The Chrysanthemums - Summary & Analysis
By John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck was born in 1902 in Salinas, California, the third of four siblings. His father, John Ernst Steinbeck II, worked as a local government official, and his mother, Olive Steinbeck, was a teacher. Steinbeck read great literature when he was a young boy, including novels by Dostoevsky, Hardy, and Flaubert. He studied English at Stanford University off and on between 1919 and 1925 but never earned his degree. While beginning to write fiction, he worked to make ends meet as a lab assistant and fruit picker. During World War II, he worked as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and later took a trip to Vietnam for the New York Daily News. In 1930, he married Carol Henning, but their marriage dissolved in 1942. He quickly remarried and had two sons with his second wife, Gwyndolyn Congor, before they got divorced in 1949. His third marriage to Elaine Scott in 1950 lasted until his death in 1968.
Steinbeck published his first novel, Cup of Gold, in 1929. The fictionalized story of a seventeenth-century pirate, Cup of Gold was not a critical or commercial hit. His next novel, Tortilla Flat (1935), was much more successful, and it was turned into a film starring Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr in 1942. Steinbeck is famous for his novels of California, so much so that Salinas, California, is sometimes referred to as Steinbeck Country. One of the best known of these California novels is Of Mice and Men (1937), the story of two struggling migrant workers. Director George S. Kaufman worked with Steinbeck to turn the novel into a stage play, which was a thundering success. Steinbeck never saw the play in person, saying that he didn’t want to compromise the perfection of the production he imagined in his mind. The novel was made into a film in 1939, the same year that he published his most famous work, The Grapes of Wrath. Using an innovative narrative structure, The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of an impoverished family of farmers struggling to survive the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. Widely hailed then and today as Steinbeck’s best novel, The Grapes of Wrath won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize and was made into a film of the same name later that year.
Much of Steinbeck’s work is overtly political because he spent time with labor-union leaders, radicals, leftists, and communists. Still, he was leery of far-left political persuasions, particularly socialism. The views expressed in Steinbeck’s writing have offended some people, including members of his own family. He has been attacked for being both too left-leaning and not being left-leaning enough. He’s also been criticized for perpetuating stereotypes. The Grapes of Wrath, for example, has been accused of sentimentalizing the poor, misrepresenting Oklahoma farmers, and shoving a liberal agenda down readers’ throats. Nevertheless, Steinbeck was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1948 and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson awarded Steinbeck the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Even Steinbeck’s detractors concede that his work is suffused with passion, social consciousness, and sometimes anger. Steinbeck felt a great deal for the downtrodden, working class, and dregs of society. His short story “The Chrysanthemums” (1938) also proves that he had an understanding of the struggles faced by women in his day. Like his novels, Steinbeck’s short stories feature realistic dialogue, nerve-racking dramas, and sympathetic examinations of characters trying to find happiness in the face of poverty and oppression.
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 is 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.
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 into 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.
Elisa Allen - The protagonist. A robust thirty-five-year-old woman, Elisa lives with her husband, Henry, on a ranch in the Salinas Valley. Even though Elisa is associated with fertility and sexuality, the couple has no children. She is a hard worker, her house sparkles, and her flowers grow tremendous blooms. Nevertheless, Elisa feels trapped, underappreciated, and frustrated with life.
Read an in-depth analysis of Elisa Allen.
The Tinker - A tall, bearded man who makes his living repairing pots, pans, and other kitchen utensils. The tinker is a smart person and charming salesman. He is also down on his luck and not above pleading for work after Elisa initially turns him down. He may share her wanderlust, or she may only imagine that he does.
Read an in-depth analysis of The Tinker.
Henry Allen - Elisa’s husband. Henry is a kind man, if slightly dimwitted. He loves his wife but doesn’t really understand and appreciate her. Still, he is an adequate businessman who runs his ranch successfully and provides a comfortable life for his wife. He seems to love Elisa and tries his best to please her despite the fact that she mystifies him.
Analysis of Major Characters
Elisa Allen is an interesting, intelligent, and passionate woman who lives an unsatisfying, understimulated life. She’s thwarted or ignored at every turn: having a professional career is not an option for her, she has no children, her interest in the business side of the ranch goes unnoticed, her offers of helping her husband to ranch are treated with well-meant condescension, and her wish to see the world is shrugged off as an unfit desire for a woman to have. As a result, Elisa devotes all of her energy to maintaining her house and garden. The pride she takes in her housekeeping is both exaggerated and melancholy. Although she rightly brags about her green thumb, Elisa’s connection to nature seems forced and not something that comes as naturally as she claims. She knows a great deal about plants, most likely because as a woman, gardening is the only thing she has to think about.
Elisa is so frustrated with life that she readily looks to the tinker for stimulating conversation and even sex, two elements that seem to be lacking in her life. Her physical attraction to the tinker and her flirtatious, witty conversation with him bring out the best in Elisa, turning her into something of a poet. Her brief flashes of brilliance in the tinker’s presence show us how much she is always thinking and feeling and how rarely she gets to express herself. When the prospect of physical and mental fulfillment disappears with the tinker, Elisa’s devastation suggests how dissatisfied she is with her marriage. She’s so desperate to transcend the trap of being a woman that she seeks any escape, trying to banter with her husband, asking for wine with her dinner, and even expressing interest in the bloody fights that only men usually attend. None of these will truly satisfy Elisa, though, and it is doubtful that she’ll ever find fulfillment.
Elisa idealizes the visiting Tinker as exciting and smart, although it’s difficult to tell whether he is actually either of these things. Although his misspelled advertisement for kitchen implement repair indicates that he hasn’t had much schooling, the tinker comes across as a witty man who flirts and banters with Elisa. He is also clever and canny enough to convince the skeptical Elisa to give him work, begging at first and finally resorting to flattery. His ability to manipulate her may appeal to Elisa, who is used to manipulating her own husband. In fact, she seems to relish the chance to spar with a worthy partner, and the tinker produces an intense reaction in her. If we can trust her interpretation of him, he shares her appreciation for travel and her interest in a physical connection. However, Steinbeck suggests that although the tinker may actually possess these qualities, it is also possible that Elisa merely imagines that he possesses them because she’s so desperate to talk to someone who understands her. In fact, the tinker may be bewildered and embarrassed by her intensity and want only to sell his services to her. The fact that he tosses away her chrysanthemum shoots—a symbol of Elisa herself—supports the idea that the tinker does not share Elisa’s passions at all.
Elisa’s husband, Henry, is a good, solid man who’s unable to please his wife. By the standards of his society, Henry is everything a woman should want in a husband: he provides for her, treats her with respect, and even takes her out every now and then. At the same time, however, Henry is also stolid and unimaginative. He praises his wife as he would a small child, without understanding the genuine interest she takes in business or realizing that she has the potential to do so much more with her life. A traditional man, Henry functions in the story as a stand-in for patriarchal society as a whole. He believes that a strict line separates the sexes, that women like dinner and movies, for example, and that men like fights and ranching. His benevolent, sometimes dismissive attitude toward his wife—who is undoubtedly smarter— highlights society’s inability to treat women as equals.
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols Themes
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 watch 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 nonsexual 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 more damaging than the attraction itself. Her sexuality, forced to lie dormant for so long, overwhelms her and crushes her spirit after springing to life so suddenly.
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 symbolize both Elisa and the limited scope of 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 rejection 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.
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.
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 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
Important Quotations Explained
1. The man on the seat called out, “That’s a bad dog in a fight when he gets started.”
Elisa laughed. “I see he is. How soon does he generally get started?”
The man caught up her laughter and echoed it heartily. “Sometimes not for weeks and weeks.”
Explanation for Quotation 1 >>
Upon first meeting each other, Elisa and the tinker exchange a few friendly words that are slightly menacing at the same time. Just like his dog, the tinker is an interloper, an unknown and potentially dangerous person. Indeed, the tinker’s rugged appearance and slightly flirtatious banter stimulates Elisa, who flirts with him in return. The laughter with which he responds to her question is subtler than it first appears: he may be simply amused, he may sense an emotional connection between the two of them, or he may be matching her laughter in the hopes that she’ll hire him to do some work. This difficulty interpreting the tinker’s reactions persists throughout the story. In fact, it may be the mysteriousness of the tinker that attracts Elisa to him in the first place.
2. Elisa stood in front of her wire fence watching the slow progress of the caravan. Her shoulders were straight, her head thrown back, her eyes half closed, so that the scene came vaguely into them . . . . she whispered, “That’s a bright direction. There’s a glowing there.”
Explanation for Quotation 2 >>
As Elisa watches the tinker move off into the distance, she reveals that her interest in him is not purely physical but also connected to his lifestyle. The tinker wanders wherever he likes, sleeps under the stars, and answers to no one, all of which captivates Elisa. While the tinker repairs her pots, she comes close to begging him to take her along with him, touting her pot-mending and scissor-sharpening skills and saying that she could show him what a woman is capable of. She is interested in sleeping with the tinker but perhaps even more interested in having adventures with him. When he turns her down, shooing away her desire with assurances that his lifestyle is too lonesome and frightening for a woman, Elisa has nothing left to do but watch him leave. Her stance as she tracks his progress is proud and strong, and her half-closed eyes hint that she’s imagining all the possibilities of such a lifestyle. For Elisa, the “bright direction” is the one that would take her away from her own life.