John Steinbeck published “The Chrysanthemums” in 1937, and the story focuses on a woman named Elisa Allen who lives with her husband, Henry, on a ranch in California. Elisa is a dynamic character with many different emotions, feelings, and actions. The lack of communication with her husband seems to be one of her greatest struggles. She does not express her feelings to him, and Henry may not know that she is unhappy. Elisa transitions throughout the story as her inner feelings are revealed by the setting, the tinker, and the chrysanthemums.
At the beginning of the story, the author describes the setting, and already the reader senses a theme of gloominess and the feeling of being trapped. The author reveals that “the high grey-flannel of winter closed off the Salina Valley from the rest of the world. On every side, it sat like a lid on the mountains and make of the great valley a closed pot” (Steinbeck 631). Steinbeck writes that this place Elisa and her husband live is closed off from everything. It is not an exciting place with many different people. In the article “Steinbeck’s ‘The Chrysanthemums,’” Gregory J. Palmerino says, “It is as if they are trapped in ‘a bowl filled with fog’” (164). The description of the atmosphere gives the imagery that this is not a pleasing place to live and symbolizes that Elisa may feel trapped in this valley of fog and gloom, and she cannot live the way she wishes. The author then gives more details about the area: “the yellow stubble fields seemed to be bathed in pale cold sunshine, but there was no sunshine…[and] a light wind blew…so that farmers were mildly hopeful of a good rain…but fog and rain do not go together” (Steinbeck 631). This time, the author indicates that there is always a hopefulness that is never achieved. Everything seems bright and hopeful that rain will come, but it is not bright, and it is not going to rain. The lack of fertility in the land is also symbolic in that Elisa and Henry are childless; thus, their marriage represents a lack of hope and fulfillment that children would bring. This part of the setting symbolizes that Elisa is hopeful that happiness is out there, but she cannot reach it; she has a hopefulness that is unfulfilled.
Next, a tinker arrives on his wagon after wondering off his normal path, and opens a new world to Elisa. They begin to talk, and she is harsh and resistant towards him when he asks if she has anything for him to fix. However, her whole mood changes once he peaks her interests. She becomes flirty with the tinker and starts to laugh and joke with him. She takes her garden gloves off and fixes her hair, which she does not do around her husband Henry. The change in her body language shows that she does not get these same feelings from being around Henry. D.G. Haggstrom and Bette-Lee Fox assert in their article “The Chrysanthemums,” that Elisa “sheds the masculine clothes, the hat, the gloves, the dirtiness of her labor to unveil a feminine woman who wants to be awakened and noticed” (143). She begins to become inappropriate towards this stranger when she picks up some chrysanthemum sprouts, and “she [kneels] on the ground looking up at him. Her breasts [swell] passionately” (Steinbeck 636). Elisa is on the ground, looking up at this man. The situation at this point is past the boundaries a married woman should have with any man besides her husband. She becomes desperate enough to flirt with a complete stranger to feel the passion she wants but is not receiving: “Her brief encounter with the tinker arouses her feelings of sexuality, long stifled, and awakens in her hope of fulfilling those impulses” (“Strange Decay,” par. 4). This tinker awakes Elisa’s emotions; therefore, she acts on them. Elisa throws herself on another man to try and fix the emptiness she feels, but it does not work: “Elisa’s failed attempt to shatter their dreary existence…by shamefully and inadequately prostrating herself in front of an implausible paramour” (Palmerino 166). A paramour is defined as a lover, especially the illicit partner of a married person. Palmerino is describing that Elisa’s clinging and flirting with the tinker is her attempt to change her life. She completely puts herself out there by giving in to her desires to make this stranger want her. However, Elisa later comes to realize that his flirting is how he gets her to give him money. After he fixes a pot she knows she could have fixed herself, she gives him fifty cents. Milton Esau asserts that Elisa “gives the stranger the money that symbolizes an act of prostitution” (qtd. in Palmerino 164). The lonely housewife is the one prostituting herself and showing her weakness for attention. Elisa later realizes his deceit when she sees her treasured chrysanthemums dumped on the side of the road: “The overall symbol of the tinker in Elisa’s life is that he symbolizes the emotions she is not getting from Henry and her daily life” (Palmerino 166). He symbolizes the life she wants to have that includes intimacy both emotionally and physically.
Last is Elisa’s beloved chrysanthemums that are her most precious crop. The flower garden is her happy place in her dark world. She has her flowers protected inside a wire fence where she takes meticulous care of them. Earlier, while the tinker is still there, he asks, “What’s them plants, ma’am?” (Steinbeck 635). Steinbeck writes that “the irritation and resistance melted from Elisa’s face” (635). Elisa’s whole mood changes when he shows even the slightest interest in her flowers. It shows the reader just how much those flowers mean to her. She takes much pride in them. The tinker later asks, “You say they’re nice ones?” Elisa answers, “Beautiful…Oh, beautiful” (Steinbeck 635). Her eyes light up as she talks about her chrysanthemums. She brags how big they grow because she takes good care of them: “How she describes and feels about her flowers shows a deeper issue within” (Palmerino 166). Elisa has no children, so the readers can infer that Elisa sees her chrysanthemums as her children; therefore, they represent children who receive the highest degree of care from their mother. Elisa shows that these flowers mean the world to her and need specific care to make sure they grow beautifully, and her actions are exactly how a mother would want her children to be taken care of.
The setting, the tinker, and the chrysanthemums all hold special symbolic meanings in Elisa’s life. Haggstrom and Fox reveal that “the story illustrates the frustrations of traditional sex-role attitudes and limitations” (143). Elisa struggles with wanting to go and travel and live in a wagon if she wants but stays away from it because a woman is not supposed to do that. Elisa may not recognize what she is going through or how to properly change it. One place, one person, and one object have influence over Elisa enough to make her life dreary. All she needs to do is make her life the way she wants by telling her husband and fixing it, but alas, she cries quietly and turns her collar up to hide her tears from Henry, accepts the defeat of a dead marriage, and thus, dies herself on the inside (639).
Haggstrom, D. G., and Bette-Lee Fox. “The Chrysanthemums.” Library Journal, vol. 115, no.11,
1990, p. 143. EBSCO, Access no: 7655298.
Palmerino, Gregory J. “Steinbeck’s ‘The Chrysanthemums.’” Explicator, vol. 62, no. 3, 2004, pp. 164-
167. EBSCO, Access No: 6955238.
Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums.” Compact Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing,
edited by Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. 9th ed, Wadsworth, 2016, pp. 631-
“Strange Decay in ‘The Chrysanthemums.’” Masterplots, Fourth Edition, 2010. EBSCO, Access
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