to represent “the system,” with its “two banks and the Congregational church and the newspaper store”, while the beach represents freedom from the systems. Sammy evaluates the girls’ attire as he states, “It’s not as if we’re on the Cape… there are people in this town that haven’t seen the ocean for twenty years” (221). However, Sammy seems to feel for the girls when  Lengel, the store manager, decides to confront the girls by telling them, “We want you decently dressed when you come in here” (223), to which the girl who Sammy nicknames “Queenie” replies, “We are decent” (223). The choice between the status quo and freedom is viewed by Lengel as one between “policy” and “juvenile delinquency” (223); Sammy spends some time thinking and sides with the girls. He tells Lengel, “You didn’t have to embarrass them” (223) after abruptly quitting his job as cashier. He is warned that this decision will follow him, to which he responds, “but remembering how he made that poor girl blush makes me so scrunchy inside I punch the No Sale tab” (224); this is Sammy’s act of rebellion. The story ends with Sammy’s recognition that “the world was going to be hard” (224), but just because Sammy chooses the harder path does not mean he chooses the wrong path.

While the decisions Steinbeck’s Elisa makes dooms to her ordinary life as a childless wife to Henry who piddles in her garden, Sammy’s decisions open up an array of possibilities for his future. Both characters’ decisions cause them a certain amount of anguish, but the indication is that Sammy’s is temporary, while Elisa’s is everlasting. This is represented by the setting; Elisa lives in a restrictive “closed-pot” (632), while Sammy is headed to the beach, a place that abandons restrictions in favor of freedom. The message that resonates from these readings is that no major life decision can be without consequences, but following one’s heart and remaining true to one’s spirit at least contains the possibility for progress toward fulfillment, while remaining confined to the status quo confines one to stagnation. Because Sammy’s decision at least offers him the possibility to fulfill his destiny, he makes the better choice.


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