“The Chrysanthemums” has variously been praised as a masterpiece, one of the finest stories in American literature and a story that “seems almost perfect in form and style.” In a realistic style rich with symbolism, John Steinbeck captures a sense of the 1930’s in the United States in his depiction of the relationship between Elisa Allen and her husband, Henry.
Steinbeck was an immensely popular writer, but critics and scholars were not similarly enthused. Some questioned the decision to award him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. The Swedish Academy, however, praised Steinbeck’s concern with the ordinary life of the common person, and it felt that the stories collected in The Long Valley (1938), including “The Chrysanthemums,” had paved the way for his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The academy did not mention his works of the 1940’s and 1950’s, however, which were not well received by the critics. Most newspapers and periodicals responded to his award negatively or indifferently.
In “The Chrysanthemums,” the image of weather figures importantly in the story’s symbolism. For example, Elisa represses her femininity and her sexual desires in her marriage in a day in which women’s submission was often the norm. Just as the fog, described as a “gray-flannel,” has settled over the valley as if it were a lid on a pot, Elisa seems to be enclosed inside the fence that keeps animals from her garden. She feels emotionally enclosed as well. While Henry may love Elisa, he has little understanding of her needs as a woman.
The color yellow serves an important function in the story, too. The chrysanthemums are yellow, as are the willows near the river road. She notes, while waiting on the porch for Henry, “that under the high grey fog” the willows “seemed a thin band of sunshine.” Her words suggest a ray of hope amid the gloom of gray.
Elisa also is a nurturing person, and because she is childless, she may be vicariously using this trait (of being nurturant) in producing the giant flowers and transplanting sprouts. Likewise, her brief encounter with the tinker arouses her feelings of sexuality, long stifled, and awakens in her the hope of fulfilling those impulses.
The point of view of the story is limited third person. As such, although Elisa knows what the tinker is saying when he inquires about the chrysanthemums, the reader is not told that he is insincere, that he is just using her. She knows also what Henry is saying when he says that she looks “nice,” but she has to ask him what he means by the word.
Major themes related to frustration, limitation, and aesthetics are played out throughout the story as well. Even when Henry pays Elisa a compliment, he is inept and inadequate. Declaring her “strong enough to break a calf over [her] knee” does not appeal to her feminine side. The tinker, in showing even pretended interest in her gardening and in his poetic way of describing the chrysanthemums as looking like “a quick puff of colored smoke,” flatters her. She removes her old hat and her bulky work clothes, which make her look masculine, and shakes “out her dark pretty hair,” allowing her femininity to show.
After Elisa’s sexual feelings are awakened by the tinker, she goes into the house to dress for her night out with Henry, but not before she tries to remove the guilt of her fantasized adultery with the tinker by scrubbing her body with pumice until she is red and scratched. She takes pains to look her best when she and Henry prepare to go into Salinas for dinner, hoping against hope that the romance she feels will spill over into their date.
While Elisa and Henry seem to respect, and probably love, one another, the nature of their relationship makes it impossible for Elisa to release her excessive energy other than through tending her plants and house. Henry does not possess the aesthetic sense that comes naturally to Elisa; he wishes that she would use her planters’ hands in a more practical way—to grow apples as large as her flowers. As she works with the chrysanthemums, she is “over-eager, over-powerful.” She is unable to release her pent-up feelings with Henry: she sits “prim and stiffly” on the porch, waiting for him to dress, and when he compliments her on her appearance, she “stiffens.”
Elisa’s momentary interest in the details of a boxing match suggests an identification with the male spectators at the fights; however, the image of the boxers fighting causes her to recoil, and she reasserts her femininity by again declining the offer to go to the fights, settling instead for the romantic touch, in her mind, of having wine with dinner. At the end, Elisa is a woman who has succumbed to the lot to which society, and marriage, has relegated her; hence, she sheds tears “like an old woman.”
23 February 1999
In “Chrysanthemums” John Steinbeck, the author, focuses on Elisa Allen, one of the main characters. She is presented as weak in that her daily activity consisted of tending her garden of chrysanthemums; Steinbeck focuses on how they provide insight into Elisa and how she relates to them, religiously. He implies that even though she fits a weak character, there are places in the narrative at the beginning that suggest some strong points and her longing towards the end. There are a number of inferences that Steinbeck clearly illustrates how she is presented as weak and should therefore be discussed.
The narrative starts out with Elisa working in her flower garden. She looks down across the yard and sees Henry, her husband, talking to two businessmen; they are making a proposition to Henry for his thirty heads of three-year old steers. Elisa takes several glances at the men as they smoke cigarettes and talk; her “face was lean and strong and her eyes were as clear as water . . . her figure looked blocked and heavy in her gardening costume, a man’s black hat pulled down over her eyes, clod-hopper shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron with four big pockets . . .” (Steinbeck 220). Steinbeck clearly shows Elisa’s habitual activity; it is implied that she even wears the exact same thing everyday.
Elisa continues to glance down at the tractor shed where the men where. There is an anxiousness in Elisa. Her “face was eager . . . mature . . . handsome; even her work with the scissors was over-eager, over-powerful. The chrysanthemum stems seemed too small and easy for her energy” (Steinbeck 221). Steinbeck paints a clear picture as to how religiously Elisa tends her garden. She takes off her glove and places her hands down into the soil. She recognizes that her flowers hadn’t completely bloomed. She starts tending her garden at the sound of her husband’s voice. “He had come near quietly, and he leaned over the wire fence that protected her flower garden from cattle and dogs, and chickens” (Steinbeck 221). It is evident that the fence that protected the flowers was put there also to protect Elisa. It is also clear to say that the protection from the cattle, dogs, and chickens symbolizes protection from outsiders. Henry protected Elisa in the same way she protected her flowers. No one could get close or converse with Elisa. At the sound of his voice is when she can start. Everything had become so traditional that she had become accustomed to waiting until he finished his business to start her daily activity. Henry never included her in any of his business. She was best seen and not heard.
Henry follows, after Elisa starts gardening, by commenting on how well she’s done. He recognizes that she does have a gift and she replies in a tone unheard as very sure of herself.
Elisa continues gardening when she is approached by a visitor in a wagon off his usual road. They both exchange words and humor and Elisa gives him the directions back onto the road. The visitor claims he’s in no hurry to leave and leans over her fence. He asks her if she noticed the writing on his wagon; “I mend pots and sharpen knives and scissors . . .” (Steinbeck 223). He told Elisa that he hadn’t had anything to do all day. He reminds her that he’s off his general road and that normally he would have work today. Elisa became annoyed at his request. It wasn’t until he looked down at her chrysanthemums and commented on them, that she let down her guard. “The irritation and resistance melted from Elisa’s face” (Steinbeck 223). In order to get what he wanted the visitor told Elisa exactly what she wanted to hear; he changed his tone quickly and agreed with whatever she said. He even went as far as telling her that there was a woman down the road who had everything in her garden except for chrysanthemums; the woman, he referred to, told him if he ever came across anyone with some chrysanthemums, to get her some seeds (Steinbeck 224). Elisa instantly grew eager. It never dawned on her that he had said not once, but twice that he was off his general road. Since he was off is general road, he couldn’t have known which way or the other if there was a woman down the road.
Elisa, inadvertently, let the visitor through the picket gate. She ran to her flower bed gathering the necessary seeds for the pretend woman down the road. She gives the visitor a complete description of how to plant the seeds and the daily activity that goes along with it. After he tells Elisa that it’s not nice to see the stars and listen to the quiet without dinner, ashamed, she is forced to find something for the visitor to do. The visitor’s manner changes and he becomes professional when Elisa brings him two old aluminum saucepans; “Good as new I can fix them. . . . His mouth grew sure and knowing” (Steinbeck 225).
Steinbeck presents Elisa as inquisitive and strong-minded when it comes to thoughts, but fails on her actions. Elisa questions the visitor as to whether or not he sleeps in the wagon; she tells him that it must be nice and wishes that women could do such things. He replies that it isn’t the kind of place for a woman. On the defensive, she questions his knowledge on his stated opinion. He responds in protest that he doesn’t know and hands over the saucepans hurriedly. He didn’t want to argue with her. Elisa paid him for his time and replied, “You might be surprised to have a rival . . . I can sharpen scissors . . . I can beat the dents . . . I can show you what a woman might do” (Steinbeck 225). Instead of say what a woman can do, she said might. The whole objective of the visitor was to get what he wanted and be on his way. He never concerned himself with the chrysanthemums. It was apparent, because when he gathered up his things to leave, he had forgotten about the chrysanthemums; and Elisa failed to notice. She was so preoccupied with the compliments made to her about her flowers she played into his deception. As he left, she mumbled aloud, “That’s a bright direction. There’s a glowing there” (Steinbeck 226).
Steinbeck shows Elisa startled by her own whisper; she ran back into the house and prepared for Henry’s arrival and their departure into town. In this part of the narrative, Elisa is exhaustively making preparations. After her shower, “she puts on her newest under-clothing and her nicest stockings and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness. She worked carefully on her hair, penciled her eyebrows and roughed her lips” (Steinbeck 226). Before, as stated earlier, Steinbeck shows Elisa as representing a man through her attire. Now the dress symbolizes, as the author states, her prettiness; or the more appealing, attractive part of Elisa. Henry comes in and comments on how nice she looks. She questions his motive and he returns dumbfounded. He comments again on how strong she looks and she replies, “I am strong? Yes, strong . . . I never knew before how strong . . .” (Steinbeck 226). It is clear that even though she concludes that she is strong, she still doesn’t feel it because she had to question first and answer later.
They both leave and Elisa notices the visitor as they pass him on the road. She tried not to look, but did anyway. She failed to tell Henry that he’d stopped by. She comments that their outing would be good tonight; Henry instantly noticed that she had changed again. Elisa notices the plants on the side of the road that the visitor throws out. She immediately feels rejected and defeated.
Elisa is clearly painted as a weak character. She is a lonely and detached woman. The chrysanthemums created a distraction from her loneliness, her isolation because of the fence around her, and the feelings of inadequacy. Towards the end she questions whether or not she is strong. Steinbeck provides a clear insight into Elisa and her garden of chrysanthemums. Henry places a protective hold on Elisa, just as she is possessive over her chrysanthemums. Elisa started out as strong, but ended up as weak and somewhat resentful to the fact.