John Steinbeck’s short story titled “The Chrysanthemums” is about a woman and the special relationship she feels for her garden during a specific day. It is not a very active story because the woman, Elisa Allen, spends her day engaged in very simple activities and only leaves the space of her garden and home toward the end of the story. Although the story seems pretty uneventful, it turns out to be unusual for Elisa because she receives a visitor to her garden that is interested in speaking with her instead of her husband. This visitor is a tinker who wants to talk with her about her beautiful flowers.
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The day is also unusual because Elisa’s husband decides suddenly to take her out for the evening, seeming to express more affection and interest in her than he is used to displaying. The story ends before Elisa gets too far from her house that evening at a point where she finds some of her flowers that she had given to the tinker smashed next to the side of the road and she starts crying. The action of the story is thus not physical, but mental or psychological within the character of Elisa Allen. Steinbeck gives his story a deeper, hidden meaning by using his language suggestively, smoothly blending the story together to where the final line, where Elisa is “crying weakly – like an old woman,” make sense on a deep, emotional level for the reader.
The way that Steinbeck does this can be discovered by taking a closer look at how Steinbeck uses imagery and action to illustrate the depth of Elisa’s isolation and frustration on a physical and emotional level through her garden, her encounter with the tinker and with her husband Henry.
Steinbeck’s description of Elisa’s garden immediately illustrates how isolated Elisa really is physically from the rest of the world. The flowers, Elisa among them, are totally fenced in as a specifically defined space.
Although the fence is low, it still manages to serve as a barrier between Elisa and all of the other characters who appear throughout the story. The fact that it is low is Steinbeck’s way of emphasizing that the fence is symbolic of Elisa’s metaphysical barriers that keep her isolated and enclosed. Her isolation is further added to by the description of the location where she lives. Steinbeck opens the story by telling the reader about how “the high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the [valley] from the sky and all the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot” (Steinbeck).
This setting illustrates how even if she left the garden, Elisa would still remain cut off from the rest of society, sealed within the ‘closed pot’ of the smothering cloud cover. Again reinforcing that this is a symbolic concept, Elisa stands at the beginning of the story watching her husband talk to strangers at a location not far away from where she stands. Although she is curious about what they’re saying, custom and expectation prevent her from leaving her garden to join them, beginning to illustrate why Elisa is so isolated. It is a combination of internal and external expectations, fears, custom and habit.
The flowers within the garden are also symbolic of Elisa’s frustration in life. Steinbeck makes this connection by pointing out the manner in which she works with the flowers, “the chrysanthemum stems seemed too small and easy for her energy” (Steinbeck). The force and energy that she expends while she is tending to her plants can easily be seen to be an outlet for the ferocity and frustration she feels as she realizes that she cannot just decide to join Henry and his visitors and expect to be welcomed and brought into the conversation that is already taking place regardless of how curious she might be about the topic or how much it might end up affecting her welfare.
At the same time, though, Elisa obviously takes a great deal of pride in the beauty of her plants. In many ways, this pride takes on the notes of a mother’s pride in her children. This is Steinbeck’s way of pointing out that Elisa doesn’t have any children running around and indicating that part of Elisa’s frustration is not as much her place in life at present, but also her so far failed ability to fulfill the expected role she is to play in her society, that of the mother and nurturer. The unusual size and beauty of her flowers demonstrate the frustrated care she has lavished upon them as well as her own ability to nurture successfully.
However, all this ability is prevented from making any significant contribution to the rest of the world regardless of her own desires or efforts or how talented she might be at bringing about positive change as it is given to flowers that were commonly considered only good for display. This concept is an idea that is brought out again and again through her relationships with the visiting tinker and later with her husband.
Elisa’s frustration and extreme isolation are painfully apparent during her visit with the tinker who has accidentally come to her ranch simply because he has gotten lost. This small detail is significant because it indicates that the tinker would not normally have stopped at Elisa’s ranch as a part of his regular rounds. Expanding this concept, it also suggests that Elisa’s home does not lie upon the primary traveling routes and, unless a person was expressly intending to visit her ranch, remains greatly isolated even within the small town.
In other words, Elisa doesn’t even get the occasional wanderer passing by to share a few words with on a regular basis, heightening her isolation to nearly epic proportions. Although Elisa initially treats the tinker with the kind of friendly suspicion that would be customary for the situation, the salesman’s quick interest in her flowers, including his poetic description of them as “quick puff[s] of colored smoke,” plucks at the lonely creature within her.
Her mind makes a connection between the tinker’s interest in the flowers and his interest in her, which makes her feel somewhat human again. Steinbeck reveals this by describing her reactions: “She tore off the battered hat and shook out her dark pretty hair” and kneels on the ground at his feet as “her breast swelled passionately.” When she gives the tinker some of the chrysanthemum shoots, she imagines it as a sort of reverse lovemaking where the tinker is the one walking away pregnant, taking her children into the world to make a difference where she cannot.
This strongly sexual encounter is immediately placed against the distant relationship that exists between Elisa and her husband, Henry, like the fence between her and the rest of the world. Henry easily recognizes Elisa’s talent with the flowers and casually mentions how such a talent is sorely needed within the orchard that provides them with their living. However, when she shyly offers to try, “Maybe I could do it, too. I’ve a gift with things, all right” (Steinbeck), he immediately rejects her by trivializing her talent and confining her again into her garden, “Well, it sure works with flowers” (Steinbeck).
This portrayal of husband and wife interaction again indicates that Elisa remains unnaturally confined and isolated in Henry’s inability to see beyond established gender stereotypes. This aspect of their relationship is made clear again at the end of the story when Henry cannot imagine Elisa might want to go see the fights. Henry’s continued confinement of Elisa’s ideas regardless of what she says suggests some of the reasons why Elisa might not yet have children. Following this interaction with her husband and discovering the ‘pregnant seed’ she’d shared with the tinker smashed alongside the roadway forces Elisa to realize the harshly confining limitations of her marital relationship and she breaks down into the tears of a woman old before her time.
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Through this short story, Steinbeck manages to the frustration and isolation of the women of his time period through the character of Elisa Allen. Through his use of setting and action, her encounter with the tinker and the relationship she experiences with her husband, Steinbeck illustrates how impossible it would be for Elisa to escape the unhappy and lonely life she is living. Every effort she makes to try to connect herself with the outside world, or even with her own husband, is rejected while simply making the effort at times seems more than she can handle.
While male perceptions commonly held that a woman’s place is in the home and this is where she will be happiest, Steinbeck illustrates, through this story, the incredible injustice this belief perpetrates on the woman herself and suggests a more open minded approach to the issue is called for.
Steinbeck, John. (1995). “The Chrysanthemums.” The Long Valley. New York: Penguin Books: 1-13.