John Steinbeck’s The Chrysanthemums: Summary, Analysis, Theme, Symbols, Motif

The Chrysanthemums

 The Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck

One of John Steinbeck‘s most accomplished short stories, The Chrysanthemums is about an intelligent, creative woman coerced into a stifling existence on her husband’s ranch. The story appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1937; a revised version, which contained less sexual imagery, was published in the 1938 collection The Long Valley. Many critics believe the story reflected Steinbeck’s own sense of frustration, rejection, and loneliness at the time the story was written. Some scholars also have speculated that the female protagonist of The Chrysanthemums, Elisa Allen, was inspired by Steinbeck’s first wife, Carol Henning.

The Chrysanthemums Characters

This is a story with only three characters and the main character is Elisa Allen. She is a 35 year old strong woman. She is attractive and she has a lot of interest in gardening and in housekeeping. Her husband is Henry Allen is also fond of gardening and also in trading cattle. We have a third character. The name of the character is not mentioned but his profession is a tinker that is a person who mends the broken pots and sharpens the scissors.

The Chrysanthemums Story in Brief

Elisa Allen, the heroine of the story takes pride in her independent production of ten-inches long Chrysanthemum plant. Her work is appreciated by her husband. There is an appearance of a big stubble-headed wagon-man who makes fun with Elisa, he mends pots, sharpens instruments like knives and scissors, with fixed price. Elisa has nothing to give him, which disheartens him, as he has earned nothing for his supper.

The man’s notice falls on the Chrysanthemums that Elisa has grown and asks for some seeds. Elisa is elated. Elisa gave some little sprouts of plants instead of seeds to be planted. Eagerly, she digs up the sandy soil with her finger to plant the sprouting plants for fast growth. Some broken saucepans are given by her for repairing. He is satisfied to get fifty cent as price for the same. Elisa gives him direction about the road to his destiny, without knowing that she is duped by him. Washing herself in the bathroom, she puts on neat dress, looking admirable. Henry, her husband, admires her beauty. Elisa boasts of her self-confidence.

Together they drive to Salinas for dinner and entertainment on the road. She feels depressed observing the thrown elements of sand of the shoots, but hides her depression by referring to exciting fights and intoxicating wine. Henry is surprised to her sudden metamorphosis. Steinbeck narrates her sudden change as she has been duped by the wagon-man. She feels defeated as her cherished chrysanthemums are not cared according to her great expectations.

The Chrysanthemums Gist

The Chrysanthemums” opens at the Allen ranch, which is located in the foothills of the Salinas Valley. Elisa works in her garden, cutting down old chrysanthemum stalks, while her husband Henry discusses business with two men across the yard. After the men leave, Henry leans over the fence where Elisa is working and comments on her gardening talents. Elisa admits to her “gift,” noting her mother also had “planters’ hands.” Henry then suggests that they dine out that evening. After Elisa agrees, Henry teasingly proposes that they go to the fights that night as well.

Once Henry departs, a battered covered wagon driven by a tinker pulls up to the house. The tinker asks Elisa if she has any pots to mend. She declines several times, but once the tinker notices and compliments Elisa’s chrysanthemums, her mood changes from slight irritation to exuberance. The tinker tells Elisa about a woman on his route who would like chrysanthemum seeds, and Elisa happily places several sprouts in a red pot for him. She then finds two saucepans for the tinker to repair before he leaves. Elisa rushes into the house, where she bathes, studies her naked body in the mirror, and dresses for the evening.

As the couple leaves for dinner in their roadster, Elisa notices the chrysanthemum sprouts she had given the tinker lying in the road and asks her husband if they could have wine with dinner. A few minutes pass before she wonders aloud whether the boxers at the prize fights hurt each other very much and whether women ever attend. Henry asks Elisa if she would like to go to the fights, but she answers no, that “it will be enough if we can have wine.” She then begins to cry, though unnoticed by Henry.

The Chrysanthemums Themes

The primary theme in “The Chrysanthemums,” one that appears throughout Steinbeck’s canon, is Elisa’s creative frustration. Some critics have viewed Elisa as a feminist figure, while others-arguing that Elisa both emasculates her husband and engages in an infidelity with the tinker-have argued that the story is an attack against feminism.

The Chrysanthemums Critical Reception

The Chrysanthemums has garnered critical acclaim since publication. André Gide, who particularly admired the story, compared it to the best of Anton Chekhov. Other critics have detected the influence of D. H. Lawrence in “The Chrysanthemums.” John Ditsky called the story “one of the finest American stories ever written.” John H. Timmerman regarded the story as one of Steinbeck’s masterpieces, adding that “stylistically and thematically, ‘The Chrysanthemums‘ is a superb piece of compelling craftsmanship.” According to Mordecai Marcus “the story seems almost perfect in form and style. Its compelling rhythm underlines its suggestiveness, and nothing in the story is false or out of place.” While some critics have praised Steinbeck’s objectivity in the narrative, Kenneth Payson Kempton found the story “arbitrary, self-impelled, and fuzzy work… its effect annoyingly arty, muddy, and unreal.” Most critics concede that it is Elisa Allen who makes “The Chrysanthemums” a memorable short story. Even so, R. S. Hughes argued that while the facets of “Elisa’s personality, are no doubt responsible for much of the story’s appeal, ultimately Steinbeck’s well-crafted plot and his skillful use of symbol make the story.”

The Chrysanthemums Plot

It is winter in Salinas Valley, California. The sun is not shining and fog covers the valley. On Henry Allen’s foothill ranch, the hay cutting and storing has been finished, and the orchards are waiting for rain. Elisa Allen, Henry’s wife, is working in her flower garden and sees her husband speaking with two cigarette-smoking strangers. Elisa, thirty-five years old, attractive and clear-eyed, although at the moment she is clad in a masculine gardening outfit with men’s shoes and a man’s hat. Her apron covers her dress, and gloves cover her hands. As she works away at her chrysanthemums, she steals occasional glances at the strange men. Her house, which stands nearby, is very clean.

The strangers get into their Ford coupe and leave. Elisa looks down at the stems of her flowers, which she has kept entirely free of pests. Henry appears and praises her work. Elisa seems pleased and proud. Henry says he wishes she would turn her talents to the orchard. She responds eagerly to this suggestion, but it seems he was only joking. When she asks, he tells her that the men were from the Western Meat Company and bought thirty of his steers for a good price. He suggests they go to the town of Salinas for dinner and a movie to celebrate. He teases her, asking whether she’d like to see the fights, and she says she wouldn’t.

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Henry leaves, and Elisa turns her attention back to her chrysanthemums. A wagon with a canvas top driven by a large bearded man appears on the road in the distance. A misspelled sign advertises the man’s services as a tinker who repairs pots and pans. The wagon turns into Elisa’s yard. Her dogs and the man’s dog sniff each other, and the tinker makes a joke about the ferocity of his animal. When he gets out of the wagon, Elisa sees that he is big and not very old. He wears a ragged, dirty suit, and his hands are rough.

They continue to make small talk, and Elisa is charmed when the tinker says he simply follows good weather. He asks whether she has any work for him, and when she repeatedly says no, he whines, saying he hasn’t had any business and is hungry. Then he asks about Elisa’s chrysanthemums, and her annoyance vanishes. They discuss the flowers, and the tinker says that he has a customer who wants to raise chrysanthemums. Excited, Elisa says he can take her some shoots in a pot filled with damp sand. She takes off her hat and gloves and fills a red pot with soil and the shoots.

Elisa gives the tinker instructions to pass along to the woman. She explains that the most care is needed when the budding begins. She claims to have planting hands and can feel the flowers as if she’s one with them. She speaks from a kneeling position, growing impassioned. The tinker says he might know what she means, and Elisa interrupts him to talk about the stars, which at night are “driven into your body” and are “hot and sharp and lovely.” She reaches out to touch his pant leg, but stops before she does. He says such things are not as nice if you haven’t eaten. Sobered, Elisa finds two pans for him to fix.

As the tinker works, she asks him if he sleeps in the wagon. She says she wishes women could live the kind of life he does. He says it wouldn’t be suitable, and she asks how he knows. After paying him fifty cents, she says that she can do the same work he does. He says his life would be lonesome and frightening for a woman. Before he leaves, she reminds him to keep the sand around the chrysanthemums damp. For a moment, he seems to forget that she gave him the flowers. Elisa watches the wagon trundle away, whispering to herself.

She goes in to the house and bathes, scrubbing her skin with pumice until it hurts. Then she examines her naked body in the mirror, pulling in her stomach and pushing out her chest, then observing her back. She dresses in new underwear and a dress and does her hair and makeup. Henry comes home and takes a bath. Elisa sets out his clothes and then goes to sit on the porch. When Henry emerges, he says that she looks nice, sounding surprised. She asks him what he means, and he says she looks “different, strong and happy.” She asks what he means by strong. Confused, he says that she’s playing a game and then explains that she looks like she could break a calf and eat it. Elisa loses her composure for a moment and then agrees with him.

As they drive along the road toward Salinas, Elisa sees a dark spot up ahead and can’t stop herself from looking at it, sure that it’s a pile of discarded chrysanthemum shoots that the tinker has thrown away. Elisa thinks that he could have at least disposed of them off the road, and then realizes he had to keep the pot. They pass the tinker’s wagon, and Elisa doesn’t look. She says she is looking forward to dinner.

Henry says she is different again, but then says kindly that he should take her out more often. She asks whether they can have wine at dinner, and he says yes. Elisa says she has read that at the fights the men beat each other until their boxing gloves are soaked with blood. She asks whether women go to the fights, and Henry says that some do and that he’ll take her to one if she’d like to go. She declines and pulls her coat collar over her face so that Henry can’t see her crying.

The Chrysanthemums summary

The story opens with a panoramic view of the Salinas Valley in winter, shrouded in fog. The focus narrows and finally settles on Elisa Allen, cutting down the spent stalks of Chrysanthemums in the garden on her husband’s ranch. Elisa is thirty-five, lean and strong, and she approaches her gardening with great energy. Her husband Henry comes from across the yard, where he has been arranging the sale of thirty steer, and offers to take Elisa to town for dinner and movie to celebrate the sale. He praises her skill with flowers, and she congratulates him on doing well in the negotiations for the steer. They seem a well-matched couple, though their way of talking together is formal and serious, Henry heads off to finish some chores, and Elisa decides to finish her transplanting before they get ready to leave for town.

Soon Elisa hears “a squeak of wheels and a plod of hoofs, and a man drives up in an old wagon. (He is never named; the narrator calls him simply the man.”) The man is large and dirty, and clearly used .to being alone. He earns a meager living fixing pots and sharpening scissors and knives, traveling from San Diego, California, to Seattle Washington, and back every year. The man chats and jokes with Elisa who answers his bantering tone but has no work for him to do. When he presses for a small job, she becomes annoyed and tries to send him away.

Suddenly the man’s attention turns to the flowers that Elisa is tending. When he asks about them, Elisa’s annoyance vanishes, and she becomes friendly again. The man remembers seeing chrysanthemums before, and describes them: “Kind of a long-stemmed flower? Looks like a quick puff of colored smoke?” Elisa is delighted with his description. The man tells her about one of his regular customers who also gardens, and who always has work for him when he comes by. She has asked him to keep his eyes open in his travels, and to bring her some chrysanthemum seeds if he ever finds some. Now Elisa is captivated. She invites the man into the yard, prepares a pot of chrysanthemum cuttings for the woman’s garden, and gives him full instructions for tending them. Clearly, Elisa envies the man’s life on the road and is attracted to him because he understands her love of flowers. In a moment of extreme emotion she nearly reaches for him, but snatches her hand back before she touches him. Instead, she finds him two pots to mend, and he drives away with fifty cents and the cuttings, promising to take care of the plants until he can deliver them to the other woman.

Elisa goes into the house to get dressed for dinner. She scrubs herself vigorously and examines her naked body in the mirror before putting on her dress and makeup. When Henry finds her, he compliments her, telling her she looks “different, strong and happy.” “I’m strong,” she boasts, “I never knew before how strong.” As Henry and Elisa drive into town, she sees a dark speck ahead on the road. It turns out to be the cuttings the man has tossed out of his wagon. She does not mention them to Henry, who has not seen them, and she turns her head so he cannot see her crying.

The Chrysanthemums Analysis

The Chrysanthemums” is a short story by American writer John Steinbeck, part of his collection The Long Valley.

The Chrysanthemums is narrated in a restrained, almost removed way that can make interpreting the story difficult. While the narrator gives us clues as to how to understand the various events that occur, he rarely identifies a single correct interpretation. For example, when Henry compliments Elisa’s strength, her moody reaction may be understood in several ways; perhaps she is wishing Henry had the tinker’s cleverness; perhaps she longs for him to call her beautiful or perhaps it is some combination of feelings. All these readings are equally plausible, and the narrator never points to any single reading as the correct one. Elisa’s reaction to Henry’s compliment is one example of many, and throughout the story the narrator holds himself removed from small moments and important incidents alike, inviting us to do the interpretive work.

Although the narrator’s refusal to provide one interpretation may make reading more difficult for us, it is also a useful way of capturing the multifaceted, rich emotions Elisa feels. Steinbeck doesn’t mean to puzzle or frustrate his readers by obscuring Elisa’s inner sentiments. Rather, he wants to suggest that no single interpretation can exist because people feel a mix of emotions at any single moment. If it is unclear whether, for example, the discarded chrysanthemum shoots make Elisa feel sad, furious, or unloved, that’s likely because she feels all of those things simultaneously. Moreover, the difficulty of interpretation is part of Steinbeck’s point. By forcing us to observe Elisa closely and draw our own conclusions about her behavior, Steinbeck puts us in the position of Henry or any other person in Elisa’s life who tries and fails to understand her fully. Indeed, even Elisa herself seems to have difficulty interpreting her own behavior and has a hard time separating the strands of her own emotions or understanding why she feels the way she does.

The Chrysanthemums Symbols

Symbol of Chrysanthemums

The Chrysanthemums symbolizes both Elisa and the limited scope in her life.  Like Elisa the chrysanthemums are lovely, strong and thriving. Their flowerbed like Elisa’s house, is tidy and scrupulously ordered. Elisa explicitly identifies herself with the flowers, even saying that she becomes one with the plants when she tends to them. When the tinker notices the chrysanthemums, Elisa visibly brightens, just as if he had noticed her instead. She offers the chrysanthemums to him at the same time she offers herself, both of which he ignores and tosses aside. His rejections of the flowers also mimics the way society has rejected women as nothing more than mothers and housekeepers. Just like her the flowers are unobjectionable and also unimportant: both are merely decorative and add little value to the world.

Symbol of the Salinas Valley

The Salinas Valley symbolizes Elisa’s emotional life. The story opens with a lengthy description of the valley, which Steinbeck likens to a pot topped with a lid made of fog. The metaphor of the valley as a “closed pot” suggests that Elisa is trapped inside an airless world and that her existence has reached a boiling point. We also learn that although there is sunshine nearby, no light penetrates the valley. Sunshine is often associated with happiness, and the implication is that while people near her are happy, Elisa is not. It is December, and the prevailing atmosphere in the valley is chilly and watchful but not yet devoid of hope. This description of the weather and the general spirits of the inhabitants of the valley applies equally well to Elisa, who is like a fallow field: quiet but not beaten down or unable to grow. What first seems to be a lyrical description of a valley in California is revealed to be a rich symbol of Elisa’s claustrophobic, unhappy, yet Hopeful inner life. As the tinker throws away her chrysanthemum shoots – a symbol of Elisa herself- it supports the idea that the tinker does not share Elisa’s passions at all.

Motif: Clothing

Elisa’s clothing changes as her muted, masculine persona becomes more feminine after the visit from the tinker. When the story begins, Elisa is wearing an androgynous gardening outfit, complete with heavy shoes, thick gloves, a man’s hat, and an apron filled with sharp, phallic implements. The narrator even describes her body as “blocked and heavy.” The masculinity of Elisa’s clothing and shape reflects her asexual existence. After speaking with the tinker, however, Elisa begins to feel intellectually and physically stimulated, a change that is reflected in the removal of her gloves. She also removes her hat, showing her lovely hair. When the tinker leaves, Elisa undergoes an almost ritualistic transformation. She strips, bathes herself, examines her naked body in the mirror, and then dresses. She chooses to don fancy undergarments, a pretty dress, and makeup. These feminine items contrast sharply with her bulky gardening clothes and reflect the newly energized and sexualized Elisa. At the end of the story, after Elisa has seen the castoff shoots, she pulls up her coat collar to hide her tears, a gesture that suggests a move backward into the repressed state in which she has lived most, if not all, of her adult life.

The Chrysanthemums Point of View

Steinbeck displays an extraordinary ability to delve into the complexities of a woman’s consciousness. “The Chrysanthemums” is told in the third person, but the narration is presented almost entirely from Elisa’s point of view. After the first few paragraphs that set the scene, Steinbeck shrugs off omniscience and refuses to stray from Elisa’s head. This technique allows him to examine her psyche and show us the world through her eyes. We are put in her shoes and experience her frustrations and feelings. Because she doesn’t know what Henry is discussing with the men in suits who come to the ranch, we don’t know either. Because she sees the tinker as a handsome man, we do too. Because she watches his lips while he fixes her pots, we watch them with her. As a result, we understand more about her longings and character by the end of the story than her husband does.

Steinbeck’s portrayal of Elisa seems even more remarkable considering that he wrote the story in 1938, when traditional notions of women and their abilities persisted in America. Many men unthinkingly accepted the conventional wisdom that working husbands and a decent amount of money were the only things women needed. Considered in this light, Steinbeck’s sympathy and understanding for women are almost shockingly modern. On the face of it, Elisa seems to invite the disapproval of traditional men: she is overtly sexual, impatient with her husband, and dissatisfied with her life. Yet Steinbeck never condemns her and instead portrays the waste of her talent, energy, and ambition as a tragedy. Instead of asking us to judge Elisa harshly, he invites us to understand why she acts the way she does. As a result, his attitude toward her is more characteristic of a modern-day feminist than of a mid-twentieth-century male writer.

The Inequality of Gender

The Chrysanthemums” is an understated but pointed critique of a society that has no place for intelligent women. Elisa is smart, energetic, attractive, and ambitious, but all these attributes go to waste. Although the two key men in the story are less interesting and talented than she, their lives are far more fulfilling and busy. Henry is not as intelligent as Elisa, but it is he who runs the ranch, supports himself and his wife, and makes business deals. All Elisa can do is watching him from afar as he performs his job. Whatever information she gets about the management of the ranch comes indirectly from Henry, who speaks only in vague, condescending terms instead of treating his wife as an equal partner. The tinker seems cleverer than Henry but doesn’t have Elisa’s spirit passion, or thirst for adventure. According to Elisa, he may not even match her skill as a tinker. Nevertheless, it is he who gets to ride about the country, living an adventurous life that he believes is unfit for women. Steinbeck uses Henry and the tinker as stand-ins for the paternalism of patriarchal societies in general: just as they ignore women’s potential, so too does society.

The Importance of Sexual Fulfillment

Steinbeck argues that the need for sexual fulfillment is incredibly powerful and that the pursuit of it can cause people to act in irrational ways. Elisa and Henry have a functional but passionless marriage and seem to treat each other more as siblings or friends than spouses. Elisa is a robust woman associated with fertility and sexuality but has no children, hinting at the non-sexual nature of her relationship with Henry. Despite the fact that her marriage doesn’t meet her needs, Elisa remains a sexual person, a quality that Steinbeck portrays as normal and desirable. As a result of her frustrated desires, Elisa’s attraction to the tinker is frighteningly powerful and uncontrollable. When she speaks to him about looking at the stars at night, for example, her language is forward, nearly pornographic. She kneels before him in a posture of sexual submission, reaching out toward him and looking, as the narrator puts it, “like a fawning dog.” In essence, she puts herself at the mercy of a complete stranger. The aftermath of Elisa’s powerful attraction is perhaps even.

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