Hidden Meanings

Who we are colors how we understand language


I recently asked my class to read John Steinbeck’s story entitled “The Chrysanthemums.” It’s about a woman who grows chrysanthemums as a pastime when she is not laboring on the farm where she lives in relative isolation with her husband. Her cultivation of the flowers represents her need for something missing in the workaday aspects of her life.

One evening, her husband suggests that they go into town for dinner, and she dresses carefully for the occasion. When she comes out of her room, he looks up at her appreciatively and says, “You look nice.”

In discussing the story, the class immediately responded along gender lines. My female students were annoyed by the husband’s remark. His inability to give his wife more than a simple compliment when she had gone to so much trouble to dress up, struck them as the point of the story. “How sad that that’s all he can say,” said one. “No wonder she’s unfulfilled.” Another said, “I’d leave a man who said ‘you look nice’ to me like that. It shows he barely sees his wife, that he has no concept of her needs at all.”

Meanwhile, the males in the class were confused. “He told her she looked nice,” one man said. “He registered that she had gotten dressed up. What more should he say? So he’s not a literary guy. What’s wrong with that?”

After some probing I concluded that what the women felt was missing in the remark was narrative, not eloquence. The husband needed to express to his wife the fact that he appreciated her beauty and her companionship, that he was devoted to making her happy, and that he cared about her finding fulfillment. Instead of an observation, the women wanted a story in which she had a place—the difference, I suppose, between “you look nice” and “you are the love of my life.”

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Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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